Frank DiCicco’s Heartless Response to Homelessness

Anti-panhandling ordinances have been around for hundreds of years—and haven't worked

A little over a week ago, First District Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced Bill 110386 in an attempt to amend the 1999 Sidewalk Behavior law to, in his words, “give police … more authority … as to people who are aggressively panhandling …” by ordering those officers to arrest homeless persons without even attempting to first get the assistance of social service professionals who are trained to deal with the kind of financial, mental health, and/or substance abuse problems that many of those human beings have. The current law, which requires such mental health involvement, ain’t broken and therefore doesn’t need to be fixed. In fact, it has become a national model as noted by Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder of Project H.O.M.E., an advocacy group for the homeless.

There are already laws on the books addressing harassment, terroristic threats and simple assault to deal with real criminal behavior if that’s what DiCicco is truly worried about. But that’s not really what he’s worried about. What he’s really stressed about is what he actually said, which is that “hotel guests … are uncomfortable” with having to deal with those kind of people. Well, whooptie-goddamn-do! Tell those upper-crust fancy pants that we’re blue-collar folks here in Philly, and we’re tough enough to deal with the trauma of encountering—GASP!—a talkative guy wearing ragged jeans who hasn’t showered in a few days.

The people arrested under DiCicco’s proposed ordinance could become ineligible for public housing and medical benefits—thereby criminalizing poverty. It also would strain the city’s already tight budget: Securely incarcerating someone costs up to three times more than simply housing a person.

Homelessness is not just a Philadelphia thing. It’s a national thing, actually a national disgrace in light of the abundant wealth that this country displays when it really wants to. A whopping 3.5 million persons experience homelessness in a given year—and about 40 percent of them are children! And families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. It’s not a predominantly minority thing either. Most homeless persons in America are white.

Recent Housing and Urban Development studies indicate that 31 of 50 states plus the District of Columbia had increases in homelessness. And by the way, homelessness is not personified by the stereotypical drunken deadbeat ex-con. In fact, about 44 percent of homeless people have jobs. The main cause, as pointed out by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is a lack of affordable housing as a result of unemployment, under-employment, lay-offs, salary decreases and benefits give-backs. Only after these primary economic causes does mental illness make the list.

Those same studies also reported that nearly 650,000 persons experience homelessness on any given night. And of that number, close to a quarter million are people in families. And, embarrassingly, more than 130,000 reportedly are veterans—the most patriotic of all Americans. Something’s very wrong with all of this. And local or state bills like DiCicco’s are making things go from bad to worse.

We need solutions, not more problems. The problems of homelessness have existed on this land even before it was called the United States of America. As documented by Jeff Olivet, a nationally recognized expert and the director of training at the Center for Social Innovation, the “first cases of homelessness date back to the 1640s, mainly in the Northeast in the bigger cities of the original 13 colonies … (including) Philadelphia.” He also points out that as a result of the Industrial Revolution, primarily in the 1820s and 1830s, people began moving from farms to cities, which resulted in massive overcrowding and widespread under-housing, as well as worker exploitation and a poor urban underclass. It was during this period that “there were reports from Philadelphia … of masses of people wandering the streets. This is the first time we saw anti-panhandling ordinances. The city jails became the de facto shelter system.” Man, I knew he was a career politician, but I didn’t know that DiCicco has been in office that long.

The Great Depression of 1929 and its aftereffects through the early 1940s exacerbated the problems already faced by the poor, catapulting even more into homelessness. Economic stagnation and inflation since then, and certainly now, are the reasons that things remain difficult for most and dire for many, particularly the 528 homeless folks—or should we say, future jailed convicts—living on Center City streets today.

Philadelphia is our home. And home is supposed to be where the heart—not the heartlessness—is.

For more information, go to One Step Away, which is described as “Philadelphia’s first newspaper produced by those without homes for those with homes.”