Increased scrutiny on the way for Philadelphia’s homeless

An encampment on 5th Street under the Vine Street Expressway. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

An encampment on 5th Street under the Vine Street Expressway. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As Philadelphia grows as a tourism destination, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is looking for new ways to serve homeless people who eat and sleep in parks, transit stations and other public spaces.

Kenney has formed a new task force that includes city officials, homeless advocates, as well as business and tourism leaders. The group plans to crack down on panhandling, while making sure people experiencing homelessness get the help they need, including meals and better access to social services. 

Previous efforts to balance comfort and safety in public areas with the rights of homeless people have not gone so well. Earlier this year, Philadelphia lifted a controversial ban on outdoor meals in city parks, which had prompted a lawsuit from groups that serve the homeless. City police also routinely slap panhandlers with citations for obstructing the highway, leaving them with fines they cannot afford to pay. 

“We have learned that we need to have real solutions and quite frankly, city government can’t do it alone,” said Liz Hersh is the city’s director of homeless services. “We have to work in partnership and so that’s why we decided to pull everybody together and see what we could come up with collectively.”

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The task force will focus on four areas, including a review of existing city laws and regulations, creating a space for indoor meals and streamlining a patchwork of outdoor services, and marketing and communications. The group will also look at new solutions to chronic homelessness.

According to Hersh, the city recently surveyed 158 homeless people living in three “hotspots,” such as Rittenhouse Square, and found 86 percent of them wanted permanent housing. Twenty-five percent wanted drug treatment and 34 percent needed identification and government benefits.

“We know that we need to have daytime engagement and service centers for people where they can get their needs met,” Hersh said. “We know we need to grow employment opportunities and jobs.”

The task force expects to start rolling out its new plan in March.

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