Headhouse district contends with surge in panhandlers, homeless

 An estimated 100 people attended a community meeting in Headhouse Square addressing concerns over the district's homeless population. (Emily Scott/for NewsWorks)

An estimated 100 people attended a community meeting in Headhouse Square addressing concerns over the district's homeless population. (Emily Scott/for NewsWorks)

Every Sunday from the spring until the fall, Philadelphia’s historic Headhouse Shambles is transformed into a busy farmers market for visitors and residents of the district.

But the outdoor colonnade has also become a popular space for homeless people in the city to relax and shelter from the elements.

And that has some residents and business owners concerned. On Tuesday, about 100 people gathered for a meeting hosted by the South Street Headhouse District Association to discuss the increased presence of panhandlers and the homeless.

The Philadelphia Police Department, city officials from the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, and the Office of Homeless Services and nonprofit organizations answered the questions of Headhouse residents. Homeless individuals frequenting the district also had a chance to tell their stories.

Bill Arrowood, assistant director of the South Street Headhouse District, said the the hustle and bustle of the busy, populated area is attractive to those down on their luck.

“It is very much a glass half full,” Arrowood said. “For a business district to understand that people who come to panhandle, come to panhandle where there’s foot traffic. If there is no foot traffic, it is bad for your business.”

“That is why folks feel safe being here, it’s one of the reasons why people come and feel safe under the shambles,” he added. “It means that if it’s safe for them, it’s still safe for you.”

Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said the city has seen an uptick in street homelessness that appears to be related to the opioid epidemic.

An uptick in homelessness

Every January, city workers count the number of people unsheltered in Philadelphia. In January, 956 people were counted as unsheltered citywide and 450 of those people were in Center City. This year’s citywide count is an estimated 36 percent increase from 2016’s count.

Hersh said residents have a full range of concerns related to homelessness. Many of the concerns are seen throughout the city, from Rittenhouse Square to along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

“I think there is a human concern about people who are very vulnerable, sleeping outside and not having enough to eat, not being well because they might be under the influence of an addictive substance like heroin,” Hersh said. Residents “are concerned about safety, health and hygiene. When they don’t have a plan to live, they don’t have a good place to go to the bathroom or shower.”

To handle this increase in homelessness, Hersh said, the Office of Homeless Services has expanded its street outreach by adding three new teams, as well as tripling its prevention and diversion efforts, which assist those who may have another place to go other than a shelter.

“We are adding 150 permanent housing units to try and find more options for people to be off the streets once and for all and more emergency housing,” Hersh added. “We are trying to do everything we possibly can to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.”

At the Tuesday meeting, Susan Burt-Collins, a resident and a former criminal defense lawyer, raised concerns over vagrants or homeless people coming to Philadelphia from other cities.

“My question to the city is, ‘What are you doing to make it so comfortable, and what can we do so we focus on the people who are homeless, who are our neighbors and our responsibility?'” Burt-Collins said. “A kid from LA who doesn’t want to go home is not my problem and not the city’s problem.”

Many Headhouse residents asked questions about giving money to people appearing to be in need or whom to call if someone looks like they need help.

The consensus was to either call 911 or Project HOME‘s outreach hotline at 215-232-1984.

Residents also heard that it’s not illegal for someone to ask for a handout.

Another perspective

A homeless man who has been living in the district for nearly a year read from his notebook a statement he wanted his neighbors to hear.

“We are a part of the community, no matter whether we are paying our taxes right now or not,” Jeff said. “A lot of us are in this tough situation that we didn’t put ourselves in, others are in their situation because they did, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t human.”

Jeff said he was glad many of the homeless service organizations told residents about the resources they provide, but he said more needs to be done. He said he’s tired of being labeled “lazy” or being seen as someone addicted to drugs just because he’s homeless.

“I think these organizations … are great, but I think they should offer some of these jobs they are creating to homeless people,” he said. “A lot of homeless people are willing to work, but can’t because of, say, a record or being dirty and not being able to clean themselves up and then people just give up on themselves. Nobody should have to resort to that.”

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