Saying they are “disappointed” and “heartbroken,” city officials announced Friday morning that they will close the four-week-old encampment of homeless people in a park on Benjamin Franklin Parkway by next Friday.
They called the move “very much of last resort” after a month of negotiations, and added that encampment organizers refused the city’s offers to meet at least some of their demands, which, officials said, kept shifting. They also cited a lack of clarity about which organizers spoke for the group running the encampment on North 22nd Street and the Parkway. Some demands made by organizers, officials said, were outside the city’s purview.
Activist Sterling Johnson, spokesperson for Philadelphia Housing Action, the coalition of groups that organized the encampment, criticized the city’s decision to shut down the camp, which has grown from a small group in early June to an estimated 100 to 150 residents.
“The city’s ‘disappointment’ is disingenuous, to say the least,” Johnson said Friday afternoon. “They have offered zero options for permanent housing appropriate for residents. They will simply shift the burden to another area and we will start this process all over again.”
Johnson said that he thought that recent Black Lives Matter rallies and an ongoing national dialogue about racism had provided “spaces for us to talk about racial justice.” But, he said, “in the end, we see that nothing has been learned.”
In a statement released Thursday night, organizers said that the encampment was conceived as a form of political protest over city policies toward the homeless and the lack of low-income housing in Philadelphia.
Initially, camp organizers included demands not only to benefit the homeless, but to order the police to disarm and disband. In the latest talks with the city, organizers set aside police-related issues. They concentrated primarily on a demand for an emergency transfer of vacant city-owned property into a community land trust for permanent low-income housing.
Homeless advocates, many of whom knew encampment residents personally, have said they were unsure of what to make of the camp, and were puzzled by some of the organizers’ demands. Because the encampment was a protest, it was never seen as an organic congregation of people experiencing homelessness, as previous encampments have been.
Still, the encampment generated support from volunteers throughout the region, who brought food, water, and other necessities.
Both advocates and city officials were concerned that outreach workers who went to the camp to help residents were rebuffed by organizers — something that had never been seen when previous encampments formed. In one case, an outreach worker was hit in the head with a phone, according to city officials. The incident was confirmed by a representative of Project Home, the homeless advocacy group.
Outreach workers were prevented from speaking with residents as recently as Thursday, city officials said.
“Those were lies,” said Jennifer Bennetch, an organizer of the encampment. “Nobody’s ever stopped an outreach worker. But most encampment residents don’t want outreach workers to begin with.
“They’re on a first-name basis with outreach. Yet they’re still homeless.”
During the encampment’s month of existence, city officials said there were two stabbings and a drug overdose death. Neighbors complained of seeing feces and needles in the area.
Also on Friday, Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of Health and Human Services, described the list of offers the city made to organizers. It included:
∗ Providing housing for individuals who are most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
∗ A commitment to establish a village of tiny houses for people who are homeless.
∗ An agreement to develop individualized housing plans with immediate placement in temporary housing.
∗ An offer to help develop a sanctioned encampment on another spot.
Every time the city believed progress had been made, organizers would add new demands, city officials said.
“I am disappointed that we are at this point after spending the last four weeks trying to avoid this very scenario,” Gladstein said.
Bennetch disagreed that her group’s demands had shifted throughout the negotiations.
“The city is lying,” she said Friday afternoon. “Our demands have always been the same. These four weeks of negotiating have been a waste of our time.”
Officials said that before next Friday’s mandatory closure, the city will ramp up efforts to offer services to residents of the encampment.
“Teams will offer to work intensively with participants to ... begin the process of developing a plan that will lead to permanent housing,” said Liz Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services.
On a rainy Friday morning, city workers posted signs about the pending encampment clear out. If history is any indication, many residents may walk off before the city’s 9 a.m. official closure deadline next Friday. By the time the city had broken up an encampment of 100 or more individuals living homeless at the Convention Center in March, just a fraction of the group was present.
Bennetch predicted that some encampment residents “might not leave willingly.” She said, “I don’t want to see people brutalized.”
She added that many of the same homeless people may wind up in different locations, forming alternate encampments.
“I’m advocating to have people divide into different groups and move to gentrifying neighborhoods, onto plots of land privately owned by deceased or incarcerated people. The city wouldn’t be able to find the owners” to evict people, Bennetch said.
Ultimately, Hersh said, “We are heartbroken that we have not been able to do more to help people. This camp cannot continue, but the unmet needs of homeless people remain.”