A few months ago, plywood covered the doors and windows of the three-story North Philadelphia rowhouse on a block where boxy new construction is sprouting amid vacant lots. The beige linoleum was cracked and curling. The white stove top was filthy black.

But the 41-year-old mother of eight saw the potential: After a year of homelessness, her children scattered in juvenile facilities and foster care, it was a home. So, she moved in and set about deep-cleaning, painting, hanging curtains, laying down floor tiles. A plumber still has to be called to address a leak in the upstairs bathroom and a problem with the downstairs sink.

What looks like an unassuming slice of domestic life is, in fact, a radical undertaking: This is one of 11 (and counting) formerly homeless families who have recently taken over properties left vacant by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, supported by the same activists who have set up homeless encampments on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and outside PHA’s North Philadelphia headquarters.

It’s a response to the intersecting problems of homelessness, lack of affordable housing, and family separation. Philadelphia has the highest rate of family separation of any big city, and homelessness is the second most common reason (after substance abuse) for a child to be brought into the child-welfare system.

Squatting is an unconventional, illegal — and, PHA says, dangerous — solution. PHA also argues it is unfair to the 40,000 other families on a waiting list that’s been closed since 2013, all in line for fewer than 500 properties that come available each year.

But the mother, who asked not to be named for fear it could lead authorities to her doorstep, said she tried following the rules and it didn’t work.

“I’ve been on the housing waiting list for over 10 years,” she said. “I feel like if you sit there waiting, you will always be homeless. Someone blessed me with a home and I wasn’t going to turn it down. It was a desperate situation.”

PHA has accused the squatters of hooking up illegal utility connections, even setting a disastrous fire. Many houses, they say, require far more than cosmetic fixes. PHA’s chief executive, Kelvin Jeremiah, said the organizers have refused PHA’s request for a list of occupied homes. However, PHA has identified about 20 units with squatters, including some PHA had planned to ready for occupants.

“When [work crews] get there, we find unfortunately there are squatters in that unit,” he said. “We will be going through an ejectment process [in court] to remove those folks.”

On visits to two of the houses and a virtual visit to a third, what was most evident was not the hazards but the relief of parents and children who were reunited after months or years bouncing among couches, homeless shelters, hotels, and the street.

A Southwest Philadelphia rowhouse owned by PHA was sitting vacant until a family of five moved in in late July.
Samantha Melamed / Staff
A Southwest Philadelphia rowhouse owned by PHA was sitting vacant until a family of five moved in in late July.

The North Philadelphia mother knows it’s probably temporary.

But it’s buying her time to prepare for whatever comes next. For now, she’s working hard for that contingency, putting in at least eight hours a day selling her handmade statement jewelry, crystals set in metal wire that go for up to $40 apiece. But with her poor credit, informal income, and large family, she’s been rejected by landlord after landlord in the past.

As her 4-year-old daughter bounced down the stairs, she said allowing her family to be separated again is not an option.

“I feel like housing is by any means necessary. You can’t expect me to work or do anything if I don’t have a home to come to,” she said.

A mission for accountability

The peaceful house is a small, private corner of a larger, messier fight playing out in homeless encampments that, in just two months, have become living, seething, growing protests of a system residents say has locked them out.

It started when a group of people pitched tents on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with support from a grassroots group called Workers Revolutionary Collective. As that encampment grew, Jennifer Bennetch a 34-year-old mother of two who has been protesting PHA relentlessly for the last year, helped another group set up outside PHA’s one-year-old, $45 million headquarters.

Jennifer Bennetch stands in the homeless encampment at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia, August 4, 2020. Avi Steinhardt / For the Inquirer
Jennifer Bennetch stands in the homeless encampment at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia, August 4, 2020. Avi Steinhardt / For the Inquirer

Bennetch’s beef with PHA is personal. It started, she said, when the housing authority’s police force began showing up at the house owned by her husband, Gerald Williams-Bey: The house neighbors three PHA properties. In a lawsuit filed in 2016, she and Williams-Bey allege PHA police failed to stop, and indeed escalated, harassment by a neighbor, culminating in Williams-Bey’s near-fatal stabbing. A federal judge in February denied PHA’s petition to dismiss the lawsuit, which is still pending.

In the interim, Bennetch was galvanized. “I went on this mission to try to get some accountability,” she said. She started attending PHA board meetings, where she noticed how frequently PHA was selling off properties and people were being displaced. “It started happening really rapidly, houses being boarded up by the dozens.”

She questioned the agency’s strategy for its portfolio of nearly 4,000 scattered-site properties, among the largest in the nation. In its most recent annual report, PHA said those aging units require repairs that “vastly outweigh PHA’s limited capital funding.” So, it is preserving some properties — 212 units in fiscal 2019 — while auctioning others, including 179 properties over the last two fiscal years, for just over $14 million.

Jeremiah said he has prioritized those scattered properties, rehabbing 1,800 of them at a cost of $75 million. Fewer than 600 remain vacant today, he said. Of those, about 225 are slated for rehab; the rest have been deemed “nonviable.”

