homeless advocates to take to streets in Philadelphia FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 4 Apr 1998 05:49:08 -0800 (PST)


http://www.phillynews.com:80/daily_news/98/Mar/31/local/GERI31.htm
FWD  March 31, 1998 Philadelphia Daily News

HOMELESS ADVOCATES HIT THE STREET

Waving "PHILADELPHIA: THE CITY THAT LOCKS YOU UP!" signs, advocates for the
homeless will rally at City Hall today against City Council President John
Street's "sidewalk control" bill, which bans sitting on the sidewalk "for
more than one half- hour in any two-hour time period."

"This ordinance criminalizes people who are homeless," said Sister Mary
Scullion, of Project HOME, sounding the battle cry for 50 human-services
agencies that will urge Council to deep-six Street's proposed law.

"Someone living on the street gets a summons to appear six weeks later in
court," said Jonathan M. Stein, general counsel for Community Legal
Services. "Does that homeless person have a filing cabinet to put that
summons in so he'll remember to appear? When that person -- who may be
mentally ill or have a substance abuse problem -- doesn't show up in court,
he's convicted and fined. A bench warrant is issued."

The public welfare department, Stein said, can deprive that homeless person
of cash and medical benefits because he failed to appear or to pay his fine.

"They're selling you a crock of manure," Street told me last night. "We are
not trying to criminalize homelessness and we are not trying to deprive
homeless people of benefits. Violating this ordinance is a summary offense
-- not a misdemeanor or a felony."

But Stein pointed out that public welfare law cites "failure to appear at a
criminal court proceeding" -- which includes summary offenses -- as reason
to deny assistance.

Street emphasized his bill's instructions to police to summon mental
health, drug/alcohol abuse or homeless assistance counselors for violators
who need them, rather than "forcibly remove" the homeless from the sidewalk.

"Most of these people," Street said, "can be talked off the street. I went
to great lengths to protect their due process and to make sure they will
not be abused. I know that people who are wrapped in cardboard or blankets,
laying on grates, are people with problems who need to be helped. This
isn't a bill to make being homeless a crime."

Unconvinced, Project HOME caseworker Susan Dietrich cites the pending case
of Sally (not her real name) as a typical example of police attitude.

Her blanket draped around her neck, Sally took refuge in Suburban Station
during a rush-hour February downpour.

Forget Street's "half hour out of two hours" rule, Dietrich said.

Sally had just sat down on a bench with her cup of coffee when a cop told
her to leave.

Confused as to why she was being singled out from the rush hour crowd,
Sally stayed put. The officer wrote her a citation for "defiant trespass."

Accompanied by attorney Steve Gold of the Public Interest Law Center of
Philadelphia, she pleaded not guilty and was given an April trial date.

"I have to tell you that I'm really not a criminal attorney," Gold said,
somewhat apologetically.

"That's OK," Sally replied. "I'm really not a criminal."

Recently, a homeless outreach team convinced Sally to reside in a shelter
for homeless women.

So she's not on the street anymore, which makes the court case an
irrelevant, unnecessary violation of her human rights.

Today's protesters fear that Street's ordinance will be much more of the same.

"Why would we deploy police to do this?" said Scullion. "Isn't there a
crime problem in Philadelphia? Aren't people always asking for more police
to address crime?"

Street's bill puts an overwhelming human services problem into the hands of
police who already have their hands full of violent street crime, and who
are not trained to make the mental health and substance abuse judgments
that many chronically homeless people require.

Street needs to listen to Scullion and her colleagues on this.

She would remove the cops from a social work job they neither want nor are
qualified to do.

And the grateful new police commissioner would give the secretly grateful
council prez a big sloppy kiss.

END FORWARD

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