Homeless Still Abound Handouts Down, Not Needy

Posted: November 17, 1994

The young man with stringy blond hair sits slouched on the sidewalk on 16th Street, holding a paper cup with a dollar bill and few coins inside.

"Got any change?" he asks a passer-by, doing what he's done for the last four years in Center City.

A stranger asks if it's any tougher to get handouts these days.

"Yeah, man," he says. "Since about a year ago, when them posters and all

went up."

The man is evidence, however unscientific, that a coordinated campaign to discourage panhandling and clear the homeless from Center City sidewalks has had some effect.

It's been just about a year since the Center City District launched its ''Campaign for Real Change," an effort via posters and transit ads to encourage citizens to give panhandlers cards with information on where to get help instead of a handout.

Around the same time, the Rendell administration opened its Gateway Services Center, which would offer meals and daytime activities along with a new "low demand" shelter to coax some hard-core homeless in from the streets.

The administration also planned to get humanitarian organizations and churches to stop street-feeding programs. And in November 1993, police and outreach workers cleared the 13th and Market subway encampment that had become home to as many as 300 people.

Have the efforts worked?

Interviews with officials and social-service providers suggest that each of the programs has had some effect, but that the Center City climate is far from transformed. Much remains as it was.

Take the street-feeding issue, for example.

At a news conference last year opening the Gateway Center, Mayor Rendell said a letter would soon be sent to organizations providing food on the street to stop and to fold their efforts into Gateway.

The letter never was sent, though one meeting was held with some providers. Some have provided meals at Gateway, some paid no attention to the administration, and others tried Gateway and returned their old methods.

"We're back to feeding on the street," said Brother Bill McDonald, of Servants of the Poor. "We go wherever people are hungry. My men will travel the alleys and take food."

But McDonald and others try not to bring food to JFK Plaza, next to the city's Visitors Center, where much street-feeding occurred a year ago.

"I feel we have an obligation to keep that clean for the visitors," McDonald said.

There is disagreement whether fewer people are begging and whether street- feeding has declined.

The Gateway Center barely made a dent because the need is so high, advocates say. And many homeless are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol, problems that are not easily solved.

But Bill Parshall, the city's homeless czar, and Paul Levy, director of the Center City District, believe there's a visible reduction in both street- feeding and begging.

Parshall noted, for example, that there were no homeless encampments on the scale of the one cleared from the subway concourse.

Activists, however, say just as many people are on the streets as before. Veteran provider Sister Mary Scullion said her outreach teams were seeing more people.

The Gateway Center, after a rocky start last winter, has become generally well-regarded for those who get meals and other services there. But it simply isn't enough to handle all those in need.

"I don't know if it's really decreased the street population," said Roosevelt Darby, of the Philadelphia Committee for the Homeless, "because I think people are sort of making it part of their daily rounds. I think it's basically just added another service delivery agency to the pot of agencies that already exist."

The Center City District's program also encourages people to donate to a special fund. The effort has raised more than $25,000, Darby said, divided among Gateway and the District's own outreach teams.

The district has dispatched its uniformed "community service representatives" to distribute leaflets on corners where people complain about aggressive panhandling.

"We in no way interfere with someone asking for change," Levy said. "We simply position people 5 to 10 feet away from someone who is panhandling, who say, 'We think your desire to help is good, but there are other ways which are more effective.' "

Levy said the effort has helped in some areas, but others remain a problem. The District has also funded an employment training program in cooperation with other businesses, and has hired 26 homeless people to clean Kelly Drive and areas around the Vine Expressway.

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