“Shared Public Spaces” workgroup convenes, commits to further progress as workforce and visitors return to Center City

PHILADELPHIA –  Leaders representing Philadelphia’s business community, hospitality and tourism industry, civic associations, and City government met last week to discuss effective and humane solutions to homelessness at a pivotal moment. They also expressed hope, highlighting key accomplishments of their six-year-long “Shared Public Spaces” partnership, and asked for more, diverse groups to join the initiative.

As the numbers of commuters and tourists move closer to pre-pandemic levels, meeting attendees raised concerns about programs and services for Philadelphia’s most vulnerable people.

“Philadelphia has been bucking national trends in homelessness, with chronic street homelessness and family homelessness declining in recent years,” Liz Hersh, the director of the City’s Office of Homeless Services (OHS), told attendees. The number of panhandlers within the boundaries of the Center City District (CCD) is down 38 percent from 2019 levels. Daytime homeless population within the CCD also fell 34.5 percent during the same period. Police overnight counts from Spring Garden St. to South St. also fell by around 60 percent in the past three years.

“But there is so much work left to do,” Hersh added. “This crisis affects all of us, and expanding our partnership is the way to create solutions.”

The OHS director said the Shared Public Spaces initiative has made real progress on the issues it originally set out to address in 2016. The partnership targeted reductions in panhandling by offering employment alternatives, established daytime services with showers and laundry, invited meal providers indoors, and established a novel funding source through PHLCares – a donor-advised fund of the Philadelphia Foundation. The COVID-19 pandemic has since steered partners toward addressing unexpected emergencies.

Hersh and other speakers said now is the time to keep the momentum going as the city is reawakening.

“At the end of the day, all we want to do is bring families together, to see a mother or a father return home to their child.” said Mel Wells, CEO of the local nonprofit One Day At A Time (ODAAT). “Same Day Pay, and other programs that Shared Public Spaces supports, allow that to happen. We need to keep planting seeds of hope in those children.”

Through Same Day Pay, vulnerable individuals can work and get paid the same day. It includes landscaping, cleaning litter, painting murals and other work. More than 500 men and women have participated in the initiative through ODAAT alone. Same Day Pay – which also connects participants to housing, mentorship, and more – counts additional programs run by the Mural Arts and the Community Life Improvement Programs (CLIP).

While acknowledging these achievements, speakers insisted the need for more help was urgent.

“Providing the financial resources for supportive housing is both a human imperative and a business imperative. It is also an investment in the continued growth and vitality of our great city,” said John J. McNichol, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority and co-chair of Shared Public Spaces subcommittee on chronic homelessness.

Participants included representatives from Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, the SEPTA regional transport network, Building Owners and Managers Association, the Philadelphia Police Department, various tourist venues, philanthropy, and many other public agencies and businesses. Other speakers and panelists in attendance included Paul Levy, President and CEO of the Center City District; Don Haas, General Manager of Brandywine Realty Trust; Eva Gladstein, the City’s Deputy Managing Director for Health and Human Services; and Dr. Nikia Owens, the Deputy Director of Family Supports & Basic Needs of the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. Businesses and civic groups that would like to share their ideas or get involved can complete the new Shared Public Spaces survey. For more information on PHLCares, visit phlcares.com.

Shared Public Spaces is a public-private workgroup comprised of more than a dozen leaders from the business, hospitality and civic communities. Launched in 2016, the group has made it its mission to ensure public spaces in Philadelphia can be utilized safely and enjoyed by all.

PHLCares is a donor-advised fund of Philadelphia Foundation supported by Wawa, PREIT, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority amongst other donors. Borne out of Shared Public Spaces, the fund provides businesses the opportunity to pool resources to fund non-profits that are working to address homelessness by increasing housing inventory and wrap-around supportive services.