Homeless evicted from nooks on Fourth Street underpass

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The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation installed barriers blocking access to the 30 bays that sit at least 15 feet above street level, just below the connector linking I-676 and I-95. (CLEM MURRAY/Staff Photographer)

For a handful of homeless, a series of nooks high on the retaining walls near Fourth and Callowhill Streets had long provided a relatively safe and secluded place to spend the night.

Earlier this month, the seven or so residents were evicted permanently when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation installed barriers blocking access to the 30 bays that sit at least 15 feet above street level, just below the connector linking I-676 and I-95.

PennDot spokesman Gene Blaum said the installation of the barriers, made from recycled guide rails at a cost of $9,500, was not related to cleanup efforts ahead of the papal visit this weekend. Rather, he said, it was in response to community complaints and because the makeshift dwellings presented a safety threat.

Marie Nahikian, who heads the city's Office of Supportive Housing, said the people living there are chronically homeless residents. Some, she said, appear to be immigrant day laborers.

"We do outreach there on a regular basis. It's a very difficult group to engage, from what I understand. Some people are just not willing to consider coming off the street," she said.

Starting a few weeks back, moving became mandatory.

A cloud of dust and the odor of urine mingled with car exhaust as a convoy of PennDot and Philadelphia law enforcement vehicles lined up under the Vine Street Expressway. Workers wearing gloves and protective masks tossed blankets, cardboard, and makeshift mattresses down the abutment and into waiting trash trucks.

Blaum said the operation began Aug. 31 and was completed Sept. 9. It had been in the works since spring.

"Concerns were received from the community . . . about broken glass and debris in the area and the strong odors that were emanating from that crossing," he said.

The site lies between Old City and Northern Liberties. Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, said he'd heard no complaints about the homeless. "Are you sure it isn't pope-security related?" he wondered.

Job Itzkowitz, executive director of the Old City District (the civic association there disbanded in 2013), also was not familiar with the issue.

But Anne Kelly King, chief of staff for district Councilman Mark Squilla, said her office had logged a series of complaints over the last two years.

"The reason that the idea for the fence came is because, I believe, at Second and Vine, one has been up for some time," she said. "So the people at Fourth wanted something similar."

The presence of panhandlers in the area has diminished since the fencing was installed this month. Nahikian, who had not been aware of the new barriers, could not say what had become of the homeless who had been sleeping there.

"I don't know where they are at this point," she said. "My guess is not in shelter."

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