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A park that welcomes homeless people, partially designed by homeless people, will be a Philly first

Plans are underway to start building in 2022 a pocket park where people experiencing homelessness will not only be welcome, but will also be a part of the building process.

The Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission wants to develop the 1300 block of Pearl Street, pictured right, as a pocket park for homeless people, partially designed by homeless people.
The Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission wants to develop the 1300 block of Pearl Street, pictured right, as a pocket park for homeless people, partially designed by homeless people.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

To a homeless person, a Philadelphia park can be an unfriendly place.

“People are uncomfortable with us,” said William Stanley, 56, who lived on city streets for 27 years and now has an apartment in North Philadelphia. “They don’t understand us. What we’ve been through in life, they have not. So they fear us.

“That’s why cops move us off park benches the second we nod out. They tell you, ‘You got to leave.’ So we go.”

Soon, that dynamic might change — at least a little.

Plans are underway to start building in 2022 a pocket park where people experiencing homelessness will not only be welcome but will also be asked to design and build aspects of the space. It’s the only project of its kind in Philadelphia, say design professionals involved in the project.

The Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission at North 13th and Vine Streets in Callowhill has been given $82,500 by the William Penn Foundation to design a small park on North Pearl Street, adjacent to the agency. The mission is the oldest and largest homeless shelter in the city.

The fraught relationship between parks and homeless people has long played out here and across the country.

Nearly half of urban park and recreation agency directors in the United States view the homeless population as a “nuisance that impedes other people’s enjoyment of park resources,” according to the National Recreation and Park Association, a nonprofit network of more than 60,000 park and recreation professionals headquartered in Ashburn, Va.

Around 75% of all agencies are using, or are considering the inclusion of, design and infrastructure elements that discourage people from staying overnight in parks, the association found. Lots of parks in Philadelphia and elsewhere build in spikes, bumps, uncomfortably designed benches, and other pieces of so-called hostile architecture to dissuade people who experience homelessness from using the spaces.

In one of the oddest attempts to preclude homeless people from sleeping in parks, West Palm Beach, Fla., started playing the songs “Baby Shark” and “Raining Tacos” in 2019 for eight hours each night starting at 10 p.m.

During the summer in Philadelphia, people experiencing homelessness joined activists to create an encampment in a city park on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a political act that led to increased awareness of the plight of those who are homeless, as well as escalated tensions between middle-class neighborhood residents and low-income inhabitants of the tent city.

In a survey of Sunday Breakfast residents, just 10% said they utilized the 17 parks within a two-mile radius of the mission, a spokesperson said. The No. 1 reason was that they did not feel welcome, or they felt they were not allowed to use these spaces. This adds “to the narrative of exclusion, failure, and trauma for many people experiencing homelessness,” the spokesperson said.

‘Unfriendly stretch’

The section of Pearl Street from North 13th to North Broad on which the park is planned is co-owned by the mission along with Roman Catholic High School, the Packard Building, and U-Haul Moving & Storage of Philadelphia, according to Jeremy Montgomery, mission president and CEO.

It was a “dark, dank, unfriendly stretch” often used as a homeless encampment that was a “nuisance to the neighborhood,” Montgomery said. He added that the mission opposes all encampments, including the one that captivated the city’s interest on the Parkway.

“That encampment was a direct hindrance to provide necessary services and support to those experiencing homelessness,” he said. “Whether they’re expressions of civil rights or freedom, encampments are not healthy, productive options.”

The mission’s piece of Pearl Street is roughly 12 by 200 feet. “There really isn’t anyone else doing this kind of work and engaging a community experiencing homelessness, except in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles,” said Elizabeth Hefner, director of advancement for the mission.

Much of the initial task of creating the park falls to mission collaborators, including the Community Design Collaborative and the Asian Arts Initiative.

The collaborative is a “nonprofit, pro bono design service of landscape architects, community-engagement experts, potentially civil engineers, and a cost estimator,” said Heidi Segall Levy, director of design services. “The ideas for what the park will look like will come out of what residents and community members are interested in seeing.”

Though the consulting with homeless people hasn’t started yet, some notions of what should be built into the space are percolating, she said. That includes hand-washing stations, access for drinking water, storage space for the belongings of people who are homeless, and comfortable, spike-less spots on which to sit. At the moment, there are no plans for outdoor bathrooms, which foster safety concerns, Levy said.

The design process is scheduled to start in May, she said, adding that a pop-up park for testing ideas will be up by mid-October. The permanent build of the park will be next year, but no specific date is set, Levy said. She estimated the mission will need to raise funds for permanent construction over and above the William Penn Foundation grant.

‘Move along’ people

Community voices will be solicited, said Julia Millan Shaw, deputy director of the Asian Arts Initiative a multidisciplinary arts center in the North Chinatown-Callowhill area. “Part of our charge is to get residents to engage,” she said.

Those experiencing homelessness are known as the “move along” people, always being asked to vacate whatever spot they’re in, Shaw said. The park will be a place where that can never happen, she added.

“We believe a successful public park is one that doesn’t exclude by design or stewardship anybody by race, ethnicity, housing status, or socioeconomic status,” said Judilee Reed, William Penn Foundation’s program director of creative communities.

Designers understand that the idea of homeless people congregating in a park in the Callowhill neighborhood might not be universally accepted.

“We expect pushback in almost any project we work on,” said Levy of the design collaborative. “I expect there will be concerns about how the mission will maintain the space and keep it safe. Our process is of engaging people from different populations to work through these problems.”

No one has raised a voice against the project yet, designers said.

“I’m not sure there are enough people aware of it to generate opposition,” said Vincent DiMaria, a board member of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association.

He explained that Callowhill has “not yet developed a power structure like older, more established neighborhoods where people are more vocal.” Not a rowhouse neighborhood, Callowhill has “hundred-year-old warehouses, artists living in studios, and is trending middle- to upper-middle class.

“Many try to remain inclusive and are aware of everyone’s needs in the neighborhood.”

That would be great to witness in what’s been a pretty intolerant city, said William Stanley, the formerly homeless man.

“It’d be good that any homeless person would be allowed to just sit somewhere and enjoy the scenery like a tourist.

“Let me know when they build that park. I’ll show up.