Philadelphia mayoral candidates discuss how to help city’s unhoused residents

‘I will break up the open-air drug market,’ in Kensington, former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said

By: - April 19, 2023 9:11 am
Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall (Adobe Stock/The Philadelphia Gay News)

By Sherry Stone

PHILADELPHIA — Three of the city’s Democratic mayoral aspirants tackled tough tie-in issues to homelessness during a recent forum sponsored by Philadelphia’s homeless and youth providers.

A drug problem in Kensington, in particular, sparked a response.

“I will break up the open-air drug market,” former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said, adding that she would provide compassion and get rid of a three-week wait to get into a recovery program.

Rhynhart, former City Councilmember Helen Gym and Judge James DeLeon, who all are seeking the Democratic nomination for the city’s top spot,  participated in the forum sponsored by SELF, Inc. at the advocacy group’s headquarters on Woodland Ave.

DeLeon said he would take a three-pronged attack to the drug problem and “go after drug dealers.” He said he would “put up mobile health units, triage the people and bring them in.”

Gym said seeing drug addicts on the streets around the city is a horrible example for youth.

“Young people should not be walking past scenes that they should not be aware of,” she said. “The front steps of libraries, parks, schools are horrifying!”

New SELF Inc. Chief Operating Officer Shirlana Dash who helped put together the forum noted that “society tends to pretend that homeless people are invisible — but they are not. Seventy-five percent of people experience homelessness in Philadelphia.”

WURD radio’s morning show host Solomon Jones was the moderator for the forum that was also supported by Philly House, Project HOME, Philly Homes for Youth, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Philadelphia Housing Action.

“We need to create support systems in our shelters that allow people to get a stable footing,” said Rhynhart. “I would put forth an economic growth and development policy that that would create pathways, inroads to good paying careers,” and for that, people will need training.

Gym said she cares about people “who are facing the most urgent crisis of their lives.” She said she supports more support services that require less red tape. Gym recounted how as a teacher she had a 10-year-old student who became homeless when his family was evicted.

DeLeon said he would like to pattern the city’s handling of homelessness after the national incident management program for natural disasters. In each situation, “you will need displaced care: day care, job counseling, a roof over your head, food in your stomach.

“I am going to have FEMA come in and get incident training for every single program and organization in this city,” he said.

What can be done about people who choose to live in encampments instead of shelters? Rhynhart said, “The city is spending a hundred million dollars on this system … If we need more money then we need to also leverage city funds and go after state and federal funds.”

“Four thousand, five hundred people who are unhoused in Philadelphia,” Gym said. Services for for people with mental health issues. are need. “Homeless outreach is seen as a charitable — not as foundational. I want to end that.”

Project Home said, “7,500 people were shot and killed by law enforcement between 2015 and 2022 … 20%, were experiencing a mental health crisis,” and many of them were Black.

“This issues goes not just to the metal health crisis, but to issues of mistrust between police and the community,” DeLeon said. His answer: “If there is a non-criminal emergency, instead of 911, 311 would be called. A trained mobile unit, would arrive to handle disputes.”

Gym said this issue is important in the wake of Walter Wallace’s murder in 2020 by police.

Raising wages to meet the rising costs of housing was another concern. Rynhart said she would support a minimum-wage hike.

“It’s way too low,” she said. It’s about $9 an hour in Pennsylvania. “And I support unions.” Rhynhart said she would also work to “double the number of Black-owned businesses — it is so low here compared to Atlanta, Charlotte and Baltimore.”

She said she would give as much as 40% of contracts to small businesses. And she would look at tax policy tools, to help lower-wage earners.

Former city Mayor Wilson Goode, who also was on hand, wrapped up the event with a call to vote May 16.

“Your job is not done until then,” he said.

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