on october 14th of this year mayor dennis williams of wilmington held a press conference at rodney square in wilmington delaware. the rumor had it that he was going to unveil his new push to make the wilmington business district clean and safe. for days the rumor had been circulating among the homeless population that the mayor was going to really come down hard on the homeless. i don't usually go to these types of things, but since it was going to be outside and since it did seem to concern the homeless people and since from what i read in the newspapers i liked mayor williams, i decided to go and see what was said.
i got there alittle early and there were alot of things that struck me ....as well....odd. let me describe rodney square up to that day. it's a nice little area on market street...right across from the dupont hotel. on all sides sit banks, the library, a church, and other assorted downtown businesses. the buses stop here on there way to various points in the city and the suburbs. it has benches on old cobblestone and brick walkways. it has a little grassy area that is ideal for dogs to run or children to scamper. it has beautiful old trees that shade the area from the sun. all in all, it's a pretty nice little spot in downtown wilmington. but it wasn't really. every day it was filled with homeless people. it was filled with people who had homes too. it was an open air drug market. there was plenty of drinking. there was an occasional fight. cigarettes were being sold. bus passes were being hawked. it was a mess. but today....well...like i said, i was alittle early. there were already four policemen walking in the square. two patrol cars had pulled up into the square and were sitting...waiting. a bicycle officer was there. there were two undercover officers that i know of that were there. two safety officers from downtown visions were there. three visions street cleaners were there. two visions trucks were there. the first thing i thought to myself was....if they paid 1/3 as much attention to this area as they are in this hour long conference, they wouldn't be having this conference. some homeless advocates were there...but not many considering this was suppose to be an important announcement and the fact that it did concern the very clients they are suppose to be serving and helping. the only people i saw out in full force were the employees of rvrc...the rick vanstory resource center. they, btw are a good orgnaization who do alot of good for people with drug addictions, alcohol problems and mental illnesses. they've come a long way from the beginning and i think at the moment are one of the top organizations in wilmington.
so...here we are...waiting for the mayor. i see four or so more police officers arrive and then there he is.....the mayor of wilmington. he takes the podium and goes thru his plan to create a safer and cleaner business district in wilmington. now again....something needed to be done. there was indeed too much panhandling. too many people asking for cigarettes. too many drugs being bought and sold. too many drunk people walking around. too many homeless people hanging around being more or less a nuisance. but....there were also too many with homes doing the same thing. you can check out mayor williams little speech on the delaware news journal online if you're curious. but in essence what he said was this......we're going to get rid of the homeless population in downtown wilmington. period...point blank. now something else struck me as odd. the people he was suppose to be doing this for....the business people and the people that work downtown...they weren't there. there were more reporters and police officers and mayor's staff than there were anyone else. the conference was over and it was time for questions....but there was only one problem. the mayor was only taking questions from reporters...no homeless people...no homeless advocates....no organizations....just reporters. now there's something inheritently wrong with that. you're my mayor...not a journalist from philadelphia's mayor. why can't i ask you a question?
alright....i walked away from the conference with a feeling that for the next few days there was definetly going to be change downtown. there was. officers were patrolling the street. two were stationed in rodney square....all day. undercover officers were riding the streets. <btw....change your cars....everyone knows them> homeless people were being stopped while walking down the street and being told to move along. you could not sit down in rodney square without an officer telling you to move along. now...this is a park....why couldn't you sit there if you're not doing anything disruptive or illegal. wasn't that the purpose of cleaning up that area? you could not sit anywhere in the downtown area without an officer approaching you. i was walking down the street one day....going to lunch. i stopped by a market to buy a coke. i came out and walked along a side street toward king street. that particular day i had a back pack....because i was carrying some books in it to give to st patricks church. a patrol officer pulled along side me and asked me if he could help me. i said...no...i'm ok and started to move on. he said....don't walk away. i thought...oh boy...here we go. he asked me what i was doing in this area. i said....i'm going to lunch. he said....where are you coming from...i said...the market. he said...what are you doing...i said...i'm going to lunch. he asked me if i had identification....i said...yes. he asked me if i had any paper on me....which means do i have a warrant. i felt my blood pressure rise alittle, not from fear but from alittle anger starting to grow. well....he didn't ask me for it again. he just said...ok...keep it moving....so i did, to lunch.
in the next few days homeless people were stopped while walking along the street for no other reason than they were homeless. homeless people were told they couldn't sit in the park by the riverfront because they don't work or patronize the area. homeless people were told they couldn't enjoy the afternoon in rodney square reading a book. homeless people were told they couldn't sit by the fountains on delaware avenue. homeless people were being driven out of downtown wilmington. there is a little park on market street. it's not much of a park...about seventy feet by six feet. it has a couple of chairs in it and something similar to a stage. i don't remember the exact wording of what's written on the wall...but it says something along the lines of....for the people....built by the people to be used by the people. one morning i got a cup of coffee at leo and jimmy's . i walked down market street on the way to the friendship house. my cell phone rang so i sat down in that park to drink the coffee while i talked on the cell phone. i'm in the people's park...built ironically enough with the help of homeless people and the creative vision factory. an officer pulls up and says i can't sit there.....and to move on. i wasn't shocked....but i was surprised. apparently the people's park is for the people....unless you're homeless people. which brings me to my point...finally.
mayor williams.....and all the mayors of other cities...listen. before you decide that you need to eradicate homeless people from your city, think. think if there is another solution. don't insult my dignity and my self worth by deciding that i am a problem for you city and responsible for the social and economic downturn of your city. i'm probably not. i may be a problem you need to address. i may be a problem that has grown too large and needs to be handled. but i am not your sole problem. before you decide on action against the homeless, why not talk to the homeless? we know what the problems are. we know where the problems are. we know who the problems are. we know as much about your downtown business district as you do. in some cases...more so. don't bother with the advocates and social organizations who will tell you they need conferences and panels and "honest discussions". don't bother with people who don't bother with us. don't bother with people who say that their organization and your office needs to have a joint plan to solve the problem. they're pushing their own agenda and trying to achieve status and recognition, we...are trying to survive and coexist with you. we have to. ask us....it just might work. besides....just like in alot of cities that have done this....even if you are successful in removing us...we're still here...somewhere. and your downtown area probably will still be suffering economically. your crime rate will probably still be rising. your neighborhoods will still be scared at nite. and you won't see another term. i hope you do. you are basically a good man with good intentions and i think you have the best interest of wilmington in mind when you decide things. just slow down alittle and rethink.
now all in all....here's what i think about this whole thing. the mayor did the right thing. but as in the case of many initiatives and plans, it was taken to the extreme. the homeless were made targets. they were intimidated. they were harrassed. their pride, ego, and sense of being as a person was bruised. we are a problem...but not the only problem. your crime rate is soaring while you are stopping us from sitting on a bench. people are being shot while you waste patrols on us. people are being robbed just a few blocks away while you search our backpacks. rethink this alittle. make the downtown area safe and clean.....but don't forget about the other areas of the city. and don't forget that we're homeless....but we are indeed your constituents also.
see you around town