sidewalk-behavior bill divides Philadelphia City Council FWD

Tom Boland (
Tue, 9 Jun 1998 12:07:04 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - June 7, 1998



     By Cynthia Burton - Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

City Council President John F. Street took about as much flak as he has
ever taken during last week's hearing on his bill to clear city sidewalks
of aggressive panhandlers, leafleteers, vent people, cyclists, and parked
cars or trucks.

His own Council colleagues berated him, especially Councilman David Cohen.
He said Street needed an education on homelessness, because the so-called
sidewalk-behavior bill would turn the homeless into criminals, though it is
vague about specific punishments.

NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire said the bill, which would include a
ban on sitting or lying on a sidewalk, was a spawn of "fear and
frustration," as well as of Street's ambitions to be mayor.

That did not match the anger expressed in posters held by hundreds of the
homeless and their advocates who filled Council chambers. The signs said
"Kick Street to the Curb" and "Control John Street and House the Homeless,"
as well as "And, Just Think, Johnny Wants to Be Mayor."

The opportunity to hit Street was not missed by another contender in the
1999 mayor's race, John F. White Jr., former head of the Philadelphia
Housing Authority. During Wednesday's wild hearing, White loyalists
circulated a letter he had sent to Council that said the bill "treats
homelessness as a crime -- not a human condition." And, White wrote, "the
challenge is to bring prosperity to those for whom prosperity remains an
elusive dream."

Like Street's bill, White's letter proposed no programs or expenditures to
make any programs real.

Street's sponsorship of this bill is a huge political risk, but one with a
potentially big payoff: It might propel the Rendell administration into
spending as much as $6 million on new programs for the homeless.

If Street has his way, he may emerge as a hero who could solve problems of
both the homeless and businesses that complain the homeless scare customers
away. Advocates for the homeless say as many as 500 live on the streets of
Center City.

The $6 million would be in addition to $18.1 million the city will spend in
the next fiscal year on programs for homeless people, along with millions
in state and federal aid. The potential new programs, including small
shelters, would be aimed at the hard-core homeless.

They are the ones who will not go to shelters, are mentally ill, and have
drug and alcohol problems. They are also among those who commit property
crimes in Center City, such as car break-ins and pickpocketing, according
to police.

To win, Street needs the Rendell administration to do more than it did last
week, when it merely described the problem and solutions -- such as the
small shelters -- but made no commitment to additional money. "There will
be a commitment to do many of the things on this list [ of solutions
suggested by advocates ] ," Street said. "I have said privately and
publicly, there will be a place for every person to get service. That is a

Only the mayor, though, can make that commitment stick.

Street promised amendments to the bill when it comes up again this
Wednesday. He would fill in the blanks in the penalty section of the bill,
which would make clear whether he truly intends to criminalize homeless
people. He has repeatedly said that he has no intention of sending people
to jail, but that he does want to penalize them in some way for disrupting
city life.

Another amendment would designate areas where certain behaviors would be
prohibited. For example, he said, it would prohibit gambling on any
sidewalk anywhere in Philadelphia. He has said previously that the
panhandling elements of the bill would apply to commercial strips all over
the city.

Some of the ideas for this bill are also in legislation first sponsored by
Councilman James F. Kenney, who said mayoral politics are part of why
Street is forcing this issue as the mayoral race draws closer.

Street's defenders, though, note that this is not Street's first foray into
quality-of-life or homeless legislation. It's just his biggest.

In 1986 he sponsored a bill that sought to turn down the volume on boom
boxes by requiring people to wear earphones if they wanted to play their
boxes in commercial areas or in residential areas at night.

In 1982, he sponsored a bill that turned vacant houses over to people so
poor they were on the verge of homelessness. That program was plagued by
failure and scandal; the director of a nonprofit agency administering the
program stole money from it. At the very least, the sidewalk-behavior bill
has forced city government to once again confront the lingering problem of
the homeless and how to deal with their needs.

Few on any side of the issue disagreed with Councilwoman Augusta A. Clark
when she said Wednesday: "It is not humane, Christian or good manners to
let people live on sidewalks and eat out of garbage cans. We can no longer
sweep it under the rug and pretend it does not exist."


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