Philadelphia city officials shut down a homeless encampment near the Convention Center on Monday in a move that appeared to defy federal guidance aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
The city’s Office of Homeless Services had planned for months to clear the encampment that formed in the shadow of the Convention Center. City officials considered the site the epicenter of Center City homelessness. Though some of the dozens of people who slept there regularly found safe haven in the community, officials said the conditions were unsafe and unsanitary.
But on Sunday, before the scheduled sweep, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance for responding to COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness. Included in the prevention measures was a note to not clear encampments unless individual housing units are available. Clearing encampments, the CDC said, “can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” which increases the potential for the spread of infectious disease.
The city went ahead after concluding “that being outdoors in the elements, not hav[ing] access to basic hygiene or nutrition, is more detrimental," spokesperson Mike Dunn said. He said the protocol was developed with the input of local public health officials.
Dunn said the city had a list of about 75 people who regularly slept near the Convention Center and were known to be experiencing homelessness. Of those, he said, 49 accepted placement into shelters or residential drug treatment.
Many were referred before the Monday sweep, when there were only about 18 people still at the site. Of those, six accepted placement into shelters or residential drug treatment, Dunn said. They were all asked if they had a cough or other symptoms consistent with COVID-19, but did not all have their temperatures taken.
Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said during a news conference Sunday that the city had developed protocols for quarantining anyone who becomes symptomatic while living in a city shelter. For those who are unsheltered, she said, the city has developed “other quarantine capacity.”
City officials have shut down similar encampments over the last several years, including others in Center City, and in the city’s Kensington section, where homelessness is in many cases driven by addiction.
The move drew sharp criticism from some advocates for people experiencing homelessness, who say shutting down encampments disperses people, making it harder for outreach workers to engage with them.
Brooke Feldman, a board member with harm reduction nonprofit Angels in Motion, said city shelters just don’t work for some people, and programs aimed at getting folks into more permanent housing can have high barriers.
“While of course we want everybody to be housed and be safe, we also have to be pragmatic and know there are people who don’t want those services for a reason,” she said. “We need a plan for what to to do with those folks. Displacing people and moving them is not the way to do it.”
Feldman said that this is especially true in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and that it made “no sense” to go through with the sweep. She said city officials and outreach teams should instead have worked with people living in the encampments to educate them on social distancing and provided more resources for personal hygiene.
In its Sunday guidance, the CDC recommended outreach workers encourage people living in encampments to set up their tents or sleeping quarters to ensure each person has 12 square feet of space. The agency also recommended either ensuring nearby restroom facilities are properly stocked and available 24 hours a day, or providing access to portable toilets with hand-washing facilities.
Michael Lasday said he watched Monday morning as police and outreach workers slowly walked through the camp and engaged with those living there, but he was critical of the move.
Lasday, of the Philadelphia Drug Users Union, a collective of current and former drug users who advocate for fair treatment of people who use drugs, said the sweep defied CDC guidelines, and was a decision made without the input of the individuals living there.
“Even outside the context of a pandemic,” he said, “it’s not really helpful.”