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Homeless in new Parkway encampment in danger of coronavirus, and being used like ‘pawns’ by activists, advocate charges

Further troubling homeless advocates was the camp organizers’ decision to oust city outreach workers who had shown up Monday afternoon to offer services.

Rashedi Hassan speaks at a news conference at the homeless encampment at 22nd and Ben Franklin Parkway on Wednesday. The organizers have presented a long list of demands to Philadelphia officials. Advocates worry the encampment can spread the coronavirus.
Rashedi Hassan speaks at a news conference at the homeless encampment at 22nd and Ben Franklin Parkway on Wednesday. The organizers have presented a long list of demands to Philadelphia officials. Advocates worry the encampment can spread the coronavirus.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Declaring an encampment of more than 100 homeless people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway “a pandemic waiting to happen,” a leading advocate for the homeless in Philadelphia condemned the formation of the tent city by local activists last week as an “irresponsible” and “stupid” act in the time of COVID-19.

“I think it is the most insane activity during a pandemic that I can ever imagine,” said Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project in Center City. “We have really needy people who are now the political pawns of folks taking advantage of the political moment who don’t understand the harm that can come from this.

“What are they doing? It’s irresponsible and so stupid.”

Further troubling advocates was the camp organizers’ decision to oust two city outreach workers who had shown up Monday afternoon to offer medical help and housing services to those living in tents set up mostly along the third-base line of a softball field in a park at 22nd Street and the Parkway in the Logan Square area.

One outreach worker was hit repeatedly with a cell phone by an organizer, according to Timothy Sheahan, director of homeless services for the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. “A woman had been videoing our workers, then started hitting one of them,” Sheahan said Wednesday. “I have never seen us not be welcomed into an encampment before. We pulled the team out.”

Disputing the account, Jennifer Bennetch, founder of Occupy PHA, one of the groups running the encampment, said a physical altercation with outreach workers “never happened.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphians experiencing homelessness build protest encampment on Ben Franklin Parkway: ‘We all matter’

The organizers are an amalgam of groups including Bennetch’s as well as the Workers Revolutionary Collective and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative.

City officials have called the encampment “a protest” because the organizers have issued a list of demands.

Leaders want the encampment to be sanctioned by the city as a permanent “no police zone,” similar to the much larger section of Seattle commandeered by activists in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and dubbed CHAZ.

The organizers further demand that the Philadelphia Police Department disarm its officers; that the city transfer ownership of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to a “permanent community land trust” for low-income housing set up by one of the groups; that the city repeal all ordinances against camping on streets; and that the city support erection of tiny houses for the homeless.

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In an email obtained by The Inquirer, Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director for health and human services, wrote to the encampment’s organizers, saying, “You won’t be able to stay camping on the Parkway indefinitely.”

But, she added, the city will offer hotel rooms to encampment residents at high risk for COVID-19 — those who are 65 or older or who have underlying health conditions. She said the city “will seriously consider acting on your desire to establish a temporary sanctioned encampment.” Gladstein also said the city is willing to “issue an executive order regarding tiny home villages. We will work with you to set up the first such place.”

Further, she said that city officials “agree that the police should have less of a role with homelessness. We would like to hear from you what that means.”

The city plans to use a negotiator from the Homeless Advocacy Project to help broker a deal, The Inquirer has learned.

Encampment organizers could not be reached for comment.

During a news conference earlier Wednesday afternoon, encampment organizers asked homeless individuals to speak to reporters assembled at the tent city, a growing site with a library of books, a cooking station, a first aid tent, sports equipment, and musical instruments.

Organizers said they didn’t recruit residents, that word of mouth filled the camp with people eager to bivouac in a grassy spot away from the Center City hardscape.

“This is a good place to be,” said James Smith, 60, a former correctional officer from North Philadelphia who became homeless after a series of events. “Collectively, people who were sleeping on the sidewalks of Center City decided this park is better than the chaos and confusion of the streets.”

Kesha Fowler, 45, a school bus driver who has been without housing for about a year, said she, too, has appreciated the comfort of the encampment. But she’s concerned that most residents are less interested in the greater movement of finding permanent housing, and are more enraptured with the amenities provided by the organizers and their volunteer helpers. Although organizers hold community meetings at the encampment, Fowler said, “residents don’t really go.”

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Fowler described the organizers’ list of demands as “off” — less reflective of the residents’ wishes and more in line with what the volunteers think they need.

She also said many tents in the encampment are not spread far enough apart in the era of the coronavirus, and that too few precautions are being observed.

Explaining that he doesn’t mind life in the encampment, Richard Pierce, 60, another resident, said, “The shelters don’t help. They treat you like a dog in there. It’s better being out here.”

Frightened that the longer people stay close to one another in the encampment, the more chance COVID-19 has to spread, Cohen said the mass of “well-meaning” people who’ve delivered food and water to the encampment “have no idea what they’re helping to create.” Dozens of residents drop off carloads of donations every day, including pans of lasagna, and local chefs have cooked hot breakfasts.

Cohen and other advocates are familiar with the people living on the Parkway. “This is a group of Center City people who are chronically homeless,” she said. “They’re shelter-resistant, mentally ill, highly vulnerable people.”

David Fair, a member of the board of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing in the city, said he was disappointed that the encampment’s organizers didn’t include a demand to test people for COVID-19.

“I don’t think the camp was formed with the best interests of the homeless in mind,” Fair said. “To deny people being able to talk to outreach folks is not responsible or respectful.”

Along with anti-police signs posted at the encampment, there’s a notice paraphrasing a federal Centers for Disease Control regulation that encampments shouldn’t be broken up during a pandemic.

But, advocates said, encampments shouldn’t be created during pandemics in the first place.

“People living on the streets have lots of underlying conditions from not having access to good health care,” Fair said. “An encampment exacerbates that, putting people at risk.”

Not surprisingly, the encampment is deeply unpopular with many local residents.

Dennis Boylan, president of the Logan Square Neighbors Association, said, “I spent five days continuously on the phone with neighbors, all of them asking why there’s been no action” to dismantle the encampment. “People are very upset.”

But, Boylan said, it would be unwise to force the situation: “You need to handle this in a firm but diplomatic manner.” He said he’s confident city officials will ultimately take down the encampment “with humanity and compassion.”

Temple’s Center for Public Health Law Research wrote a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney, signed by 23 professors, researchers, and advocates urging the city not to disperse the encampment before making permanent housing options available.