In a nearly last-minute decision that caught much of the city by surprise, Philadelphia officials postponed the closure of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that had been scheduled for Friday.
Talks between the city and organizers of the five-week-old encampment of 100 to 150 people had broken down last week, but were revived after Mayor Jim Kenney jump-started the process within the last two days.
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Kenney said Thursday that the shuttering of the encampment was halted because he has a responsibility to attempt to mediate the impasse himself. He’ll hold private talks early next week with organizers who helped create the tent village on a ball field at North 22nd Street.
“I’d feel better” to get directly involved, Kenney said. “I’m going to personally talk to them.” He said that the encampment organizers’ “motives are sincere — they want to see people housed.”
Also postponed was the city’s closure of a smaller encampment outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters, which had been set for Friday as well. That encampment, in a vacant lot on the corner of Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street in Sharswood, began June 27 to protest the authority’s leadership, property management, and treatment of the city’s homeless.
Kenney said he’ll also meet with organizers of the PHA encampment next week.
The city has always made it clear that the Parkway encampment could not last in perpetuity, and Kenney underscored that on Thursday, citing unhealthful conditions among individuals living there.
He acknowledged that using police officers to clear the encampment would be a last resort. But he said that if encampment residents who are first asked to vacate refuse to leave, the city may “have to remove people.”
The city has described the encampment as part of a protest by organizers and residents to secure housing for those in need. Organizers have also linked the formation of the encampment to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That hybrid arrangement has confounded advocates for the Philadelphia homeless, who say they’ve never seen an encampment so tied to a political cause before.
Kenney said that the encampment underscores racial inequities, and that his administration shares the belief that “policy failures for generations have brought us to this point.”
City officials said that the postponement affords additional time for outreach teams and service providers to engage individuals experiencing homelessness at the encampment. The ultimate goal is to offer housing and other social services.
Kenney acknowledged that camp organizers and residents have chased off outreach workers in the last few weeks. Organizers dispute that outreach has been interfered with.
Encampment resident Brandon Johnson, 32, homeless for eight years, said outreach workers have been kind, but he doesn’t trust them: “They always say they’re going to help, but you don’t get much from them except a granola bar and water bottle.”
Jennifer Bennetch, an organizer of both the Parkway and PHA encampments, has long proposed that encampment residents be assigned Philadelphia Housing Authority units.
On Thursday, Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, said it would be unfair for a group from “a squatter’s site” to leapfrog over individuals who have been on lists awaiting PHA housing for years.
Bennetch said the housing she wants are PHA units that have been vacant for 10 years, and aren’t open to anyone on a waiting list.
Up and down the rows of Parkway tents on Thursday, folks were “happy to not be displaced,” said Alex Stewart, founder of the Worker’s Revolutionary Collective, one of the groups organizing the encampment. But, he added, no one there would declare victory “until everyone is housed. Until permanent housing is the standard. Until homelessness does not exist.”
Stewart said residents had been practicing self-defense and how to protect each other throughout the week in anticipation of the city’s attempt to remove them.
Lowering their guard, at least for the night, encampment organizers were preparing for a celebratory cookout Thursday evening with other local activists, an event that had been planned to show unity on the eve of what would have been a site clear-out.
About six residents who had moved their tents from the encampment to the Azalea Garden behind the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art, in search of a quiet, safer space, danced and cheered when they heard of the city’s change of plans.
“Now that the city rescinded the eviction notice, life will get a little easier,” said a founder of the encampment who moved to the garden. He gave his name only as Beast.
While Parkway residents enjoyed the respite from eviction, they carped about a rumor that the city had interceded to prevent portable toilets from remaining on-site. City officials denied involvement.
James Newland, 60, visiting three nephews who live in the encampment, said the reprieve was the least the city could do. But he’s not hopeful about the future for the people there.
“They don’t have no place to go. These people don’t own generators, they don’t own tents. The people who set this up sold them a dream that didn’t happen,” said Newland, of West Philadelphia, who served as a Marine and who was homeless himself recently. “The coalition [of organizers] is to blame for this.”
Felicia Keith, 49, breathed a sigh of relief when told that the camp shutdown was on hold. She had moved to the garden encampment to escape the “riffraff” and trash at the Parkway site. Keith, who receives kidney dialysis three times a week, said she’s hopeful the city will eventually help people find permanent housing.
“I don’t have a year,” said Keith, who said she is suffering from schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety, and has been homeless a year. She said she has two sons: one, whose whereabouts are unknown, is 25, and the other, 31, lives in an abandoned house.
“I hope we get some help,” said Keith, who uses a bucket to wash up. “It’s kind of hard living out here.