Students feed homeless despite officials' warnings

A lesson in fighting City Hall.

Saequoia Sutton, 9, a third grader at Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School , joins classmates handing out food to homeless men and womenat JFK Plaza. The Thursday night effort has come under fire from City Hall; city officials say it is not the best way to aid the homeless.

For nearly two years, students, parents and staff at the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School have handed out food and supplies to the homeless once a week on the sidewalk near JFK Plaza in Center City.

But last Thursday, the city's new managing director, Loree Jones, showed up and told the group to move the program elsewhere. The city in recent months has begun to discourage outdoor feeding of homeless people along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and in JFK Plaza.

Veronica Joyner, the charter school's chief executive officer, said police showed up a short time later and ordered the group to disperse, prompting 13-year-old Karima Mims-DeWitt to fearfully ask: "Are we going to go to jail for giving food to the homeless?"

No arrests occurred, but the controversy - part of a larger, long-standing point of contention in the city - continues: How best to help the city's homeless? Is it better to hand out food to them on the street, which opponents of the practice say may encourage them to stay on the street, or is it better to feed them in shelters and other places where they can be directed toward mental-health help and other services they desperately need?

"It does no good to feed someone on the Parkway and then leave them there with no place to go," said Dainette Mintz, the city's deputy managing director of special-needs housing. "If we can bring these programs indoors, it provides us with another opportunity to engage folks in services."

But the children weren't listening, and last night they continued with their civics lesson.

In playful defiance of the managing director's objections, Joyner's troops showed up at the park to make their usual deliveries while a Philly favorite blasted through the boom box of their van: McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now."

Joyner danced and sang along with some of the people who gathered to get their turkey-and-American-cheese sandwiches on white bread, apples, and bottled water. Among the volunteers was her brother William Jacobs, who once played trombone with the duo.

When the lyric "I know you know someone who's got a negative vibe" came up, Joyner giggled and said: "That's Jones!"

About 80 people gathered, as they have for more than a year and a half, as about 30 students and parents handed out not only food, but also sneakers, clothes, toothbrushes and soap.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, long an advocate for the homeless, came along to make sure the city didn't disrupt the students.

"Well-intentioned and caring people should work this out," Blackwell said of the controversy. "I'm hoping this will quietly go away. You don't fight children trying to feed the homeless."

In the end, Jones did not show up, and police did not approach the students.

Mintz, in an interview earlier yesterday, said the city was identifying churches in the area willing to host feeding programs and trying to convince groups such as Joyner's to move there. The University City area has developed a model, she said.

Joyner, however, says she's not moving.

"For two years, we've been there. I refuse to move it and lose them," she said, shortly before running the feeding program last night at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard.

She added: "You can't make people go in and get services."

Mintz and Jones, she said, can bring the services to her feeding location: "We have given them a captive group."

Both Mintz and Jones said they weren't sure what they would do if Joyner continued to refuse. The city could take the position that Joyner's group needs a permit or license to do the program, Jones said. She said she would seek another meeting with Joyner.

Last year, city officials estimated there were 2,800 to 3,000 homeless people in shelters and on the street in Philadelphia. In Center City, the number of homeless people on the street averages 375 daily.

Opinion on the issue of feeding the homeless outside is divided.

Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, agrees with the city. Some people who are homeless have addiction or mental-health problems as well, he said.

"The humane desire to feed people is something that really should be encouraged, but it should be encouraged by volunteering within shelters, within facilities where people can get the help they need," he said. "As well intended as this is, it is enabling a self-destructive lifestyle."

He said outdoor feeding can also attract panhandlers and petty criminals.

Mintz and Jones cited other concerns as well: Quality of food being distributed outdoors. Large numbers of people congregating. Cleanup issues. Rodent problems. Lack of bathrooms at the locations.

The charter school, with nearly 1,000 students in grades one through 12, started the project as a way of extending the school's civics curriculum, Joyner said. Every Wednesday, the school in the 400 block of North Broad Street, just south of Spring Garden, sends envelopes to each classroom, and students donate money.

On Thursday afternoons, students help prepare sandwiches, water, snacks, and personal-care kits with items such as soap. They help distribute the items on Thursday evenings to as many as 500 people.

"It teaches me to be grateful for the stuff I have and to give back to people who don't have," said Karima, a student at the school.

Her mother, Betty Huntley, sometimes accompanies Karima, who has become so passionate about the project that she doesn't want to miss a Thursday.

"Do you remember when we had that real bad ice storm? She had me bring her down here during that ice storm," Huntley said.

The school held a talent show and other fund-raisers during the school year to keep the project going over the summer, Joyner said.

Some students have become so involved that they have given the coats off their backs to the homeless, sold their own coloring books to raise a dollar, and used their paychecks to buy clothes for people, Joyner said.

And some homeless people have gone on to find jobs and have come back to thank Joyner and her students, she said.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or

Inquirer staff writer Cynthia Burton contributed to this article.