In mid-June, a small group of Philadelphians formed an encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Now, three weeks after the encampment first cropped up, it has grown to more than 100 residents.
Organizers are calling on the city to improve how it treats the homeless and provide low-income housing, among other demands. The city is involved in negotiations with the group.
So who are the organizers, and what are they hoping to achieve? Here is what you need to know.
When did the encampment start?
The Parkway encampment began around June 10, when a handful of people began setting up tents on the edge of a softball field in a park at 22nd Street.
Days after the initial group set up, the encampment grew to more than 50 Philadelphians. Since then, it has grown to more than 100 residents. Currently, the city’s website indicates, Philadelphia has about 5,700 people experiencing homelessness, of whom 950 are unsheltered, which Project HOME defines as “staying outdoors in abandoned buildings or other locations not suitable for human habitation rather than staying in shelters.”
» READ MORE: Encampment at Ben Franklin Parkway doubles in size
Who is organizing the encampment?
Organizers of the encampment include the Workers Revolutionary Collective (WRC), Occupy PHA, and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative. They say they were inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the city, and hope to draw attention to housing issues.
Organizers have reportedly helped shape the encampment, which includes a library, cooking station, first aid station, portable bathrooms, and other amenities. City residents have dropped off donations of food, money, and water regularly, and local chefs have prepared hot breakfasts for residents. But the residents themselves oversee how the camp operates.
“The whole point was a protest, and now it’s transformed past that,” said Sterling Johnson, a lawyer and housing activist working on behalf of the encampment. “This is part of a years-long campaign to get permanent housing so people aren’t moving from one camp to another.”
What do the demonstrators want?
Shortly after forming, the group worked with WRC and Occupy PHA to issue a list of demands to the city on behalf of the encampment’s residents. Among them:
Permanent low-income housing. The group wants the city to transfer ownership of viable houses to a community land trust.
Make the encampment a “no police zone.” The organizers want a similar structure to a section of Seattle commandeered by activists.
No more “homeless sweeps.” The group wants the city to stop the sweeps, which organizers say hide “the facts that no housing is offered and that people are being displaced.”
Disband the police.
Allow other encampments across the city.
Build a tiny-house village for the homeless.
City spokesperson Mike Dunn told the Inquirer that organizers have an “evolving list of demands” that, when coupled with “lack of clarity about who speaks for the group,” has made negotiations complicated.
Have there been problems at the encampment?
On Sunday, a 26-year-old man who police say lived at the encampment was stabbed multiple times in a fight, and was taken to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in critical condition. Those responsible for the stabbing fled before police arrived.
“These are severely mentally ill people for whom living in an encampment is not appropriate,” an advocate who wished to remain anonymous, not having permission to speak to reporters, told The Inquirer. “When they use drugs and they’re living together, things can get more explosive, like we saw with the stabbing.
“There’s now a break in relationship-building,” the advocate said. “These are unstable people, and an outreach team can do a good job working with them.”
In mid-June, an 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.
» READ MORE: Man, 26, stabbed at homeless encampment on Parkway
Where do negotiations with the city stand?
Dunn said this week that city officials will provide a timeline to organizers for disassembling the encampment. But he also said the city is “actively working” to develop a tiny-house village for residents, and will “seriously consider” allowing an encampment to be created at another location.
“You won’t be able to stay camping on the Parkway indefinitely,” read an email from the city’s deputy managing director for health and human services, Eva Gladstein, that was obtained by The Inquirer. Gladstein’s email said that “police should have less of a role with homelessness,” and that the city wanted input from organizers as far as “what that means.”
What about COVID-19?
According to officials, more than two dozen encampment residents had been tested for the coronavirus and were offered rooms at the city’s isolation/quarantine site.
What criticism has the encampment faced?
From the encampment’s onset, city officials noted that “tent encampments often pose a health and safety threat, and are specifically prohibited on park property,” Dunn said. Dennis J. Boylan, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said the camp was “not conducive for the greater public health of the entire community,” though he acknowledged that affordable housing is a pressing issue.
“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, adding that the encampment was “a pandemic waiting to happen.” She later apologized for her statements.
Dunn said city officials have “tried convincing” organizers to occupy less space to allow for some sports activity from the Fairmount Sports Association, which oversees softball and baseball play in the park, when team sports are allowed. Dunn said that hasn’t been successful.
What has the city done with other encampments?
The city most recently cleared out an encampment of about 25 homeless individuals at Terminal A-East at Philadelphia International Airport in late May. The group had been sheltering at the airport during the coronavirus crisis. The city moved the group to other locations, including a hotel used to house older adults and people with chronic health conditions who are most at risk from contracting COVID-19, and various shelters.
Before that, in late March, the city controversially broke up an encampment outside the Convention Center. The move came after a ruling from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that officials should not “clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19” unless there were individual housing units available because it “increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
Some of those people were brought from the encampment to the Our Brother’s Place shelter. Between March 26 and April 14, about 32 of 149 residents contracted the coronavirus. One man who had been living at Our Brother’s Place since October 2016 died of COVID-19 about 10 days after the encampment was cleared.
Some of the homeless people and volunteers from the Parkway site have set up an encampment on the vacant lot overlooking the headquarters of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The PHA is fencing off the encampment at Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street in North Philadelphia.