After a man was stabbed in the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Tuesday night, frightened neighborhood residents voiced outrage, while professionals who work with the homeless moved quickly to temper heated reactions.
The dual responses reflect the fraught realities of a controversial patch of the city at North 22nd Street, where around 100 occupants have lived in tents since mid-June.
The 28-year-old man who police said was living in the encampment was stabbed once in both legs and once in the back of the head around 8 p.m. Tuesday and taken by medics to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was in critical condition. It was the second known stabbing at the encampment, which the city has announced it would close three times but thus far has not. Police reported no arrests and said no weapon was recovered.
Both residents and encampment organizers confirmed Wednesday that occupants had blocked police from entering the site to get to the stabbing victim Tuesday night.
“That was over-the-moon appalling,” said Ed Dougherty, vice president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Encampment residents and organizers have referred to the site as a “police-free zone."
John LaCorte, president of the Fairmount Sports Association, which has run programs at the ball field on which the encampment is located, asked Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday to clear the site.
“When will the city take action and remove this encampment?” he wrote in an email. “We are seeing more and more violence, crime, and destruction with each passing day!” LaCorte told Kenney that a homeless woman from the encampment forced open his door and walked into his house on Pennock Street on Monday.
Both LaCorte and Dougherty said that in addition to blocking police, encampment residents wouldn’t allow ambulance workers onto the field to retrieve the stabbing victim. But Sterling Johnson, an encampment spokesperson, said that wasn’t true.
Johnson also said that “organizers and encampment residents have been successful in using harm reduction to limit violence. However, in some situations, interpersonal violence erupts and the community must respond with care and compassion to guide people through these emotions.”
A spokesperson for Kenney said that the stabbing and other incidents make it clear that the encampment and its hybrids, including another outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters in North Philadelphia, “are not long-term housing solutions for those who are staying there. In addition, they create a public safety threat for those who live near the camps.”
The spokesperson said the administration has resumed negotiations with encampment organizers and “has made some progress.” He reiterated that “a forceful resolution is an absolute last resort.”
Counseling calm, Michael Hinson, president and COO of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing in Philadelphia, said Wednesday that unhoused people are “for the most part no more violent and perhaps less violent than other folks because they tend to want to be left alone and tend to find spaces even in public to be left alone.” He added, “We certainly don’t often hear about violence among homeless on the streets or in our shelter system.”
The key to resolving all encampment-related problems, he said, is finding housing for low-income Philadelphians.
The violence in the encampment pales in comparison with the shootings being perpetrated throughout Philadelphia, said Stephanie Sena, a Villanova University professor who studies the homeless and who unsuccessfully sued the city to prevent it from shuttering the encampment.
“There’s a stigma against the homeless as being violent, when in fact, they’re most often victims,” she said.
Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homeless Law Center in Washington, said that usually encampments are safe places. “But,” he added, “when people are excluded from other areas of a city and are living with untreated mental illness and addictions, it can create an opportunity for bad interactions and violence. Still, it’s no more prevalent than it would be among people in housing.”
On June 28, a 26-year-old man was stabbed multiple times and critically wounded during a fight at the encampment. At the time, police said it was not clear if the victim was a resident of the camp.
Anthony Lloyd, 32, a resident of the encampment, said Wednesday that Tuesday’s stabbing stemmed from an altercation between two men that began at the site, “then came on to the street.”
Sitting on a table set up on the grass along North 22nd Street, next to a plastic barrier with the words “NO COP ZONE” spray-painted on it, Lloyd contended that the media were focusing disproportionately on the two stabbings that occurred “in this small community.”
Living at the encampment since it began and calling it a “safe place,” Lloyd said he has had “time to get my life back in perspective.” He described himself as a “working-class citizen” and a “returning citizen,” who had been in jail.
A coalition of housing activists established the encampment on the city-owned Von Colln Athletic Field to advocate for permanent housing for the city’s large homeless population. It quickly became a sprawling community, supported by dozens of volunteers and an outpouring of donations, including tents, hot meals, port-a-potties, and clothing.
The city posted eviction notices three times, the most recent on Sept. 9, for the athletic field encampment and other sites — at the Rodin Museum, the Azalea Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and outside the PHA — but each time has let the deadlines pass without action.
A woman who lives in the area, and asked to be identified only as Judi, said she was scared.
“While I’m very sympathetic to the homeless, I am experiencing fear in my neighborhood for the first time” since the encampment began, she said. “I think our local government needs to find housing for these people and free us from our fear.