For the past few years, homeless advocates in Philadelphia have made some remarkable strides in pushing for solutions to homelessness. Several distinct but overlapping campaigns have worked to bring homelessness back in the public arena – and in the minds of elected officials.
A central struggle was the battle over a proposed Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance, which was before Philadelphia City Council in the spring of 1998. By banning lying on public sidewalks, the bill potentially criminalized homeless people on the streets. An ad hoc group of service providers and advocates, working under the name Open Door Coalition, cooperated in a multi-faceted campaign of opposition to the Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance. This campaign included developing a position paper and soliciting support from dozens of organizations; meeting with individual City Council members to share our concerns; extensive media work; and public rallies and protests.
Blueprint to End Homelessness
The Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance campaign dovetailed with another important initiative. Just as the fight was raging in City Council, an important document was released, Our Way Home: A Blueprint to End Homelessness in Philadelphia. It was the work of many of these same service providers and advocates, who for much of 1997 had been meeting with homeless and formerly homeless people, service providers, case workers, city officials, and academics. They believed that, with welfare reform looming, it was a critical time to take a proactive stance and chart future directions for progress in the struggle against homelessness. The result was a 44-page document that outlined concrete policy recommendations for a range of areas, including housing, jobs, shelter and services, and homelessness prevention. Thousands of copies were sent to elected officials, as well as the media. By releasing the Blueprint during the sidewalk ordinance debate, we were able to offer City Council practical, concrete alternatives that would help get people off the streets and into services – without policing or criminalizing them.
As the vote approached, coalition members packed City Council chambers with hundreds of people for three stormy public hearings. Ultimately, the bill passed, but it was significantly amended to include non-criminal penalties and stronger provisions for police to work with outreach teams instead of simply arresting homeless people. In addition, in response to our pressure, the city committed $5 million in new mental health and substance-abuse services for those on the street.
While it was a legislative defeat – and while the law is still unacceptable – homeless advocates succeeded in fundamentally reshaping the debate. Given the political reality that the bill was going to pass, we have continued to try to seize the opportunities created by the public debate to promote solutions to homelessness.
When formal implementation of the ordinance began in January 1999, homeless advocates again held public events protesting the policing of homeless people. They also helped establish a special Sidewalk Ordinance Task Force, which included many center city business representatives, service providers, city officials and others. The goal of the task force was to monitor ongoing implementation of the ordinance, including police activity and the city’s commitment to new services.
At the same time the ordinance went into effect, Project Home and other homeless advocates worked with the ACLU in filing a federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of three homeless men who had been arrested for “obstructing the highway.” The city settled the suit, agreeing to end frivolous arrests of homeless people and to establish a system to monitor other arrests.
We recognize that whatever progress was made in the sidewalk ordinance debate is limited. Certainly there is still serious danger of criminalizing homeless people. But we believe that with the combined efforts of the lawsuit, the task force, and overall public pressure, we have made important strides in protecting the rights of homeless people.
Election ’99 Campaign
In addition, through another campaign, we are continuing the push for solutions to homelessness. Many of the same organizations that fought the sidewalk ordinance formed a nonpartisan coalition called Election ’99: Leadership to End Homelessness. Building on the Blueprint, we developed a set of policy recommendations for all the mayoral candidates and began a broad effort to raise issues of homelessness during the election campaign. In the months leading up to the primaries, the Election ’99 coalition met with the policy staffs of all the candidates, while undertaking a campaign that resulted in over 2,000 homeless and low-income Philadelphians registered to vote. On April 7, over 800 people, mostly from shelters and programs, attended a Candidates Forum on Homelessness and Housing, where the six candidates answered questions posed by homeless people. The coalition published and distributed 10,000 copies of a Voters Guide on Homelessness and Housing, outlining the candidates’ positions. Now the Election ’99 coalition is working toward the fall general election. We will continue to educate and empower homeless voters, while pushing the two mayoral candidates and City Council candidates to make serious commitments to work to end homelessness.
This remarkable sequence of events, and the effective strategizing and organizing around them, has put homeless advocates in Philadelphia in a strong position to affect homeless policies in the city during the next administration. We are also well positioned to work with the business community as a partner in solutions to homelessness.
The success of these efforts was due to several factors. We had a strong coalition, the result of years of working together and building solid, trusting relationships. This allowed us to effectively strategize, achieve consensus, and keep focused on the mission and goals. We have also learned to combine various advocacy strategies: when necessary, we will be very adversarial, including street protests and even civil disobedience. At the same time, though, we worked on dialogue with city officials and the business community to find common ground and develop shared commitments. We also have consistently stressed positive, concrete solutions, not just negative protests. We have tried to broaden the debate and convince elected officials and the general public that solutions to homelessness must be integrated into economic development and the quality of life of the whole community.
Finally, we have sought to meet the hardest challenge of any advocacy community: not simply to react to bad policies, but to proactively develop and promote solutions and set the agenda. We must still work to empower the homeless and low-income constituency as a political force, and we must always hold our political leaders accountable. But in the coming years, we have a solid base from which to work toward achieving these goals.