A Villanova University professor who’s fought to prevent the city’s planned breakup of homeless encampments on Aug. 18 in Kensington said Wednesday she’ll no longer pursue a lawsuit to block the city’s action.
But Stephanie Sena, an antipoverty fellow at the Charles Widger School of Law, announced she would sue the city for allegedly discarding property belonging to people who have been living on sidewalks in Kensington.
Sena’s decision came on a day Kensington residents were planning to protest the Kenney administration’s policies on homelessness in their area.
It’s been a fraught time in the neighborhood, as residents have grown restive over Sena’s vocal defense of those living homeless, and have become angry over a perceived sense that the city has no answers for the hard-to-solve complications of homelessness.
City officials say some 250 to 300 individuals are living homeless in Kensington; both activists and police say the number is closer to 700.
“I’ve come to represent all that’s bad and evil in the world,” Sena said Wednesday. “I’m seen as an elite professor and outsider making trouble from the Main Line. Actually, I live in South Philadelphia. And I wanted only to raise awareness of the need to bring housing justice for people.
“But I’m too much of a lightning rod right now. Tension is too high.”
In a letter to residents and activists, Sena apologized for making it seem as if she were trying “to keep the Kensington encampments there in perpetuity.”
She added that her “actual motive” was to seek a “pathway to eliminating encampments for good.” Sena said her desire is for people to understand that housing is a human right.
Asked to respond, a city spokesperson said only, “The city won’t comment on hypothetical litigation.”
In May, the city had put up orange clear-out signs saying people who are homeless would have to leave the area by June 16.
Less than a week before that date, Sena sued the City of Philadelphia, the Office of Homeless Services, and Mayor Jim Kenney to prevent a move-out. Last summer, she unsuccessfully sued the city in federal court to preclude it from clearing out the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The city then announced it would no longer follow the June 16 timetable because people living homeless on the sidewalks had removed their tents, which complied with the clear-out order.
But that served only to confound residents as well as those on the street, since few, if any, tents had actually been removed. Observers believed Sena’s lawsuit had stayed the city’s hand.
Sena dropped her suit in early July after most witnesses failed to appear in court. The city then said it wouldn’t clear out anyone before Aug. 1.
After the Aug. 18 deadline was announced, Sena said she would refile her lawsuit by Aug. 17. “We believe the judge will halt the sweep,” she said.
On Wednesday, Sena said that she intends to pursue in court the allegation that the belongings of those who are homeless are being carted away without consent by workers for the city’s Community Life Improvement Program. So-called CLIP workers are nonviolent offenders completing their sentences of community service by cleaning the city.
Liz Hersh, director of the OHS, said officials could find no evidence of what Sena has alleged.
On Wednesday, Shawn McClain, 43, a block captain in Kensington who said his left arm was recently broken by a homeless man who stole medicine from him as he walked on a street, said he was glad Sena won’t be suing again.
“That encampment has got to go,” McClain said. “My wife is petrified. We don’t allow our 7-year-old son to go outside. We’re either chasing people from our property or calling paramedics as someone overdoses in front of us. The smells are ungodly. We feel imprisoned.”
Asked for her reaction to Sena’s announcement that she’s no longer suing to prevent the encampment clear-out, Sonja Bingham, a member of the nearby Harrowgate Civic Association, said: “Good for her. She saw the light. Her lawsuit was without any merit or weight.”
She added: “Look, we are all on the same side here. We want people off the street, and we want people to be cared for.”
In announcing the end of her suit to block the Kensington clear-out, Sena said she will be working with the Delaware County Department of Human Services to develop a shelter for people who are homeless in the Upper Darby area through an organization she directs, the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia.
Many people who are homeless come into Philadelphia and the Kensington area from outside areas such as Delaware County, Sena said.
She added that working with people experiencing homelessness in Delaware County could forestall migration to Kensington.
According to Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, headquartered in Washington, Sena is part of an unofficial group of activists across the country who are working to limit so-called sweeps of people who are homeless from streets, and to prevent police departments from “criminalizing homelessness” and being “the front line” working against those without a place to stay.
“We don’t want more people sleeping on the streets,” Tars said. “But we do want them to be adequately housed.”