Hiding Philly’s Homeless Doesn’t Make Our City Better

Just look at the beauty of Sister Cities Park to see why.

My favorite new spot in the city, hands down, is Sister Cities Park. Inga Saffron went so far as to call the transformation of “this tiny shard of land” a miracle, and she’s totally right: If ever there could be a tribute to what a fountain, some benches and a bright little café can do for an empty patch of land, Sister Cities is it. Over the course of a few months, the place went from zero to modern-day Seurat painting, and today you can see families picnicking there and kids in bathing suits running through the sprays of water coming up from the bluestone and people from all walks just sitting and enjoying the little urban oasis.

Many weekends, there’s another scene that adds to the tableau here: Long lines of some our city’s hungry people stand just yards from the park, waiting for the buffet line of food set up by various nonprofit groups, most of whom I suspect are church folks.

Now I’m sure some people would not share my opinion on this, but I can say that every time I pass this scene, I feel exceedingly proud of the city—here’s this beautiful urban park sprung from nothing that’s now being enjoyed by the people of the city; here’s Philadelphians taking care of our own in a small but significant way. Here it all is, all in one place, all meshing up in the way people in cities do. It is very real, and it is very heartening.

Of course, if Mayor Nutter’s ban on feeding our homeless along the Parkway stands up in court, scenes like this will become illegal. (The ban has officially already been issued, but as the Inky reported last week, a federal judge just reaffirmed that the rule could not be enforced until the final judgment on legality came down from the U.S. Court of Appeals, where the case has progressed.) In case you hadn’t heard, the mayor’s grand plan would transition the frequent park feedings to meals offered at a location just outside City Hall for the first year. After that, people would have to get food from a handful of indoor spots located around Center City.

The mayor cites concerns about the health aspect of various groups’ serving people food, about trying to preserve the dignity of the homeless people, about being able to offer people more help than just a sandwich, about the wear-and-tear on the park. Some opponents of the ban have accused him of harboring much less noble motives—that is, with the new Barnes and the freshening up of much of the Parkway, it seems like a convenient time to rid the space of its queues of homeless people, to buff up our public image a little.

I’d argue that our mayor is deserving of the benefit of the doubt here. And yet the motives in question—pure or not—are almost beside the point. In my opinion, the drawbacks to the situation thus far don’t outweigh the current benefits. We have people in this city who are hungry: That is a fact. Moving them around will not change that fact, nor will it necessarily make the business of feeding them safer, or easier, or more accessible. If it’s a question of licensing and training to keep any food-borne illness at bay, then some sort of official application process for food service would make more sense to me than a change of venue. (Although it’s worth noting that the groups suing the city over the ban say that they’ve taken the city’s food sanitation courses.)

In my mind, homelessness and hunger are public issues, and we shouldn’t hide them away. These problems belong in the open, among us, because they are ours—and seeing our people feeding those among us who need feeding adds to rather than detracts from the miracle that is Sister Cities …  and the entire Parkway for that matter. I hope we don’t squash it.