A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the City of Philadelphia can clear out the encampment of about 150 homeless people living along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, establishing what could become a contentious removal process.

In a decision after weeks of negotiations and a last-minute court fight, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno also determined that two smaller encampments — one outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s North Philadelphia headquarters on Ridge Avenue, and the other at the Azalea Garden near the Philadelphia Museum of Art — should be shuttered as well.

Robreno required the city to give occupants at least 72 hours’ notice before vacating the sites, and to store and return any property seized there.

In a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney said that city officials have yet to formulate a plan on how to proceed, stressing that the camps can’t continue indefinitely: “I urge those still in the camps to voluntarily decamp and avail themselves of the beneficial services being offered.”

Sagging spirits

Spirits at the Parkway encampment sagged as news of Robreno’s ruling circulated on Tuesday. Some occupants began to pack their belongings. Though dozens of tents still remained on the ball field and grassy area at 22nd Street, the site was significantly emptier than days earlier.

The city has helped more than 100 people move from the encampment in recent days, city Deputy Managing Director Eva Gladstein said, adding that the footprint of the site has also shrunk due to the removal of some empty tents.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled on Aug 25, 2020 that the City of Philadelphia can clear out the encampment of roughly 150 homeless people living along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Resident Teddy Munson said, “It’s hard to understand a decision that hurts so many.”
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled on Aug 25, 2020 that the City of Philadelphia can clear out the encampment of roughly 150 homeless people living along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Resident Teddy Munson said, “It’s hard to understand a decision that hurts so many.”

Assessing the court ruling, Parkway encampment occupant Teddy Munson said simply, ”It’s not good at all.” He explained that the city has offered him a hotel room on 13th Street, but he wonders where others will go.

As people started stir-frying rice, eggs, and vegetables for dinner Tuesday, another occupant, James Lowery, shook his head as he contemplated the ruling but said he’d vacate his spot outside the Rodin Museum if the city asks him to go. He likes the Parkway because it’s quieter than the streets of Center City, and because organizers gave him a tent. “As long as you don’t bother nobody, and keep to yourself, it’s good,” he said.

Two occupants of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, James Lowery (left) and another man who would not give his name, were unhappy to learn that U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled Tuesday that the City of Philadelphia can clear out the site.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Two occupants of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, James Lowery (left) and another man who would not give his name, were unhappy to learn that U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled Tuesday that the City of Philadelphia can clear out the site.

Lindell Payne, who has lived on the Parkway for about a month, said he worried that 72 hours wouldn’t be enough notice to clear the place. And he hopes organizers will continue to fight the city. What he dreads is returning to a shelter, where he’s had to endure hardships such as bedbugs.

”The shelter system has failed people,” Payne said. “That’s why they don’t want to go there.”

Sterling Johnson, an attorney, organizer, and spokesperson for the Parkway encampment, declared Robreno’s 72-hour notice order “a win,” since the administration had provided only a 24-hour clear-out deadline last week. Johnson said, “We appreciate that the judge listened to the case and took time to seriously consider the arguments.”

Johnson concluded, “We will likely be back here soon challenging the city’s many unjust policies against unhoused people.”

‘Incredibly disappointed’

Michael Huff, the lawyer who represented encampment occupants and organizers in a hearing last week, said on Tuesday that he’s “incredibly disappointed with the results” and while he’s not ruling out an appeal, it would have to meet “a really high standard.”

Striking a combative pose, Jennifer Bennetch, the organizer of the PHA encampment on Ridge Avenue, said the approximately 30 homeless occupants there are prepared to “physically fight to defend our place here. We are not going to attack anybody, but we are not going to get up and walk away.”

She indicated that she plans further legal action.

In response, Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA’s president and CEO, said it was “unfortunate that she holds that untenable position. My hope would have been that all parties would respect the judge’s decision and address the safety issues here and decamp.”

He added that both he and Kenney are “doing our level best to find a resolution.”

The legal decision was welcome news for neighborhood residents who have described the Parkway encampment as a nuisance plagued by aggressive panhandling, intimidation, and unsanitary conditions.

Still, Ed Dougherty, vice president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said the judge’s ruling is a “hard thing to celebrate,” given the difficulty of the lives of the homeless that had been on open display.

But Dougherty said he didn’t appreciate organizers’ “hostage-negotiation” approach of remaining on park land and denying its use to anyone other than themselves: “It’s simply not a fair posture.”

Core of the case

In his analysis, Robreno wrote that the core of the case “pits the City of Philadelphia’s power and responsibilities to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of its residents against claims by protesters to constitutional protection for their occupation of city property.”

He concluded, “City officials have reasonably determined that the encampments pose health and safety risks to encampment residents and other community members.”

Robreno added that “the task of finding if not a solution at least some relief to this crisis rests squarely on the shoulders of the city’s elected officials. ... Further indecision and neglect will only make it worse.”

Read the opinion:

The ruling comes 77 days after the first homeless individuals began living in tents on the city-owned Von Colln Athletic Field on the Parkway.

The Parkway encampment’s organizers, including the Workers Revolutionary Collective, Occupy PHA, and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, linked their grievances to the Black Lives Matter movement and released a list of demands in June insisting that the city “dis-empower” and “disarm” the Philadelphia Police Department, and prevent police from entering the encampment.

Numerous residents from the region have supported the site with donations of food and water and frequent demonstrations of solidarity.

Advocates for the homeless say they’ve tried numerous times since June 10 to offer outreach services to encampment occupants, but they’ve been rebuffed, at times violently. Organizers dispute that confrontations occurred.

Organizers of the encampments have demanded that occupants be given PHA housing. But the city has said it doesn’t have the authority to do so.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled on Aug 25, 2020 that the City of Philadelphia can clear out the encampment of roughly 150 homeless people living along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. A tent is dismantled soon after the announcement. Unsure if that is the reason why.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled on Aug 25, 2020 that the City of Philadelphia can clear out the encampment of roughly 150 homeless people living along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. A tent is dismantled soon after the announcement. Unsure if that is the reason why.

Organizers and city officials had been negotiating for weeks to find a solution, haggling over issues such as finding tiny homes and an alternate camping site for those experiencing homelessness. But after reaching an impasse again last week, the city threatened to remove the site, prompting the federal lawsuit that landed the issue in court.

Stephanie Sena, 41, a professor who teaches courses on poverty at the Widger School of Law at Villanova University and the person spearheading the proposal to build tiny homes to house encampment residents, filed the suit Aug. 17. Sena, who is not a lawyer, enlisted the help of second-year law student Delaney Keefe to write the legal arguments and, through a message she sent out on Facebook, found Huff to represent encampment occupants.

Wondering what comes next, Parkway encampment organizer Scott Matt said on Tuesday evening that homeless individuals living in tents near one another have formed a tight community.

“There’s care here,” he said, “and a whole lot of coming together.

“But what will things look like a week from now? What I mean is, will we still be here?”

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.