In the relative cool of Wednesday morning, a man who lives in the encampment of homeless people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway walked slowly in a circle on the worn grass of a ball field, brushing his teeth.
As another used a mirror propped against a tree to inspect his shave, a delivery of Dunkin’ coffee and breakfast items, paid for by an unseen benefactor, generated excitement among late-risers emerging from their tents.
Meanwhile, an anxious phalanx of four self-appointed encampment guards challenged a visitor along North 22nd Street. “This is not a zoo you come to look at,” one protector said, as a woman with whom he partnered declared the sidewalk “private property” off-limits to outsiders.
That’s how Day 50 began at the encampment, which the city was once set to close on July 17. Hoping to avoid a police confrontation with the 100 to 150 people living at the site, Mayor Jim Kenney postponed the shutdown to meet personally with encampment organizers.
Talks were held last week and are scheduled again this week. On Wednesday, a city spokesperson said any questions on a new deadline for shuttering the encampment were “premature,” adding that Kenney is “wholly focused ... on resolving this through negotiations.”
Kenney described encampment organizers as “sincere” in wanting people to get housing.
He’s made an impression. “It seems the mayor is trying to work toward a solution that would be peaceful and decent for everybody,” said Jennifer Bennetch, an encampment organizer and housing activist. “He seems receptive to try out new ideas.”
Kenney has 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.”
But he also made it clear that the site could not last in perpetuity, citing unhealthful conditions among individuals living there. If encampment residents who are first asked to vacate refuse to leave, the city may “have to remove people,” Kenney has said.
Organizers have stipulated they want the city to donate properties it owns to the unhoused. They also have lobbied for Philadelphia Housing Authority units that are not occupied.
“The city would love to transform our vacant houses into livable units for needy families,” the city spokesperson said on Wednesday. But, he added, much of the city’s inventory is vacant lots, not structures. And most structures “are in very poor condition.”
PHA officials said there’s a waiting list for units that “squatters” — as agency president and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah called encampment residents — cannot bypass. A smaller encampment protesting the PHA is set up outside the agency’s North Philadelphia headquarters.
Touring tiny houses
In prior talks, city officials agreed to, among other things, help develop a sanctioned encampment on another spot, and commit to establishing a village of tiny houses for people who are homeless.
Last week, a delegation of city councilmembers joined encampment organizer Alex Stewart of the Workers Revolutionary Collective and others on a trip to Liberation Tiny Homes in Leola, Lancaster County, to “see what tiny houses have to offer,” Stewart said.
The city spokesperson explained that organizers told officials about models and costs.
Unlike previous homeless encampments in Philadelphia, this one is larger than most, and conceived as a political protest of city policies toward the homeless and the lack of low-income housing.
Some of the organizers’ rhetoric links to the Black Lives Matter movement, and initial demands included calls for the Philadelphia police to disarm and disband.
Having tempered their conditions, however, organizers helped “make things get a little more mature,” said a person with knowledge of the encampment. “The atmosphere has calmed significantly.”
Both that person and Bennetch said that former Mayor John F. Street volunteered to help organizers. “We met with him,” Bennetch said. “He wanted us to do real theatrical stuff, like have a bunch of pastors sleep here. We didn’t like that.”
Street could not be reached for comment.
The dynamics surrounding the camp are fraught. Longtime advocates of the homeless, as well as providers of homeless services, are loathe to publicly discuss any aspect of the encampment for fear of having their remarks misinterpreted as racist commentary directed at the homeless and the organizers, most of whom are Black or Latinx.
Several advocates and providers support the organizers wholeheartedly, and have helped create a supply line of food, water, washing stations, a kitchen, and other encampment amenities. Others distrust the organizers, seeing them as political activists willing to manipulate the homeless to further an ideological agenda.
Some in both groups question the city’s commitment, fearing officials will engage organizers in endless conversations that will resolve nothing.
Quite a few of the advocates and providers who literally know the names and backgrounds of the homeless individuals living in the encampment agree that they might surprise everyone: Even if they get housed, many of the homeless — an overwhelming number of whom are mentally ill and resistant to shelters — will refuse to live in any kind of structure they’re offered, and in time will simply walk away from housing.
Those who understand the city’s homeless best say that over the years, one of the few solutions proved to work is the program at Project HOME, the city’s leading anti-homelessness nonprofit. The organization combines housing units with supportive services that help people experiencing homelessness live in the world, teaching skills such as handling money.
Heat and garbage
As the sun asserted itself on Wednesday, Irvin Murray, 49, an encampment resident who works with organizers, complained about the heat and the mounting piles of garbage. The growing filth is what inspired some residents to move to the Azalea Garden near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Murray claimed that outsiders commit crimes and hide in the encampment. Meanwhile, fights, stabbings, and a tent fire haven’t been investigated by police, said Murray, once incarcerated on robbery-related charges.
“This is a no-police zone, and cops don’t come here,” Murray said. “We banned people doing crimes ourselves.”
A police spokesperson said officers are assigned to patrol the perimeter of the encampment. They will enter it in response to a call for service, or if they view a crime in progress.
With his tent just yards from dining tables outside a Whole Foods store, Murray is aware of the tableau of inequality on full display. He said people in the encampment will “fight tooth and nail” in the courts for housing. And he promised that protesters will come from eight states to bolster the encampment’s cause.
“We’re hopeful the city comes up with a solution,” he said. “But we’re ready to push back.”