Philadelphia: Services scant for homeless swept from streets FWD

Tom Boland (
Wed, 24 Feb 1999 05:26:38 -0800 (PST)
FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer, February 17, 1999


     By Laura J. Bruch
     Inquirer Staff Writer

At 10 a.m., Michelle Flournoy has been waiting for more than two hours, and
she is peeved.

Forget about her resolution to quit crack. She is feeling like getting high
this very moment to blow off steam. She has lugged her belongings all the
way to Project HOME in Fairmount from a shelter at 13th and Arch with the
expectation of meeting someone who simply isn't there.

Genny O'Donnell, outreach services coordinator for Project HOME, and a
woman of unflappable good cheer, greets her. "C'mon," she says soothingly.
"Let's get in the car."

Thus begins a nearly daylong quest to find a supportive place for Michelle,
a 35-year-old homeless woman pregnant with her ninth child and addicted to
crack, who wants to go straight.

This is the other side of Philadelphia's new sidewalk behavior law, the
side that focuses on what happens after a homeless person has been ushered
out of public sight. It is a world of often-frustrated outreach workers, an
overwhelmed service-delivery system, and rules that don't bend enough. And
it is a world peopled by a balky collection of desperately needy
individuals for whom the sidewalks have become a last refuge.

Michelle's case is not atypical. In trying to get help for her, O'Donnell
will be hampered by misleading information, a medical requirement, and a
long wait.

The law, which police began to enforce Jan. 19, bans sleeping on the
sidewalk and aggressive panhandling within 20 feet of automatic-teller
machines. It empowers police to ticket, and eventually arrest, those who
refuse an order to move along.

To implement the law, the city set aside an extra $5.6 million this year to
provide more outreach services and beds for 200 chronically homeless
people, many with mental and drug or alcohol problems.  Since the law went
into effect, "the vast majority of potential offenders have agreed to
comply with the ordinance," says John Gallagher, special adviser to Police
Commissioner John F. Timoney, adding that police are bringing outreach
workers into the process even earlier than they must.

There have been no arrests.

Despite more money to help the homeless, some say the system still falls short.

"Philadelphia has made great gains," says Sister Mary Scullion, cofounder
of Project HOME, a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless find work
and housing. "However, there is just so much more that remains to be done
as we face increasingly complex problems in the people we're dealing with
who are living on the street."

Based on contacts with outreach workers, those people numbered 1,697
between Nov. 16 and Jan. 31, Sister Mary says.

Law or no law, O'Donnell, 37, would be doing the same thing, only she would
be doing it alone. Now there are three other outreach workers at Project
HOME, and 24 in all, up from 11, the result of the extra city funds.

The car O'Donnell takes is a blue Plymouth van with a sign on the dash that
reads, "City of Philadelphia Outreach Activity." Michelle slumps glumly in
the back seat. She knows about kicking her habit, because she has tried

"It's about patience," she sighs.

Outside a building on Market Street, Michelle intones what will be her
mantra throughout the day, "I don't want to go." But somehow her black
boots follow O'Donnell onto an elevator, up to the offices of Horizon
House, a nonprofit facility that aids the homeless and people with drug and
alcohol problems.

After more resistance, she settles in for the wait. While O'Donnell follows
Horizon House staffers, Michelle takes a seat. She retrieves a paperback
from one of her sacks, Trying to Sleep in the Bed You Made, and unwraps a
candy bar. When you're coming down off a high, she says, you crave sweets.

She explains how an outreach worker from Horizon House found her under the
bridge at 10th and Hamilton near Callowhill.  She says the worker asked if
she wanted to come in.

She said no. She was getting high.

But something about the outreach worker got to her. So did the experience
of a girlfriend, who had to give up her baby because she couldn't give up
her drugs.

In one of those milliseconds of confession that occur throughout the day,
Michelle confides that something similar happened to her last year. Much of
what she will reveal during the day, O'Donnell will later confirm.

This time, Michelle says, "I want to keep my baby and raise him myself."

After a while, O'Donnell comes out of the back offices with a smile on her
face and an address in her hand: 56th and Kingsessing, in Southwest
Philadelphia -- My Sister's Place, a residential program for mothers or
pregnant women who are addicted.  On the way there, O'Donnell asks
Michelle, "When's the last time you used?"

"I ain't used in six days," she replies.

As the van wheels around Center City, Michelle recalls some of the places
she used to frequent. Love Park was a favorite, before she got kicked out.

