The housing agreement between the city and organizers of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that will end their four-month-long impasse by week’s end is “unprecedented” in U.S. history, according to local and national experts.
“We haven’t seen a protest encampment like this one that’s led to this kind of result,” Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homeless Law Center in Washington, said of the accord reached Tuesday night to vacate the site.
Tars explained that no homeless encampment that started out like this one, as a protest, has ever resulted in a deal in which encampment occupants and organizers establish a nonprofit organization and a community land trust in their name to oversee housing for impoverished people. They will manage 50 properties given to them by the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Beyond that, the city will help create two tiny-house villages for people leaving the encampment.
“That transfer of power is something I really haven’t seen in the past,” said Tars, whose organization has been consulted to help encampment organizers. “I’m going to tell advocates and other city mayors about how this is a different way, a better way, to deal with people experiencing homelessness.
Donald Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, also in Washington, said Wednesday evening that homeless people took over a single building in Portland, Ore., in the past and made it into a dwelling, but that “the scope of this solution in Philadelphia is unprecedented."
The encampment started out as a protest for Black Lives Matter, as well as for people experiencing homelessness. That “marriage" of movements is unmatched, Whitehead said. “The majority of homeless are African American, and the idea that the Philadelphia encampment combined protest of these inequities is phenomenal.”
Local advocates for the homeless concurred, saying they hadn’t heard of anything like this happening elsewhere in the nation.
Reached Wednesday afternoon, Sterling Johnson, an organizer and spokesperson for the encampment, confirmed that organizers “will be running the entity that holds the properties.” Johnson, who is an attorney, added, “We’re working with lawyers on the formation and administration of the entity.”
A Kenney administration official, who declined to be identified in exchange for insight into the process that led to the agreement, said Wednesday that encampment organizers will eschew public funds to fix up and manage the properties, most of which are run-down. They expect to rely on donations from corporations and individuals.
The official said that 160 inhabitants of the encampment already have been moved temporarily to shelters and other housing, awaiting the implementation of the agreement, which could take six months. The tiny-house villages, which city sources initially said would be completed by the end of this year, won’t be ready until June 30, the official said.
Officials said about 48 to 72 people are still living in tents at the site. The number is imprecise because, until recently, organizers and encampment occupants have not allowed city outreach workers onto the site at a ball field at North 22nd Street.
In many cases, although former occupants moved away, they return to the encampment during the day to eat and socialize, the official said. That cycling of people in and out also hampers the formulation of an accurate census.
Sparser than summer
Dozens of tents still occupied the field as well as the grassy lawn of the Rodin Museum on the Parkway on Wednesday afternoon, though the area was notably less populated than during the summer.
Fresh spray paint on the surrounding sidewalk proclaimed: “I believe that we will win!” A handful of residents and volunteers sat on milk crates around a bonfire quietly chatting, while others basked in lawn chairs in the warm afternoon sun.
Some said they remained skeptical of the city’s deal with the camp, and whether they would actually receive any housing.
“Hearsay, that’s how it goes around here,” said Ty-san Bostick, 39, seated outside his tent near the tree-lined street. “All I know is they want us out by Friday, and we’re supposed to have a meeting tomorrow.”
Bostick, who has been without housing for about a year and a half, said he has lived on the Parkway since August. He said he usually slept near the Municipal Services Building, but when he returned to Philadelphia from his seasonal job farming potatoes in North Carolina, the area was closed off, and so he moved to the Parkway. Now, as the site is set to be vacated, Bostick said he’s not sure what will happen next.
“People here understand that this isn’t permanent,” he said, wearing a U.S. Census button reading “I count in Philly.”
“We just want a place to go, we just want to be treated like citizens of Philadelphia."
Of the deal made by organizers and the city, another encampment occupant named Joseph said succinctly: ”Leases and keys, that’s when I’ll believe it."
Adela Morales, a member of ACT Up Philadelphia, has volunteered daily at the encampment since September, helping to pass out toiletry donations to residents. On Tuesday night, before she heard of the activists' deal with the city, she sensed a change at the encampment. The usually robust stock of donations had dwindled, and people were packing up, she said.
She came to the Parkway on Wednesday morning to exchange phone numbers with a new friend and resident, fearing they would lose touch if the city cleared the camp earlier than expected. As the fall nights on the Parkway get colder, Morales said she saw the agreement with the city as a positive step. “If the Farmers Almanac was right, it’s going to be a cold winter. I say take what you’re gonna get, you know."
The Germantown resident typically cleans homes and the city’s professional sports stadiums for a living, but the pandemic has wiped out most of her work. She said she began volunteering at the camp to stay busy.
“I just like to serve those who need it, you know," she said. "Anyone can lose a home.”
A relief for the neighborhood
That the encampment will be dismantled is a relief for residents of the Parkway and nearby neighborhoods, said Ed Dougherty, vice president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
“We’ve been in a state of emotional exhaustion,” he said. “I live three blocks away, and there are piles of human excrement near my house. I wouldn’t even know where to go to find help with that.”
He said that his organization “clearly got the message” that its complaints “were not leading the city to move any faster” on resolving the encampment issue, even with a perceived “uptick in violence in the area recently.”
Dougherty added: “But I’m willing to give the city their due. They desperately wanted to avoid confrontation.”
Aware of local residents’ issues, Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director for Health and Human Services, said Wednesday: "I would say we understand all points of view on this and felt that neighborhood people had very legitimate concerns.
“I’m pleased to say these residents shared an interest in homelessness issues, and I thank them for their patience.”