Having endured withering heat waves, an omnipresent pandemic, and a succession of storms — both political and meteorological — since its inception 69 days ago, the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is scheduled to be cleared out by 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Throughout the summer, far-flung supporters from the suburbs and other communities rallied to buttress the site of 100 to 150 occupants as nearby neighbors railed against it.
In the end, city officials who had been negotiating with encampment organizers to find a way to house those who live rough and open in Center City declared the issues that separated the parties insurmountable. Further talks, Mayor Jim Kenney said, would be “fruitless.”
Officials then ordered the site shuttered by posting signs at 9 a.m. Monday on the ball field of tents on North 22nd Street that has become an urban village, as well as a lightning rod for issues of poverty, equality, race, mental health, and drug addiction.
“After several weeks of face-to-face discussions, and more than two months of concerted efforts by our administration, I have come to the conclusion that further negotiations would be fruitless,” Kenney said in a statement. “I take this step again with a heavy heart, as a last resort, and in recognition of the growing health and safety concerns at the sites.”
A similar notice announced the shuttering of a smaller encampment on Ridge Avenue protesting policies of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
This is the second posting for the Parkway tent encampment, which was begun on June 10. It was set to be closed July 10, but Kenney postponed the action to personally intercede in hope of reaching a resolution.
This time around, Kenney said, encampment organizers continually shifted their demands. In addition, several things they wanted were out of the city’s control to grant, he said.
“When I stepped into these discussions,” Kenney continued, “I voiced the hope that a resolution was possible. I no longer harbor such hope.”
“We were close to an agreement,” said attorney Sterling Johnson, one of the organizers of the encampment who was negotiating with the city. But, he said, both sides were at an impasse. “Again, Black and brown bodies are just not a priority for this administration,” Johnson said.
Jennifer Bennetch, another organizer, said the city’s decision to shutter the encampment was “disheartening and disturbing.” She added, “Where does the city expect human beings to go? Just disappear?”
Angered by the city’s statement that organizers thwarted negotiations by changing demands, Bennetch said, “The city is lying. Our demands have always been the same. These are the demands I’ve had as an activist for four years: getting people housed.”
Now that the city has announced its plans to end the encampment on Tuesday, Bennetch said that she is “very concerned” the scheduled clear-out may not be peaceful.
“The police can be very brutal,” she said. “It can be scary.”
Asked about how encampment occupants will handle being ordered out of the ball field, organizer Alex Stewart, with the Workers’ Revolutionary Collective, said that while “I can’t speak for the people, for those who choose to stand and fight, we will support them. We don’t want violence on the already oppressed. But if violence comes, it’s a decision made by the power structure.”
A city spokesperson said Monday that he is “hopeful that no one on site will refuse to leave. We strongly believe that those in the camp will voluntarily decamp.”
The spokesperson said that the city will provide storage for personal possessions and offer transportation to encampment occupants to housing and service options.
‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do'
At the Parkway encampment on Monday, occupants and organizers were working through their next steps.
Someone had laid one of the city’s orange metal signs warning of Tuesday’s eviction on the camp’s donation table, its message a bright, unmistakable reminder that no more charitable assistance will be forthcoming on the Parkway.
Upon hearing the news, some residents began packing their things, having decided to sleep on the streets elsewhere. Others hoped to enter shelters, even though many had come to the camp to avoid the shelter system.
One man said he’d left the camp for a city shelter a few weeks ago, only to return to the Parkway. The shelter’s curfew hours had clashed with his shifts at a construction site. He liked the relative privacy of his tent staked to the ball field, and the fact that he could come and go as he pleased. On Monday, with a clear-out looming, the man — who asked not to be named because of privacy issues — was hoping to find a city outreach worker so he could reenter a shelter.
The situation wasn’t ideal, but he was unsure what other option he had. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” he said.
Some organizers had planned a news conference for Monday evening, while others walked the camp, speaking to residents about their plans.
As news of the shuttering set in, the camp’s kitchen was still serving meals. On Instagram, camp occupants called for volunteers to watch for police, drag barricades around the camp, and physically “defend” the area.
They also asked volunteers to help residents clean their tents, and made plans to keep in touch if they are displaced from the Parkway.
A shifting population
City officials said that throughout negotiations, teams of outreach workers repeatedly tried, with varying success, to contact occupants of the Parkway encampment. Although the workers were at times blocked and in at least one case violently chased away, a few were able to get more than 80 encampment occupants into emergency, temporary housing, as well as safe havens and the city’s COVID Prevention Space, according to a city statement.
It was not clear as of Monday morning how many people remained at the Parkway encampment.
Stewart said that while 80 occupants had left, many returned after leaving city housing. He believes that the site census remains at 150.
When Kenney initially interceded, organizers were hopeful.
“It seems the mayor is trying to work toward a solution that would be peaceful and decent for everybody,” Bennetch said at the time. “He seems receptive to try out new ideas.”
Kenney told organizers that he believed the Parkway encampment underscores racial inequities, and that his administration shares the belief that “policy failures for generations have brought us to this point.”
On Monday, Kenney said that while PHA and city officials agree that everyone deserves decent housing, “the encampment is not the solution.”
Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, said in a statement Monday morning that encampment leaders had presented “unreasonable demands” to house occupants of both sites. By demanding PHA housing for those living on the Parkway and Ridge Avenue, organizers “would have required PHA to violate federal policies or regulations.”
City officials said Monday that during negotiations, they had agreed to “concrete” actions.
Those included, among several suggestions: a temporary sanctioned encampment at another site; tiny-house villages; creation of new permanent housing units; support of a community land trust.
Since June 10, the Parkway encampment has attracted attention from supporters throughout the city who have sent a steady stream of food, water, and other supplies to keep the site going.
Organizers called the encampment a protest site, connecting it to the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At the same time it was politically celebrated, however, residents of the Parkway area said the encampment was also a hardship for them.
Saying they empathize with the plight of the homeless, Parkway residents nevertheless have argued that they’re the ones who had to cope with intrusive, dangerous, and unhealthy behaviors that would confound any neighborhood. Tents from the encampment had sprouted at the Rodin Museum, Eakins Oval, and the Azalea Garden near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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, and the siphoning of electricity from traffic light controls and water from fountains.
Acknowledging that local residents are witnessing raw moments, organizer Stewart said earlier this month: “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.”
On Monday, Ed Dougherty, the vice president of the Logan Square Neighbors Association, said the organization was pleased that the encampment was scheduled to be closed down.
But he added a cautionary note, referencing the city’s previous decision to postpone a clear-out of the encampment. “We’ve been close to this moment before,” Dougherty said. “I sure hope the city goes through with it.”
He added that he was “confused” that the city would allow the encampment to develop in the first place.
“City law says you can’t camp out on city property,” Dougherty said. “We support protest. But you can’t camp overnight.”