October 20-26, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Why the city's homeless plan is far from "ambitious."
At last Wednesday's press conference in City Hall, Mayor Street congratulated Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who congratulated Street, who congratulated managing director Pedro Ramos, and so forth. Hearing the loud applause that accompanied each plaudit, one might have wondered what great feat of government had been accomplished.
The city was releasing its 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, a report it had generated to compete more effectively for federal funding. Two hundred and five communities around the country have either created or are creating 10-year plans, though none of the speakers mentioned that. They simply said that the plan, which the mayor asked a task force to devise in June 2004, was complete, and homelessness czar Rob Hess declared that Philly could become "the first city in America to end homelessness."
Philadelphia does indeed have respected homeless services, but after 15 months of work, a closer look at the heralded document leaves questions about how much this plan really adds.
Street himself offered very few specifics. After rebuffing criticism that his administration responded with more vigor for the victims of Hurricane Katrina than it does for Philadelphia's poor, Street said, "When I turn the podium over to the managing director, I'll find out in more detail just how much money I'm committing to spend."
Ramos explained only a little more. Over the next two and a half years, he said, $10 million will be used to implement the plan. That money will mostly be "identified" from other funding streams, like behavioral health and housing programs. In other words, said a source who participated in the preparation of the plan, money that was already going toward homeless programs will be repackaged and sent to the same place. (The source, fearing reprisal, spoke on condition of anonymity).
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project H.O.M.E. and a chief architect of the plan, acknowledges that the $10 million is not all new.
"Did the mayor endorse the plan and bring up $10 million he never saw before? No," she says. But she explains that the money was allocated previously because the city knew the plan was coming. "People knew what needed to be done. [The money] is related to the plan."
Ramos also announced a commitment by the city to add 600 units of subsidized housing for the homeless. Although he said there would be "no new committees or task forces," he did announce a "leadership group" responsible for figuring out how to make the new units happen (so that wasn't part of the plan).
If you turn to the actual document, a 34-page booklet (23, without appendices) for more specifics about what the Inquirer credulously called "an ambitious plan" and the Daily News heartily endorsed, you'll find a description of the present homelessness situation, calls for increased resources and a long outline of things the city would like to accomplish without a plan for how to get there. The report requests new standards for shelters, but does not suggest what those standards should be; it proposes a "citywide plan to coordinate systems and services," but does not describe how this could be done.
Some things are rendered in slightly greater detail like a recommendation to expand street outreach beyond Center City, or to increase the number of rental vouchers but the plan doesn't identify responsible parties. The only thing marked with a timeline is the "next steps" section, which calls for more planning. An "action plan" is due by December.
Phyllis Ryan, executive director of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness, an advocacy group that has been consistently critical of the city's homeless efforts, says the plan "could have been produced 20 years ago."
"This is exactly where you end up when you have an industry write its own future that includes its own demise," she says, referring to the commonly held notion that homeless advocates won't end homelessness because it would put them out of business.
Philadelphia's homeless services have been praised by national figures as being among the nation's best and, according to Hess, the number of people living on the street has fallen to less than 400 from more than 800 in 1998. But a long, hard winter is expected: According to Project H.O.M.E., shelters are already operating at 104 percent capacity (115 percent in family facilities) with a heating bill crisis looming, and it's hard to see exactly what new ideas Philly's plan includes.
Did it really take 15 months to figure out that homeless people need affordable housing and better services? And if the city just had to repackage its homeless programming to satisfy federal funders, did the release of new packaging warrant such fanfare?
Scullion concedes that the 10-year plan "is a preamble," and that most things in the report were understood 15 months ago.
"What took 15 months was engaging all the stakeholders," she says. "As common sense as what you're reading is, people have different ideas about it. That's what took so long."
President Bush's homelessness czar, Philip Mangano, has been briefed on Philly's plan, and agrees that it is vague, but says this is "not unusual."
"I would consider it to be a general plan and what Philadelphia will do now is develop an implementation and action plan that will put in the details. [The plan] forms a trajectory," he says.
But another source who was involved in the making of the plan says that the details have already been worked out. He remembers going over things like the number of new shelters needed, what the capacity for those shelters should be, and even how much they would cost but those specifics didn't make the final cut.
"The details are sitting on somebody's desk in the city somewhere," he says. "There must be a reason why they didn't make those public."
The only explanation he can think of is that if the mayor avoids committing to specifics, it "lets him off the hook" when things don't happen. (The city did not respond to several requests for comment.)
In any case, Scullion says the report and fanfare served the purpose of calling attention to the challenge of housing the homeless, which in recent years has become something of a tired fad. For instance, she says, neighborhoods and council members often oppose the placement of shelters in their own back yards. Scullion says that putting the issue center-stage creates the "political will" for everyone to do his part.
"To have the mayor endorse it, hey, we take what we can get," says Scullion.
One homeless service provider fears that the congratulations will be short-lived.
"They'd better pat themselves on the back now," he says, "because it's going to be hard to in the middle of winter."
As for Ryan, she thinks the fanfare never should have started. She says she believes the mayor was hurt by the suggestion that he'd worked harder for Katrina evacuees than for Philadelphians, and was looking to combat that perception. She found the decision to blow his own horn over such a minor accomplishment to be in poor taste.
"To do something like that press conference," she says, "that was just ech."