Both an urban scourge and a broadly popular protest, the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is all but gone, its population as of Monday night believed to have plummeted to just two.
While workers from the city and a landscaping company ringed a 6-foot high, 2,200-foot chain-link fence around the controversial site that was once home to as many as 150 people, encampment organizer Jennifer Bennetch declared: “This is the last night of the camp.”
City officials had a slightly different take, declining to say conclusively that the nearly five-month-old encampment was no more. Instead, a spokesperson said, “We have seen substantial progress so far. We remain optimistic that the commitment made to decamp will be kept.”
Encampment organizers had resolved that the inhabitants would be out by Oct. 16, although a grace period has been allowed by city officials.
In exchange, the city promised to provide 50 houses within six months, and two tiny-house villages by June 30.
On Monday, no tents remained on the site of the Rodin Museum on North 22nd Street, across from the main encampment on Von Colln Memorial Field. As recently as Friday, around two dozen tents had been staked into museum grounds.
As for the ball field, 13 tents were visible on Monday, although Bennetch said most were empty. Among the residents who remained was a man from Reading who’d arrived four days ago when he heard there was housing to be had.
“He said he’s not going anywhere,” Bennetch said.
The two others were women in their 70s who, Bennetch said, had been offered housing by the city, but refused to take it.
One of the women apparently had changed her mind as of late Monday. “I want to leave and won’t sleep here tonight,” said Delores McFadden, 77. The North Philadelphia woman described herself as “the icon, smart as hell.” She was a plaintiff in an unsuccessful suit brought by encampment residents over the summer to preclude the city from shuttering the site.
The man from Reading, asked about his plans, unleashed a profane tirade at a reporter, lunging at him and screaming, “Move, and get off my turf!”
Aside from that one moment, the encampment was largely subdued Monday. A few former residents were visiting, eating chicken donated by a volunteer. Four men quietly studied a fire in a metal container, while a line of cars and vans loaded up occupants’ belongings in a light rain.
Sheena Robinson, 40, who’s lived at the encampment since its June inception, sat at the opening of her tent and said she felt a desire to clear trash piles from the field.
“You need to make the world right,” she said. “I’m cleaning up.”
Still, Robinson was uneasy because she wasn’t sure where she’d be sleeping Monday night. “The shelter system is hard,” she said. “They have bedbugs the size of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Where will I end up?"
Questions like that were, in many ways, at the heart of the encampment’s formulation, as protesters who supported the Black Lives Matter movement contemplated inequities borne by those experiencing homelessness. Their goal was both to create a community for those without roofs, and to grow a protest into a demand for housing.
“I’d say it’s been a success,” Bennetch said. "We didn’t get everything we’d asked for, but it’s a start. Some people accused us of selling out and agreeing to leave.
“But just a month ago, we were waiting to get cracked in the head by police who were going to move us out of here. Now, people will have places to live and get on with their lives.”
But the stand that Bennetch and the encampment’s occupants took in the grass of a city park was not without consequence.
Parkway neighbors and those in surrounding communities constantly reported hostile interactions with encampment occupants who demanded money, started fights, and grew particularly angry whenever “outsiders” so much as glanced at them.
The differences weren’t merely of class and color; many of the encampment residents suffered from behavioral health issues and drug addictions, according to advocates for the homeless who knew many of the site’s occupants.
“The encampment was a forbidding place for any people other than those there,” said Ed Dougherty, vice president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. "The space was lost to the neighborhood in a kind of avoidance zone, having our sense of space disrupted.
“There were points as recently as a month ago, I didn’t think this camp would go away. Though we’ve contemplated the displaced humans who are leaving the site, there’s a mourning for the passage of lost time and intrusion neighbors contended with."
Dougherty said he and others wonder when the field will be restored to its previous condition.
Frank Fabey, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, had a quick answer: “Within a month, we’ll have this place looking good.”
Cleanup will start with a search for discarded intravenous-drug needles sticking like spikes in the grass.
“It’s sad to realize we know how to do that from experience,” Fabey said. Human excrement will be sprayed and discarded, dirt infields will be cut out and remade, and the sod will be “almost skinned," he said, adding, “The community is dying to get back in.”
Because encampment occupants had threatened Fabey with violence in the past when he put up signs indicating the site would be shuttered, he feared reprisal when city workers and Bustleton Services Inc., a Bensalem landscaping company, erected the chain-link fence on Monday.
“I thought people would be screaming and giving us a hard time, but we got none,” Fabey said.
The workers decided not to seal the entire site Monday night to allow encampment residents a chance to continue their move-out.
“We got an agreement with people that they wouldn’t disturb the fence if we left parts of it opened,” Fabey said. "People were thanking me.
“Today, it was a very nice feeling.”