Panhandling perils and the search for solutions

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Edmund Allen is a homeless veteran.

During rush hour along Columbus Boulevard, Allen goes window to window at the red light, hoping for help.

"It's hard out here, you know," he explains. " A lot of people do it because they're on drugs and stuff. I'm not though."

Allen chooses this spot along Columbus Boulevard because he says he makes more than he might on your standard Center City sidewalk.

"This is a good street because the casino's right there. People are nice here, too," he said.

But there's a trade-off. He knows walking through traffic can be dangerous.

"Big problem. Especially people on cell phones," said Allen. "That's the biggest problem right there. Safety."

Carol Thomas is the Director of Homeless Services for Project HOME.

Thomas tells Action News, "We always connect with the panhandlers in traffic because it is dangerous."

Thomas says panhandling has been on the rise in the city, due in part to the opioid epidemic. She notes panhandlers aren't necessarily homeless.

Panhandling itself is not illegal, though panhandlers blocking streets could be cited. More and more, Thomas sees the city looking at different initiatives to address underlying social service issues.

"I think we will see a lot more creative approaches as opposed to penalizing people," Thomas predicts.

Groups like Project HOME along with city agencies including the Office of Homeless Services and Philadelphia Police work together.

The main focus is connecting panhandlers to the services they need, including help with addiction or mental health, or resources like the "Hub of Hope," a walk-in engagement center in Suburban Station.

Police officers can act as a point to summon outreach teams. Some officers have been specially trained.

"We certainly don't want to criminalize being homeless. Although we certainly recognize the safety issue of panhandling in the street," Captain Seikou Kinebrew explains, "We also realize we can't arrest our way out of a problem."

Thomas notes Project HOME's 24 hour hotline gets calls every day for people panhandling in traffic. Then, outreach teams are dispatched.

"They drive up and say 'Hey, here's where to turn. What are you doing?' We get to know most of the people who are panhandling." Thomas continues, "We don't hide our homeless. We actually look for solutions to address homelessness."

Project HOME 24 Hour Homeless Outreach Hotline: 215-232-1984
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