The more things change, according to the old saying, the more they stay the same.
Decades ago when systemic prejudice blunted participation by Black owned construction businesses and construction workers on the project building Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall a white mayor and white city council president headed city government.
Today as systemic prejudice blunts participation of Black owned construction businesses and construction workers on the $50-million project remaking that plaza into a park-like space with ice skating rink a Black mayor and Black city council president head city government.
The systemic prejudice perpetuating the exclusion of Blacks from equitable economic access around Philadelphia provided poignant context for comments made during a hearing regarding homelessness in City Council Chambers last Thursday afternoon.
The contrast of the construction outside City Hall and pleas for compassion inside City Council again exposed the reality that discriminatory exclusions from employment and economic opportunities — aided and abetted by officials in the public and private sectors — are contributory elements in the matrix of homelessness.
During that hearing, convened by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, speakers assailed the [allegedly] callous new policy by the administration of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter barring the outdoor feeding of large numbers of people.
While the parameters of this Nutter administration policy apply to outdoor feeding in all city-owned, parks this policy clearly targets snatching food from the mouths of the needy homeless congregating along the Parkway in Center City particularly near the newly opened Barnes Foundation Museum.
Religious, civic and educational groups are those principally engaged in feeding the homeless in the Center City sections targeted by Nutter’s ban.
“This city, for the second year in a row, is the second hungriest district in the entire United States. That is a shame that needs to be addressed,” Erik Younge said during that hearing.
Younge, a writer for One Step Away, a local newspaper produced by homeless persons, said he has participated in programs feeding the needy for 35 years.
“Why stop people doing a necessary thing? Good health is both a human right and a civil right,” Younge said. “Feeding people is a fundamental right … banning it is immoral.”
Speakers like Younge and David Shively sought compassion for the homeless from the Nutter Administration. But those pleas eluded ears of ranking officials who, as a KWY reporter noted, didn’t testify during that hearing.
“If we don’t have people who care about those at the bottom we will have more people at the bottom,” Shively said during his hearing presentation.
Shively, who’s fed the homeless for over a dozen years said, “We must see those people we don’t want to look at.”
Nutter Administration officials deny any offensive against the homeless along the Parkway inclusive of sweeping the destitute away from the eye sight of tourists visiting the new Barnes.
Nutter officials defend the banning policy saying its purpose is to provide dignity and better quality food to the homeless by moving meals to indoor settings where the homeless can receive other services.
However, the Administration’s suggested indoor feeding settings and service provisions were not in place when the ban policy began last Friday.
“City officials have stated that there is no information on illnesses from outdoor meals,” Rev Brian Jenkins said during his testimony at Thursday’s hearing. Jenkins is the executive director of Chosen 300, a ministry with specific outreach to the homeless.
“Every day there are food carts in Center City were 30 to 50 people line up for hot dogs and bags of chips and the City sees no [food quality] problem,” Jenkins said.
The intent of the administration’s feeding ban, Jenkins declared, is to “tuck the homeless in a corner and pretend they don’t exist.”
The Nutter administration’s new hard-line on the homeless, at least the homeless in Center City areas seeking tourists, contrasts with that administration’s soft-peddling of employment excluding prejudice within Philadelphia’s construction industry.
The Nutter administration, like too many previous administrations and contemporary private sector CEOs, accommodates prejudicial practices by building trades unions plus the prime contractors that both accept trade union employment discrimination and practice prejudice against Black-owned construction related businesses.
“Why wasn’t even one of the homeless men and women who have lived on the Parkway for years marked for training or employment with the $150-200 million raised and/or expended by the Barnes? ... or anyplace else???,” a former Philadelphia housing director, Tom Massaro, asked in a recent letter he sent to a news reporter.
“Many of these citizens will remain hungry and homeless because the Mayor blew an ideal chance to engage the city’s philanthropic community in addressing the city’s struggle to assist hungry and homeless citizens on the Parkway and elsewhere.”
The concerns voiced by Massaro about structural exclusions of non-whites in Philadelphia’s lucrative contracting and high-wage paying construction industry echoes observations made in September 1966 by the national NAACP’s Director of Labor Programs.
In a 1966 Philadelphia Tribune article that NAACP official, Herbert Hill, caustically said “high government officials who piously demand law and order are the same officials who refuse to enforce the law in protecting the rights of Negroes against discrimination in employment.”
A 1966 Tribune editorial supported Hill’s observation stating, “The only reason Negroes are treated as second class citizens is because the law enforcement agencies refuse to enforce the law.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.