Does Philly Really Treat Its Homeless Like Garbage?

This is one area where the city specifically excels, and deserves credit.

In today’s City Paper, Dan Denvir wrote two items about various Philadelphia constituencies that, in his words, are being treated like “garbage.” One: Philadelphia schoolchildren, who he argues are being held hostage by politically opportunistic Harrisburg Republicans. (Last-minute cigarette tax notwithstanding, he generally has a point.) Two: The city’s homeless population. His evidence for this is an experience he had a couple weeks ago while biking along Spruce Street in the late afternoon, after stopping to help a man who was “likely homeless, very likely drunk and possibly mentally ill.”

Here’s his account:

I called 911 at 5:41 p.m. and told the dispatcher that the man needed immediate medical attention. He was stumbling and could not speak. As he tried to stand up, his pants kept falling down. Time passed, and it began to rain, but no ambulance was in sight.

The man stumbled toward a shirt that was lying on the ground and tried to pick it up with his prosthetic hook. I kept telling him to sit down, and to stay awake. Another spill into the road would be dangerous.

I called 911 again at 5:52 p.m. and was told the ambulance was on its way. But when I called again at 6 p.m. something odd happened: I was transferred from 911 to the Fire Department dispatcher, who told me that there was no record of any ambulance having been sent — but that one was leaving now.

Eventually, at 6:10 p.m., Denvir says an ambulance came. It is unfortunate that it took 30 minutes, rather than the six and a half minutes the city says it usually takes, for medical help to arrive. And the man in question is lucky Denvir stopped to help him. But it’s hardly evidence that the city, or the police, or the fire department, or whoever Denvir thinks is responsible, is in the habit of treating the homeless like trash. In fact, this is one area where Philadelphia specifically excels, and deserves credit.

In San Francisco, one in 254 people is homeless. In Los Angeles, one in 378 is homeless. In Chicago, one in 1,661 is homeless. In Philadelphia? One in 3,095. In 2012, homelessness in New York increased by 13 percent. In Philadelphia? Homelessness decreased by 2.3 percent. (Figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, via Project H.O.M.E.)

To be sure, these good numbers may reflect the relative low cost of housing in Philly, compared to its coastal counterparts. But the city and the several non-profit groups it partners with also deserve a lion’s share of the credit. From 2008-2012, according to city figures, Philadelphia’s homeless housing inventory has increased by 50 percent. That number can be traced in part to Mayor Nutter’s announcement in 2008 that his administration would be making available 500 new housing units per year, for families and single individuals. Laura Weinbaum, VP of public affairs for Philly’s leading homelessness prevention organization, Project H.O.M.E., says the 50 percent figure sounds accurate, give or take a few percentage points, and that despite occasional blips, that “there has been a lot of attention on creating additional housing” from the city.

What’s more, says Weinbaum, whose much-lauded group contracts with the city, she found Denvir’s experience to be the exception, rather than the rule. “We generally have really good relations with the police,” she says, adding that when a homeless person under its supervision needs assistance, a police car arrives to bring him or her to the hospital almost immediately. What’s more, neither Denvir nor the police dispatcher he called could have actually been sure the person was homeless, suggesting anti-homelessness prejudice may not be the likeliest reason for the snafu. (We seem to have a massive ambulance shortage in this city, for example.) Overall, says Weinbaum: “I think, and I said this to Dan, his story seemed unusual.”

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