Task force to tackle homeless issues, including panhandling

On any given night in Philadelphia, about 700 people sleep on city streets, park benches, and sidewalks.

Mayor Kenney on Wednesday launched a task force of public and private partners to figure out ways to crack down on panhandling and provide better aid to the homeless, including meal services.

The work group includes businesses, homeless advocates, and representatives from the hospitality industry and the mayor's administration.

"We all share our public spaces, which help make the city fun, lively, and exciting, but they can also become crowded, dirty, intimidating, and unpleasant at times," Kenney said in a news release. "This is an effort to bring our stakeholders outside of government to the table and take action."

Elizabeth Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services, said construction on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in LOVE Park, and at the Gallery has pushed many homeless people to Center City streets or public plazas and parks.

"I think the problem has become more visible, and in a way, I think that's a good thing, because you can't turn a blind eye to it," Hersh said. "And it's also become more concentrated, because there are more people living in Philadelphia. There are more people using all of these spaces, so this is kind of a time to renegotiate the rules of the road."

The group will divide into four committees, focused on: developing a code of conduct for public spaces; battling chronic homelessness; improving access to indoor and outdoor meal services; and communicating with businesses and residents.

Homelessness was a major issue raised last month after a shooting in Rittenhouse Square. While the suspected shooter was not homeless, a meeting convened to discuss the incident drew more than 300 people, several of whom voiced concerns about panhandling near the restaurants lining the park and people sleeping in the square.

The group will also look at ways to make indoor meal service to the homeless more accessible and to bring representatives from social service agencies to meal-distribution sites.

More than 30 groups serve meals along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Convention Center, and by bus stops citywide.

Hersh said the aim of the group is not to throw people out of parks without resources.

"If people are panhandling, it's because they're trying to get money, so what can we do around jobs?" she said. "If they're sleeping on the street, it means they need a home, so how can we provide services to help them get a roof over their head?"

Hersh said most homeless people do not choose to be so. The city does not have enough available affordable housing or open shelters to accommodate its homeless population.

While the city's extreme poverty rate is the worst among big cities, its homeless population per capita is actually among the lowest, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This winter, the city will open an additional 500 shelter beds during the cold months.

Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, has seen many attempts by the city government to address homelessness. She said she is encouraged by the businesses that have signed on.

"There are challenges and opportunities in these kind of things," she said. "I believe and I've seen that when this kind of attention gets created, if properly channeled, it can be a productive thing for those experiencing homelessness."

jterruso@phillynews.com

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@juliaterruso