I’m talking with Chad late at night in the Rite Aid parking lot just off Aramingo Avenue in the city’s Riverwards neighborhood. Chad is homeless and sleeps in an encampment under a remote section of I-95 with several other people. He spends his days canvassing traffic carrying a cardboard sign. In the evening he looks for cigarette butts, scraps of food or other ‘valuable’ found objects. He goes to the local WAWA to help himself to ice water and when he has money to spend he goes into Rite Aid to make light purchases.

Chad’s been in the area for several years but he’s noticed a change in the attitude of the businesses along this section of the Aramingo strip. Just a few years ago businesses like Pizza Hut would gladly give left over pizza and other food items to “special” homeless people who sat outside their store at night. That’s not the case now. Homeless people are forbidden to sit along the Pizza Hut strip which also includes a Dunkin Donuts. A new militant anti-homeless spirit has taken over.

The local Wawa used to look the other way when the homeless panhandled in front of the store. For most WAWA managers, peaceful, non violent homeless people holding doors open for customers was not a big deal.

To be fair, the homeless situation at Wawa is a complex one because as more and more homeless people began coming there to panhandle, the front of the store became too crowded with people asking for money. What had been a manageable situation for years (WAWA managers would break up large assemblies of the homeless but they would allow an occasional few to panhandle or hold doors), had now mushroomed into a big headache. The situation was not helped by a few bad apples—panhandlers who stole items from the store or who got into fights with other homeless. Every group has its mental cases, and the homeless are certainly not exempt from this fact of life. Doesn’t it always come down to a few ruining it for the many?

The situation caused Wawa to hire a full time security staff whose job became chasing every single panhandler off the premises. This crusade assumed a fanatical intensity so that sometimes non-homeless people were (and are) mistaken for panhandlers. Chad informed me of one recent incident when a group of kids went into this WAWA to harass a friend while he was working behind the deli counter. The kids confronted the worker inside the store then proceeded to invade the deli space. While this was going on, Chad says the security guard sat by helplessly and did nothing. Apparently the security guard’s only training was how to chase homeless people around the parking lot. The poor, untrained guard did not know how to handle a genuine crises situation.

Wawa’s new anti-homeless crackdown included (for a time) the Draconian measure of banning from the store anyone who used to panhandle outside. Chad says he witnessed a confrontation between several homeless people who tried to purchase something in the store when a manager told them to leave because they were not welcome. When one of the homeless in the group spoke up and said, “Why am I being denied service? Is it because I am a veteran or because I am homeless?” the manager mentioned the latter. The manager did an about face when someone in the group announced that a friend was secretly videotaping the encounter for You Tube. The panicked manager immediately apologized, but the damage had already been done.

Do the militant anti-panhandlers wish to turn this section of the city into suburbia? Can the Riverwards really be turned into a version of the sleepy, sanitized suburbs?

Recently, while talking with a friend along Huntingdon Street I witnessed a security guard come out of Rite Aid and use his foot to nudge or softly “kick” a homeless person who had fallen asleep on a remote section of Rite Aid property. The guard wanted the homeless person to wake up, but why couldn’t he just clap his hands or make some other noise to get the desired results? The fact that he used his foot startled me. Have we really come to this? Although Rite Aid is indeed private property and has every right to police its premises, does it also have a right to deny homeless people entry into the store?

Chad told me that he shops at Rite Aid when he has money but that he was recently denied entrance to the store by a new security guard who pegged him as homeless.

In other words, homeless people do not have the same rights that you and I have. In order to have rights, you have to have a house to live in. If you don’t live in a house, you are considered subhuman.

Chad continued: “One night I decided to pick up a lot of trash in the Rite Aid parking lot, and when customers saw me do this they came over and handed me money. That’s when I noticed some employees of Rite Aid staring at me through the window. They were mad that people were giving me money when I wasn’t even asking for it.”

In many states across the nation there’s talk about passing a Homeless Bill of Rights. The bill calls for an end of the criminalization of poor and homeless people, and the end of harassment and criminalization at the hands of the police. You might as well throw security guards in there as well.

In San Francisco, former Philadelphian, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, has become a fierce advocate for the homeless. In a recent online interview, Mecca asks, “Who are the real criminals?” Mecca believes that the people who are criminalizing the homeless who are the real criminals. “It’s the people who are hassling the homeless, it’s the people who are trying to pass laws against sitting or lying in the sidewalk, they are the criminals,” he says. And he’s absolutely correct.

“The sidewalks belong to the people. They are public property and public means all of us. It doesn’t mean people who are housed, or people who don’t appear to be homeless…which is the way that people these days interrupt it, that only they, the people who are housed, have a right to the sidewalks, to public benches or whatever. Public means public. It means everybody, therefore people who are restricting public space from members of the public, are committing a crime.”

Mecca really believes that the ones chasing the homeless off sidewalks and public benches are the real criminals. “If I’m sitting or lying in the sidewalk I’m using that public space for however I want to use it. Why should I be criminalized for that?” he asks.

While businesses have the right to forbid or restrict panhandling on their property, an overzealous approach to the problem can often lead to other problems. If you are a Wawa owner and don’t want to see a single panhandler on your property, it might be wise to move to a small town in Utah where a utopian vision like that might be attainable, but you’re never going to attain that goal in a big, gritty city like Philadelphia.

What I find most interesting about the latest crackdown on panhandling in the Riverwards is that since this “no mercy” policy was implemented, neighbors in the area have been complaining about thefts of various items like patio furniture, umbrellas and tables from the front porches of their homes. I see an important correlation here. If you ban panhandling, some desperados will do anything to get money, and stealing may become a viable option.

(Next installment: The Homeless Problem as seen from the WAWA and Rite Aid point of view ).

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