Sitting bare-chested in the grass behind the Rodin Museum, just yards from the pensive Thinker, Vincent Wilson waited for his damp shirt to dry on the branch of an evergreen and shared a weighty thought about life: “I should not be here.”
An Army veteran living homeless for a month in the Benjamin Franklin Parkway encampment with his wife, Shirlet, he explained how the coronavirus ended his tiling business and any chance to pay rent. “I got skills,” Wilson, 61, declared. “I just need somebody to give a damn.”
Shirlet, 45, packed the couple’s belongings in their tent. As soon as they heard the city would be clearing out the encampment this week, she made a reservation at a Super Eight motel with what was left of her monthly disability money.
“It’ll be chaos here,” Wilson said. “We’re going.”
After nearly three months and two postponed closures, the Parkway encampment of about 150 people on a 22nd Street ball field — along with three hybrid sites at the Rodin, the Azalea Garden, and outside Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters on Ridge Avenue — is scheduled to be dismantled at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
How the dispersal will happen, whether it will be peaceful, and where the homeless will go are topics of nervous speculation among the five entities locked in a hopeless standoff in the dirt: community activists who helped organize the encampments; city officials; leaders of advocacy, outreach, and homeless-service provider organizations; neighborhood residents, and the homeless themselves.
Typically when homeless sites close, numerous occupants begin to exit like the Wilsons, before the city’s posted closing time and day, eager to avoid confrontation. Some go to shelters, some get housing help from outreach workers, some melt into the community and form other encampments.
In fact, when the city shuttered encampments at 18th and Vine Streets (Jan. 6), the Convention Center (March 23), and Philadelphia International Airport (May 26), several individuals from those sites wound up in tents on the Parkway, advocates say.
Organizers have charged that such nomadic urban trekking from one temporary arrangement to another constitutes a cruel cycle created by racism, failed government policies, and ineffective advocacy.
Sterling Johnson, an activist lawyer and encampment organizer, has criticized nonprofits that serve the homeless in Philadelphia, such as nationally known Project HOME, run by Sister Mary Scullion. That agency “has been described as prisonlike by some,” Johnson said. “Black people deserve to be free, not forced into some program run by a white woman.” Scullion declined comment.
For her part, Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, who’s been negotiating with organizers, said that “what’s wrenching about the encampment is that we all agree we need permanent housing for everyone. If I could do that, I would.”
Initially, activists emphasized their connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. They then honed their message to illuminate what they’ve described as racist inequality dogging the homeless, and they’ve demanded the city and PHA utilize vacant land and property to assist the unhoused.
The protest encampment is unusual because it’s “formally organized,” said David Fair, a homeless advocate and board member of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing in the city. “Usually, encampments are spontaneous.”
Peggy Bailey, a housing expert with the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said she’s never seen a purely “homeless protest encampment before” in the United States.
Because the Parkway encampment’s genesis was so unusual, its end seems that much more unpredictable.
Organizers quote the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying encampments shouldn’t be evacuated during COVID-19. But the CDC also posted rules against the homeless congregating in indoor or outdoor settings, Bailey said. And city officials note that a ball field rife with needles, trash, and human feces is itself a health hazard.
Vow to fight
Rather than decamp, occupants will remain and fight, organizers vowed.
“We’re never leaving,” said Jonnell Johnson, a nurse at the Parkway site. Byron Brown, a security volunteer, said: “People say they ain’t going nowhere. I’m here to make sure they don’t get hurt.”
Defending turf isn’t for everyone. “I’ll be gone,” said Stephen Pesce, 31, of Tampa, Fla., a carpenter who’s lived on the Parkway since July 23. He said that he fled Florida to kick crystal meth but that what he called his “split personality” impedes his progress. “I’ll go to New York and wait for the Times Square ball to drop on New Year’s Eve,” he said. “I’ll work with rich people till then.”
Normally when an encampment is about to be terminated, outreach workers enter to offer shelter space and other forms of housing. On the Parkway, those workers have been blocked, but they nevertheless show up daily and orbit the encampment’s perimeter like moons.
Occupants are approaching them, Hersh said, explaining that 124 individuals have accepted outreach services, and 34 have started so-called rapid re-housing initiatives, which provide up to 24 months’ rental assistance, intensive case management, and supportive services.
It’s not clear how many of the original group remain.
Hersh calls homelessness the “bleeding edge of poverty.” Almost 400,000 people live in poverty in Philadelphia — the near-equivalent of the population of New Orleans — and roughly 900 of them sleep outside, with an estimated 5,600 more in shelters. They are the poorest of the poor. Many of these individuals, who likely inherited poverty from their parents, are hampered by mental or physical illness, as well as substance-abuse disorders, Hersh said. While innumerable middle- and upper-class Americans suffer similarly, she said, they have the means to overcome impairments, while those in poverty lose their homes and control of their own lives.
The Parkway homeless tend to resist living in shelters, advocates say. A recent national survey of 64,000 homeless people living either sheltered or unsheltered shows stark differences in the populations, according to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Unsheltered individuals are 25 times more likely than those who are sheltered to have physical, mental, and substance-abuse issues, the survey found. Accustomed to being outdoors, the unsheltered have lived an average of 2,632 days on the street since they were last in a house or apartment, while the sheltered had been in housing an average of 410 days before.
Scramble for ravioli
Speculating on what happens next, advocates know that those who walk away from the encampments will be in pairs or groups of four for safety.
Places that offer food to the homeless in Center City such as St. John’s Hospice will likely see “a scrambling of people,” said Adam Bruckner, director of Helping Hand Rescue Mission in North Philadelphia. He himself feeds the homeless at 19th Street and the Parkway each week, and knows that once the encampment terminates, he’ll be asked for more ravioli and chicken hot dogs. Expect to see some of the encampment homeless sleeping on benches on the Parkway, as well as on the ground along Vine Street, he said. They’ll remain in Center City, where food and services are available, Bruckner added.
Life outside the relative comfort of the encampment may prove difficult for James Brown, 65, of West Philadelphia, a construction worker who spent a year in prison for selling drugs. After his return, he tried to reunite with an aunt with whom he had lived, but she disappeared. “I searched the city for her,” Brown said. “I felt lost.” He had to sleep in a shelter, which he hated because he was kicked out early in the morning and forced to spend a long day thinking about everything he used to have.
“So much in my life has changed,” said Brown, who’s in the encampment with his pit bull, Snuggles.
When the encampments are ended on Wednesday, David Fair of SELF said, he believes “the city will try its best not to forcibly remove people.” He added that he’s aware that numerous observers will be there with cameras.
“That’s good,” Fair said. “Because in the end, it’s important that nobody misbehaves or gets hurt.”