Michelle says she hasn't seen her mother in something like 15 years. Her
mother, in Atlanta, has two of her children, she says. Her ex, in New
Jersey, has four. An aunt in North Carolina has a daughter. The foster-care
system claimed her eighth child.

Michelle says she went to South Philadelphia High School and attended
Temple's nursing program for one year. She dropped out when she got
pregnant. Then she went to hairstyling school but never got her license.

"Since I came out of high school, I haven't completed anything," Michelle
says. "I'm just disappointed in myself because I could have been a lot
further than I got."

The van stops across the street from My Sister's Place.

Michelle gets out and lights a cigarette. The solid gray structure, she
decides, "looks pretty OK. It looks livable."

Inside, she encounters an intake worker who obviously is not expecting her.
Bad news. The woman says she cannot admit her without the results of a
tuberculosis test. House rules. There are children here.

O'Donnell doesn't have the results of the TB test with her.

Michelle sits down for another wait, while O'Donnell goes off to talk with
the resident director.

During the wait, Michelle describes the ups and downs of homelessness: "The
best part is you don't have to pay no bills. The hardest part is when it's
cold, and you have to come from under your blankets. The other hardest part
is finding somewhere safe to lie down."

For a while, it looks as though this will not be the place for Michelle.
She might not even get an interview. But O'Donnell, sweet and pliant, can
be tough when she has to be. After she talks with the resident director,
the intake worker comes to talk to Michelle.

Now it's O'Donnell's turn to wait, and she uses the time in a lavender room
off the front corridor to try to track down Michelle's TB test results,
using her two-way radio and a black source book. There is nothing
exceptional about how she is spending her day, says O'Donnell, whose first
career was as a commercial photographer. She doesn't want to leave Michelle
alone now that the homeless woman seems so ready for help. And yes,
O'Donnell acknowledges, the waiting could easily induce an addict or
alcoholic to say, "Forget this. I'm out of here."

It's not supposed to be easy. O'Donnell always warns people, "You're going
to have to work for this."

By now, Michelle has returned from her interview, and it quickly becomes
apparent she may not have made the best impression. She says the intake
worker asked her if she had a history of stabbing people. Once, when she
was provoked, she says, she stabbed someone in the back.

It is 2 p.m. Neither Michelle nor O'Donnell have eaten lunch. As for that
TB test O'Donnell has been trying to locate, Michelle suddenly remembers
that she might not have had one last week. In fact, she might not have had
one last year.

As this information is relayed, O'Donnell remains impressively calm. There
will now have to be a change of plans. For one thing, Michelle will not be
allowed to stay at My Sister's Place. For another thing, she will have to
get that TB test.

She and O'Donnell board the van yet again, this time heading downtown. On
the way, Michelle asks for some food, and O'Donnell obliges, buying
Michelle three chicken wings, potato wedges and a Hawaiian Punch at a
drive-through KFC. Michelle eats with gusto.

The next stop is Hall-Mercer/Pennsylvania Hospital, one of five regional
crisis response centers organized last summer to meet the needs of people
with serious mental illness, drug or alcohol problems.

In the lobby, O'Donnell disappears, and Michelle takes a seat.  Finally, at
3:15 p.m., Michelle is taken to get her TB test. O'Donnell reappears soon
afterward, smiling. Michelle's favorite outreach worker from Horizon House
is here. He will take Michelle to a shelter. She will have to stay there
three nights until the TB test can be read. Then, if all goes well,
Michelle will be escorted to more a permanent placement on Thursday.

For the moment, O'Donnell's job is done.

On the day she was tied up with Michelle, other outreach workers made 59
contacts with homeless people. Eleven of those contacts were with
chronically homeless people, and two such individuals were placed
somewhere, at least for the night. Michael Nardone, the city's deputy
director for special needs housing, says outreach workers see both kinds of
situations.  "Just as there is this person who took a great deal of time .
. . there are going to be other instances where the person encountered gets
placed rapidly," Nardone says, adding, "It's the nature of the complex
problems outreach workers are dealing with on the street."

Michelle spent that night and the next at the shelter. She did not return
on the third night, a Wednesday. On Thursday, the day she was supposed to
be placed, she was nowhere to be found. Later, someone saw her: She was on
drugs again.

O'Donnell refused to be despondent. "We're going to find her again. I don't
doubt that," she said. "Or, she's going to find us."


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