Phila.'s rising homeless numbers After years of decrease, nearly 400 are on Center City's streets. Some say food handouts don't help.

Posted: September 17, 2006

A man and a woman were relaxing last week, enjoying a view from a bed unlike that of most Center City dwellers. They were feet away from a line of trees, inches from a broad patch of grass, and - as it is when you live on the exit ramp of a highway - a few yards from a lot of moving cars.

The couple were among eight men and women lying that afternoon on either side of the Broad Street exit of the Vine Street Expressway and part of a growing pack of homeless setting up encampments at the gateway to Center City and outside landmark Philadelphia institutions.

It has become clear to those who happen past these spots that the ranks of the homeless in the heart of Philadelphia are swelling. Earlier this year, the city reported an average daily count of 258 homeless people on the streets in Center City. Last week it was 376.

"We're now at a point where there's a clear increase in the numbers of homeless people on the streets," Center City District president Paul Levy said. "To have people camped at the gateways to the city or at major tourist attractions is counterproductive to growing the economy of the city."

Nowhere is it as overwhelming as outside the Free Library of Philadelphia at 19th and Vine Streets on Monday afternoons. That's one of the predictable places for those on the street to get food delivered to them.

"Monday, it really blows my mind," library worker Rosetta Fortune said. "These are people of all ages. I've never seen anything like that in my life."

More than 100 gather on any given Monday, she said. The homeless stream in daily as soon as the doors open, and many head straight for the bathrooms.

A 54-year-old man who refused to give his name said he and other homeless were well-acquainted with the locations of public bathrooms and where and when food is given away. He used to camp out near the library but moved to the exit ramp about five months ago, he said.

The population on the ramp rises and falls throughout the day. The large patch of grass there makes for good napping, al fresco dining, and - with cars jammed up at peak times - panhandling. On this day, a 46-year-old named Noah was sprawled on the grass - just for a rest, he said.

Along the tree line, where the more permanent residents set up camp, are piles of trash, 40-ounce beer bottles, and the disintegrating remnants of untold cardboard boxes. Within a few minutes, three residents of the ramp urinated just down the slope after naps.

Philadelphia has won praise in recent years for its dealings with the homeless and significantly reducing those seen on Center City streets. But a variety of factors, including a sluggish economy and greater tolerance of their presence, has swelled their ranks.

The city's new homeless czar, Dainette Mintz, said a census put the number of homeless on Center City's streets at 376, about 15 of them regulars at the knoll.

A city team visits the site every night to urge the adults to move into shelters, she said, but they refuse.

"They are not your typical street people," she said, adding that the ramp's residents were there because of economic hardship, not drug abuse.

"They are choosing not to come into the shelters," Mintz said.

Even those critical of the situation are quick to point out that the street people represent a fraction of those who are technically homeless - a few hundred among thousands receiving shelter from the city and social-service agencies.

They are able to remain long enough to set up camps in Center City, Levy said, because they choose places away from people's homes and are therefore less likely to draw complaints.

"Downtown is everyone's neighborhood and nobody's neighborhood," Levy said. "Center City becomes a convenient place to go because more things are allowed and tolerated."

While the ranks of street people in Center City fell considerably before its recent rebound, Roosevelt Darby of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness suggested that not all of those who had left went all that far. He said some of the earlier decrease had been something of an illusion, with those tired of being hassled in Center City heading into the neighborhoods.

Advocates for the homeless and those concerned with the growing ranks and visibility of the population blame the public feedings.

Jeff Deeney, who works for Darby, said he was near the library as part of a regular outreach assignment last week when he saw a snack-cake truck open its doors to a large group of the homeless across from the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

College students regularly give out food. Suburban church members arrive with food.

"They think they're helping when they're not," Levy said. "Food should always be connected with the opportunity to get help. They enable people to remain on the street. It's enabling people to remain addicted. We are not helping ourselves as a city if we encourage and enable these camps."

Judith Rogers, executive director of the Parkway Council Foundation, recalled an event in July at Logan Circle that coincided with a distracting nearby mass feeding of the homeless.

"What we're most interested in is having a Parkway that is clean, safe and beautiful - a feeling that this is a place you can safely walk with you family," Rogers said. "The large presence of the homeless doesn't contribute to that welcoming feeling."

Moving the homeless is dicey. For the most part, they are not violating laws and enjoy civil rights that allow them to make the choice to live outdoors and refuse shelter. Police officials said they largely ignored the street people unless they were breaking a law.

That has left the focus on trying to dissuade well-meaning do-gooders from taking food to highly visible downtown locations.

The 54-year-old man who lives along the expressway ramp, a Philadelphia native, said he could count on Sunday morning doughnuts and coffee delivered to his spot and knew where and when all sorts of do-gooders would show up.

He said he regularly used bathrooms at Suburban Station and the Community College of Philadelphia. And when it rains, he moves to a different spot - also in Center City.

"I go to City Hall and find a dry spot," he said.

Contact staff writer Mitch Lipka at 215-854-5334 or mlipka@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Joseph Gambardello contributed to this article.

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