Show the Pope our homeless
Philadelphia’s chronically homeless population will not be disappearing in time for Pope’s visit.
The men and women sleeping in abandoned homes and community parks might go unnoticed. But up to two million visitors will descend downtown to attend the World Meeting of Families (WMOF), and Center City’s homeless population will be right in the middle of the madness.
It’s not irrational to ask whether Philadelphia has a plan. After all, the papal visit is one of the largest and most anticipated events in recent history. Virtually every aspect of our image is on the line.
We could mess this one up.
When Pope Francis visited the Philippines in January, some 500 homeless people were relocated to the outskirts of the city of Manila as part of a ‘clearing operation.’ Local officials called it an effort to protect the vulnerable population from large crowds and crime syndicates. But others weren’t buying the defense.
“Reports of [the clearing operation] in line with last week’s papal visit is truly horrendous, given the fact that Pope Francis visited our country to – first and foremost – see and talk to the poor,” Terry Ridon, a Filipino congressman, said after the news broke.
Consider the infrastructural strain that millions of visitors will bring to Philly. Public transit schedules from SEPTA to PATCO will be severely limited throughout the week of the WMOF. Every train, bus, and trolley will be packed from car to car. Hundreds of thousands of first-timers will come into town through the Center City concourse where hundreds of our homeless congregate each day.
During the cold winter months, Project HOME estimates that one-third of the city’s homeless population sleeps in parts of this concourse. But due to the early Fall weather, SEPTA Transit Police say that the transit system will be in a lull as far as the homeless population goes, and they’re already on the ball planning.
“The SEPTA Transit Police work very closely with Project Home and are always attempting to link the homeless with social services,” Andrew Busch, public information manager for SEPTA, said on Thursday. “The visit of the Pope will not increase our efforts in this area – it is a priority for us every day.”
Nonetheless, there will likely be a “red zone” in the area. Federal officials are discussing the idea of an 8-foot fence around parts of Center City for security reasons. Details about the perimeter and location have yet to be decided.
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, confirmed that the homeless will not be allowed to sleep within the red zone. If indeed a fence goes up, there will be a clearing operation in place each night that will apply to all people.
“The City along with outreach will make other provisions for people who are homeless during the nights when the fence is secured,” Scullion said. “This could be one, two or three nights. I have no reason to believe that in other areas of Center City that people will be asked to leave...All people will be allowed back in the red zone during the day once they go through security, which I believe will be a metal detector.”
Scullion and Project HOME were concerned about the displacement of the homeless from the get-go. How will we plan for the homeless and uphold their dignity at the same time during this massive event? Immediately they began planning. During some of the first meetings with WMOF and the local government, they established a Hunger and Homelessness committee as well as a Mercy and Justice initiative. They're working with two civil rights attorneys. They're meeting with the Office the Emergency Management, who cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service and the Office of Supportive Housing. Somewhere in all the complex schematics, the at-risk homeless are being considered.
For the homeless around Ben Franklin Parkway — where an influx of millions could gather for the Pope's mass on Sunday, September 27 — Project HOME's outreach team (which consists of formerly homeless residents) will be informing them about the scale of the events, and asking how they want to be involved.
"We're not trying to ensure that they will be safe, but that they could be included in the events," Will O'Brien, special projects manager at Project HOME, said Friday. "We've even asked if we could get some ticketed seats [for the homeless] up front for the Pope's mass."
SEPTA added that the transit police are welcome to suggestions on how to help the homeless during the Pope's visit.
With 90 days until showtime, criticism is high. Aramark won a papal contract with the city and immediately came under scrutiny for their questionable prison food, which has received a laundry list of moral objections and even lawsuits.
The Vatican has confirmed the Pope's plan to visit the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in the Northeast where he will meet with prisoners and their families.