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Homlessness activists including members of Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and Penn Hanven rallied for a freeze on foreclosures outside the Federal Building. Credit: Maanvi Singh

Philadelphia, a leader in programs for the homeless, spends $50 million in federal funding a year on shelter and rehousing programs, but homelessness remains widespread with 3,000 individuals facing homelessness each night.

Misunderstandings can lead to tensions between neighbors and homeless — including 106 acts reported in 2008 — but for most students, the issue boils down to a single choice: to give money or walk away.

Given the nature of town-gown relations and the complex factors that have contributed to the problem, University officials advise against it. But Penn has focused its efforts to alleviate the social problem in other ways.

Role of universities

From collecting data on homeless incidence to evaluating city programs, Philadelphia’s universities help inform policy.

At least half a dozen scholars at Penn research homelessness. Their work has helped the city compete for federal grants, said Social Policy and Practice professor Dennis Culhane, who advises the Obama administration on homelessness.

Students also get involved with advocacy and volunteer programs in shelters and soup kitchens.

A “big culture in volunteering,” however, risks undercutting focus from broader policy issues, said College senior Jimmy Tobias, member of campus homelessness advocacy group Penn Haven.

“The University’s role is research and education primarily,” Culhane said. “Policing homeless is a completely different other issue.”

Origins of the problem

“Homelessness isn’t some natural phenomenon that came out of nowhere,” Tobias said.

Homelessness first became a visible issue during the Reagan era, following cuts in public housing.

The “stagnating economy” of the mid-1980s aggravated the situation, Thomas Byrne, Social Policy and Practice doctoral student, said. Shelters began appearing as a “temporary” fix.

Around this time, private organizations began taking charge with helping those in need, including the University City Hospitality Coalition, which gives out free meals, and Project H.O.M.E, which coordinates street outreach and supportive housing programs.

“In the mid to late 70s, you began to see women unfortunately referred to as ‘bag ladies,’” who carried all their belongings with them, H.O.M.E. Street Outreach Program Manager Beth Lewis said.

Policy is starting to shift toward providing more permanent and affordable housing situations, which are ultimately more cost effective, Byrne said.

“If you talk to homeless people, most of them will tell you they don’t like the shelter system,” he said, pointing to the need for alternative solutions.

Shelters can be “really scary places” he said, citing problems with theft, privacy and even outbreaks of violence.

Street focus Homelessness tends to be an “invisible” problem, Tobias said.

The homeless may live out of cars, in abandoned buildings or under bridges, he said. “Many have jobs, wake up in the morning and go to work.”

Many are women who are pregnant or have small children, and many are adult childless men, Culhane said.

Most come from a small subset of poor neighborhoods, such as Mantua in West Philadelphia, but end up moving to more commercial areas of the city where they can be “safe” and “relatively anonymous” at night, Culhane said.

Culhane noted that he has seen a few homeless in University City — including by 30th Street Station, under the bridge by the 1923 Ice Rink and occasionally by the Science Center — but “nothing in large numbers.”

There are even fewer around campus, although there might be “visible begging” by panhandlers pretending to be homeless outside of stores, he said.

On an average night, one-tenth of Philadelphia’s homeless are out on the street as opposed to in shelters, compared to the national average of half in other major cities. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of these individuals may be in University City, Culhane said.

Chance added that problems with homeless have been sparse over the years, although there was an incident last summer when a group set up a tent in Clark Park and “really started to move in.” City services were soon called in to handle the situation.

Occasionally residents report homeless to be “obnoxious” or “rude” to park-dwellers. They also raise health concerns due to the lack of public restrooms, he said.

Outreach and Shelters

Students should call a street outreach team if they encounter a homeless individual, and within an hour, they will come to offer support and transit services, Culhane said.

Around campus, University City District operates a homeless outreach team consisting of nine safety ambassadors, UCD spokeswoman Lori Klein Brennan said. The outreach team operates a van that provides transportation to shelters.

“We are strictly transportation. Once we do the transport, we’re out of it,” UCD Director of Operations Dexter Bryant said.

In 2008, UCD operated 284 homeless outreach transports, a jump from 168 in 2007, according to the UCD Report Card.

The spike may be due to external factors, such as weather and economic climate, but does not reflect changes in funding, Brennan said.

“Most people we get are mostly the same guys,” Bryant said. “We transport them from the shelter and they’re back on the street.”

Project H.O.M.E’s 25 outreach workers go about on foot or drive through the city to look for homeless individuals in needs based on experience and tips from other homeless people, Lewis said.

Outreach is intended for people “underserved” by other agencies, including individuals with psychiatric or substance abuse disorders, she said.

According to city law, sidewalk ordinances dictates that individuals cannot sleep on sidewalks, but these are often not widely enforced, Culhane said.

Penn Police work with outreach teams to direct homeless to city services, Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said.

The homeless population near campus tends to be highly “transient” because “programs do work,” Penn Police Chief Mark Dorsey said.

“We discourage people from stopping and giving them money,” Dorsey said, explaining that it doesn’t help in the long-run and could be “feeding into a habit.”

Byrne advises people to be respectful and polite. “These are human beings too.”

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