Unwelcome mat for city's growing homeless

Posted: July 22, 2007

"Time to get up!"

It's 4:55 a.m. on Thursday, and, with a rap against the glass door by the post office in the concourse near Suburban Station, Sgt. Ed Hall delivers his wake-up call.

As Hall, a SEPTA transit officer, pauses, eight people asleep on newspapers and makeshift cardboard mattresses begin to stir. Heads pop up. A tall man in heavy work boots methodically folds his newspaper into a tidy pile and leaves.

All know the drill. They gather their bags and walk away, heading to LOVE Park or maybe Dilworth Plaza on City Hall's west side.

"They don't go far," Hall says. "This is where they live."

It's a ceremony replicated around Center City: police waking the homeless, prepping their makeshift dorms for the commuter rush about to begin.

About 25 people spent the night into Thursday at Suburban Station, a quarter of the population in winter, when the concourse's concrete floors provide some shelter from the elements.

They are part of what police estimate are 355 people living on Center City streets. There are more: 4,000 on the streets in other Philadelphia neighborhoods or in shelters, according to Project HOME, the homeless-services and advocacy group cofounded in 1989 by Sister Mary Scullion.

But it is the number in Center City - the homeless who are seen, encountered or complained of by workers, tourists and conventioneers - that is the popular big-city barometer.

And the number is increasing, says Sgt. Bill Hill of the police "homeless unit," which conducts a weekly count of Center City's street people.

It was 355 last week, 394 the week before, and 290 after July 4, Hill says. Never mind the one-week dip, he says. It's the trend he watches: "The last two years it was in the 250s. Now it's up over 300."

Still, the number is far below 1997's record of 824. And way below counts in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Calif.

Some argue that the summer count is misleading because the street population traditionally rises when Philadelphia warms and emergency shelters close.

Moreover, experts on the homeless say those who live on the streets - about 10 percent of all homeless - are atypical because they are the most resistant to leaving the street for any form of shelter.

Dainette Mintz, director of the city's Office of Supportive Housing, which operates homeless shelters and outreach services, says the increase is real: "We're seeing increasing number of singles and families coming into intake. It's an increase that has occurred nationally."

Swept out of sight

The irony is lost on Lance DiValerio.

It's about 9 a.m., and the police are there. Got to move. Mayor's coming.

That's the way it is when your bedroom is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. One minute you're sound asleep, the next a police officer needs you to move so the mayor - even a mayor whose administration has been lauded nationally for how it has handled the homeless - and other leaders can celebrate the rehab of Aviator Park, across from the Franklin Institute.

DiValerio, 57, formerly of Bristol, and about eight "roommates" gather their belongings and quietly comply, although they will surely return later in the day.

After the homeless men are gone, Alexander Cintron and his crew of eight move in and clean up the debris.

Cintron, 32, a crew supervisor with Ready, Willing & Able, has been sober 10 months and says he hopes to graduate in April from the program, where formerly homeless men get shelter and do public-service work while preparing to work and live on their own.

All eight men in Cintron's crew regularly clean the Parkway, LOVE Park, and the landscaped areas at the 15th Street and 16th Street ramps to the Vine Street Expressway - all haunts of the homeless.

Cintron says the encounter is "motivating in a way. For some of us, that's where we were a few months back."

Homelessness and the law

"This is such a delicate issue," says Judith Applebaum, head of the Washington Square West Civic Association.

Nowhere is homelessness more sensitive than in an urban area like Center City, where the line between sophisticated living and street squalor can be as thin as your front door.

The homeless step on so many trip wires: the rights of property owners and the public, social apathy and activism, employment and poverty, mental health and addiction.

Applebaum says she receives complaints from neighbors about the homeless, and she concedes their presence in parks can dissuade some people from using them.

But Applebaum is torn: "These are human beings, and it is horrific what is happening to them. . . . And, in fact, they're not breaking the law. It's a public park, and they're sitting there."

Hill, the police sergeant, says his officers constantly analyze the question of when the homeless break the law.

"People will call and say, 'Homeless people are sitting in Rittenhouse Square.' And my reply is that they're allowed. Homelessness is not against the law," Hill says.

On a day like Thursday, Hill explains, college students and homeless people are allowed to stretch out on the grass along the Parkway and "catch some rays." Stretching out and sleeping on a bench or sidewalk, or blocking either with your possessions, is another matter, he says.

