The news that Philadelphia is being celebrated for its approach to helping the homeless shows how much a reputation can change. Seventeen years ago my first assignment for the paper was covering a meeting of Oxford Circle residents who were boiling over a bureaucratic error that was to turn over a vacant property to the city's Housing With Dignity program. "The city's problem, not our problem," one neighbor screamed. It would encourage homelessness, said another.
Human rottweilers, I remember thinking. I would quickly learn how big a problem homelessness was proving for the city. When I'd work downtown, the 10-minute walk from my car to the office would cost me $5 typically. Having just moved from Kentucky I was an easy mark, and I had never seen so many people looking for handouts. I talked to all of them, trying to sort out who was going to use the money to get high and who was looking to buy food. I hardened up pretty fast.
The city was overwhelmed by its own Goode intentions. In 1985 Mayor W. Wilson Goode had agreed in a court suit to provide "adequate and appropriate shelter" to the city's homeless. Soon, that meant serving 5,500 people a night. The city could not even keep track of how many people it gave food, clothing and shelter to -- the demand was so overwhelming.
When I arrived in Philly, the city was spending $30 million in tax dollars on the homeless. With city starting to go broke, it halfed that amount in a year.
Among those protesting budget cuts outside then-Councilman John F. Street's office for seven weeks the summer of 1990 was a 22-year-old homeless man from Chicago, who said he came here because "we heard things were pretty good here for a while."
I remember a series I worked on that quoted the historian Dennis J. Clark on the old city's problems: "It's the physical appearance of failure - the homeless, too - that has drained the respect and morale from the citizens."
Now we get headlines like this in the Rocky Mountain News:
City of Brotherly Love has become a model for sheltering the homeless.
The piece, from May 23, begins with Lou Barnett, a man who'd spent six years sleeping in a cardboard box around Suburban Station, visiting the hardcore homeless under a Schuylkill River bridge. Barnett now works for the city, trying to get others to try the mental health and detox programs that helped him.
The piece quotes Sister Mary Scullion saying how homeless advocates' biggest battle came in 1997, when a sidewalk ordinance outlawed sleeping on the streets. It continues:
After months of acrimony, the law that eventually made it through the council gave police authority to crack down on people camped out on sidewalks. But it also set aside $5.6 million to hire more outreach workers, create a homeless hot line and open a half-dozen shelters and treatment centers geared to the chronically homeless. The city also created a special unit of the police department that responds to calls involving the homeless.
The impact was dramatic. In the next several years, the areas around City Hall and the main subway station emptied out. Hundreds of homeless people entered into housing developed by the city or nonprofits. Shelters opened around Center City, even in prestigious neighborhoods such as Rittenhouse Square, where condos can fetch $1 million. At the same time, Center City began a boom that continues today, with more than 100 new restaurants and dozens of loft projects that have brought in thousands of residents.
Today, the city spends $17 million a year on homeless services, an amount used to attract a pool of $64 million, including state and federal aid. Marcella Maguire, Philadelphia's director of initiatives for the chronically homeless, estimates demand for emergency services is down 70 percent since the homeless were moved from the streets. The article goes on to say one of the biggest changes in the attitudes in the neighborhoods toward homeless facilities, after reactions had been vitriolic. The piece comes as great publicity for all the city has done. It reads a little rosy. But much has improved.
The Denver report is playing well on Philly blogs. The West End, wrote:
That is the textbook definition of kind of image-building through media coverage that you just can't but. It literally makes me feel good to live in Philadelphia. And of course it is another reinforcement to those of use who believe that with smart policies like the sidewalk behavior ordinance, the city can be at its very best.
A Smoke-Filled Room weighed in positively as well:
I can remember back about 7 years when a "sidewalk ordinance" was passed to allow ticketing of anybody misusing the Philadelphia sidewalks. It was controversial because skateboarders and bikers aside, most people felt it was an attempt to criminalize homelessness. In the wake of the outcry, however, it appears that ... the city made compromises with the businesses and residents who wanted more regulation by putting substantial amounts of money into improved homeless services in return. The support facilities appear to be integrated to just about every neighborhood in the city, and the police have a special unit that handles calls about homeless people. All remarkably enlightened and effective, too.
I wonder how it plays on that stretch of Cheltenham Avenue in the Northeast, where residents were so riled at having the homeless move in next door? Or how it would play on my block?