Last week Philly Mag posted what seemed to be a fairly innocuous question on its Facebook page: “LOVE Park will be getting an upgrade. What would you like to see happen there?” Some answers addressed the question in the way we expected: “Some cool digital features like a virtual tourist center or something on the history behind the LOVE statue.” Or, “More sculptures/art … maybe pieces you can sit on.”
But then there were also responses like this one: “Less half naked bums scratching their asses and feeding the pigeons.”
In fact, the majority of the comments were about the homeless. Let’s take a look:
- “The benches have bed bugs from the homeless people.”
- “A respectful solution to the homeless population residing there, and fixing of the sidewalk tiles.”
- “A place where families can enjoy, but also there is the homeless that reside there too!”
- “Less homeless people and old guys trying to hit on you.”
- “Get the overwhelming scent of hobo urine out of there.”
- “No bums pooping in the bushes.”
- “Better landscape, less trash, less homeless ppl, less concrete.”
- “Better park security to keep out homless people.”
- “Homeless solution needs to be solved.”
- “Less pan handling and urine smell please.”
- “Cleaner and less homeless people!”
- “Love park needs to be cleaned up and the homeless situation both in the park and on the parkway needs to be addressed.”
As you can see, some people have more sensitivity when it comes to “homeless people” — a phrase that’s become an epithet in this city of the dispossessed. There seems to be a notion that homeless people want to live the life they’ve ended up with. This is a grave misunderstanding. Let me ask this question to every reader: Is this the life you imagined for yourself when you were young? Are you satisfied with where you are right now? (If so, please call 215-279-8317. I await your life coaching.)
People who are homeless, who smell like piss, who shit in the bushes, who beg for money… you think this is what they wanted when someone asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up? “Thanks for asking, Aunt Patricia. I want to be homeless. I want to live in LOVE Park without bathroom access. I want to have an addiction that ruins my life and rips apart my family, or develop a mental illness that detaches me from reality. Ideally, I’d like for both to happen at the same time. I’d like to lose everything I once had just because I lost one job and got behind on bills. I’d like to have the city’s central men’s shelter — the center of the wheel from which every spoke of help and information radiates — turned into a Stephen Starr catering facility. I’d like to learn there’s no replacement shelter because the very people who pass by me in LOVE Park and wrinkle their noses at my smell refuse to allow housing for me in their neighborhood, thereby guaranteeing I’ll be stuck in LOVE Park even longer.”
If I had a dollar for every time some little snot-nosed, entitled kid said that…
Ridge Avenue Shelter, the city's homeless hub, started a closure process three years ago. The idea was to replace the 400-bed behemoth at Broad and Ridge with smaller shelters — say, 75 beds each, more like boarding homes. There was talk of it being better for the inhabitants, but one city official made the mistake of telling the Inquirer the shelter closed due to "concerns about the ability to do other development in the area." That was quickly refuted by other city officials. But the timing was revealking: The city was publicly talking about the revitalization of North Broad, and the Divine Lorraine, in particular.
It's true that Ridge was not the Ritz-Carlton. I spent some time there when I was managing a social services program. I referred people there because everyone referred people there. It wasn't just that it was the starting point for getting into the shelter system. It was that so many people who worked at Ridge knew their stuff, knew how it felt, knew what it meant if a guy was isolating himself by sitting outside on the stoop away from everyone else. They knew how to reach people who wanted to be reached. You didn't like it? So leave. For those who wanted the help, there was help to be had, even in the chaos.
One newly arrived resident I met there had his own business, was married with children, had money, a house, a car. His wife met someone else and divorced him and she kept the house, and the kids stayed with her for continuity and schooling. The economy tanked and his business went under. He moved in with relatives and got depressed. He stopped looking for work. His car got repossessed. His I.D. was in the car. He couldn't get it back. He couldn't get hired without it. He didn't know where his birth certificate was to get replacement I.D. Somewhere in the house, probably, but his wife threw out a bunch of stuff… Now he was at Ridge. He kept saying, "I don't belong here." I knew what he meant, but no one belonged there. People just ended up there. One month you didn't have enough money to pay rent; the next month you were at Ridge "getting back on my feet."
Sometimes I begged people to go to Ridge. One man I worked with — let's call him Joe — lived in his own home and was insisting on staying despite the fact that his electricity had been cut off. It was a hot summer and he had an illness that required refrigerated medication. His neighbor was keeping it in her fridge for him but she was tired of the routine. He didn't want to be in a shelter, he said. That wasn't for him. I tried to explain: It's not for anybody! Last I heard, he was in the hospital.
Ridge closed for many reasons, partly because of people like Joe who'd heard such bad things, they wouldn't go to any shelter. It was a flawed model — too many people in one place, too much chaos, too little emphasis on long-term solutions. But it was a central hub with a lot to offer, and the fact that so many beds were full was proof enough that it was needed.
Even people who wanted Ridge to change warned there were not enough alternatives in place — especially after Corbett slashed funding. The original alternative had been to move the men into community-based housing rather than shelters. But as City Paper reported last week in a story titled "The city closed its largest men's shelter a year ago. Less than half the beds have been replaced," Office of Supportive Housing director Dainelle Mintz said 12 property owners wouldn't lease to the city because they believed the community opposition to the facility would be too great. From CP:
Community opposition also sank two other proposed sites after what Mintz says was a great deal of time invested by the city: a 150-bed shelter in West Philly last year, and a 75-bed proposed site in South Philly, Mintz says....
No sites near Center City appear to be in the running. That — paired with the mayor’s since-overturned ban on serving meals to the homeless outdoors, including on the museum-lined Ben Franklin Parkway — has left some with the sense that the administration wants to keep the homeless out of Center City and away from tourists’ view.
It's not just tourists' view, though. Look at the less sensitive comments on the Philly Mag Facebook page. Here's what I want to say to every single person who is disgusted by the homeless in LOVE Park, who sees them as filthy others, as though we abide by a caste system that, if we saw it in a documentary about India, would repulse us: You are the reason there are people living in LOVE Park. You perpetuate the basest notions, creating a culture of dislike and disgust, and the wheel keeps spinning.
Meanwhile, at the Starr Commissary, formerly Ridge Avenue Shelter, employees prepare tray-passed twice-baked truffled fingerling potatoes hors d'oeuvres for a cocktail party. I hear it'll be a lovely event. But you might have to walk through LOVE Park to get there.