DEENEY: OccupyPhilly Has Its Head Up Its Ass About Feeding The Homeless On The Parkway

[Photo by ROBIN ODLAND]

BY JEFF DEENEY Back in 2007 part of my job as a social worker was doing street outreach on the Parkway where I encouraged the homeless to come to the day center where I worked to access social services.  The agency I worked for was always sure to have an outreach person on scene during the public feedings by local faith groups and other volunteers.  The crowds for feedings were thick, and since my instructions were to never interrupt people who were eating or rouse people who were sleeping, working the lines of people waiting for food was an optimal time to strike up conversations and get to know people before pitching them with the help my agency could provide.

I remember feeling conflicted the first time I worked the feedings.  As I moved among those in line offering my services a beat up, unmarked van pulled up to the curb.  The side door of the van was flung open and a man inside started heaving boxes of powdered donuts out into the mob that swarmed him.  People were pushing and shoving to get at the food and then took off afterwards with what they could grab.  I remember watching an already obese homeless man snatch a donut box from the man in the van and then tear it open as he walked away, already two donuts in by the time he reached the end of the block.  Was this really the right way to go about feeding hungry people?  I didn’t want to be paternalistic — homeless people are adults just like me, and can eat what they like — but wasn’t this a population that is already high risk for diabetes?  Isn’t dumping a pile of empty calories on them and calling it charity a bit of a mixed blessing? Before leaving for the night I picked an empty donut box up off the ground.  I wasn’t surprised to find that the expiration date was passed.

Suddenly the issue of public feedings on the Parkway is big news again; it’s been in the news before.  In fact, this exact issue was the subject of a post I wrote for Phawker all the way back in 2007 when I was working directly with Philadelphia’s homeless.  Paul Levy and the Center City District have always hated the feedings and always wanted the homeless off the Parkway.  Many people have. Those like Occupy Philadelphia who are just now picking up the issue, embarking on a crusade to save Philadelphia’s homeless feedings, might be surprised that among those who have always hated the feedings and the permanent encampment on the Parkway are the same social workers and homeless advocates who have labored for years at the grassroots level to end homelessness.  Advocates and service professionals have struggled for years to find more dignified alternatives to public feedings, including expanding programs that provide supportive housing and community mental health services that would thin the crowds, permanently.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, who has any serious involvement with this city’s homeless problem and knowledge of the social pathologies that drive it thinks that public charity feedings for the homeless are valuable or integral from a social policy perspective.  Public feedings at homeless encampments in the middle of major cities are an indication of massive social policy failure; they tell us that what we are doing to get people off the street and keep them housed is not working and needs to change.  The whole feeding issue is considered a distraction from these more substantive concerns.

Of course, social workers have noted the same coinkydink Occupy has, which is that the new policy on homeless feedings comes at a time when the administration wants to clean up the Parkway for the grand opening of the new Barnes museum.  Yes, we also get that the time may finally have come for the homeless to move on not because of a change in social policy that solves the homelessness problem but because of a city business decision.  Honestly, we always suspected that would probably be the case, because that’s usually how things go.

However, there’s not an awful lot of outrage about this among social service professionals because the public feeding practice was always in need of improvement, and, frankly, public feedings by charity groups are the lowest possible form of assistance to the poor.  Homeless feedings are rooted in a historically paternalistic, religiously-rooted charity lineage that modern social work practice has sought to transcend  by crafting person-empowering supportive interventions enabling people to reach their maximum potential.

I and others in the field I’ve talked to find it somewhat ironic that Occupy Philadelphia is suddenly championing the homeless cause.  Occupy Philadelphia did more to displace the homeless population in this city then any prior law enforcement crackdown or push by local business interests by setting up camp at Dilworth Plaza on top of a preexisting homeless encampment that had comfortably occupied the space for years.  Again, nobody should be outdoors; any encampment is indicative of policy failure.  But in staying at Dilworth the homeless had at least situated themselves in a place where they were able to have services like the Mary Howard Health Clinic for the homeless, JFK Behavioral Health Center and a host of other critical resources directly around them. The city had gotten better in dealing with those who lived there, keeping outreach workers moving among them offering social services and getting the police who worked Dilworth training on how to better interact with the severely mentally ill.

All that ended when Occupy showed up.  It didn’t seem like they took any of this into consideration prior to setting up camp; maybe they would have if they were informed on homeless issues.  That members of the movement were quick to blame disorder in their ranks on the homeless, some of whom had been camping there for the better part of a decade, was particularly galling to people who have also put years in at the street level trying to serve that population.  Even more galling to these professionals now is that the same people Occupy accuses of trying to uproot the homeless from their place on the Parkway were the same ones making emergency dispatches of extra outreach workers and mental health practitioners to the Occupy site in the early hours of the movement, knowing that their decision to camp at Dilworth was dicey considering the number of severely mentally ill people already living there, and hoping to stem the probable disorder that blending the two groups would cause.

I know that all this sounds highly critical of Occupy Philadelphia; honestly, I was a strong early supporter of the movement and still support it but like many people my feelings about it have become more mixed over time.  This is one of those cases, because, frankly, Occupy Philadelphia doesn’t know anything about homelessness and the way they’re picking up the issue now considering how badly they dealt with it last year is curious to me.  If it’s a too-perfect coincidence that the city is booting the homeless as they’re firing up the Barnes, it’s at least too-perfect a coincidence that Occupy is taking up the mantle to save homeless feedings just as spring has arrived and there’s a nationwide effort to reinvigorate their movement and they need a new place to congregate in the absence of Dilworth Plaza.  It feels like they’re now co-opting the same group they previously couldn’t wait to get rid of.

So, if I can make a recommendation in this open letter to Occupy Philadelphia: educate yourselves.  This link  is a good place to start.  The real issue surrounding homelessness in Philadelphia is not public feedings.  The real issue is lack of supportive housing and a continued reliance on a shelter based homeless services system that we know does not work if our goal is not to maintain homelessness but to end it.

Why can’t we just offer all the people on the Parkway supportive housing instead of a park bench?  Because we can’t afford to.  Why can’t we afford to?  Because a few years back a bunch of banks colluded to rob America blind and the cost of that robbery has been transferred to the budgets of cities like Philadelphia, crushing funding for crucial services to the poor like mental health treatment and subsidized housing.

This is the link back to Occupy’s original mission that should be directing the group’s current advocacy around homelessness.  There is a tremendously powerful argument to be made here about how Wall Street’s greed has resulted in austerity for the rest of us, with the harshest outcomes for the most vulnerable by unplugging programs that provide permanent housing for the homeless. Feedings are a non-issue; they always have been.  Housing is the real issue; it always has been.  Take it from a pro.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney writes about urban poverty and drug culture for the Daily Beast. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as a social worker in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.

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