Just about everyone who lives in the high-priced apartments and condo units soaring over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway knows the story:
On July 18, a man from the homeless encampment at 22nd Street, clad only in his underwear, ducked into the garage of a nearby residential building and tried to yank open the passenger-side door of a woman’s car as she parked. The man failed, and ran off; a surveillance video of the encounter has been widely shared among neighbors.
For residents near the encampment, the garage incident is emblematic of how their prosperous slice of Philadelphia has been altered — some say “distorted” — by the presence of 100 to 150 occupants of tents staked in a ball field since June 10 as an omnibus protest to support homeless rights, disarm the police, and buttress the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The Parkway, this bejeweled boulevard of museums and cultural institutions, has been trashed to the point where it’s lost its magnetism,” said Ed Dougherty, 66, who works in sales and lives 300 yards from the encampment. “The luster the city derives from this place just feels lost. The Parkway has become stunted.”
Saying they empathize with the plight of the homeless, Parkway residents nevertheless argue that they’re the ones who must cope with intrusive, dangerous, and unhealthy behaviors that would confound any neighborhood.
“More people seem to be coming, moving into tents and feeling entitled — like this is their home now,” said Colleen Walsh, 67, a retired CPA. “People are openly defecating in the park during the day. It’s just in our face all the time.
“It’s dire not just for us, but for the inhabitants of the encampment.”
Tuesday’s storm served to underscore her point, as soaked encampment occupants struggled in mud and water, and had to repair damaged tents that provided medical service and stored supplies.
Members of the Logan Square Neighbors Association as well as the Fairmount Sports Association say that for nearly two months they’ve seen drug use, with needles discarded on the fields on which children normally play ball. The associations also report mounting piles of garbage, acts of vandalism, public nudity, aggressive panhandling, strangers sleeping on residents’ front steps, as well as the siphoning of electricity from traffic light controls and water from fountains.
Acknowledging that local residents are witnessing raw moments, organizer Alex Stewart said: “People without homes do have to scrounge and poop outside and panhandle. So, those who live in the neighborhood should use their high-income platform and their voices to help oppressed people, who should not have to tuck back into the shadows.”
It’s common knowledge that members of the encampment challenge pedestrians, saying that sidewalk public space is actually their private property. They frequently order passersby to avert their eyes from the encampment, threatening to call “security” on anyone who doesn’t comply.
“People no longer feel safe doing everyday things,” said John LaCorte, president of the sports association, which has, for 60 years, sponsored a now-canceled summer softball, baseball, and T-ball program on the field for children from neighborhoods throughout the city. “It’s sad to see the field almost destroyed.”
Asked to comment on neighbors’ reactions, activist Sterling Johnson, an encampment organizer who has demanded that Philadelphia officials secure Philadelphia Housing Authority housing for the homeless, said: “We join them in their disappointment regarding the city and PHA’s inaction. It is really sad that people have to exist outside when there are vacant homes all over the city.”
Organizers have been negotiating with city officials for weeks. At one point, officials announced the encampment would be cleared on July 17. But Mayor Jim Kenney postponed the shutdown to continue talking.
On Tuesday, a city spokesperson said that this week the city’s focus was on “preparing for and protecting people from the storm.”
The area is home to upscale, educated professionals who work primarily in Center City and pay monthly rents that can approach $4,000 for three-bedroom apartments, said Kevin Gillen, senior research fellow with the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. There’s also a sizable community of well-off retirees.
Rowhouses near the Parkway can start at $700,000, Gillen said. The city’s largest condominium property, The Philadelphian, with 753 units that Gillen said go for as much as $750,000 for two bedrooms, is across the Parkway from the encampment.
Aware that the perception of well-off Philadelphians complaining about a group of homeless in their midst doesn’t make for ideal optics, retired financial analyst John Mosser, 67, who lives a few blocks from the encampment, said: “We’re not saying their cause isn’t just. But we’re concerned about the health of the environment here.”
Retired University of Notre Dame philosophy professor Margaret Hogan, 79, who is troubled by the encampment, was more blunt: “I’m no ‘Karen,’ ” a slang term for an entitled white woman who exhibits racism when unjustly complaining about others.
“I grew up in Philadelphia up the [Roosevelt] Boulevard, and I worked with the homeless in Wilkes-Barre and Portland,” Hogan said. “The homeless need taking care of, but living in the park is not it. People need to be removed, but in a way that respects their dignity and supplies their needs.”
She disputed the notion that the encampment is peaceful, saying the “aggressive perimeter people” who patrol the site keeping out trespassers also seem to be keeping encampment inhabitants in. “The people seem captive,” she said.
Her neighbor Dougherty concurred: “The occupants aren’t animated, or driven by the issues that seem to drive leadership. The people are desperate and downtrodden. This protest feels like a very stalled enterprise.”
Some advocates have accused encampment organizers of manipulating the homeless, keeping the site in place to forward their own political agenda. Homeless advocates who personally know the encampment’s occupants describe many as being mentally ill and traditionally resistant to living in shelters.
Organizers say the encampment could not exist without the consent and participation of the occupants.
Many who support the encampment see it as a potent political statement, a form of “protest urbanism,” according to Akira Drake Rodriguez, a professor in the Weitzman School of Design and the department of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’m OK with the camp being there permanently,” Rodriguez said. “Until there is housing for all, encampments get to stay.”
Dennis Boylan, president of the neighbors association, said simply: “The professor is wrong. She needs to come live with us to see why.”
He said he’s amazed that the encampment is expanding, with the belongings of those who are homeless seen on the grounds of the Rodin Museum, as well as tents on Eakins Oval and at the Azalea Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.