Homeless Sweeps Suit Settled: ACLU to monitor Philadelphia police

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 7 Jun 1999 23:06:36 -0700 (PDT)

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I invite your comments on the settlement below.  Will it work to help
secure homeless people's civil rights, survival needs and fair
opportunities to thrive?

FWD  Philadelphia Inquirer - June 3, 1999


The civil-liberties group will monitor how Phila. police
deal with people living on the street.

By Joseph A. Slobodzian and Robert Moran

 A civil-rights lawsuit challenging Philadelphia's efforts to deal with
homeless people who beg for money or set up camp on city sidewalks has been
settled, with the city agreeing to let the American Civil Liberties Union
monitor police treatment of the homeless.

 Settlement of the lawsuit, filed in January on behalf of three homeless
men who had been arrested on a charge of "obstructing the highway," was
notable for the conciliatory statements made by both the city and the ACLU.

 The agreement, filed yesterday in federal court, created a process for
resolving out-of-court disputes over issues of homeless people. The ACLU
also agreed not to seek fees or costs "in resolving disputes in accordance
with the above procedure."

 U.S. District Judge Robert S. Gawthrop 3d will retain jurisdiction over
the case for at least 18 months  -- but not for more than 30 months  --
should the parties be unable to resolve a dispute.

 In addition to agreeing not to arrest any homeless person for obstructing
the highway without "probable cause," the city agreed to pay $40,000 to the
plaintiffs. The three homeless men, George Graham, Ricky Marshall and
Christopher Milner, will receive $10,000, $4,000 and $2,000 respectively.
The ACLU will get the remaining $24,000 for legal costs.

 Paul Messing, a lawyer involved in the suit, said all three men "are now
in housing situations. They're all doing quite well. One of the nice things
about this case is that these three men were able to make the connections
to get the help they needed."

 Unlike many civil-rights suits involving the city, yesterday's settlement
does not address the merits of the lawsuit's allegations. The city admits
no liability and agrees only to provide the ACLU with copies of any arrest
reports involving the homeless.

 The tenor of the agreement was a far cry from the situation in January.
After filing the suit, ACLU legal director Stefan Presser called police use
of the "obstructing the highway" charge and the city's new
sidewalk-behavior law the "Disney-fication of Center City . . . Anybody who
doesn't quite fit in . . . is going to be removed."

 Advocates for the homeless said that the police used the obstruction law
as a pretext for clearing Center City of the homeless. According to figures
obtained since the lawsuit was filed, police made more than 1,100 arrests
of homeless people between 1995 and March 1998.

Yesterday, Presser said he was pleased the Police Department had agreed to
instruct officers not to arrest the homeless on that charge unless there
was probable cause that they had violated the law, defined as "recklessly
obstructing" a public right-of-way, including a sidewalk, by making it
"impassable without unreasonable inconvenience or hazard."

 Presser said he was also pleased that evidence showed the new sidewalk
behavior ordinance was "not being used incorrectly."

 In fact, city officials confirmed that not one homeless person had been
ticketed or arrested under the new ordinance, which took effect Jan. 18.
The law bans sleeping on the street and aggressive panhandling within 20
feet of automatic teller machines, and gives police the authority to ticket
those lying or living on the streets or sidewalks. Fines range from $20 to
$300 and resistance can result in arrest and jail.

 "I think all sides are beginning to agree that since the sidewalk law
became effective, it has become more and more apparent that the law is
being administered in an even-handed, kind and fair way," said Kevin
Feeley, Mayor Rendell's press secretary.

 Feeley called the settlement "fair and appropriate."

 John M. Gallagher, special adviser to police Commissioner John F. Timoney,
said the department had no objections to releasing to the ACLU police
arrest reports involving the homeless.

 "We have nothing to hide," Gallagher said, adding: "We're saying we've
never misused the charge of obstructing the highway but we're also saying
we have nothing to hide, so we'll give you these reports."

 Police officials say that since January, they have limited themselves to
asking people sleeping on the street or panhandling in violation of the
ordinance to "move along."

 "If you say, 'Come on, move' and they move, that's it," said Inspector
James Tiano, commander of the Central Police Division, which includes
Center City. "And we're finding that most people are moving."

 When the new ordinance was passed, city officials said it would complement
a $5.6 million increase in Philadelphia's homeless-aid program  -- atop a
$63 million homeless program funded with federal, state and local money  --
to double the roster of outreach workers and open a new shelter for
substance abusers to help those who most often refuse help.

 Michael Nardone, city deputy director of special needs housing, said the
combination of enforcement and added services may be the reason the Center
City homeless population appears to have continued its two-year decline.

 "I think the two things in tandem can help people along into services,"
Nardone said, but he added: "It's going to take some time for this program
to work."


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