Mayor Kenney speaks about the city's new homelessness outreach program.

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LOVE Park is closed and there’s a ton of construction in Center City right now, so you may have seen more people experiencing homelessness over the past few weeks after they were displaced. In response, two months before the Democratic National Convention comes to town, the Kenney Administration announced plans Monday to deploy teams of “ambassadors” to four hot spots in the city.

Called “Hotspots in Prime Times,” the new effort will specifically target the following areas during rush hours and lunch times, according to Director of the Office of Supportive Housing Liz Hersh:

  1. The Convention Center and the concourse below it
  2. Rittenhouse Square Park
  3. East Market Street
  4. South Broad Street

Mayor Jim Kenney, who was present at a press conference announcing the efforts today, mentioned “new construction” in Center City as one of the causes of new hotspots popping up. LOVE Park, where some people experiencing homelessness lived and slept, closed in February for a year-long renovation project, effectively displacing those people.

“People were living and sleeping in LOVE Park and they have been displaced and are now in other places, in the concourse or sleeping somewhere else,” Hersh said. “It’s just what happens when people don’t have homes. It just wasn’t as visible for awhile because people were more dispersed.”

Hersh said the locations were identified over the last six to eight weeks with the help of the Center City District and are locations where homelessness is increasing the most and panhandling activity is high. The number of people experiencing homelessness hasn’t necessarily changed — it’s about 6,000 people citywide — but some are now more concentrated in certain locations.

So what will be different after the new program kicks off? Hersh said existing resources, with the exception of a new, small drug and alcohol team, will be used to focus outreach teams (like the folks in the orange shirts above) in certain areas with the goal of offering services. It’s a more concentrated effort than in the past, Hersh said.

Kenney said one of the main goals of the outreach team is to avoid criminalizing the homeless. He admitted that at one point when he was a city councilman, he thought homelessness was a “police problem,” though he now says “I was wrong.”

Former Mayor Michael Nutter was criticized for “criminalizing” homelessness when, in 2012, he announced a ban on feeding the homeless outside along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and in LOVE Park, saying, “Providing to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.”

After backlash from homeless advocates, that ban was blocked by a federal judge and an injunction was put in place. But Kenney said today that he would be in favor of symbolically overturning the ban and getting it off the books.

He wouldn’t explicitly commit to overturning the ban because he said he needs to clear it through administration attorneys, but said, “I do agree it should not be on the books… In the spirit, I am there, but spirit doesn’t always count when you’re talking about the law.”

Deployment of teams, some of which are specifically trained in dealing with issues arising from mental health or addiction, begins today in the four locations in Center City. Though the Democratic National Convention is coming to Philadelphia in two months (and some events are taking place in the Convention Center), Kenney denied the timing of the new efforts had anything to do with the DNC, saying the Democratic Party often looks for a “signature project” and may be interested in assisting in the outreach efforts.

“We may have the opportunity to utilize some of the clout that the Democratic Party brings,” Kenney said. “The DNC is probably of the same philosophy as we are that we need to help people.”

Contact homelessness outreach coordinators with information about people who may need their assistance at 215-232-1984.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.