PHILADELPHIA - Philadelphia officials say they're battling the problem and trying to cut down on the city's 6,100 homeless.
But merchants in Suburban Station tell FOX 29 Investigates they've taken a financial hit because of a failed policy, Jeff Cole reports.
Suburban Station is Philly's hub for commuters riding SEPTA to their Center City jobs. And it's often the first place seen by tourists here to experience the city's historic riches.
Jeff Lincoln knows. He's sold steaming cups of joe at Passero's Coffee Roasters in Suburban for 27 years.
"It's a great location to have coffee business," he said. "It's been a successful location for us, no doubt."
But in late October, Lincoln had big doubts. Suddenly, customers would hustle off, bypassing the small shops dependent on their business.
"Hurt your business?" Cole asked.
"Most definitely," Lincoln answered. He says he's down 15 percent.
The owner of Philadelphia Shoe Outlet says he's off a punishing 35 percent.
Why? A sharp rise in the number of homeless here. And a baffling retreat in enforcement by SEPTA police.
"Never seen it this bad in 27 years?" Cole asked.
"Correct," Lincoln replied. "Without a doubt this is – you know, it's a part of the landscape of Philadelphia. But down here it really did double and triple in numbers."
Spurred on by viewer complaints and the deep concerns told directly to Cole by SEPTA workers, FOX 29 Investigates recorded in late January with a hidden camera so we wouldn't draw attention.
Suburban Station looked much like a shelter with many homeless sleeping on benches, their possessions stacked nearby.
Along a hallway, they were sprawled one after another. Police patrolled, but did not disturb.
David Snipe says he's been on the street on and off since the 80s.
"Sometimes it gets a little wild down here. But, I mean, we are only human," Snipe said. "The only thing we need, the only thing we ask for is somewhere we can sit down for a minute and, you know, take a couple of hours to get rest, recharge our batteries."
But FOX 29 Investigates has been told by multiple sources there was a lot more going on here at Suburban Station than the down-on-their-luck homeless resting. We're told a criminal element moved in among the homeless, and nearly all control was lost.
One merchant gave us pictures. He says there was open-air drug dealing, drinking, fighting, even urinating on the floor just feet from his store.
The owner of Philadelphia Shoe Outlet says, after complaining by email, tenants sent a letter to their landlord in late January writing people were "defecating where ever they feel like" and "gratifying themselves."
The letter demands a 50-percent cut in rent for six months.
Chief Thomas Nestel heads the SEPTA Transit police, the lead policing agency in Suburban Station.
"Drug usage, some sex, defecation right there on the tracks, everywhere – did it get to that point?" Cole asked.
"We have – I mean, look, when you have a population who have mental health issues, who don't have homes or places to bathe or go to the bathroom, I mean there are related concerns," Nestel said. "It becomes a little more dirty."
But merchants say it was more than that.
"The environment became overwhelmingly negative," Lincoln said.
SEPTA police had backed off.
Asked if enforcement stopped, Lincoln said, "Basically, there were police down here but they weren't interacting like they had in the past."
"Did SEPTA police in Suburban change its policy of policing down there based on any legal concern at all?" Cole asked.
"Yes," Nestel said.
It was a major change brought about in a late December meeting at SEPTA.
Nestel: "In developing strategies, we got a legal opinion, and the legal opinion said we can't move people who were loitering in the station. That problem already existed."
Cole: "Which meant, though, that people stayed?"
Cole: "That you couldn't move 'em?"
Cole: "There were more people there?"
The transit police chief argues the policy change didn't lead to more homeless in Suburban Station; they were already there.
A homeless advocate says the homeless population shot up late last year in part because Love Park, and other public spaces where homeless gathered, closed.
Merchants say they didn't learn that SEPTA had stopped enforcing loitering until a Jan. 9 meeting with the agency and others. A SEPTA spokesperson confirms that time period.
A spokesperson for City Council President Darrell Clarke says the merchants asked him for help.
Cole: "Did Darrell Clarke make a tour here?"
Nestel: "He did, he did. Yeah."
Cole: "Why did he take a tour?"
Nestel: "I don't know. You'd have to talk to him."
Cole: "How do you know he did it?"
Nestel: "I was with him."
Cole: "What was the tour about, then?"
Nestel: "Walking through Suburban Station to see the conditions."
Liz Hersh, the head of the city's Office of Homeless Services, says her office stepped up its efforts in late 2016 onward.
"I authorized overtime so we could deploy more staff down there," said. "So, they wear the orange jackets to be present, to help the homeless people, to converse with the merchants. We met with the merchants. We made more beds available."
FOX 29 Investigates returned to Suburban Station undercover late last week. The homeless remained, but in slightly fewer numbers than back in January. There was also better lighting.
Again, police were present but were not as engaged with the homeless as they were last Thursday, when we interviewed Lincoln in front of his business.
SEPTA says it has put in place a "code of conduct" prohibiting people from laying down on station benches or on the floor.
And while merchants say there's been some improvement, the city's mayor seems frustrated.
"We are constrained by federal law," Mayor Jim Kenney said. "We are constrained by laws that are on the books that keeps us from taking people physically away without their permission."
Cole also reports the mayor, in his new budget Thursday, proposed new housing for the homeless. The moment news breaks on this, he'll fill us in.