MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, race in the race. We'll talk to a group of reporters about how the issue of race has surfaced in the presidential campaign and how they are covering it.
But first, we want to talk about an issue that grabbed many a headline in the 1980s but in some ways has gone underground. It's homelessness. In many cities, we don't talk about it so much anymore. Some cities have made headway in solving the problem. Others have just decided they've done all they can do or are going to do. But in Philadelphia, homelessness is on the front pages again because of a conflict in the affluent neighborhood of Rittenhouse Square.
Residents and business owners in the area have been increasingly vocal about what they see as an increasingly aggressive community of homeless people in the area, especially in Rittenhouse Square Park. They say homeless people are ruining the ambiance of the park by camping out, using it as a toilet and for sex. The residents have demanded that the police crack down, but that crackdown is sparking its own backlash as others now complain that the affluent are getting favored treatment at the expense of society's most vulnerable. It's another debate about whose rights should prevail in the public square.
Joining us to talk about this are Laura Weinbaum, she's director of public policy for the Project H.O.M.E. organization, which addresses homelessness in Philadelphia, and Christine Flowers, she's a lawyer who recently wrote a piece for the Philadelphia Daily News defending the police crackdown in Rittenhouse Square Park. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
CHRISTINE FLOWERS: Thanks for having us.
LAURA WEINBAUM: Hello. Good to talk to you.
MARTIN: Christine, in your article you describe the situation in Rittenhouse Square. Could you just briefly tell us what kind of behavior, what kind of environment is it that the people are concerned about?
FLOWERS: There has been a general lessening of the quality of life in Rittenhouse Square. And anyone who's familiar with Rittenhouse Square knows that it is a beaucolic center in the middle of an urban environment. It's a very beautiful park. And what we've seen with increasing frequency, unfortunately, is that a homeless population has taken residence in the park and has been using the park as their boudoir. They are using it to sleep, to eat. They conduct other activities which aren't as benign as sleeping or eating, such as having sexual relations, defecating, urinating, and they become a public nuisance, and in some cases they could become a compelling threat to the public safety.
MARTIN: Laura, although it's clearly difficult to measure, there are some national statistics about homelessness. The national statistics indicate that fewer people - fewer people are actually homeless than in earlier periods. That's not the case in Philadelphia, from your understanding. You feel that - is what's Christine seeing, is what she's describing anecdotal? Do you think that that's true, that there is actually an increase in the homeless population in Philadelphia?
FLOWERS: As an overall trend, it is somewhat true that Philadelphia has experienced an increase in the numbers of people living on the street since about 2000.
MARTIN: But what's going on there? You're saying that you feel that there are really is - there is some sort of increase going on. What's going on there? Is it an affordability issue? Is there something else going on that is causing more people to be on the street?
FLOWERS: I think there's a lot of things. One thing is that Philadelphia, as you probably know, has an increasing percentage of people living below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent of our citizens are below the poverty line. At the same time, the sort of amount that a person gets on public benefits, or the amount that a person can earn on minimum wage - although that has recently increased a little bit - has remained basically static while housing prices have skyrocketed. So for those folks for whom homelessness is primarily an affordability issue, there is no question that the dramatic bifurcation of those two - of the income versus the housing cost has contributed significantly to homelessness.
MARTIN: Christine, the article you wrote was responding to some previous things that had been written about the situation at Rittenhouse Square Park. And one of the things you were responding was the suggestion that the Philadelphia police are reluctant to enforce rules about behavior in the park because they have more sympathy for the homeless folks than they do for the residents of the area in arguing that these rich people basically want us to give them special treatment. Is my sense correct, that that's kind of partly what was pushing your buttons, the argument that the ambiance of the park is not as an important as giving people a place to stay who have nowhere else to go?
FLOWERS: You're absolutely right, Michel. Actually, what pushed my button was the implication - there was a quotation on an article that was carried on philly.com, which is the Web site for the two largest papers in the area. There was a quote from a police officer who said, "The rich people want you to do things that normal people won't ask you to do, and a lot of cops have hard feelings about that." And what struck me was this - this false dichotomy that it was creating between the rich people and the normal people. The implication being that the rich, those who live in and around Rittenhouse Square, are being unduly, unfairly intolerant of the homeless activity of the population whereas any normal - quote "normal" individual who doesn't lived in that area and who may be middle- to lower middle-class wouldn't have as much of a problem with people defecating, urinating, fornicating in their frontyards.
And first of all, I think it's a false construct here because not everyone who lives in or around Rittenhouse Sqaure is affluent. I think that anyone has a right to live in a clean environment, in a safe environment. A woman should not be in fear of her child's life if she's pushing a baby carriage through a park and having someone lunge at her, screaming. And that's happened on several occasions, and I've witnessed it myself. So, yes, that really was the catalyst, the spark.
MARTIN: What do you say to do those who argue that, you know, a police response to this is a band-aid, that, you know, there's something going on in Philadelphia that needs to be addressed? You know, having the police come in and rouse people and, you know, make them move somewhere else just is a bad - and it just - it's kind of picking on the most vulnerable people. That if other people have to be a little uncomfortable, well, unfortunately, that's the price that we all pay for a free society. What do you say to that?