He noted that PHA housing standards are set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, whereas it’s unclear what standards the DIY renovations have taken. “We don’t know if the work they have done is within code. We don’t know if they did all the necessary tests, for example, with lead.”

But to Bennetch, who has been scouting vacant PHA properties, for months — they were easy to spot with their boarded-up doors and windows — those numbers don’t add up. She’s compiled a list of more than 500 just in North Philadelphia.

As she and others began to investigate, they found the properties unlocked. And while some were beyond repair, others seemed to require only modest plumbing, electrical, or carpentry work. No illegal utility hookups were necessary, she said: Utilities were left on, so new occupants only needed to transfer the accounts into their own names.

Once a new resident scrubbed the grease and dirt off a blackened stovetop, she found a working kitchen in a North Philadelphia rowhouse owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Samantha Melamed / Staff
Once a new resident scrubbed the grease and dirt off a blackened stovetop, she found a working kitchen in a North Philadelphia rowhouse owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Mostly, the houses were filled with junk. Volunteers found old eviction notices, graduation photos, yellowing obituaries. Most jarring was when she walked into the home of a woman she’d tried to help fight eviction. Bennetch encountered a poster she’d made herself, advertising home-cooked meals for a fund-raiser.

At first, organizers tried placing a group of adults together, but conflicts ensued. Now, they stick to families. There is no screening process, she said. “We believe everyone deserves a place to stay, especially if they have children.”

She and other volunteers try to teach the new residents the basics of home maintenance.

“It’s mutual aid, not a charity,” she said. “We let them know what they’re doing, what could happen.”

In July, PHA officers showed up at one of the houses with a notice giving the residents 48 hours to vacate. But Bennetch rushed over and began streaming on Facebook, warning officials against acting without a legal court order. Eventually, they left.

And as recently as Tuesday night, PHA police showed up at a North Philadelphia house occupied by a 26-year-old mother of one and told the family to leave.

“They basically came into the house and told me I had 15 minutes to get some stuff and go,” said the woman, who called Bennetch. Bennetch, who began livestreaming the situation, demanded the officers leave. They finally did so, and the family shakily returned to the house.

”I’m relieved I can get another night here of sleep,” the woman said. “But I don’t know what tomorrow may bring.”

Mostly, PHA has restricted its response to social media postings, media interviews, and cease-and-desist demands. Jeremiah continues to argue the encampment is a nuisance, blocking construction of a long-awaited grocery store. He also blames squatters for a fire that ravaged a house on the 2000 block of Turner Street.

Bennetch said she is familiar with that house and believes it was not occupied, but was being used for illegal activity. The families she helps settle, she argues, help deter crime and reduce blight.

Squatting is DANGEROUS! This home was destroyed by a fire caused by squatters. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Posted by Philadelphia Housing Authority on Tuesday, July 14, 2020

But in an interview, Jeremiah said he has come to appreciate the group’s advocacy.

“I think that in the last three weeks they have done a masterful job in conveying what is a desperate crisis for affordable housing in the city,” he said. “Unlike many big cities across the country, we don’t receive any funding from the city or the state.”

‘My PHA’s coming!'

For a 33-year-old mother of four who moved into a rowhouse on a sleepy, porch-lined block in Southwest Philadelphia in late July, it’s not about housing policy. It’s about a safe place to spend the night, after months separated from her kids, sleeping on couches, in cars and hotel rooms.

The mother, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions from PHA or DHS, said this tidy new home with fresh white walls and diaphanous red curtains, represented the first flicker of hope after months of despair.

Her monthly income is just $294 plus food stamps. Worse, after 15 years on PHA’s waiting list, she’d lost her spot in line after she became homeless and lost touch with the agency.

“I used to call all the time just to know where I was on the list,” she said, wiping away tears. “Can you imagine being on the list all that time? Going through hell and high water to try to survive, but you‘re banking on it — ‘My PHA’s coming! My PHA’s coming!’ — just to get heartbroken and be told you were dropped off the list?”

The house had been cleaned, minor electrical and plumbing repairs completed, the walls painted and furniture brought in. She let an incense stick smolder. Overnight, it was home.

Now, with the daily panic of where she’ll spend each night lifted, she’s able to focus on the bigger picture: what to do about school, how to rein in her teenage sons who, staying with relatives, had drifted into the streets.

As the pandemic drags on, a third mother said, more families may be considering similar paths.

Unlike the others, this 45-year-old mother of five said she had never been homeless before.

A licensed practical nurse and an ultrasound technician, she worked long hours to get by. When money was tight, she’d uproot her family for temporary work contracts. Now, though, she’s unemployed, immobilized with a knee injury — and terrified living in a shelter would expose her to the coronavirus.

“Usually I can move and shake and work my way out of something. At this point, though, my back is up against the wall,” said the mother, who had been toying with the idea of finding an abandoned house before meeting the organizers.

“When I met with them, I thought: It’s a thing. It’s not just us. There is a guide. Someone is helping people to get into safe housing by squatting,” she said. “It was the realization that we weren’t the only ones, that this is the answer for a lot of people.”