The city has rescheduled its clear-out of Kensington homeless encampments, saying no one can “camp or stay” on sidewalks and other public areas after 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 18.
Along Kensington Avenue, the orange metal signs with small, hard-to-read typeface announcing the order are bolted so high up on poles that many people complain they simply can’t discern what they say.
But that doesn’t mean that those who are living homeless in the beleaguered area don’t understand what’s happening.
“It sucks to have to leave,” said Tommy, 42, who is originally from Kensington and now lives in a tent on a neighborhood sidewalk. “I don’t know what my next move is. But the way things seem to work, we get kicked out but wind up returning to the same spot.
“What we need is housing. I hope things get better. I hope they change.”
Kensington has become a welter of crisscrossing needs and opinions, a civic puzzle no one’s been able to solve.
Activists who try to help those experiencing homelessness don’t believe the city’s doing enough to ameliorate the problem.
City officials say there’s no magic wand to quickly fix what’s broken in Kensington.
Local residents weary of encampments are unmoved by the city’s orange pronouncements, skeptically remembering that past clear-out attempts ameliorated conditions for just a little while.
“This is a problem,” said Ben Cocchiaro, a medical doctor and a professor of family and community medicine at Pennsylvania State University who’s lived in Kensington for 10 years. “That the city is unable to solve it produces despair: The folks in the tents are despairing, the people in the houses are despairing.
“The complexity here transcends any individual narrative. We’ve been doing the same stuff to try to fix things for decades here. Nothing’s worked.”
That doesn’t mean you stop trying, said Karen Pushaw, codirector of St. Francis Inn, a Kensington soup kitchen.
“I’ve never seen it so bad here, that’s true,” she said. But, she added, come Aug. 18, people should be humanely asked to vacate their sidewalk tents and sleeping bags.
“Out of respect for the people who live and work in the neighborhood, you have to have a clear-out,” Pushaw said. “You have to send the message that people can’t just plop down Seattle-style and block the sidewalks so residents can’t get out their doors.
“You have to signal to the people of the neighborhood we haven’t given up on you, even if this turns out to be a quote, waste of time, unquote.”
Disagreeing, activist Stephanie Sena said: “Homelessness is not solved by clearing out people. That’s an enormous waste of resources that should be put into housing. We’re fighting so housing is seen as a basic right.” Sena is an antipoverty fellow at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University.
A report earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that clear-outs cost cities between $1,672 and $6,208 per un-sheltered individual per year.
The lawsuits, the clear-outs
With so many issues percolating, there’s not even consensus on the number of people living homeless in the neighborhood: The city’s Office of Homeless Services says the total is 250 to 300; activists, as well as police, say it’s closer to 650 to 700, with population swelling during the summer as people are attracted to the thriving drug trade that bedevils the area.
Not helping the confusion in Kensington are the rescheduled clear-outs, which the city calls “encampment resolutions” and the activists denigrate as “sweeps.”
In May, the city had put up orange clear-out signs saying people would have to leave the area by June 16.
Less than a week before that date, Sena sued the City of Philadelphia, OHS, and Mayor Jim Kenney to prevent a move-out. Last summer, she unsuccessfully sued the city in federal court to preclude it from clearing out the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The city then announced it would no longer follow the June 16 timetable because people living homeless on the sidewalks had removed their tents, which complied with the clear-out order.
But that served only to confound residents as well as those on the street, since few, if any, tents had actually been removed. Observers believed Sena’s lawsuit had stayed the city’s hand.
Sena dropped her suit in early July after most witnesses failed to appear in court. The city then said it wouldn’t clear out anyone before Aug. 1.
After the Aug. 18 deadline was announced, Sena said she would refile her lawsuit by Aug. 17. “We believe the judge will halt the sweep,” she said.
Sena said that one issue the case rests on is the complaint that the belongings of those who are homeless are being carted away without consent by workers for the city’s Community Life Improvement Program. So-called CLIP workers are nonviolent offenders completing their sentences of community service by cleaning the city.
Such activity, if true, would be unconstitutional, according to OHS Director Liz Hersh.
But, she said on Wednesday, “We have investigated [the complaints] extensively through the Streets Department, the police, CLIP, and our own teams, and, honest to goodness, we cannot figure out what they’re talking about.”
Hersh went on to say that OHS workers are constantly in Kensington offering “intensive outreach” services to those who are homeless. These include health care for IV drug users, mental-health initiatives, and programs that connect individuals to housing.
She added that the city has created a list of the names of those who are homeless in an effort to focus on needs: “We are connecting people to services, building trusting relationships, offering whatever help we can that tries to meet their needs.”
A study on encampment closings
Both city officials and Sena urged a reporter to read a 2019 report by University of Pennsylvania researchers, which studied the city’s actions in closing encampments in Kensington in 2018.
In a summary of that report, the city writes that the document “outlines the effectiveness of Philadelphia’s strategies, especially creating a by-name list of those on the street and polling data of former encampment residents.”
But the summary does not include the observation, also in the Penn report, that “the substantial number of individual placements to housing and substance use treatment services did not lead to collateral reductions in the encampment populations. As people left, others took their places and the encampments maintained a rough population equilibrium.”
That underscores, experts on homelessness have said, just how difficult the issue is to reconcile.
Nearby Harrowgate resident Darlene Burton, 50, knows that’s true.
“I don’t even believe the encampments will be emptied until I see it,” said Burton, a community activist who’s distributed 4,500 COVID-19 masks during the pandemic. “Of course, I know every homeless person has a story that brought them out here.
“But a woman threw some unknown liquid into my face. People have sex in my alley. A man was outside injecting drugs into his tongue. All of that is sad.
“But what goes on in your life should not negatively impact mine.”