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Along a crumbling industrial road in North Philadelphia, protected by an imposing barbed wire fence, is a used car lot with a sign outside depicting its name, “Robin’s Auto Sale.”

Missing, apparently, is another sign indicating that the lot is one of approximately 100 “safe havens” designated by the city as safe places kids can go for help going to or coming from school if they feel in danger — not that a man working there on Wednesday was aware of this.

“This is a car lot,” he explained, when asked about its status as a refuge for scared kids. “How’s it going be a safe haven?”

It’s one of several questions that might be asked regarding the readiness and sustainability of “Walk Safe PHL,” the city’s plan for protecting kids making new, longer, and potentially more dangerous treks from closed schools to new ones.
The initiative revolves around 36 city-designated “safe corridors” to new schools. These routes, Mayor Nutter announced a month ago, would be staffed by volunteers.

It was only three days before classes began on Sept. 9 that several details — including how many volunteers would be needed and how many had been recruited — emerged.

“On Monday, all 36 routes … will be staffed,” the mayor’s spokesman, Mark McDonald, wrote in an email last Thursday evening, “with more than 250 trained, adult volunteers in yellow vests. Additionally, there will be more than 100 safe havens where students can go along the route if they feel unsafe. The safe havens will be marked clearly with signs.”

None of those assurances appear to have been accurate on Day One, when some routes were seemingly unmanned, volunteers were without vests, “safe havens” were unmarked, and turnout was lower than expected. And it’s not clear how the plan will fare going forward.

The “safe haven” plan is one example. Each site was supposed to have been contacted, twice by outreach teams and was to be marked with a prominent sign. But Robin’s Auto Sales, one of six sites designated for Roberto Clemente Middle School, wasn’t the only “safe haven” unaware of its designation.

A woman sitting behind the counter of Judith’s Nail Salon, on Erie Ave. designated a “safe haven” on the city’s list — had no idea what a reporter was talking about. Neither did the man working behind the counter of Sneaker Outlet, just down the street. The Erie Avenue Baptist Church, a few blocks from Clemente, was closed and locked. Another business, Key Auto Sales, was listed at the wrong address.

After contacting the city’s public safety director, Michael Resnick, regarding these findings, the office responded that “some employees may not have been aware” of the establishments’ “safe haven” status, and that Town Watch Integrated Services, overseeing the Walk Safe PHL program for the city, “has decided to exclude auto shops and the like because of safety concerns.”

The city claims to be staffing each of the 36 designated “safe corridor” routes with volunteers— but this reporter, checking two routes near the Henry C. Lea School and Clemente, on the first day of school, found no visible volunteer presence at either. City officials disputed this, claiming that both sites had had volunteers, but could not say when they were there or where they were stationed.

As Resnick pointed out, it was the program’s first day. And, the day after a report on volunteer staffing at the two schools was posted on AxisPhilly and published in the Daily News, Resnick reported that no less than six volunteers had showed up at Lea. A visit to Clemente middle school the following day revealed a volunteer presence as well: self-styled crime fighter Greg Bucceroni and volunteer partner Carmelo Gonzalez, who were ready in yellow vests when school let out.

But while Bucceroni and Gonzalez manned the stretch of Lehigh Ave along which most kids walked after school, they and the children ignored the route set by the city, directing kids to walk down a lonely stretch of Sedgley Avenue and then down the desolate Sixth Street.

There were no visible volunteers posted along this route or elsewhere along the 1.5 mile walk from the Fairhill school, now closed, from Clemente.

Commenting on these findings, Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez noted in an email to AxisPhilly that “unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done establishing and maintaining the walk routes.” 

The bigger question is whether the city can assure a volunteer presence of the size it needs throughout the school year, as it’s promised to do.

In Chicago, where 47 schools were recently closed by that city’s school district, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel ordered an overhaul of the city’s own “Safe Passage” program, aimed at the same concern of keeping kids safe along new routes to new schools. Emmanuel doubled the city’s investment in the program to $15 million and beefed up staffing to 1,200 paid city workers, who were deployed to keep an eye out as kids navigated new routes.

Even with that level of investment, Chicago is having trouble maintaining its “safe passage” worker presence — workers, that is, who are being paid — just one week into the program, according to a report by CBS.

Within Philadelphia, some city council members have initiated their own plans for kids. Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., working with police and school officials, helped plan a route based around police cameras which can be viewed live for signs of trouble.

Council has yet to be briefed about the details of the plan, and members expect to meet with the administration on Monday. Jane Roh, spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke, noted a few days ago that Council is “waiting for details as many parents and [school district] staffers are.”

The mayor’s office, so far, is relying mostly on volunteers, to be coordinated by Town Watch groups. The city has invested $50,000 in equipment, such as vests and walkie-talkies, and set aside another $250,000 as part of a new strategy — yet to be announced — to pay some volunteers as part-time city employees to take on the responsibility of coordinating the larger effort.

But whether that will be enough to keep volunteers on the streets over the 180-day school year (not to mention through the winter) isn’t clear.

It’s a challenge city officials acknowledge, even as they defend the plan as working and workable.

“As you can imagine this is a huge undertaking trying to get hundreds of volunteers coordinated,” said Resnik. “You recruit volunteers — if they don’t come out, what can you do?”

It would seem to be a good question.

Correction: A previous version of this piece mentioneda route between Charles Carroll High School and Penn Treaty “Middle” School. Penn Treaty is a 6-12 school.