Hill says his officers work through an escalating protocol with a homeless person who is behaving illegally: an oral warning; a written warning (a small green index card explaining the city's Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance in English and Spanish); a call to an outreach worker; and finally, depending on the response, a summons or arrest.

"We're don't want to be going around arresting homeless people," Hill adds. "And the fact is that 99 percent get up and leave."

Quality-of-life time

Eleven-thirty a.m., Independence Mall, by Fifth and Market Streets: It's the height of tourist season, but a man sleeping on a bench is oblivious.

Two teenage boys sit down on a bench directly next to the homeless man and stare. After a few minutes, one boy picks up pebbles and tosses them at the sleeping man. The man doesn't stir; the boys get bored and leave.

Noon, 15th and Callowhill Streets: Dennis Myers, 52, just got a city notice about "Operation Quality of Life."

Next Thursday, the city will clean the knoll near the Vine Street Expressway exit ramp at 15th and Callowhill Streets - what Myers and his girlfriend call home.

This means Myers will have to pack up the baby stroller he uses as luggage, take down the tent, roll up his comforter, and haul off his plastic bags until the cleanup is finished.

Then the Vietnam veteran plans to go right back.

Tourists uncomfortable

The presence of the homeless is a challenge for those promoting "America's next great city," as National Geographic Traveler dubbed Philadelphia two years ago.

Jane Cowley, a spokeswoman for Independence National Historical Park, says park rangers have noticed more homeless. Some visitors have also commented.

"There's no question that it makes people very uncomfortable," especially visitors from areas where the homeless are rarely seen, Cowley says.

Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., says it is not surprising that, as Philadelphia's star has risen as a "destination city," the homeless are again getting noticed.

"We want to help them, but we also want to respect the rights of people who live here and come here and who are visiting here," Levitz says.

'I don't want trash here'

It's 2:30 p.m. on Dilworth Plaza, and among the 27 homeless men on benches outside City Hall is Joe - who won't give a last name or age - a middle-age man wearing a green-and-yellow Oakland A's baseball cap, a gray-and-yellow-striped shirt, and gray cotton athletic shorts.

"I've been on the street for 10 years now," Joe says. "My house caught fire, burned up everything I had, and I had no insurance."

Joe says a normal day for him starts with waking and walking to the day center at 802 N. Broad St. operated by the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness, where he can shower, shave, change clothes, and "use the john."

Then it's back to his spot outside City Hall to clean. With a large broom he sweeps the area and then fills his buckets with water to scrub down the benches.

Ask him why and Joe replies: "Because this is where I live. I don't want trash here."

'A very sobering time'

Sister Mary Scullion has been a leader in efforts that have brought national attention for reducing the Center City street population from 824 in 1997 to 228, by her Project HOME's count, just three years later.

"At that time, there was a collective effort by the business community, Center City community, nonprofits, the government, and city to really look at it and really reduce the number of people living on the streets and reduce it to zero," Scullion says.

"It's a very sobering time for us," she says, "and hopefully we'll be able to regroup as a city and get those numbers down again."

Money, too, is drying up.

The city's Dainette Mintz says Philadelphia's allocation of federal homeless funding went from $23 million in 2005 to $13 million last year. A hundred units of new housing for the homeless, part of Street's 10-year plan to end homelessness in Philadelphia, will not be built.

"Today," Scullion says, "the most critical thing to ending homelessness on city streets is having appropriate places for people to go."

Homelessness is so complex, she says, that simple shelter is not the answer: "If a person has an addiction, that isn't a city shelter. It's a house for recovery. It's a place where they can take a step forward and not just go through a revolving door."

Feeding on the Parkway

It's 8:30 p.m., and a humid dusk is settling over Center City. The evening rush is over, lights are winking on, and it's quiet.

Except at 19th and Vine Streets, where, outside the Beaux Arts-style Free Library, the homeless are on the move.

This time it has nothing to do with police or outreach workers. It's free food, delivered in several small vans from churches as far away as Wisconsin.

Mass feeding - it's a ritual that infuriates city officials, who have worked to draw the homeless inside.

But like the homeless who resist and rebuff the efforts of outreach workers, the Samaritans reject city pleas to stop mass feedings and instead to volunteer in shelter programs.

About 50 homeless people line up at makeshift feeding stations on benches. And then they drift away, moving to wherever they call home until tomorrow morning's wake-up call.

To view a video of staff writer Jennifer Lin interviewing some of Center City's homeless and their advocates, go to http://go.philly.com/homelessvideo

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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