Just beyond the covered walkways surrounding the $325 million transformation of the Gallery at Market East sits a woman with a cardboard sign. On it she has scrawled, “Recent widower and hungry.”
Her name is Michelle, she tells me when I stop at 12th and Market to talk. She won't give her last name. She’s 46 and has been on the streets for about a month.
Chances are you've seen a lot of people like Michelle lately, on the streets, inside the subway stations, keeping warm on vents, and under stairways. Panhandling and sleeping, and sometimes squatting inside the bathroom stalls at Jefferson Station when you really, really have to go.
“That shouldn’t be allowed,” a woman in front of me scoffed while we waited in line to use one of the only stalls that hadn’t been commandeered by homeless women.
The official numbers from the last homeless count haven't been released yet, but everyone I’ve talked to – from the city’s Office of Homeless Services to Project HOME to SEPTA – has said they feel comfortable calling it now:
There are more homeless people on the streets of Philadelphia. (At last count there were about 6,200 homeless people in emergency and temporary housing, including 900 on the street. Over the course of a year, OHS estimates that 15,000 experience homelessness.)
“You can’t help but notice,” said Carol Thomas, director of outreach services for Project Home. She was one of a long list of people I've talked to about what I considered a sudden explosion of homeless people in the city. “It’s a big increase.”
There’s a lot at play – above all, poverty. Of the 10 biggest U.S. cities, Philly ranks first in poverty and last in job creation. But also, housing costs, budget cuts, drug addiction and mental illness. And because of construction on the Parkway, in LOVE Park and the Gallery, there are fewer places for the homeless to go unnoticed.
“It’s the perfect storm,” said Elizabeth Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services.
Let’s face it: most are viewed as an obstacle to the economic development of the city -- living, breathing embodiments of the tensions between those who see a city in the midst of a transformational boom and others who believe everyone has the right to a quality of life, including the homeless.
At the Hub of Hope, coordinator Angie Lewis said that they are seeing more people at the seasonal social-service center for the homeless in Suburban Station, and that they mirror the larger population of homeless around the city. When I stopped by the other day, there was a cross-section of people and ages at the Hub, young men and women who seemed to be addicted to drugs and older individuals with what appeared to be severe mental health issues, as if a psychiatric hospital had opened its doors and dumped them into the city.
Unfortunately, there's no single solution to this problem, and no bungling agency or derelict politician I can point to and pressure to do the right thing.
To just fix it already.
Trust me, I wanted nothing more. There’s nothing worse than writing a column with no clear villain, hero, or solution.
As I’m writing this, the mayor - who last year launched a task force to tackle homelessness - is proposing more than $1 million in rental subsidies and supportive housing in his budget address. He’s also proposed nearly $2 million to combat the city’s opioid and heroin crisis.
At OHS, they’ve doubled homeless outreach, streamlined intake to give people quicker access to shelter and respite beds, opened additional daytime services, added specialized youth outreach, and formed a group to bring business, civic and hospitality groups together to work on the problem. They’re also working with police.
I know what you’re thinking; why can’t the cops just move them out? Simple: It’s not illegal to be homeless.
“We can’t legally remove people for being homeless,” said SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel, who is tasked with balancing the rights of the homeless and the rights of commuters.
But they can do other things – and have, including increasing narcotics enforcement and enforcing a new code of conduct for the stations that prohibits people from obstructing foot traffic or blocking doors.
“Buddy, you’re going to have to move,” a SEPTA officer told a man the other day as he was sleeping in Jefferson Station, in front of the doors leading to the Convention Center. The man, wrapped in a blue blanket, got up and sat on a nearby bench.
SEPTA has also installed new lighting at Suburban Station, which is so bright it looks as though a UFO has landed, but is also oddly fitting.
Maybe now that there is nowhere to hide the problem, no way for us to turn a blind eye, we can all do more to fix it.