FLOWERS: I think that we obviously need more shelters. We need to accommodate the homeless population. But that doesn't mean that until we reach a critical mass, until we reach a point where we can serve everyone, that we just let the situation fester and we allow people to do what they want to do.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Laura Weinbaum, she's director of public policy for Project H.O.M.E., and Christine Flowers about one neighborhood struggle to address the increase in the homeless population in the neighborhood park.
Laura, what's your take on this? And especially Christine's point that, you know, cities need a tax base to survive, they need a variety of different people living in the city to survive. And when you allow the quality of life to deteriorate in this way, it may seem mean but that - it just makes things harder for everybody that people, you know, whether they're middle class or affluent, have a right to expect clean, safe, public spaces.
WEINBAUM: To your point about a tax base, what I would say to that is that we actually know that the solutions to homelessness, which in our mind are permanent, affordable, supportive housing paired with services, is far less expensive that allowing people to remain homeless on the street and utilize the systems that they utilize, whether it's in fact policing and arrest, which is extremely, extremely expensive, whether it's hospitals and emergency rooms and detox facilities and prisons and all of those kinds of things that folks who are homeless on the street do cost the city quite a bit. That's problematic for the taxpayers.
I would further say that criminalization is even worse than a band-aid because criminalization, we know, having a criminal record reduces the likelihood that a person will be called back, for instance, in a job situation by 50 percent. It terminates their access to certain benefits. It disqualifies them for certain housing programs. And it in fact, in many cases, actually moves people to outlying areas so that if people are chased out of, say, Rittenhouse Square, suddenly we'll find more of them on the alleyways and in the sort of smaller, more hidden areas surrounding the square where it's less safe for everyone involved.
MARTIN: But what should they do in the short term? You've got people saying, on the one hand, look, I should be able to go to the park at lunchtime without, you know, seeing a guy using the park as a toilet. On the other hand, people say, well, gee, you know, people need some place to go. What should they do in the short term, Laura?
WEINBAUM: I think in the short term what can be done is opening additional places that are clean and safe and decent. And there are measures that a city can take to do that in a faster way. What's hard for the city and where I really do understand the quandary that they're in is that, you know, the resources from the state and federal government are so trivial. And in Philadelphia, in fact, the federal government's share has decreased by almost a third from 2000 until, you know, the most recent numbers. And that puts the city in a really difficult spot in terms of addressing this.
MARTIN: A lot of state and local governments are experiencing a cash crunch, right, because of the downturn in the economy. So there seems to be less resources available. Laura, do you feel like - I mean, you've been working in this area for a long time. Do you kind of feel like you're hearing a record replay that you've heard before? Do you feel as though you've kind of heard this before and why are we back again where we were 20 years ago?
WEINBAUM: To some extent that is definitely true. There is sort of a cyclical nature about it. What I would say is that it's particularly problematic that, as you correctly pointed out in your intro, we've begun to see homelessness as an inevitable part of our urban landscape. And that to me is what has kind of changed over those years, that people really do kind of throw up their hands and say, well, you know, we don't know what to do about this, when in point of fact we actually know that, you know, from Project H.O.M.E.'s perspective, greater than 90 percent of folks who come into permanent supportive housing maintain housing stability. So there's no question that we have solutions out there that work effectively for people and that will keep folks from experiencing homelessness again over the long term. It's just a question of having the political will and the resources to address that situation.
MARTIN: Christine, finally, what's this been like for you, kind of wading into this issue? I mean, on the one hand, obviously, you had something on your chest that you wanted to get off your chest. On the other hand, I've been reading the comments coming into the newspaper's message board, and some people agree with you, some people think, you know, you're just a meany who doesn't have compassion for people who are in a tough spot. How - what's this been like for you getting involved in this issue?
FLOWERS: It's been very interesting. It's the first time in my life that I've actually been called a Nazi, which was quite interesting - a Rittenhouse Nazi. If I were to make a summary of most of the responses, the vast majority of people who responded are sympathetic to the problems of people who simply do not have the resources to find a home, to maintain a home. They're not evil human beings. They're not intolerant of poverty. They don't want people to suffer. At the same time, they want there to be a minimum standard of public conduct to which people should be held. And just because we feel a sympathy and just because we want to help those who are under privileged, it doesn't mean that we're going to surrender our right to live in a clean and a safe environment.
MARTIN: OK. We're going to have to leave it there. It's a complicated issue, and I thank you both for being willing to take it on. Christine Flowers is a lawyer. She recently wrote a piece for the Philadelphia Daily News expressing her concern about the deterioration of quality of life within the city because of the increase in the homeless population. Laura Weinbaum is the director of public policy for the Project H.O.M.E. organization, which works to address homelessness in Philadelphia. They were both kind enough to join me from Audio Post in Philadelphia. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
WEINBAUM: Thank you, Michel.
FLOWERS: Thanks for having us.