On summer nights, more than 100 people sleep on benches and under trees that line the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
But when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia in late September, the Parkway will be cordoned off and subject to tight security. That’s posing many challenges to homeless advocates.
When Pope Francis visited Manila in January, the Philippine government put nearly 500 homeless people on buses out of the city. For months, homeless outreach groups and civil rights lawyers in Philadelphia have been meeting with the city and the World Meeting of Families to make sure that does not happen.
“Early on, there seemed to be a message out there among people that we’re going to be swept away,” said Will O’Brien, a special projects coordinator with the nonprofit Project H.O.M.E. “The city has assured us that will not happen.”
For two weeks, Project H.O.M.E. has sent its outreach team to meet with the homeless on the Parkway. Director of Homeless Services Carol Thomas said they have interviewed 48 people so far.
“Overwhelmingly, people want to see the pope,” she said. “But they also want to find a place to sleep and alternatives, so we’ve been giving them information.”
However, specific information is scant.
Before Pope Francis’ arrival, the U.S. Secret Service plans to clear the Parkway to erect security fencing, O’Brien said. Once the barriers are in place, homeless residents should be allowed back inside, but their bags, like everyone else’s, will likely be subject to search. The Secret Service has not yet released a list of prohibited items.
Project H.O.M.E. founder Sister Mary Scullion has asked the World Meeting of Families to give special access to homeless people for the papal Mass. WMOF organizers said they will grant Scullion’s request.
“Always, with Pope Francis’ pastoral priorities in mind, we aim to maintain the dignity of every person,” said Executive Director Donna Crilley Farrell in an e-mail.
Also unclear is where homeless and hungry people will go for shelter and meals as many feeding programs take place on or near the Parkway.
Scullion, who also serves as co-chair of the World Meeting of Families’ Hunger and Homelessness Committee, said they are getting close to making a plan.
“The shelter and the meals will be provided as best as we’re able in close proximity to the events so people can participate,” she said.
Special outreach efforts will continue through the weekend of the papal visit in September.
In the meantime, a group of housing advocates calling themselves the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities has reached out directly to Pope Francis. In a letter Wednesday, the coalition urged the pontiff to use his visit to call city leaders to action.
“[Mere] blocks from where you will be standing are neighborhoods gripped by some of the most intense poverty in the United States,” it stated. “Philadelphia remains the poorest big city in America, and tens of thousands of Philadelphians are still living without access to affordable homes.”