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After deadline passes for homeless encampments to clear out, city won’t say what’s next on Parkway and at PHA

Officials decline to specify what’s next in the continuing stand-off among activists, encampment organizers, the city, and the homeless occupants.

A person holds a sign at the encampment located at 21st and Ridge Avenue, where there is an eviction pending of people from the encampment by the city, in Philadelphia, September 09, 2020.
A person holds a sign at the encampment located at 21st and Ridge Avenue, where there is an eviction pending of people from the encampment by the city, in Philadelphia, September 09, 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Opting to let the Wednesday morning deadline pass for clearing out four homeless encampments, city officials declined to say what’s next in the continuing standoff among divergent factions who nevertheless profess a common goal: sheltering the unhoused.

All that was certain by day’s end was that dozens of people at the center of it all — individuals experiencing homelessness — would sleep in their tents at least one more night on a ball field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street, as well as at three hybrid sites at the Rodin Museum, the Azalea Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters on Ridge Avenue.

“We have no comment on when we’re going to move,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday. “We’re going to continue to try to do it the way we’ve been doing it ... in a non-forceful way."

After notice had been posted that the encampments would be shuttered Wednesday, various groups set up barricades and adopted a confrontational stance.

At both the Parkway and PHA encampments, speakers with megaphones delivered fiery speeches about the needs of the homeless, citing racism and neglect that they say have kept people down and out for decades.

Activist Samantha Rise asked the more than 50 people gathered at the PHA site how many were willing to risk arrest. About half raised their hands.

“We’re here because we believe housing is a human right,” Rise said.

Around 9 a.m., the time the city stipulated it would dismantle the encampments, activists at the Parkway site stared across at a relatively small group of police from the department’s Civil Affairs Division. Outreach workers in bright orange T-shirts waited outside the Rodin Museum to help people from the encampments.

“Is that all you got?”

At the PHA site, police didn’t move to clear the encampment and walked away. “Is that all you got?” a man shouted, using a boxer’s taunt.

Soon after, the activists on the Parkway began cursing a phalanx of clergy collected by the city to speak with the homeless about getting into shelters, treatment, or the city’s COVID-19 prevention sites.

Labeling the tirade “a shame and quite frankly unacceptable” in a virtual news conference, Kenney incorrectly said the speakers were from the groups that helped organize the encampments.

“Our people did not curse clergy,” said organizer Scott Matt. The primary speaker who cursed was Jammal Henderson of ACT UP Philadelphia, which supports the rights of people with HIV.

The day was characterized by similar aspects of confusion and misunderstanding, as hundreds of people waited for a police action that never came.

Several organizers and homeless individuals, overwhelmingly people of color, said they could not identify the roughly 150 young white people dressed in black clothes who flooded the Parkway encampment.

Many wore helmets and carried shields and umbrellas. The so-called defenders held a strategy session in the overgrown ball field, during which they talked about “creating two lines of defense against police,” as well as a third line meant only to “deescalate,” as one woman said. “Your job is to accompany any homeless who would like to leave,” she said.

Asked who they were, none would say. “My message is for you to kill your landlord,” one young man said. A helmeted woman said the similarly dressed assembly was not part of a group, just individuals working collectively. “That’s classic anarchy,” she said.

Whatever was happening, it strayed from the most important goal: finding housing for the homeless, according to Mike Hinson, president of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing for single adults in the city.

“The encampments have been very good about sparking a conversation about homelessness,” he said. “But the city bringing clergy who’ve never spoken to encampment residents before, and the defenders showing up — it’s going to cause confusion. If what you’re doing doesn’t get to actual housing, it’s not helpful.”

Hinson urged the city and encampment organizers to continue negotiating for the good of what he called the only people who matter in this situation: the homeless.

‘The Earth keeps moving’

Before sunrise Wednesday, homeless occupants of the Parkway and PHA encampments spoke quietly and drank coffee. James Lowery, 43, fired up his grill to heat water for tea on the Parkway, where at one time, some 150 homeless people lived. It wasn’t clear how many remained. “People will disperse in peace,” he predicted. “And I’ll take my tent and find another site. The Earth keeps moving.”

At the PHA encampment, a man named Farmer, 62, noted that most occupants had already left.

“You lost the case,” he said, referencing a federal lawsuit that would have precluded the city from shuttering the encampments. “The best thing you can do is get your [stuff] and get out. You stand here and fight the police? That ain’t going to work.”

Jennifer Bennetch, the site’s main organizer, said about 15 people were still there as of Tuesday night. Luna Evans, 27, two months pregnant and unwilling to enter a shelter, was packing to go — likely on a Greyhound bound for who knows where. Evans praised the encampment’s relative safety. And, she said, “I actually ate every day.”

Also at the site, a woman named Lex T., 26, an artist with a biochemistry degree, was one of a large group of white volunteers in their 20s. Saying she possesses “privilege, visibly and physically,” she explained that she’d place herself in front of the homeless if the police invaded “to take the brunt because there are more vulnerable people here than me.”

In a similar vein, Stephanie Sena, a professor at Villanova University’s Widger School of Law, said she was prepared to be arrested protecting the Parkway encampment. Sena, who is working with city officials to secure tiny homes for the homeless and who instituted the unsuccessful federal lawsuit, wore a shirt that read, “Not Today Colonizer.” She said, “This is a hill I will die on."

Much of Wednesday morning, the area outside the Parkway encampment was a kinetic spot.

News helicopters fluttered overhead. A hard-hatted construction worker nine stories up, building a luxury high-rise on Hamilton Street, yelled “Get a job” to no one in particular in the encampment, as a defender shouted back, “Come down and get a job fighting the police.”

Volunteer legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild kept watch on everything, “protecting the First Amendment rights of freedom of protest, assembly, and the press.”

‘Capture scenes’

Wielding a large video camera, artist Fred Schmidt-Arenales, 28, of East Falls, said he was there to keep police and media honest, looking to “capture scenes of police brutality.”

On Wednesday, Ed Dougherty, vice president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said, “I can’t fault the mayor for trying to end this on as peaceful a note as he can. But by delaying clearing out the encampments, he’s allowing organizers to fortify and build networks of resistance.”

Kenney, who postponed a scheduled July 17 closing of the encampments because he wanted to personally negotiate with organizers, has said that “policy failures for generations have brought us to this point.”