Taking the city's pulse on Sequestration Day

Posted: March 06, 2013

IN PHILADELPHIA, as in any city, there are sights and sounds that are such a huge part of its fabric that people rushing through their day don't even notice them anymore.

Honking cars - you do like your horns, Philly.

The street preacher yelling Scripture at 16th and Market.

Panhandlers, whose constant pleas for help quickly become just more background noise.

"Can you spare some change?"

"Forty-five cents. I just need 45 cents to get something to eat."

"A little help . . . "

I've often wondered how much it would cost if I gave to all those who asked. If I didn't rush by, or almost absentmindedly judged their need, what would be the cost of compassion?

Friday, Sequestration Day, seemed just as good a time as any to find out.

As politicians and pundits debated the effect of billions of dollars in brutally blind cuts, I emptied out my piggy banks and withdrew a little extra cash from the bank.

I didn't seek anyone out. I didn't change my routine. But when someone asked or was clearly in need, I gave.

"One dollar's nice, two's a blessing," a guy outside Reading Terminal Market said. I laughed. That line, I told him as I reached into my pocket, was worth $3, easy.

Sometimes the person asking for money and I chatted. Sometimes not.

I slipped a dollar into the hand of a middle-age white guy who was leaning against a planter on Market, out cold, but still breathing.

Across the street, I knelt in front of a young black man rocking back and forth in front of a Dunkin' Donuts. I asked his name. "Anthony," he said so quietly that I had to lean in to hear. He nodded when I gave him a few bucks and asked if he was hungry. As he devoured a banana I'd brought from home, I asked where he lived. He pointed to the ground and kept rocking.

There is no one story out here, no one need. Yeah, there were a few hustlers: "Dude, you've been asking for the same 'last $2 for a ticket home' for more than a year now," I told the guy who hangs by the bus station.

But most people were genuinely in need - of food, shelter and, so painfully obvious, treatment for addictions and mental illness. If the cuts go through, an estimated 373,000 seriously mentally ill adults and children in this country could go untreated.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Hersh, director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, she sounded, well, pissed off.

She'd had it with people who could afford theoretical debates trying to downplay the cuts. Whether they hit all at once or over time, the results will be the same: Bad, really bad.

"It's an erosion of opportunity and basic services," Hersh said. "It's a monumentally screwed-up way to run a country."

Hersh said Pennsylvania faces a loss of between $60 million and $90 million in Department of Housing and Urban Develpoment and Department of Agriculture housing and homeless dollars in 2013. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a loss of $5.17 million in homeless assistance in Pennsylvania.

And it's not any less stark closer to where this decision was made. On a trip to Washington, D.C., a day later, I saw two men wrapped in blankets and sleeping on benches just a few miles from the White House.

Politicians and pundits could spin these cuts all sorts of ways. But the reality is simple: People are suffering, they've long been suffering, and there is just so much they can take before they, and this country, crumble under the weight of bad decisions.

One of the last people I spoke with during my "cost-of-compassion" experiment was Anthony Ausby, a vendor for One Step Away, a newspaper produced and distributed by homeless men and women.

Ausby, who is working toward getting an apartment, isn't going by numbers or "expert" analysis, just his eyes.

In the years he's been on the streets, he said, he's noticed an increase in company.

"People you don't expect," he said. "Women and kids, people who shouldn't be out here."

The other night, he came across an older woman standing outside Suburban Station after the homeless had been shooed out. She was just standing there in the cold, shivering, Ausby said. He gave her the only blanket he had.

"She needed it."

After a day of conversations in the cold, I needed a hot drink. As I stepped into a nearby Starbucks, I checked to see how much money I had left. Plenty.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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