On the Side: A bite out of homelessness

Free Library's nifty little cafe.

Posted: October 23, 2008

You will find the sliver of hope called the H.O.M.E. Page Cafe across the rather hangdog lobby of the Free Library.

Here are directions: If you arrive before 9 a.m., ignore the drifts of litter against the wall outside on Vine Street, facing Logan Square's lovely Swann Fountain and the busy Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Climb the broad steps and pass through an off-putting turnstile, better suited for a SEPTA subway entry.

Pass the reception desk, the Popular Library room, and turn right into the tall-ceilinged East Corridor where the 21st century is on sudden display: The H.O.M.E. Page Cafe here is a bright, crisp oasis, a little austere. There's fresh-brewed coffee. And wireless access at the cafe tables. And shelves of Metropolitan Bakery's excellent scones, cookies, pound cake, and French berry rolls.

There are a few sandwiches, too, roast beef and a decent tuna salad among them.

But the best thing is that as the city wrestles with how to cope with the homeless on a Parkway polishing up its cultural institutions (and its outdoor street life), the cafe is an object lesson: It is run daily by the homeless themselves.

Actually it's the formerly homeless, though it sounds better the way Project H.O.M.E.'s Sister Mary Scullion puts it: "Let the homeless feed you."

Witness tall Yvonne Bailey, a bit of Queen Latifah in her aspect, who presides over the cafe counter: For 17 years she had a drug habit, moving from crack house to crack house, before cleaning up her act.

Now she's the poster girl, literally, for a new Center City District campaign to persuade good-willed citizens to give change not to panhandlers, but to groups such as Project H.O.M.E. - which helped get Bailey on her feet - that can make a "real change." (The Web site is www.MakeRealChange.org.)

The Free Library is where the rubber hits the road - or more precisely, the Parkway - in the struggle over how best to address the homeless.

It gets the brunt of outdoor feeding operations: A few nonprofits and church groups draw crowds of up to 300 on Vine Street in front of the main entrance. This typically leads to litter and sanitation issues that the library is stuck mopping up, even as it launches its own spectacular new $175 million wing.

On the other hand, it offers a better model of how to break the cycle: The indoor cafe employs (at a starting wage of $8.75 an hour) a handful of formerly homeless workers, supervised on site by Project H.O.M.E.'s Lisa Kavanagh.

It is a baby step. It serves 200 library staff and visitors on a good day. It still doesn't break even. It's looking for ways to reduce prices, to offer, say, a $4 tuna sandwich on a croissant.

But at least it is an island of tractability in the hard, cold homeless world to which intractable is the word most often applied.

Before the battle lines on the Parkway harden, it might not be a bad idea for the backers of tougher laws on conduct and the champions of more supervised housing to sit down at the humble H.O.M.E. Page over a cup of good coffee.

They may find that they have far more that unites them, in fact, than divides them; that they're very close already to being on the same page.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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