PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Amid misty waterfalls and art museums along the parkway where Pope Francis will hold a public Mass in Philadelphia Sunday, makeshift abodes belonging to some of the city’s homeless are coming down.
Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a stretch of cultural centers and grassy parks where homeless sleep and tote their belongings in plastic bags, is undergoing papal security checks and cleanup that will displace some of the downtrodden that Francis champions.
“With this papal visit, I’ve got nowhere to stay,” said Joe Flatley, 52, a former corporate sales manager with an alcohol addiction who sometimes sleeps in the parkway.
Some 1.5 million people are expected to attend the Mass, his biggest event in the United States.
Advocates say pope preparations on the parkway, where dozens sleep and hundreds of homeless receive free meals daily by volunteers, have left its residents uncertain about where to eat or stay.
“The pope’s whole message of mercy and justice is not being mirrored by the city of Philadelphia and the Secret Service here,” said Brian Jenkins, who runs Chosen 300 Ministries, a homeless advocacy group that distributes food in the area.
While in Washington on his first U.S. visit, the Argentine-born pope told a group of homeless people that on Thursday there is no justification for homelessness before having lunch at a charity that serves them.
Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, counts about 5,500 people living on the streets or other unsheltered areas, but that number does not include those in some of the city’s poorest areas, homeless services group Project HOME said.
The parkway, which will host two events attended by Francis, has been designated a top U.S. Secret Service security zone for the visit.
Official security sweeps will begin on Thursday and items belonging to the homeless left inside the zone will be thrown away, according to a “Homeless Survival Guide” being passed out.
The area will be barricaded off Saturday and identification, metal detector scans and tickets will be required for entry. Items, including tents and large backpacks, will be barred.
Some of the parkway’s homeless contingent may be allowed to stay within its boundaries during the security sweep, but that plan remains uncertain.
Kevin McNicholl, 65, who has been on the streets a decade, said he would relocate to an alleyway behind a men’s clothing store. “It’s just more convenient,” he said.
Adam Bruckner, who runs Philly Restart, a nonprofit that mainly helps the homeless get identification cards, said by hosting the pope on the parkway, there would be unavoidable disruptions, but the city was making a notable effort.
“There’s no perfect solution,” he said.
City officials say they have worked with advocates to form a homeless-sensitive plan for the visit by Francis within the restrictions of federal security mandates.
“We’ve made every effort to be respectful of these individuals,” said Eva Gladstein, who heads Mayor Michael Nutter’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.
Additional shelter beds will be opened for the visit and indoor soup kitchens will be operating overtime. Outreach workers will monitor security sweeps of encampments to ensure fair treatment.
Still Gregory Kelly, 52, who sleeps on a parkway bench, and other homeless in the area say they have been threatened by police in recent days to leave the area.
Adetokunbo Ige, an artist who set up his paintings of the pope on a table in front of a grassy parkway patch where he sleeps, said he would try to stay.
“We’re citizens just like everybody else, and we’d like to hear what the pope has to say,” Ige said.
Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker