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Philadelphia Considers Making Homeless People Criminals

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"If he tries to criminalize the homeless, we'll be right back here again next week!" That promise was made Thursday afternoon by Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell at a press conference outside city hall.

The "he" Blackwell referred to was her fellow council member -- and current foil -- Frank DiCicco. Two weeks ago DiCicco sponsored a bill to amend Philadelphia's Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance.

The rally started out just before 1 P.M. as a handful of advocates -- some with homemade signs insisting homelessness is not a crime -- wandered up to city hall. Within a half hour more than 200 protesters had gathered chanting slogans and cheering speakers.

The largest applause came when Blackwell moved to the center of the crowd and announced that DiCicco had postponed the committee hearing on his bill so that he could present a rewritten draft to the committee on Tuesday, June 7. "I don't know what the new bill will say," explained Blackwell, "but if it's got the word homeless in it I will not support it."

Blackwell said that DiCicco's bill singled out the behavior of homeless people and criminalized it. She believes that's not just wrong but unconstitutional as well, "When we write laws those laws have to apply to everyone." Blackwell pointed out that a law can't just apply to a person because of where they live. "And we already have laws on the books making it illegal to aggressively pan handle" one of the activities advocates of DiCicco's bill say necessitates further action.

In 1989 Philadelphia, the nation's fifth largest city, passed a sidewalk behavior ordinance that mandated people engaging in certain activities often associated with homelessness be offered social service assistance and -- if necessary -- removed to shelters. At the same time the city allocated $6 million to provide these necessities.

The initiative appears to have worked. Not only did Philadelphia escape the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty list of "mean cities" but just last month Mayor Michael Nutter announced that his city might be the first in the nation to eradicate homelessness. Of course that could all change if DiCicco's bill becomes law.

DiCicco's bill authorizes police to issue citations and even arrest homeless people just for being homeless. That is one of the criteria used to determine whether or not a city is mean. The bill's opponents point out however; that it may help the city rid itself of any remaining homeless people if they move to other neighborhoods to avoid a run in with police.

One of those opponents, long time homeless advocate Sister Mary Sullion explained, "About every ten years this comes up, someone makes a sustained effort to take people out of center city area to take people out of sight." Sullion is co-founder of the Philadelphia based Project H.O.M.E but rose to national prominence for her work in 2009 when she was named one of Time Magazine's, "World's Most Influential People."

Scullion said the problem of street people seems especially noticeable in the summer because Philadelphia closes seasonal overnight shelters. Councilwoman Blackwell added, "the ultimate goal of the law is to get rid of folks doing aggressive pan handling especially in the summer when we don't pay for people to have shelter." She pointed out that people who have nothing to eat or nowhere to go have to make do somehow. But Blackwell explains that DiCicco's bill isn't necessary for curtailing aggressive behavior, "we already have laws on the books for people who act out."

DiCicco opponents also point out that not everyone who panhandles is homeless but that every homeless person will have a much harder time finding housing if their homelessness earns them a criminal record. Opponents likewise predict that making a whole new class of criminals will aggravate the justice system at a time when the city is moving to leg bracelet home detentions to save on jail expenses.

Lastly, Blackwell says there's the expense of training the police to handle the homeless they will have to encounter, "You can't just say 'pick them up' with no destination."

"And," adds Scullion, "the police are not equipped to make judgment calls [about the homeless] they have more strategic priorities. Using the police this way wastes city resources."

While no indication was given as to how DiCicco intends to rewrite his bill; Blackwell, Scullion and several hundred other advocates are prepared to keep fighting.