Baltimore is inspired by homeless program

Philadelphia: Police and outreach workers in the City of Brotherly Love team up to coax street people indoors.

April 04, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - A horror-flick eeriness hangs over 10th and Noble, a gritty corner a few blocks from the majestic City Hall. A railroad trestle looms above the darkened street, a cat skulks through the night. On the damp ground lies a shrouded human form, still as death.

"Howdy, howdy," police Officer Joe Corvi shouts gaily into the chilly air as he walks up about 8:15 p.m.

"Guess who?" chimes in outreach worker Genny O'Donnell. "Your foul-weather friends."

Just then Tia stirs to life and emerges bleary-eyed from under a blanket. Adjusting her scarf, she starts to banter with her familiar visitors, who include a second police officer and a psychologist volunteer.

The encounter, as friendly as a social call, is part of a concerted effort by Philadelphia police and outreach workers to help the homeless survive, preferably by coaxing them indoors where they might be enticed to accept other help.

Now that approach might come to the streets of Baltimore.

"That's exactly the model we want to do," says Mayor Martin O'Malley. Local homeless and business representatives went to Philadelphia recently to learn more about a policy that grew out of acrimony four years ago.

Two national homeless groups have labeled Baltimore one of the 12 "meanest" cities in its treatment of street dwellers. One reason, critics say, is a policy of arresting people for such nuisance crimes as public urination, and another is insufficient homeless services.

Some Philadelphia-style cooperation is already occurring informally. For six months, Baltimore community relations police officers have made rounds with outreach workers in Fells Point, South Baltimore and downtown. "We have engaged a number of people to get help," says Maj. Kathleen T. Patek, deputy chief of patrol.

The goal is to make such teamwork systematic, although, O'Malley says, police will continue to enforce nuisance laws. "I'd like to see there be more formality," says Joseph A. Boston III, the new homeless services director.

Philadelphia officials praise the benefits of working together. The police make it safer for outreach workers to go into places such as subway tunnels. On lethally cold nights, an officer can help outreach workers nudge someone into accepting shelter.

Police and outreach teams often travel separately but keep in radio contact. The night they see Tia, the officers are in a police van and the other two in a Dodge minivan. Part of the mission is to build trust that might pay off one day when someone, likely struggling with addiction or mental illness, finally accepts help.

"It's a whole different ballgame than it was 10 years ago, strictly because of that coordination," says Sgt. Michael Taylor.

"We're impressed, and we're pretty cynical," said J. Peter Sabonis, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore, which provides legal aid. He says the policy addresses merchants' fears that homeless people deter shoppers but in a "sensible and humane" way.

But Philadelphia and Baltimore are different in key ways. Though both cities get millions of dollars in state and federal grants for homeless services, this year Philadelphia plans to spend $17 million of its own money. Baltimore devotes just $250,000.

Unlike their Baltimore counterparts, Philadelphia police have a 10-officer unit focused mainly on Center City's homeless. Corvi is part of that unit. (O'Malley says: "Our Police Department should do that.")

The cities are dissimilar in another way: Since 1998 Philadelphia has had a "sidewalk ordinance" that requires police to call outreach workers before issuing a civil citation - basically a ticket - to anyone who won't move off a downtown sidewalk.

All told, police have ticketed just one homeless person, the city says, because they almost always get cooperation. But a recent visit shows that officers do not always enforce it, so some of those huddled in doorways or on sidewalks are allowed to stay.

Tom Yeager, vice president of the business-funded Downtown Partnership of Baltimore - which has split with homeless advocates over a stalled bill to ban nighttime panhandling - says a sidewalk ordinance could be "win-win."

"If we can get folks into service, that is the goal," he says. "There are so many out there that just refuse the service. You need some sort of legislation that helps you."

Robert V. Hess, Philadelphia's "homeless czar" and former head of the Baltimore-based Center for Poverty Solutions, says the goal is a better quality of life.

Not so long ago, advocates for the homeless in Philadelphia didn't see the city as such a strong ally. In the 1990s, police used a different law to arrest the homeless for obstructing the sidewalk, spurring a lawsuit alleging illegal arrests.

Under a settlement, advocates were able to monitor police, and use of the law ended, says Sister Mary Scullion, an energetic Roman Catholic nun who runs the nonprofit Project Home out of a 70-year-old former casket factory north of downtown.

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