The CEO of the Pa. Convention Center is now an active force in solving Philly's homelessness problem

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John McNichol has a problem. It’s persistent and unrelenting, and impacts his bottom line every day.

McNichol is the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, and one of the most constant issues he deals with is the presence of people experiencing homelessness around the visitor destination.

It was around five years ago that he started to notice the street population creeping up, he said. People without a place to sleep began camping out along the covered sections of 11th and 12th streets that run beneath the Convention Center’s second floor.

“It seemed like almost overnight we saw this plume of population that basically popped up out of nowhere,” McNichol said. “It’s a direct problem for us, and it’s something that concerns our customers.”

It didn’t take long for McNichol to realize this problem wouldn’t go away on its own. Motivated initially by worries about profit margin, he wanted to find a lasting solution.

As part of a collaborative city program, he’s working on it. Called Shared Public Spaces, the innovative program unites the business community with charitable organizations via the Office of Homeless Services — and works on piloting sustainable solutions to homelessness while raising money to implement them.

Along the way, it ends up infusing a dose of compassion into Philadelphia’s business community.

The program has just launched Phase 2. Starting some time this fall, you’ll be able to use your phone to donate money to homeless services. Also on tap: a fund for corporations to donate to innovative humanitarian endeavors. Heard about the success of Mural Arts’ same-day pay program? That came out of this workgroup — and it’s now set to expand.

“In cities all over the country, the business community and the social services community have been at a head about street homelessness and panhandling,” said OHS director Liz Hersh. “What’s unique here in Philly is you have people coming together.”

Thousands of meals, hundreds of housing options

It’s been two and a half years since Mayor Jim Kenney signed the executive order establishing Shared Public Spaces. It was inspired by “an onslaught of calls and emails” Hersh was receiving from Center City businesses, who often discussed homelessness in get-off-my-lawn fashion.

“They were saying, ‘There are so many people out here, homeless and panhandling, and what the heck are you guys doing about it?’” she recalled.

Hersh got to thinking: If she brought together business owners with the professionals who work everyday to reduce homelessness, could it be mutually beneficial? She asked executives from companies like Wawa, the Loews hotel and the PHL Convention and Visitors Bureau — and most said yes.

Hersh’s hunch had some merit. The first phase of the group’s existence brought them together each month over the course of two years, and OHS came away with a handful of actionable items.

It was the Shared Public Spaces group that thought up the Hub of Hope, an oasis that offers free showers, coffee, laundry machines and case management services inside Suburban Station.

Members also brainstormed the same-day pay program, which expanded into a Mural Arts pilot that offers a paid day of work to people experiencing homelessness. They started the Ambassadors of Hope outreach team, which has gotten 130 people off the street and into permanent housing, and they opened five new free food sites in Center City, which provided 17,000 meals in two years.

“We just kicked open the doors and created a table where people could work together,” Hersh said. “I just really felt that we were going to be able to do more together.”

In June, the group entered phase two, and the members are picking up steam on a few new projects.

  • PHL Cares: Now in its infancy, this program will one day be a full-fledged funding collaborative for corporations to donate directly to social service nonprofits and innovate pilot programs
  • Text to Give: Sort of smartphone app where regular people can contribute to solve homelessness — basically an alternative to giving cash to people who are panhandling
  • Same Day Pay: Expanding with 10 more positions available at Mural Arts, and an additional 10 at the city’s vacant lot cleanup program run by CLIP

Even broader than these concrete solutions, Hersh said she’s seen a mindset shift — social services have benefitted by instilling a business perspective, and vice versa.

“By participating in these groups, by funding these solutions,” said David Simonetti, Wawa’s senior director of store operations support and business operations, “we’re not just moving this problem, but hopefully finding some solutions that can help.”

Wawa started trainings, execs use new vocabulary

This group has created ripples beyond its immediate policy changes.

For Philly’s business community, the monthly meetings have been Social Services 101. They’ve learned the appropriate ways to discuss homelessness, and they understand the methods that are most effective.

“It’s been a very accelerated learning curve for me,” said McNichol, who now discusses homelessness with such proficiency and compassion you’d think he works in the field. “First you have to learn, so that you’re educated enough to learn what the real problem is.”

Simonetti echoed the sentiment. A higher-up at Wawa, he learned so much that he’s drafted new lessons for staff at the Philly favorite convenience store. Now, store managers teach de-escalation trainings modeled after those from Broad Street Ministry.

‘When you’re working with folks on the street, oftentimes there’s a dehumanization,” Simonetti explained. “Just doing things like using people’s names, and learning how to treat people with dignity and respect can go a long way.”

There’s similar benefit, too, for the city stakeholders. Being surrounded by folks who are constantly focused on getting a return on their investment is kickstarting their productivity.

“They want to know that things are going to work,” Hersh said. “Impact, cost effectiveness, those are standards that have to be met.”

“Everyone knows we have a poverty problem in this city,” she added. “Our experience has been that [businesses] would rather support real solutions and invest in people.”

The Shared Public Spaces workgroup

These are the businesses and organizations currently participating in the workgroup:

  • Avenue of the Arts
  • Brandywine Realty Trust
  • Building Managers and Owners Association (BOMA)
  • Center City District
  • Corona Partners
  • Harp Weaver LLC
  • Hotel Association of Greater Philadelphia
  • Independence Visitors Center Corporation
  • Loews Philadelphia
  • Mural Arts Program
  • South Street Business Improvement District
  • Parkway Council Foundation
  • Pennsylvania Convention Center
  • Philadelphia Association of CDCs
  • Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau
  • Reading Terminal Market
  • Scattergood Foundation
  • Sheller Family Foundation
  • Wawa

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...