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City cleared out airport encampment of homeless people, offered tests for COVID-19

Advocates for the homeless threatened to sue the city if it didn't test for the coronavirus among people moving from the airport into shelters.

A group of men gather their belongings on a bench outside Terminal A at the airport as people who have been staying at the airport are relocated, on Tuesday, May 26, 2020.
A group of men gather their belongings on a bench outside Terminal A at the airport as people who have been staying at the airport are relocated, on Tuesday, May 26, 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

City officials cleared out about 25 homeless individuals from Philadelphia International Airport on Tuesday morning, offering COVID-19 tests to anyone who asked to be transported to a shelter.

No one was determined to be positive for the coronavirus, said a city spokesperson, who was unable to say how many people received the test.

No incidents were reported as Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw was on hand commanding dozens of officers. They were there to back up outreach workers, who explained to members of an encampment that had formed at Terminal A-East that they could no longer remain.

An estimated 51 people had spent the night in the airport, according to city officials. About half left on their own, a city spokesperson said, while the remaining individuals allowed the city to transport them to various places: a hotel used to protect older adults and those with chronic health conditions who are most at risk should they contract COVID-19; shelters (the spokesperson did not say which ones); and to Delaware County.

“All individuals are being offered multiple places to stay, as well as behavioral health and medical attention as needed,” said city Managing Director Brian Abernathy, who was at the airport early Tuesday. “So, a relatively quiet day. Things have gone well.”

The situation wasn’t nearly as tranquil last week, when advocates and providers of services for the homeless threatened to sue the Kenney administration if it didn’t test people moving from the encampment to shelters for the coronavirus.

City officials had planned to break up the airport group last Friday, but agreed to hold off until Tuesday, when it would offer testing.

Addressing the conflict between advocates and the city about COVID-19 testing, Abernathy said: “I think the advocates had a point, and I think we try to listen when we can. We aren’t going to agree with them 100% of the time."

Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, a legal services nonprofit that threatened the city with a lawsuit if no coronavirus testing was undertaken, said she was pleased that the city said it would administer a test to anyone going into shelter.

But, she added, “I personally find it baffling that we have to have this conversation with the city in the first instance. It’s common sense to test people before putting them in a congregate setting.”

On Tuesday morning, outreach workers from Philadelphia as well as Delaware County, where some of the homeless individuals at the airport had originated, led people to waiting vehicles, including three vans, three SUVs, three ambulances, and a SEPTA bus.

The bus was there to transport individuals who didn’t want to go to a shelter to Center City, where they’d be dropped off and allowed to move along on their own, advocates said.

Among the people from the encampment, at least three were taken out of the airport in wheelchairs, and one woman was carried to an ambulance on a stretcher.

While outreach workers and city officials began escorting people out of the encampment by around 8 a.m., many from the group had moved out days ago, after being told that they would no longer be permitted to spend the night at the airport.

At one point, approximately 150 people were living at the facility, advocates said.

In expressing a willingness Wednesday to sue, advocates and providers conveyed their fear that placing untested people from an encampment into a shelter could be disastrous.

They cited Philadelphia’s decision in late March to clear a homeless encampment at the Convention Center — against federal health recommendations — and place some of the people in a Center City shelter, Our Brother’s Place.

A subsequent outbreak of coronavirus there infected more than three dozen residents, and a 46-year-old man died April 2. He is the only known coronavirus fatality among more than 5,000 individuals living in shelters in the city.

By placing members of the airport group into shelter without learning their COVID-19 status, the city would have been "almost guaranteeing the same thing will happen again,” David Fair, a member of the board of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing in the city, said last Wednesday.

Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of health and human services for the city, disputed the idea that moving people from the street hastened the virus’ spread through Our Brother’s Place.

“It’s a false correlation,” she said.

The airport had permitted people to shelter there during the coronavirus crisis, and had directed them to Terminal A-East, which has not been in use for flights.

But, advocates said, they were told that the terminal will be used again starting around June 4.

A serious security breach occurred at the airport on May 2, when a man believed to be homeless was found in the bathroom of a Southwest Airlines plane as the flight crew prepared it for boarding.

The airport has now begun enforcing new regulations that allow only employees and travelers access to the facility.

An airport spokesperson said that those without airport business “won’t be welcome in the terminals” and will be “strongly urged to leave.”

In a wide-ranging conversation during the clear-out of homeless individuals Tuesday, Commissioner Outlaw acknowledged that she and her officers were on scene “to support the outreach workers. We’re not the first people that people will see. We’re here behind the scenes first.”

Asked about the intricacies of keeping Philadelphians safe during the pandemic, Outlaw pointed out that because officers can’t be everywhere, citizens have to learn to “police themselves” and self-protect.

“I encourage folks not to let their foot off the gas” in terms of staying vigilant against the coronavirus, she said. “I know it seems like Groundhog Day every day, but we have to do what we can to make sure we’re doing our part to keep our neighbors and loved ones safe.”

Referencing some who might start gathering in large groups, Outlaw said: “Folks seem to think that it’s over, and it’s not.”

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