Capitulating to pressure from advocates for the homeless, the Kenney administration agreed Thursday to test people living in an encampment at Philadelphia International Airport for the coronavirus before placing them in shelters.
City officials had planned to break up the group of 50 to 100 individuals on Friday morning without testing. But after advocates and those who provide housing and services for the homeless threatened a lawsuit, the city decided to hold off on dispersing the encampment until Tuesday, after what it described as “rapid testing” is completed.
“The city is trying to focus on the safety of everyone involved here — the employees who work at the airport, those who work at the airlines, and those who will need to use the airport in the near future, as well as the safety of those who are unsheltered," said Managing Director Brian Abernathy.
“And we’re trying to balance those needs in order to come to a resolution here. I believe the advocates understand that we are trying to do that, and I also understand and respect what their position is as well," he said. "We are glad that we are able to respond with a pragmatic solution we believe everyone can support.”
Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, an advocacy group, said Thursday evening, "We are really glad that the city will be testing people before they enter shelter as a way to prevent further spread of COVID-19 among a very vulnerable population.... I’m sorry it took us threatening litigation to get here. But we are very pleased with the outcome.”
In expressing a willingness Wednesday to sue, advocates and providers conveyed their fear that placing untested people from an encampment into a shelter could be disastrous.
They cited Philadelphia’s decision in late March to clear a homeless encampment at the Convention Center — against federal health recommendations — and place some of the people in a Center City shelter, Our Brother’s Place.
A subsequent outbreak of coronavirus there infected more than three dozen residents, and a 46-year-old man died on April 2. He is the only known coronavirus fatality among more than 5,000 individuals living in shelters in the city.
By placing members of the airport group into shelter without learning their COVID-19 status, the city would have been "almost guaranteeing the same thing will happen again,” David Fair, a member of the board of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing in the city, said Wednesday.
Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of health and human services for the city, disputed the idea that moving people from the street hastened the virus’ spread through Our Brother’s Place.
“It’s a false correlation,” she said.
People who are homeless are more likely to succumb to the coronavirus, Cohen said. They see doctors infrequently, live in rough environments, and often suffer from underlying conditions that exacerbate illness.
It’s possible, advocates said, that after all these moves on behalf of the homeless, many may refuse to go into shelters anyway. Quite a few in the airport population are mentally ill, a cohort that often refuses to live in congregate settings.
The airport had permitted people to shelter there during the coronavirus crisis, and had directed them to Terminal A-East, which has not been in use for flights.
But, advocates said, they were told that the terminal will be used again starting around June 4.
A serious security breach occurred at the airport on May 2, when a man who was believed to be homeless was found in the bathroom of a Southwest Airlines plane as the flight crew prepared it for boarding.