Shrinking dramatically within the last few days, the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has substantially fewer tents and perhaps no more than 25 occupants, down from an estimated peak of 150 during the summer.
One of its organizers predicted the site at North 22nd Street could be vacated as soon as Monday — a relatively quick denouement after an agonizingly slow four-month process of negotiations between organizers and the city that touched on such volatile issues as housing, economic inequities, racism, and the pandemic.
Encampment organizers had resolved that the inhabitants on Von Colln Memorial Field as well as on the grounds of the nearby Rodin Museum would be out by Oct. 16, although a grace period apparently has been allowed by city officials.
In exchange, the city promised to provide 50 houses within six months, and two tiny-house villages by June 30. The settlement was hailed as unprecedented by national experts on homelessness.
As negotiations wore on throughout the summer and early fall, neighbors in the area often complained about incidents of violence and confrontation in and around the encampment. Two people were stabbed, numerous neighbors were accosted. Recent days have seen a continuation of fraught encounters.
On Friday morning, as occupants peacefully packed their belongings into black storage bins provided by the city, an encampment occupant spoke with an Inquirer reporter accompanied by a photographer. A woman who is a resident at the site and had served as a security guard there during the summer began yelling at the occupant, ordering him to stop talking because, she said, news organizations misquote people who live there.
The woman, who has challenged reporters in the past, then grabbed a three-foot ax and dragged it along the ground as she walked within 15 feet of them.
The occupant exploded in anger at the apparent attempt at intimidation, saying, “Oh, now you have an ax?” The woman walked around with the ax for about 25 minutes, taking it to the Rodin site, then back to the ball field, all the while shouting and cursing at the occupant, who bellowed back at her.
The woman loudly ordered anyone who spoke with the reporter to “make sure you get his name.”
A person familiar with the encampment said it’s a mistake to antagonize reporters. “This encampment is a protest against unfair housing,” he said. “You need the press to tell that story.”
In an incident on Oct. 15, a 72-year-old man from the area who had taken a picture of an encampment tent — but not of any residents, he said in an interview — was chased onto the Parkway by four young men from the encampment who kicked him and beat him in the head with his own bicycle, the man said. Police confirmed that the man filed a report, and said “the investigation is active and ongoing with Central Detectives division."
Neighbors said they hope they’ll see the last of such encounters soon.
Charles Croce, 74, a Fairmount resident and the retired executive director of the Philadelphia History Museum, said neighbors have been made to feel “we aren’t relevant. I don’t feel we have a voice.”
Craig Meritz, 65, a technology assistant who lives five blocks from the encampment, said, “It’s all been so very frustrating.” He said he’s tired of discovering human excrement beneath hedges outside houses in the neighborhood. “I don’t know why it’s taking the city so long” to resolve matters.
Actually, both organizers and city officials said, great progress has been made.
“The number of tents and people is vastly reduced,” said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director for health and human services, and a negotiator. “I understand neighbors' patience is ebbing, but we’ve turned a corner, and I believe we’ll be successful.”
The site grew to around 150 tents after it was formed on June 10, Gladstein said. But at the start of last week, just 70 tents remained. Many fewer were standing by Friday, she said.
The vast majority of tents that had been up in the last few weeks were identified by organizers as unoccupied, and were being collected and carted away, Gladstein said.
But at least one tent in which a woman was living had been accidentally taken, according to activist Jamaal Henderson of ACT UP Philadelphia, a nonprofit that fights AIDS. Henderson has donated time to help encampment organizers.
“They’re only supposed to be taking tents where no one lives,” Henderson said. “The girl was out helping paint a mural for the city.”
City officials said they were unaware that any such mistake had been made.
A wider problem is chafing occupants, said Jeremy Williams, who described himself as an encampment resident, as well as a mediator and a minister.
“The camp mindset is people thought they’d be getting houses right after de-camping,” Williams said. “A lot don’t understand that that’s not what’s happening.”
The deal with the city stipulates that encampment residents move to shelters or other forms of temporary housing before the 50 houses in which they’ll be living are refurbished, and before the tiny-house villages are built.
“For some people, shelters aren’t an option,” Henderson said. “They feel it’s not safe.” He said he’s reaching out to activists across the city to find housing for those about to leave the encampment.
“This is not a win until all these people are taken care of,” Henderson said.
One encampment resident disagreed, saying the city had witnessed a triumph.
“The mayor helped by giving us every opportunity,” said the man, who didn’t want to be identified. “And camp leadership did a fair enough job.”
That’s underselling the effort, according to Michael Hinson, president and chief operating officer for SELF Inc., the largest provider of emergency housing for single adults in the city of Philadelphia. The agency’s workers are at the encampment, helping occupants through the process of relocating.
“Encampment organizers Jennifer Bennetch, Sterling Johnson, and others have done a Herculean effort to mitigate all the challenges faced by unhoused people,” Hinson said. “Their negotiation to obtain 50 houses for people experiencing homelessness was a huge success.”
No homeless encampment that started out as a protest — this one for housing, as well as for Black Lives Matter — has ever resulted in a deal in which encampment occupants and organizers establish a nonprofit organization and a community land trust in their name to oversee housing for impoverished people, national advocates have said.
As news of the encampment’s imminent end has spread, many volunteers from the city and suburbs who helped feed and support residents have stopped coming, according to a person who has worked with encampment residents. “The volunteers are worn out, less food is coming in, and soon, the weather will get colder, making it harder to live on a ball field,” the person said.
It may be the right time for the encampment to close, people familiar with the encampment said.
“It’s been slow, but it’s moving along,” said Jennifer Bennetch. “It’s going to happen. And it could be that by Monday, everyone will be gone.”