BY JEFF DEENEY
I was struck by a sense of déjà vu while looking at the Sunday Inquirer. They’ve gotten around to noting, once again, that the numbers of homeless men and women living on the streets — especially on the Parkway — are on the rise. Funny, if you remember this article from a little more than a year ago, you’ll notice that they’re essentially the same story, almost verbatim. Last year, the focus was on whether or not charity groups should be able to feed the homeless on the Parkway, and this year the focus is on a measure that might ban them from staying there at all. The Barnes is on the way, folks, and if there’s one thing the Petersons from Peoria is terrified of, that would be homeless people.
I remember that Inky article from last year because I was quoted in it. I got a call where I was then working, the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness, from a guy at the Inky named Mitch Lipka who asked sort of incredulously, “Do you know there are people living on the corner of Seventeenth and Vine? I can see them from my window.”
I was like, “Well, yeah, Mitch, we know there are people living on the corner of 17th and Vine. They’ve only been there for, oh, 10 years, maybe longer.”
This is not to say that any one person has actually been perched on that spot for a decade, but the area of Parkway around 17th and Vine has been a long-established and very visible encampment for the city’s homeless population. We were a little surprised to find out that the Inquirer was just picking up on it.
In the interim period, the Inky has run a couple softball pieces on homelessness in the city that usually follow the same formula: get on the horn and call the same five or six people for quotes (Dainette Mintz, the city’s homeless czar; Sister Mary Scullion from Project Home, Paul Levy of the Center City District, etc.), maybe go down to the Parkway and actually talk to a homeless person and cap it off with a photo of some dude sleeping on a steam grate.
Last winter there was a flurry of news coverage surrounding a Temple kid who lived on the streets for a couple days. He concluded after doing this in-depth research that homeless people are just lazy. There was also a video piece by the Inky shot at the Frankford Terminal. They were shocked to find out that some homeless people prefer to stay outside in the freezing cold rather than go to Ridge Shelter.
Note to the Inky: guys get stabbed in Ridge. Guys get their stuff stolen in Ridge. Recently I was told that one of the toilets in Ridge wouldn’t flush because it was so clogged with empty cocaine and heroin baggies.
It’s those little details they always seem to miss.
In the meantime, the homeless numbers continue to rise, likely because the city’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness was policy document notoriously free of substance that didn’t really lay out much of any plan at all. The plan is 36 pages long, uses a big font and is very heavy on photos of poor people looking happy. This document was somehow meant to end a deeply intractable social problem that has persisted for more than two decades. And it was going to do that by introducing no new ideas, or innovative policies.
You know what they say down the clubhouse. If things don’t change, things don’t change.
There hasn’t been much discussion about that in the papers, though. That might require asking some hard questions that some people don’t want to field. By contrast, my colleagues at PCEH were continually struck by the Boston Globe’s actually hard hitting explorations of their city’s homeless problem. For example, this article, “First Things First,” is a very powerful, compelling and probing look at how homeless services in Boston have tried to change and adapt new ideas to attack the problem. The Globe’s editorial board has been doing their part, pushing bold policies in their section of the paper. The Globe has become a leader in reporting about the homelessness problem; when there’s a new article in the Globe on homelessness, people in homeless services around the country read it.
In Philly, we won’t be due for another phoned-in update about the homelessness problem until either the first Code Blue night when the temperature drops below freezing, or when the Christmas holiday donations get distributed, which ever comes first. You can set your watch by those stories. In the meantime, ain’t a damn thing changed, except the rising numbers of people living on the streets and in shelter.
Also: Al’s Story... It’s already getting cold out there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer who has contributed to the City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.