One of the last occupants to leave the now-closed PHA homeless encampment looks forward to a house
"I envision stability," said Scout, hoping to be homeless no more. “I’m real excited to be able to stay inside.”
Scout has spent her last night in a tent.
Soon, she and her husband, Gil, will have a place to charge their phones, a house where their cat, Needles Ramone, can curl up in the sunlight beaming through a window.
“I envision stability,” said Scout, 30, a former pet-store worker who lived for a month in the newly shuttered homeless encampment outside the headquarters of the Philadelphia Housing Authority on Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia.
“I’m real excited to be able to stay inside.”
The encampment was vacated Monday evening — not after a siege by police, a potential ending that had been dreaded — but in a peaceful clear-out following a negotiated settlement between encampment organizers and PHA.
In exchange for leaving, the 20 residents of “Camp Teddy,” named after one of the occupants, will soon begin a process that will get them into nine now-vacant rowhouses on Westmont Street in Strawberry Mansion.
Several of the people experiencing homelessness will themselves fix up the houses — Gil included.
Former encampment residents will be trained by building and construction trades to rehabilitate the properties, which will be placed in a land trust, renovated, and brought to code, according to the agreement.
People who ultimately move in will be asked to pay only 15% of their income to live in the buildings, which are currently owned by the federal government since PHA is a federal program.
“After we were told the details, we went to look at the houses,” said Scout, an Oakland native who eschews her “government name,” typed out on a bureaucratic form somewhere in California. “It’s a beautiful block. Before leaving the camp, we all had to agree. But we did.”
The houses sit boarded up on a narrow street, their interiors unseen but their potential — for people like Scout and Gil — unlimited. On Tuesday, a man who lives on the block declared it “a fine place to live.”
The specifics of the so-called “Working for Home Repair Training Program” have not yet been laid out. But Ryan Boyer, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said in a statement that it "will change people’s lives forever. We look forward to working with PHA and teaching people how to create better lives for themselves and their families.”
One factor that played heavily in the negotiations between PHA and lead organizer Jennifer Bennetch of OccupyPHA: The encampment was blocking the construction of a $52 million mixed-use development, including a supermarket long sought by the Sharswood neighborhood, along with 98 units of housing, a bank, an urgent care center, and other retail businesses.
That construction deal “was on the brink of collapsing,” Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, said Monday night. “It had to get agreed-upon literally today.”
While Camp Teddy is no more, the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — with about six times the population — remains.
On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney said the city continues to negotiate with Parkway encampment organizers. He talked about the importance of finding a peaceful solution.
“The alternative is to forcefully remove people, and that’s not a pretty sight,” he said. “We like to try to avoid that, and we think we’re almost there.”
Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director for Health and Human Services, said that ongoing negotiations to vacate the tent village, which has occupied a ball field at 22nd Street since June, also included plans to house the homeless. The city has “made a number of offers,” including “potential transition of properties,” Gladstein said, adding that the negotiating parties “continue to make progress.”
Meanwhile, neighbors around the Parkway encampment have been making their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of negotiations more widely known. City government representatives, television and newspaper outlets, as well as neighborhood websites, are being inundated with messages of discontent.
“How would you like it in your neighborhood?” one angry resident wrote, summing up the unhappiness.
Encampment organizers have continually said they’re fighting to get housing for everyone.
“That’s a human right,” said Scout, a former heroin addict who’s living with Gil in a friend’s house until they repair their house. “The city needs to stop selling properties to developers, and must put people into vacant houses.”
Among low-income young people, Philadelphia had always been a premier destination, because its rents were low compared with other big cities.
But, said Scout, who walks with a cane because of various ailments, all that ended recently, and Philadelphia has become like everywhere else: pricey.
She said that she grew up poor in California, Texas, and Alaska, and that she and Gil, 31, an out-of-work delivery man, have learned to live without in their five years of marriage.
In fact, she said, they knew it from the start: “The minister at our wedding asked if we would have each other ‘for poorer, and poorer, and somehow for poorer still.’"
“We still do," she said. “But we’re looking forward to our new place, and not in a tent anymore.”