Will Pope Francis Get to See Philadelphia’s Homeless?

Some in the community are reporting mixed signals from officials. One woman says many people she knows have been incarcerated.

homeless woman

Brooke Peder selling her art on Walnut Street. | Photo by Liz Spikol

Follow Philadelphia magazine’s live coverage of Pope Francis’s historic visit all weekend long.

 New Jersey native Brooke Peder sits on Walnut Street next to a number of drawings she’s done with colored pencils. Her cardboard sign says she’s losing hope, and it’s not hard to understand why: Peder was a successful tattoo artist with her own shop in Atlantic City before Hurricane Sandy swept through. Though she and her colleagues rebuilt the damaged store, it never rebounded financially after the storm. As the breadwinner for household, which included her wife, her sister and her sister’s children, Peder was devastated when she was unable to make ends meet. So she and her wife came to Philadelphia, having heard there was more opportunity here. They have not found that to be the case. All of Peder’s tattooing equipment was stolen at a local shelter — the first night she spent here. Now, she and her wife prefer to sleep on the streets, which they feel — as do many homeless — is safer.

This week, though, has been a challenge for Peder and those like her. “The police have been very hard on all of us,” Peder says. “They’re not letting us sit anywhere. I’ve seen something like 20 people get locked up for minor offenses that would normally just get a citation.”

“I heard that people are being threatened with being locked up,” echoes a homeless man sitting on the steps of the Basilica. He’s wearing two papal mass tickets around his neck; they were given to him by a local priest. For his part, he hasn’t been harassed at all. “In fact,” he says, “one cop gave me two dollars.”

Tyrone, a regular fixture in LOVE Park, wears a badge on his shirt that says, “HOMELESS LIVES MATTER.” He’s handing out copies of an Inquirer article titled “Pope wants to help poor” along with glossy postcards advertising The Inclusion of Synergy Association. He says he hasn’t been asked by anyone to leave, but notes that for the many homeless who live in Suburban Station, the closure of the building is a hardship. He says they’ve been temporarily housed in shelters, but will go back to the station once the weekend is over. “The city cleans up [while the event happens] but then we go right back out.” He believes the pope wants to see the people who are less fortunate, and that he will see the homeless, no matter what the city does, because that’s part of his mission.

Brooke Peder agrees. “The pope’s visit should restore hope to us especially. That’s his message. But [the city] is taking us away so we’re not seen or heard.” Peder says outreach workers circulated memos among people who live on the streets to warn them about Operation Cleanup, an effort that removed many homeless families’ belongings from city alleyways. A Center City District officer on Broad Street had not heard of Operation Cleanup, nor had two police officers about a block away. A call to Project HOME, which is spearheading homeless advocacy efforts, was not returned by press time.

“They tell us they’re going to provide us with housing and counseling while the pope is here,” says Peder, “but they really mean they’re locking us up and we’ll get that stuff in jail. The wounded self should actually be looked at and healed.”

For those who need assistance with shelter, the Homeless Outreach number is 215-232-1984.

Follow @lspikol on Twitter.