A Place They Call Homelessness

Poverty_173_0929 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?

Posted 05/26/2005 10:57:23 AM

Good read, thanks.

Daniel Rubin
Posted 05/26/2005 11:09:17 AM

Thanks, Jason.

Posted 05/26/2005 11:44:59 AM

After reading countless articles that ridicule Philadelphia (we were recently named the most depressed city in the nation), I'm very pleased to see Philly as a role model for positive social change. I've heard about Sister Mary Scullion's efforts for years. She's a fearless warrior, and in all seriousness, I predict that she will be Philadelphia's next saint. Thanks for alerting us to this article. I'll definitely post a link to it on my site as well — Philly can use some good news for a change.

Citizen Mom
Posted 05/26/2005 01:33:00 PM

And see, this to me was just a perfect example of how newspapers can make the blog thing work. That post -- it was part column, part backgrounder, part roundup of how Philadelphia's approach to the homeless is being talked about elsewhere -- was really informative. But it wasn't a news story, exactly, right? I mean, there wouldn't have been a place for a piece written like that anywhere else, but it's good that the newspaper can provide context about the issue of homelessness in the city. Nice one, Dan.

Daniel Rubin
Posted 05/26/2005 02:37:26 PM

trying, Mom. It is up to someone else here to thoroughly evaluate how the city's homeless program is serving all interests, but reading that piece reminded me of how troubled this place seemed on the surface when i arrived, and how many haunted souls there were out there. I've hung out to watch the do-gooders deliver food outside the Free Library, and listened as social service people complained that these people were providing food that would be wasted, and they were keeping the sick from getting seen by social workers in the soup kitchens. I went with homeless people under that bridge over the river and was amazed at the cardboard city constructed there. that was a while ago. now the problems are tucked behind the scenes. I wonder how we're doing.

Posted 05/27/2005 08:57:03 AM

Not to toot my own horn here, but monorailmike mentions Sister Mary Scullion. In July, I will be doing a bike race from the Irish Pub in Philly to the Irish Pub in Atlantic City and all proceeds generated go toward Project HOME, which is Sister Mary Scullion's organization.

Daniel Rubin
Posted 05/27/2005 09:04:37 AM

blow, baby, blow. that's a good thing.

Posted 05/27/2005 03:17:19 PM

Well, Daniel, if you wanna ride, they take entries up until the day of the race. The only requirement is you have to have at least $150 in donations by race-time. Stop by either Irish Pub (12th st or 20th st) for details. If not, you could always sponsor me (just kidding).

alexis k ferguson
Posted 08/29/2005 03:55:16 PM

*Refers to Thomas Blackwell IV Hello, I am a 27 year old African-American mother of three. Andrew-Micheal 13, Skylar 20 months, and Layla 8.5 months. I have lived in several (4) homeless shelters consecutively for the past 15 months. *I was a resident at Traveler's Aid months ago when you came to speak, and had the honor and pleasure of meeting with you days later about a probate issue. I am seeking help and or advice on my current situation. I do not know where else to turn, and my Aunt says to ask you and your office for assistance. In May 2005 my family was selected for the 1260 housing program. I came so close, that I was simply waiting on the house inspection. During this time, my then, 4 month old daughter Layla, suffered a fractured femur. All of my children have been removed. Because of this, we, my family, have lost our "spot" with 1260 housing. I was told that you must have the children living with you in the shelter to remain in the program. They were living with me when I applied, interviewed, and selected a house. Deborah Savage (215-551-8484 ext3217), who was my contact person with 1260 housing. Stated that she received an email from Marcella Maguire(215-685-5419) instructing her to "pull" my application. I at that time, left several telephone messages for Marcella Maguire, NONE were returned. I telephoned her again on 8/19/2005 about my "situation", she says, She is not involved with the program anymore and cannot comment. DHS found me indicated of neglect, not PHYSICAL ABUSE, and my children went to live with the maternal grandmother, BAD MOVE, she, Syeeda Stevenson (maternal grandmother 215-924-1459)left all three children in the home, ALONE, because she had jury duty. I REALIZED THAT ENVIRONMENT WAS UNSAFE FOR MY CHILDREN. So, I took them to a neighbors home, and then they went to live with my maternal Aunt. I informed DHS supervisor Carol Featherson (215-683-6243) of all of the changes A.S.A.P. As a result of the removal of my children, in order to acquire low income housing, I must remain "in shelter". I was told by Ms. Savage, that once my children are returned, "I pick up where I left off", by selecting another scattered site in which to reside. However, The judge, the HONORABLE BRENDA FRAZIER-CLEMONS, ordered that if both parties agree, (DHS AND PHILADELPHIA CHILD ADVOCATE) my children may return home prior to next court date 1-13-2006. Child Advocate JILL BUTLER (267-765-6928) wants to ensure that housing is available before her office will consider returning the children. Charles Furman DHS social worker (215-683-6243) says he is for reunification now, he states that he understands that the return of the children is a requisite for the 1260 housing program. That said he has refused to make a referral for any other housing programs that Dhs can assist with, i.e. Shelter care-plus, he, Furman, Says that since I have no Drug and or Alcohol, or Mental Health Issues I am simply not a candidate. Is there any programs or any information that you and your office can help me with. I do not know what to do, or in which way to turn. I feel struck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I entered the shelter system at the insistence of DHS and SCOH, they said 90 days and you'll receive low income housing. I have resided in shelters where the steeple collapsed (LUTHER HOUSE 43RD CHESTNUT STREET), Slept in population rooms and had items stolen (I have the police report to prove this, it happened at STENTON FAMILY MANOR),pay phones falling of the wall on striking me upon my head while pregnant with my third child, Layla,(TRAVELER'S AID FAMILY SHELTER 111 N. 49TH STREET, I have hospital and EMT reports to prove this as well as eye witness accounts), to lastly the WOODSTOCK FAMILY CENTER, where I know reside. I just want some answers and guidance in the right direction. Thank you for taking the time to read this, Alexis Kian Ferguson 215-287-3612 215-726-9218 1981 Woodstock street room 232 Philadelphia, PA 19121-2118 alexiskferguson@yahoo.com

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