It promised to be a raucous confrontation.
The city had announced it would clear out people who are experiencing homelessness in Kensington by 9 a.m. Wednesday. Its intentions were printed on orange metal signs bolted to poles in the neighborhood since May.
Though the city later said last week that it would halt the action, protesters nevertheless gathered on the west side of Kensington Avenue at Allegheny Avenue before the appointed hour to denounce the move.
At the same time, counterprotesters showed up on the east side to shout out their support of what was labeled “a sweep.” Along the sidewalks, people who are experiencing homelessness sat by their tents or lay in blankets, awaiting an explosion.
It never came.
Rather than attack each other, both groups decided to express solidarity with those who are homeless, and, in varying degrees, to exhort the city to work harder to house people who are addicted to drugs and living on the streets.
“The city wants us to fight each other,” counterprotester Sonja Bingham, a member of the nearby Harrowgate Civic Association, told the crowd of about 60 people as El trains rumbled overhead. “But we stand united in demanding resources for the homeless.”
“The last thing the city wants,” said protester Jamaal Henderson of ACT UP Philadelphia, “is for both of our sides to come together. But we have. The city wants to sow as much confusion as possible. The house-less are in danger of being attacked and assaulted. Housing is a human right.”
Not all harmony
Not everything during the three-hour event was harmonious, and each side exchanged words with the other in sporadic arguments:
“Why don’t you take them [people who are homeless]?” a counterprotester wearing a BLM (Black Lives Matter) mask yelled to protesters at one point. At the same time, Asteria Vives, founder of Home Quarters & Friends, a faith-based advocacy group, intoned into a microphone, “We mean no disrespect, but we do not want encampments here. We love all people, but we want our community back.”
In response, a lone protester said, “People need our help. They just do.”
But despite the back-and-forth, no violence erupted, and by 11:30 a.m., police officers who were on hand to keep the peace posed for photos with people from both groups before everyone dispersed.
On Wednesday afternoon, Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said no clear out is currently planned for Kensington. Skeptics on both sides of the avenue Wednesday speculated that the appearance of press and protesters — not to mention a lawsuit filed in federal court this week to stay the clear out — had compelled the city to stand down.
Earlier in the morning, as tensions rose, Bingham said she caught herself reading the signs carried by the protesters across Kensington Avenue, many of them housing activists who had rallied to support members of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway last year.
One sign read, “Mayor Kenney and City Council are our common enemy.”
“We do want the same things,” Bingham concluded. “Housing. Services for people. In that moment, thinking about the city’s failures, I said, ‘Somebody’s got to do something.’ I crossed the street to talk to Jamaal and he was like, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s go,’ and [the protesters] all crossed over to our side.”
Henderson said it was a healing moment. “Even though we don’t see eye to eye, nobody is fighting a war here,” he said. “I think the city wanted this protest today to turn into something violent. It didn’t.” City officials denied the charge.
While neighborhood residents stressed that people who are living homeless in Kensington deserve help, many who gathered on Wednesday morning made it clear that they are beyond frustrated with outsiders living on the sidewalks and injecting themselves with heroin in full view.
“We’ve been told by the city and homeless advocates that they would help,” said Shannon Farrell, president of the Harrowgate Civic Association. “Neither has been successful. We can’t use the parks, we live like hostages. Our kids have lost years of their lives to this.”
Needles, human feces, and open sex are on the list of things parents don’t want their children to have to see each day, residents say.
“We have hearts,” said Tim McCloskey, 52, a customer service worker who lives just blocks from the intersection of Kensington and Allegheny Avenues. “We’d like to see people get treatment for their addictions, except for those who are robbing our houses.
“But we don’t believe anything the city says. Where are the thousands of social workers who are supposed to come to help the homeless? Why aren’t there yellow school buses picking them up and taking them from this neighborhood, which is where all their drug dealers are?”
And, both protesters and counterprotesters asked, in a city with so many vacant homes, why are accommodations for people who are homeless so hard to come by?
In response, Hersh said that when people are “screaming there should be more affordable housing, they’re right. If we had sufficient resources, we could address homelessness in the city. And you can’t underestimate the impact of a billion-dollar drug trade in the neighborhood.”
She said that after listening to neighborhood complaints, the city will start a new program of outreach help specifically to people who are homeless who use drugs in Kensington parks. It’ll run weekly and make the parks safer for everyone, Hersh said.
Throughout the day, protesters echoed an accusation often made by those experiencing homelessness: People who appear to work for the city arrive each morning and take items belonging to those who are sleeping on the sidewalks.
“It could be your mother’s ashes,” said Ryan Hrabin, 40, who sleeps in a tent on Kensington Avenue. “A trash truck will show up in the morning and take them away.”
Hersh said her agency isn’t grabbing anyone’s possessions.
“I have heard this before and I’m shocked,” she added. “People’s things are constitutionally protected. I don’t know if what’s being alleged is true, but we’re looking into it. It’s not city policy and it’s not something being done by OHS under any circumstances.”
That kind of behavior is damaging to those who live on the street, said Elaine Campuzano, 43, who had been living homeless in Kensington until a city program found her housing in West Philadelphia. “A lot of homeless people are feeling unloved and unwanted.
“In the end, they’re a problem the rest of the world would like to overlook.”