Homeless evicted from airport
Tuesday, April 14th, 2009
Philadelphia International Airport is the tenth busiest airport in North America, with about 75,000 people passing through its terminals each day. But this winter the airport also served as home to more than two dozen people. Homeless advocates say the number of those sleeping at the airport reached its peak back in November, when 40 people were counted.
For the past two years, Victor Witherspoon has been in charge of finding homeless people at the airport and trying to convince them to go into a shelter. He begins his shift each night at 10:30, in the baggage claim of Terminal D.
Witherspoon: Basically, we start out right in here, walk all around and see if we can spot anybody that we seen the night before. That's pretty much how we determine if the person is homeless or not. Some people we get first time and we suspect they're homeless we wont even bother them, we wait to see if we see them the next day.
Witherspoon works for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania. The have a contract with the airport to provide homeless outreach. But in the past few months the airport police began enforcing a policy that's been on the books for years. No one is allowed in the airport between the hours of midnight and five A-M without a valid ticket.
Witherspoon was taken by surprise when two officers joined them on this cold night in February.
In the hallway between Terminal D and E, Sergent Timothy Howard wakes up a woman asleep on a bench as Witherspoon looks on.
Witherspoon: That's basically what's gonna happen with this woman. So, What the police are doing is getting people's information letting them know that they are enforcing the rule that they can no longer sleep in the airport and the next time they see them, they can charge them with trespassing.
Sergent Howard holds onto her luggage.
Witherspoon: So you're gonna have to leave the airport.
Karen: Uh Huh.
Witherspoon: Ok you have a nice day.
In another empty hallway, the team comes across a man, who says his name is Duane. He's camped out on the floor.
Witherspoon makes his pitch for a shelter in West Philadelphia, which has 20 beds set aside for those who live at the airport.
Witherspoon: Basically we want to make sure…You sure you still want to work it out on your own or you want to accept placement tonight.
Duane's not convinced, so officer Howard steps in.
Howard: It's gonna be a crack down on our part and we dont want to take you to our house, I'd rather you go to their house if you know what i'm saying.
Duane: I come here I shave, I wash my hair, I clean myself, but y'all make homelessness as a crime. And I was not always homeless.
Howard: Duane, there are people who pay for this airport, they're people who have to spend a lot of money at this airport, so we're not looking at this as a crime…We have an obligation to the people who pay the money here."
After officer Howard writes down his name, Duane gets up to leave, he says he has a place where he squats, but there's no heat and no water. He comes to airport, he says, because its cozy and safe.
Witherspoon says it can take a long time to convince a homeless person to go into a shelter.
Witherspoon: We had a gentleman who said he was out here for ten years. And talking to other outreach teams throughout the city, sometimes it takes years to convince someone to come out of that cardboard box or that street grate, even if its a code blue.
The city declares a "code blue" in harsh weather and sends extra outreach teams into the streets.
Witherspoon eventually did convince Duane to go into a shelter, but he left that very same night. Witherspoon says he's seen him at the airport but he hides out in order to avoid arrest.
Airport officials say they received complaints from passengers and feel that working with the Mental Health Association is the best way to address the issue with compassion. They just extended the contract with the group, adding outreach workers on the weekend.
As the last train from center city pulls into Terminal D, a man gets off the train with a bag.
Witherspoon: Guy over here, see the guy on the platform, he won't accept any placement. We may come across him again….under…we're gonna see where he goes.
Since the airport police began enforcing the policy, seven people have been arrested. Witherspoon says in some ways, the new policy helps him do his job because people are more willing to go into a shelter rather than risk arrest, and now he only sees five to eight people a night.