Stephanie Sena, a Villanova University expert on poverty, is preparing to sue Philadelphia in federal court over a city plan to clear out people experiencing homelessness in Kensington.
But the city says it no longer has such a plan, despite erecting signs throughout the neighborhood last month declaring that people must “remove ... property and leave this location by no later than June 16. ...”
Sena said she’s going to file the suit anyway.
Such confusion underscores the difficulty of addressing homelessness in Kensington, a battered neighborhood caught between two gnawing economic engines: gentrification, making housing more expensive, and the ever-present drug trade, which, experts say, fosters homelessness when people who are addicted stay and bed down in the streets.
Sena, an antipoverty fellow at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova, is suing the City of Philadelphia, the Office of Homeless Services, and Mayor Jim Kenney. Last summer, she unsuccessfully sued the city in federal court to prevent it from clearing out the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Sena shared much of the lawsuit’s contents with The Inquirer. It includes demands for sweeping changes about how homelessness is addressed citywide.
After being asked about Sena’s lawsuit, a city spokesperson said the June 16 clear-out is not currently on the table because several people experiencing homelessness have complied with orders to remove tents and structures.
“Encampment closures only take place when tents and structures exist,” the spokesperson said, adding that “at the time signs were posted, there were tents and structures present. Now there are not, so no encampment closure is planned at the moment.”
But some tents and structures remain on Kensington streets, visits to the area showed. And the notice on the metal orange signs that the city posted in May to announce the clear-out doesn’t limit the order to vacate people in tents and structures only. It reads, “You are not authorized ... in the neighborhood known as Kensington to erect tents or other structures, or to otherwise encamp or stay, at this location.”
It wasn’t clear whether Sena’s threatened lawsuit altered the city’s planning. The spokesperson said the city doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits.
“The city is absolutely being disingenuous, deceptive, and confusing,” charged Sena, founder and executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), a nonprofit homeless shelter operating since 2011. “It always meant to evict all people sleeping on the sidewalks.”
The head of a neighborhood social service agency who asked not to be identified in exchange for speaking frankly said that city officials had notified “all Kensington civic associations there was going to be a clearing of homeless people on June 16. Whether people were in tents made no difference. We were told they’re moving people out, and we’re all gearing up for that.”
Eric Tars, legal director of the Washington-based National Homelessness Law Center, had a similar take.
“My understanding of the signs was to tell everybody experiencing homelessness to get out,” said Tars, who lives in Mount Airy. “And I haven’t heard the city is un-posting the signs. So the people in Kensington have no idea whether they’re going to be swept out or not.”
The uncertainty is palpable.
“We live under a threat every day,” said Becky, 32, a woman originally from Frankford, now living homeless on Kensington Avenue. “We get harassed by the police who throw away our things. We’ve been chased into this little area of the sidewalk. We don’t know when they’ll make us leave.”
Also unclear is how many people experiencing homelessness live in Kensington, said Sena, who raises the census as a point of contention with the city.
The city’s so-called Point in Time count, taken on the night of Jan. 27 through the morning of Jan. 28 this year, found 245 people who experience homelessness in Kensington.
Sena believes the number was closer to 500 and was deliberately undercounted so the city could say it decreased from a level of 700 in 2019, and could therefore claim greater success and secure increased federal funding.
The city denies the allegation, saying it has no financial incentive to undercount.
Michael Hinson, president and COO of SELF Inc., the largest provider of emergency housing services to single adults in Philadelphia, said that during the warm days almost six months after the official count, “even saying there are 500 experiencing homelessness seems low. Their numbers are overwhelming. We’re meeting with the city to look at long-term responses.”
Throughout the year, Philadelphia police said they make their own count of people who are on the streets of Kensington at 2:30 a.m. Police officials said there were 658 people on Kensington streets last Thursday, a 6% increase over the prior week’s count, and a 12% increase over the count on June 4, 2020.
“Cop numbers are more accurate,” the social service provider said, even though there’s a chance some of those counted by the police may not be without homes.
To be sure, counting is imprecise.
According to the Kensington social services agency provider and other experts on homelessness, the city recently changed its methodology. People are currently counted as homeless on the Point in Time night if they’re lying down wherever they’re spending the night by 11 p.m. and are not engaged in criminal activity, the provider said.
Also, to keep people who do the counting safe, they’re discouraged from entering parks, vacant buildings, or dark alleys.
“They’re literally told not to go into places where people who are homeless are,” said Tars of the Homelessness Law Center, who’s participated in counts. “If you’re pretending this is accurate, you’re being disingenuous at best.”
Along with demanding that any Kensington clear-out cease, Sena’s lawsuit also seeks to:
Stop evictions from encampments and homeless shelters throughout the city.
Form an oversight board of shelter residents and others to oversee OHS, and replace its current leadership.
Reopen COVID-19 hotels, apply for federal reimbursement, and invest the money in creating an accessible, city-run shelter.
Sena also is presenting the testimony of a “whistleblower” who is delineating alleged malfeasance at a COVID-19 site for people who are homeless.
A nuanced and complex problem, homelessness in Kensington has long defied solution. City officials have said they understand the complaints of local advocates such as Charito Morales, a registered nurse who has fed and treated people who are homeless but who nevertheless decries the area’s diminished well-being.
“You think it’s nice our kids walking to school or summer camp have to walk through feces, see open sex, and drug use?” she asked. “That’s traumatic and not fair.”
She blames the city for supporting an ultimately rejected Kensington supervised injection site but for not finding housing for those who need it.
In response, the city spokesperson said: “There is no doubt that Kensington has been very hard hit by both the opioid crisis and homelessness.”
“The city works closely with the local civic associations and the community development associations to try and improve the safety and quality of life in the neighborhood.”
“Our teams work hard to connect folks with services, visiting multiple times daily to provide alternatives to remaining on the street.”