Homeless aid unwelcome in Phila. neighborhood

August 22, 1991|By Henry Goldman | Henry Goldman,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- The scores of street people who gather under the imposing granite arches of Philadelphia's Family Court had come to expect the nightly arrival of the van, filled with friendly visitors so eager to serve their hot, home-cooked casseroles.

No more.

Residents of the elegant Logan Square neighborhood have sent a message to the legions of volunteers who feed the homeless: Not in our neighborhood.

The message appears to have gotten through. Trevor's Campaign, founded eight years ago by an 11-year-old boy on a mission to feed and clothe the homeless, has agreed to steer clear of the area after neighbors threatened a campaign of their own -- legal action and political retaliation -- if the feedings continued.

"The residents thought we were making it worse," said Karen Miller, executive director of Trevor's Campaign. "They said it was bad enough that they were sleeping there, but feeding them would only attract more of them to the place."

It's a problem, Ms. Miller acknowledges. Even some of the homeless say they understand the neighborhood's concerns.

"I don't blame 'em," said Dave, 33, who declined to give his full name. He began living at 1801 Vine St., the address of the Family Court, two months ago after a stint inside a shelter for the homeless. "I guess if I lived in one of those nice houses, I'd hate having people like me living here, too. But when it rains, there's just no place to go."

"This shows that living on the streets is degrading to everybody in the community, not just the homeless," said Sister Mary Scullion, an advocate for the homeless who has tried to mediate the dispute. "This is the result of a decade of cutbacks in public housing and services to the mentally ill, jobless and substance abusers. It shows that we have to provide a community of support for people to take steps forward, not a forced march to nowhere."

Even Mark Silow, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which demanded that Trevor's Campaign stop its food giveaway, said he sympathizes. "It's a national tragedy and a national disgrace that we have this problem."

Homeless people have been spending the night in front of Family Court for some time, but in the last year, the numbers have swelled to the point that on any given night, as many as 150 can be found with their blankets and bundles under the building's main portico. Their presence is not limited to the Greek Revival landmark that anchors the northeast corner of Logan Square.

"You see them in the library, the Swann Fountain," Mr. Silow said.

He tried the mayor's office. He tried the police. He was told the city could do nothing.

Then he focused on Trevor's Campaign. "What bothered me is that Trevor's Campaign and other organizations are taking a troublesome problem and turning it into a much greater problem," he said.

He wrote a series of letters, increasingly angry, in which he told Trevor's Campaign officials that his neighborhood association would "look at all our options."

An "attractive nuisance" is how he described the food program, and Mr. Silow threatened legal action against it. He also vowed to contact Trevor's financial supporters in an effort to get them to withhold contributions until the program agreed to get out of his neighborhood.

"We don't have a siege mentality about it," he said. "But we were alarmed at seeing such large numbers of these people in our community as a result of the feeding. We had a tremendous amount of car vandalism. Police have attributed it to street people looking for drug money. The issue with Trevor's is preventive."

Ms. Miller said her suspension of food giveaways is temporary -- "just to demonstrate that it won't make a difference."

Street people support her assertion. They say they can find food at soup kitchens and from some of the dozens of other individuals and ministries that visit them with food.

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