Handing over some spare change to a homeless person might seem like a nice, compassionate thing to do, but according to city officials and homeless advocates this week, it only exacerbates the problem.
This is why a citywide campaign seeks to encourage residents of Philadelphia to put that money where it can do the most good.
Real Change, a partnership with Center City District, city government and major service providers is an updated version of an earlier campaign to discourage people from giving to homeless people on the street.
The issue is that many homeless residents have addictions or other mental health problems that make a street donation counterproductive, according to the initiative's supporters.
"Even in times of economic downturns, Philadelphians are still generous to people in need," said CCD President Paul R. Levy during a press conference Wednesday afternoon at City Hall. "The Real Change campaign helps educate the public about the most constructive ways to help those who are homeless. Some people on the streets are just con artists and some live with drug addictions. We want to make sure the money gets to those organizations with a successful record of helping the homeless."
According to Levy, giving spare change to panhandlers enables destructive behaviors, since many homeless people use the money to support drug addictions.
Through the use of posters, ads in nine local newspapers, change boxes in stores and businesses, Levy said the campaign will communicate the message that generous residents should give to organizations with a proven record of helping the homeless get off the streets and into a self-supportive status.
Groups like Sister Mary Scullion's Project H.O.M.E. and Ready Willing and Able, Horizon House, the Bethesda Project and the Mental Health Association of Southeast Pennsylvania, have long been assisting homeless people move off the streets and into productive lives.
"We need to recognize the fact that giving directly to panhandlers is not the most effective way to help those who are most in need," said Mayor Michael Nutter, who wholeheartedly supports the campaign. "Often panhandlers are not homeless and suffer from addictions. The best thing we can do is to support the organizations that help people turn their lives around and enter recovery."
The Real Change campaign in its revived form is a broader city effort to address the problem of homelessness in Center City.
Teams of specially trained personnel will provide outreach services and direct assistance to homeless persons.
One of Project H.O.M.E.'s success stories, Yvonne Bailey, said she had been homeless on the streets for 17 years, a condition that was brought about by her addiction to crack cocaine.
"It's been a struggle," Bailey said tearfully. "It's been a long time since I've been in City Hall and before it was for all the wrong reasons. I have four children–my last child is 4 years old. I had lost all hope and thought there was no turning back, but there is hope and there can be a change. I was in and out of recovery facilities but I did that for all the wrong reasons. I didn't do it for me. When I was in the hospital having my last baby, I asked them to find a facility for women and children because I was tired. I was tired of laying around in crack houses. The day before I left the hospital, they put me in Caton Village, where I stayed for 17 months."
Caton Village, located at 1239 Spring Garden St., specializes in treatment of substance abuse. After leaving Caton Village, Bailey said she went to Bridge's Step Down, another substance abuse treatment facility. Bridges' Step Down, part of the Philadelphia Health Management Cooperation's network of substance abuse treatment programs and is a transitional housing program that preserves the family unit.
Bailey stayed at Bridge's for a year and two months before transitioning to her own home.
"I finally had my own set of keys, that's when reality set in," Bailey said. "I was paying my bills, I got my children back. I was being responsible. I'm living proof that you can do it if you want to."