Chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go,” a group of organizers and residents of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway said Monday morning that they will not leave on Friday when city officials are expected to clear out about 100 tents on the athletic field where they’ve been living for a month.

The rally drew a crowd of about 100 people from other parts of Philadelphia and the suburbs, who expressed loud support for the residents of the encampment.

“We’re definitely not leaving on Friday,” said Scott Matt, one of the organizers. “We now have the attention of the city because we’re visible all in one spot. We absolutely can’t leave the spot, even if it means getting beaten by cops.”

A city spokesperson said that officials are hoping the site is vacated peacefully on the designated move-out day.

“Police will be called to assist, if needed, but there are currently no plans for their involvement at this time,” the spokesperson said. “We will make every effort to assist homeless individuals who are at the camp to connect to services and leave voluntarily.

“We will provide storage for personal possessions and offer transportation to housing and service options. We hope that no one on-site will refuse to leave.”

Possible confrontation

Speaker after speaker condemned the city for not providing immediate housing for encampment members, estimated at as many as 150. Organizers made it clear they’re planning for a possible confrontation on Friday.

“Residents have decided they’re not leaving,” said another organizer, Jennifer Bennetch. “Organizers have advocated that they stand up for themselves. We’re not going to get kicked around by the city like a soccer ball.”

But those who have worked with the homeless in the streets and know many of the encampment residents say that by the time Friday comes, many residents may well be gone. Used to being moved by the city from smaller encampments, those who are homeless normally avoid face-offs with authority, and rarely refuse an order to evacuate, according to people familiar with those experiencing homelessness in Center City.

Organizers demanded that the city provide vacant Philadelphia Housing Authority properties to homeless people from the encampment. The city has said it’s not feasible for various reasons, including that the properties are not habitable.

Ultimately, a city spokesperson said, “the issue is that the city does not have surplus affordable housing for everyone.”

Political protest

Unlike other homeless encampments, this one is larger than most, and, organizers said, was conceived as a form of political protest over city policies toward the homeless and the lack of low-income housing in Philadelphia. Some of the organizers’ rhetoric links to the Black Lives Matter movement.

That hybrid formulation makes the encampment unique, advocates for the homeless have said.

The encampment has stood since early June on the ball field at North 22nd Street and the Parkway. City officials and encampment organizers have negotiated without reaching an agreement. Last week, the city announced it would break up the encampment on Friday, calling the move “very much of last resort.” They added that encampment organizers refused the city’s offers to meet at least some of their demands, which, officials said, kept shifting. They also cited a lack of clarity about which organizers spoke for the group running the encampment. Some demands made by organizers, officials said, were outside the city’s purview.

Activist Sterling Johnson, a spokesperson for Philadelphia Housing Action, the coalition of groups that organized the encampment, criticized the city’s decision to shut it down.

“The city’s ‘disappointment’ is disingenuous, to say the least,” Johnson said. “They have offered zero options for permanent housing appropriate for residents. They will simply shift the burden to another area, and we will start this process all over again.”

City officials said they have conceded to the following:

  • Provide housing for people who are most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
  • Commit to establishing a village of tiny houses for people who are homeless.
  • Agree to develop individualized housing plans with immediate placement in temporary housing.
  • Offer to help develop a sanctioned encampment on another spot. “We haven’t gotten any proposed addresses from them yet,” the city spokesperson said.

Every time the city believed progress had been made, organizers would add new demands, city officials said.

Bennetch disagreed that her group’s demands had shifted.

Officials said that before this Friday’s mandatory closure, the city will ramp up efforts to offer services to residents of the encampment.

Outreach workers visited last week and were welcomed by some residents and chased off by others, the city spokesperson said. Workers plan to return on Wednesday and Thursday if it is safe, the spokesperson said.

During the last month, outreach workers have tried to get into the encampment, but were rebuffed — at least one time with violence when one worker was hit on the head with a cell phone, city officials said. Bennetch disputes that.

Problems

Irvin Murray, 49, a North Philadelphia man who is homeless and has been living at the encampment for nine days, said Monday that he prefers living in a tent to sleeping in a homeless shelter.

“Don’t get me wrong, there have been problems here,” he said, referring to a stabbing as well as continued drug use and fighting among residents.

“But,” Murray said, “I think there should be a compromise with the city to get us housing.”

During sometimes raucous speeches at the encampment Monday, organizers made a point of inviting onlookers and others who showed up to support residents to return on Friday.

Asked why she attended Monday’s rally, Christina Gesualdi, 34, of Fishtown, a yoga teacher and artist, said, “People here need to be housed. It’s so important to support them.”