Sidewalk Behavior bill: homeless win round #1/hearing #2 June 10

Tom Boland (
Sat, 6 Jun 1998 20:48:08 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - June 4, 1998


  Advocates for the homeless fear criminal charges for violations.
  The sponsor says it's not his intent.

  By Cynthia Burton - Inquirer Staff Writer

At the end of a long, loud City Council hearing on a bill that would
severely restrict "sidewalk behavior," it was clear that the homeless had
won the first battle. They literally put their issues at the top of
Council's agenda as it debated a bill sponsored by Council President John
F. Street that would prohibit sitting or lying on a sidewalk and
panhandling near a bank entrance or automatic teller machine.

Only three of the 17 Council members openly opposed the bill before the
hearing. But yesterday, Council members Marian Tasco, Happy Fernandez and
Donna Miller distanced themselves from the proposal by either calling to
postpone it or saying they couldn't support it in its present form. And
officials of the Rendell administration seemed to go along with homeless
advocates who called for more social programs -- though the administration
would not commit to financing them.

Street says he wants to make public sidewalks in business districts,
especially Center City, safe and pleasant so people will feel comfortable
going to work, restaurants, clubs and shops. At the same time, he says, he
wants to make sure the homeless have enough care.

During the hearing, packed with hundreds of homeless people, Street
patiently took a pummeling from the advocates and fellow Councilman David
Cohen.  Advocates are concerned that violations of the bill could result in
criminal charges and ultimately the loss of welfare and other services
under tough new welfare regulations that cut welfare benefits for people
convicted of crimes.

Street said, "there are no intentions of having criminal penalties." He
also said that every homeless person would be directed to proper shelter
and care under his bill.

City Health Commissioner Estelle Richman said it would cost almost $6
million to open small shelters catering to the needs of alcoholics, drug
addicts and the mentally ill, build permanent housing for the homeless, and
provide additional social service programs, which have been requested by
homeless advocates. The city currently spends $9.8 million on homeless

Throughout the hearing, Council opponents used speeches and parliamentary
and legal tactics to interrupt it. Their hope was to stall the bill long
enough that Council members would be unable to vote on it until after their
summer recess, which starts June 18.

Cohen ran down the clock arguing that the hearing was illegal because
notices had not been properly made. When that failed, he argued that the
bill was illegal because it had blank spaces where fines and penalties
should be for violating the ordinance.

Wearing a black T-shirt that said, "It's not a crime to be homeless," the
83-year-old lawyer was like an agile guerrilla warrior attacking Street and
Councilman James Kenney, and calling for the resignation of City Solicitor
Stephanie Franklin-Suber -- all within the span of a few hours.
Franklin-Suber said the ordinance was legal. Cohen shouted: "If that's the
opinion of the Law Department, I would suggest that everyone in the Law
Department from the top to the bottom submit their resignations, and I mean
the top to the bottom!"

When Street left the room for a few minutes and Kenney, an ardent supporter
of quality-of-life legislation, left to attend another hearing, Cohen
called for the session to be recessed, so they could come back and get an
education on homelessness. At the insistence of Council members Jannie
Blackwell, Angel Ortiz and Cohen, Street agreed to let homeless advocates
speak before administration officials.

The advocates' star witness, Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of
the shelter and social services agency known as Project HOME, said
encounters between police and homeless people in the last few months
foreshadowed what life would be like under the bill. Since November, she
said, police have aggressively cited homeless people for such offenses as
disorderly conduct and obstructing a highway. Not one of those people was
taken to a shelter, Sister Scullion said.

City officials said there was no increased effort to rid the city of the
homeless. Charles Pizzi, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of
Commerce, which lobbied for the bill for two years, said those causing
problems on the streets were a group of "shelter-resistant, largely
drug-addicted" people who commit crimes "that are driving residents and
employers out of the city and keeping visitors from coming back."

Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, said that in a
recent survey his group asked people what could be done to improve
downtown. The most common response was to reduce the number of aggressive

No vote was taken yesterday. The hearing resumes Wednesday.


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