Outreach workers get homeless to leave the Parkway

Shortly before midnight Thursday, it was a final few hands of the regular LOVE Park pinochle game for Willie Smith, 54, a truck driver who is currently homeless.

It was nearly two hours after the Secure Pope Perimeter was supposed to be in place along the Parkway from the Art Museum and stretching past City Hall to 12th Street, but the process in reality was a nearly all-night gradual shut down.

Smith said outreach workers had advised him and others to leave the area when the perimeter was installed. "They already told us to clear out the Park, don't argue." And Smith said he would. He was leaving in the morning for a work trip anyway.

By midnight, workers were still installing fences and gates, erecting tents that would turn into checkpoints. Bike police massed to patrol the area, and a handful of homeless people remained bedded down in LOVE Park.

Police officers on duty in the area said it was up to outreach workers to ask them to leave, and that they were not going to bother them. The Secret Service would be conducting security sweeps of the area all night before the metal detectors were installed Friday morning. Officials have said some homeless would probably be allowed to stay, and all would be allowed back in in the morning.

But Sister Mary Scullion of Project home said Friday morning that all of the homeless within the perimeter left eventually over the course of the night "without any police involvement, or secret service involvement." They all left with outreach, she said.

Scullion said outreach workers wanted to get all the homeless to move while the area was secured overnight Friday to avoid any problems with either police or the Secret Service.

She said she believed the Secret Service wanted the area cleared for the security sweep, but that the homeless would be allowed back in and not required to leave after that.

Scullion said she does not know whether the Secret Service would have moved people themselves or just checked them, had any chosen not to go with outreach.

"Our perception was that that area had to be cleared once," she said. "Whether they would have moved people or not, I don’t know."

She added: "Everybody in Love Park left," with most headed to to Broad Street Ministries.

"I'd rather err on the eye of safety," she said.

She said outreach workers will be back tonight to try to persuade people off the street, not because of any Secret Service or Pope issue, but because Project Home's belief is that the homeless are always better off coming inside. "Homelessness is a destructive, debilitating condition," she said.

One police officer said the homeless could claim a residency of sorts if they regularly sleep on the parkway and be allowed in the secure perimeter just like those who live in the high rises.

Sue Smith, an outreach worker with Project HOME, persuaded one woman to leave her spot at 19th and the Parkway, where she had been sleeping shortly after midnight. The woman, after hearing a friend would be at the shelter - actually a "cafe" where homeless are given a chair, not a bed - she reluctantly got up.

She packed all her belongings in an oversized trash bag, walked across 19th Street, and stashed it in the bushes. Smith said she doubted they would survive a security sweep and went over to advise the woman to take them with her.

Most of the people who regularly sleep on the Parkway had gotten the message about security sweeps and had already found other places to stay, Smith said. One man at 19th Street, near the Vine Street overpass, said through a blanket that covered him entirely that he preferred to stay and sleep. If police asked him to move later in the night, he said, he would comply.

Earlier in the night, groups of visiting Catholics walked past the homeless who were dozing on benches in LOVE Park, most preferring to take pictures of the fountain or looking back at the Parkway.

Father Benjamin Cieply, 37, of Dallas, led a Spanish ministry group from St. Monica's in Texas, through the Park on their way to the Liberty Bell.

Although they passed right by the homeless this time, Cieply said they had made a point to engage them while they've been in Philadelphia.

"We've talked to a lot of them," he said. "They have asked us for money. We definitely pray for them. Pope Francis wants us to reach out to them."

Cieply said his group might join in attempting to sleep out on the Parkway - but mostly to get a good spot for the papal Mass on Sunday. (Police have said people will not be allowed to camp out on the Parkway.)

Here are some scenes from the security setup and outreach to the homeless:

A handful of homeless were moved from along the Parkway but a dozen or so are still in LOVE Park even as perimeter goes up. #popeinphilly

A photo posted by Amy Rosenberg (@amysrosenberg) on Sep 24, 2015 at 8:50pm PDT