SIDEWALK BEHAVIOR BILL: Phila. City Council HEARING Wed June 3

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 2 Jun 1998 12:46:09 -0700 (PDT)


The hearing on the Street bill will start at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the City
Council chamber, Room 400, City Hall.

"A third of the nation's 500 largest cities have passed or are working on
bills on public behavior, said Robert Teir, a lawyer with roots in
Northeast Philadelphia who is president of the CENTER FOR LIVABLE CITIES, a
Washington-based nonprofit that PROMOTES QUALITY-OF LIFE LEGISLATION." --
from article below [emphasis added]

http://www.phillynews.com/inquirer/98/Jun/01/city/HOME01.htm
FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - June 1, 1998


     BILL COVERS `SIDEWALK BEHAVIOR':
     COUNCIL PRESIDENT JOHN STREET SAYS PANHANDLERS
     AND STREET DWELLERS ARE HARMING BUSINESSES.

     By Cynthia Burton - Inquirer Staff Writer


City Council President John F. Street wants to launch Philadelphia on a
sweeping legal offensive against panhandlers and vent people, in the name
of commerce and tourism.

A bill written by Street would ban everything from sitting on a sidewalk to
"aggressive" begging. Homeless advocates say it paints a bull's-eye on
their constituents, making them scapegoats for the city's inability to stem
the root causes of homelessness -- substance abuse, poverty and mental
illness.

Both sides will have their say at a public hearing Wednesday on Street's
"sidewalk behavior" bill.

Street, who is all but certain to run for mayor next year, says he is
trying to balance compassion for the homeless with the need to support
business owners, who say panhandlers and street dwellers are driving
customers away, and Center City residents who say the homeless are
disrupting life.

The preamble of the bill calls for providing temporary shelter for the
homeless as well as treatment for substance abuse and mental health
problems. But it doesn't say how that would be done. It also says: "The
economic, social and cultural life of the city could not survive without
the ability of pedestrians to use the public sidewalk for safe and
unobstructed passage." The legislation comes as Street prepares for a
mayoral campaign in which candidates are likely to present competing
visions of how to lead the city into a future built on thriving businesses,
a vibrant Center City, and safe, comfortable neighborhoods.

A third of the nation's 500 largest cities have passed or are working on
bills on public behavior, said Robert Teir, a lawyer with roots in
Northeast Philadelphia who is president of the Center for Livable Cities, a
Washington-based nonprofit that promotes quality-of-life legislation. There
is a public outcry for such measures, said Teir. He suggested that it was
because "there is a confidence that minimal standards of public conduct can
be set and enforced to the benefit of the larger community."

And, he said, "urban centers were becoming unmanageable for all people. . .
. If places are more orderly, people will be more apt to use them." That is
the hope of Councilman James Kenney, who has made quality-of-life
legislation his number-one issue. He sees hundreds of residents moving out
of the city every month and says tourism is the city's only growth
industry. The way to stabilize the city's economy and tax base is to make
it friendly to visitors, the middle class and business, he argues.
Philadelphians "want to go to work. They want to be unobstructed," Kenney
said. "They don't want people in their faces."

But at what cost, ask advocates for the poor and homeless. Catherine
Bendor, of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in
Washington, said that legislation on public behavior tended to treat the
homeless unfairly. "In many cities, homelessness is becoming an
increasingly visible problem and politicians are often seeking a quick fix,
a way to respond to political pressure from business owners," she said.
"Turning to the criminal justice system is unfortunate, counterproductive
and shortsighted." All these measures do is push the homeless out of the
public eye, she said. "You have to look at what can be done to eradicate
the need" for sleeping in alleys and begging for food, she said.

Street says he wants to curb anti-social behavior, not criminalize
homelessness. In his bill, the section where punishments for violators are
normally spelled out has been left blank. Advocates for the homeless are
particularly upset about that vagueness. They say there already is a
hardening of police attitudes toward the homeless that the Street bill will
only intensify.

Susan Dietrich, who has been collecting stories of alleged police abuse of
the homeless for Project HOME, a shelter and social service agency, was
arrested in March after intervening with police on behalf of a homeless
person.

Police for the PATCO High-Speed Line charged her with disorderly conduct
after she asked them why they were running a criminal-record check on a
skinny, disheveled young man in the PATCO station at 13th and Locust
Streets. "They took me into a little room, searched me with plastic
gloves," she said. "They dumped out my backpack like I was garbage. I got a
taste of what it's like to be homeless." Dietrich went to trial May 6 in
Municipal Court and was acquitted.

PATCO police did not return calls seeking comment.

Frederica Wagman, an author who lives on Rittenhouse Square and is a member
of Project HOME's board of directors, said she saw a police officer berate
a homeless woman in February. "I heard him saying, 'I don't want trash like
you on my beat and dirt like you aren't going to be sitting around the
streets on my beat.' The look on her face was so awful. She was humiliated.
She was angry. She was victimized."

City officials and police deny that there is a new, more aggressive policy
toward the homeless. In Center City, a specially trained unit of 14
officers responds to about 100 complaints a week about people lying in
doorways or panhandling in front of convenience stores and automatic teller
machines. The officers work closely with social service agencies and often
direct street people -- there are an estimated 500 in Center City -- to
shelters.

In some cases, they arrest them on charges of obstructing a public highway
or disorderly conduct, a Police Department spokesman said. The suspect is
taken to a stationhouse, processed and typically released a few hours later.

Supporters of Street's bill say there must be a balance between civil
rights and the right to enjoy city life. Street put it this way: Government
cannot "concede that people with mental health problems can wrap themselves
in clothing or cardboard and just take up residence on the sidewalk."

For Kenney, the balancing act is simple. The rights of business owners to
conduct business, employ Philadelphians and contribute to the tax base
outweigh those of "young, intimidating drug and alcohol-fueled men who
think they have the right to get in the face of people and demand money,"
Kenney said. Though Kenney is frustrated that Street refused to schedule
hearings on similar bills that he has sponsored, Kenney is supporting the
Council president's bill.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is not. She called it "absolutely the most
offensive piece of legislation I ever, in my political life, have seen."
Blackwell said, "It is the role of an elected official and any leader to
pass legislation that makes life better, not to pass punitive legislation."
Sister Mary Scullion, a leading advocate for the homeless, said of Street's
bill: "Putting more burdens on the backs of people who are down for the
count isn't going to work. . . . There are no quick fixes."

Street and Scullion have tangled before, and the nun won. After two years
of legal battles to stop her from opening her Project HOME shelter at 1515
Fairmont Ave., Street and Mayor Rendell finally gave up in 1994.

Today, the shelter is considered one of the most effective shelter programs
in the city. It is a permanent home for 48 single men and women, and has a
cheerful cafeteria and a staff of committed social workers. In this latest
battle, she has a powerful ally in NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire. He
has lobbied African American Council members and plans to join homeless
advocates in a march on City Hall Wednesday morning.

Street, too, has been working the public. He has held neighborhood meetings
to drum up support for the bill. He persuaded all but three Council members
to cosponsor it. He met last week with Rendell administration officials to
get advance information on how the bill, if enacted, would be implemented.
For now, Rendell is playing it close to the vest. His spokesman, Kevin
Feeley, would say only this: "The bill has a lot of interesting ideas."

The hearing on the Street bill will start at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the City
Council chamber, Room 400, City Hall.

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