Elmer Smith: Amendment won't solve the homeless problem

A group protests Frank DiCicco's public-nuisance amendment.

YOU'LL BE relieved to know that disorderly conduct is still illegal in Center City.

It is still illegal to start a fist- fight or scream obscenities or touch your naughty parts suggestively. You may not block the corridors of commerce to demand a tribute from passers-by or commit a public nuisance. (Private nuisances are not specifically prohibited.)

Not that you were contemplating any of that. But, apparently, there was some question about whether the police had the authority to enforce those laws on those who are chronically homeless and/or mentally ill.

Frank DiCicco's 1st Councilmanic District - which runs from South Philly through Center City to Port Richmond - is home to a disproportionate percentage of the homeless. So, it fell to him to fashion an amendment to the 1998 sidewalk ordinance and clear up any lingering confusion.

The 1998 law says that police must first alert a mental-health professional before they can arrest or confine a person who appears to be homeless and/or mentally ill. I can see where this could be a problem. Even a mental-health professional would be hard-pressed to say which of our citizens is sane enough to arrest.

DiCicco sought to untie the cops' hands by effectively eliminating that provision. Sister Mary Scullion of Project Home and homeless advocate Cheri Honkala rose in righteous indignation.

Just before a hearing scheduled for last Tuesday, the homeless advocates, representatives of Center City business interests and DiCicco reached a compromise to allow police to arrest without consultation in cases that clearly constitute disorderly conduct.

That is, unless they happen to be in Darrell Clarke's 5th Councilmanic District. Clarke added an amendment to exempt his district - which includes parts of Center City and North Philadelphia - from the amended amendment. Now police have to make sure that they're not in Clarke's district when they enforce the newly amended law.

What we have here is a solution in search of a problem. Police have been enforcing the law for 13 years. So, when did it get so confusing?

DiCicco's office said that the concern had been raised recently by what some saw as "an uptick" in aggressive panhandling in Center City.

I don't doubt that. But we seem to revisit this issue every few years to recalibrate that delicate balance between enforcing the law and forcing treatment on those dusty wanderers who disturb our peace.

Much of the homeless problem involves people who have serious mental illness but are not sick enough to be confined against their will.

"Based on our experience," said Will O'Brien, special-projects coordinator for Project Home, "a high proportion of people panhandling have problems with mental health or addiction or both.

"We understand that if anyone's behavior crosses the line to criminal behavior, it should be dealt with by the law. But it's often a question of balancing appropriate policing with mental-health needs."

It hasn't been easy. But Philadelphia has done this better than most big cities. John Street, who pushed for the sidewalk ordinance as mayor, and Mayor Nutter have both taken the high road on this one.

Nutter set aside public-housing money for those who are chronically homeless, and Street found $6 million in city funding for "Safe Havens" when the original bill was passed.

"It worked," O'Brien said. "We went from about 700 to 800 on the street in 1998 down to about 200.

"But in recent years, it's been creeping up. We need permanent supportive housing, which would release some beds in safe havens and recovery houses."

About 250 volunteers took a photo-detailed census of the city's homeless population this year. They put the homeless population at 528 - those who have been homeless on average for 3.9 years.

"The important thing, we felt, is to continue the supportive services for people on the street," said O'Brien. "The local chapter of the 100,000 Homes campaign is using this volunteer census data."

The city is a partner in the local chapter of the 100,000 Homes for the homeless campaign. Nutter has pledged to find or provide 50 homes in the city for chronically homeless people this year.

Some of them may find semi-permanent housing in prison cells if they violate the law. But there is nothing really new about that.

Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith