Philly encampments will remain at least through Tuesday, federal judge says
Residents testified the encampments have been a haven from a shelter system they found hostile and, during the coronavirus pandemic, outright dangerous.
The homeless encampments established in June in a movement that was part protest, part emergency housing stopgap will remain intact at least until Tuesday or Wednesday. That’s when U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno expects to rule on a petition seeking an injunction against eviction by the City of Philadelphia, he said Thursday, following hours of testimony from residents, neighbors, and city officials.
The delay buys another weekend for camps that have encompassed well over a hundred people living in tents, first at Von Colln Memorial Field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, then also in the Azalea Garden by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s North Philadelphia headquarters on a Ridge Avenue lot owned by PHA and slated for mixed-use development.
Despite incidents of violence, an overdose death, and the hospitalizations of one or more medically frail residents, residents have considered the encampments a haven from a shelter system they found hostile and, during the coronavirus pandemic, dangerous.
They also stirred anxieties and frustrations among Fairmount neighbors who complained that the ills of the encampment, which housed some with substance-use disorders and serious mental illness, had spilled over into their community. And, they tested the patience of Mayor Jim Kenney, who moved to evict the camps this week after negotiations with the organizers stalled.
“At some point in time this has to end, because it’s not tenable,” he said at a news conference this week.
After the city posted a final eviction notice on Monday, residents represented by lawyer Michael Huff filed the federal lawsuit seeking an injunction on Tuesday morning.
In court filings, the residents argued the city’s entreaties for residents to enter shelters were in poor faith, given the shortage of shelter beds and crowded, filthy conditions. They sought individually separated shelter beds, a pathway to permanent housing, and a process for retrieving any personal property cleared away by the city.
The city, in its response filed Thursday, described an increasingly dire situation including 21 emergency calls for drug overdoses in one month, rampant use of the synthetic drug K2, nuisance complaints from more than 200 neighbors, and “incredibly unsanitary” conditions. Meanwhile, the encampment has continued to grow, attracting “individuals believed to be from out of county and out of state.”
“The encampment poses a significant life-safety risk to the residents within the encampment and to the surrounding community,” city lawyers wrote in the filing.
Eva Gladstein, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for health and human services, testified that the camp posed dangers of spreading not only the coronavirus but also hepatitis among residents. She said there are more than 300 shelter beds available — and that encampment residents would be welcome to come in and to bring their belongings. Ninety-five people have already accepted placement into housing or residential treatment, she said.
But, she said, the city’s efforts have been stymied by the camp members’ refusal to admit outreach workers.
“They have not been permitted to enter the camp at all. They have been rebuffed,” she said. Instead, workers “circled the perimeter” or set up tables on the Parkway.
In a supporting brief, the Philadelphia Housing Authority added that the encampment at Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street could stymie construction set to begin in mid-September — jeopardizing $28 million in tax credit funding, and ultimately the project itself.
And Dennis Boylan, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, testified that neighbors have been terrorized by the encampment. He said in one building alone, Park Towne Place, 911 calls increased from three a month, on average, to 25 in July. Boylan said 35 residents have opted not to renew their leases because of it.
“People no longer feel safe going up the street,” he said. “They no longer feel safe going to Whole Foods.
During the four-hour hearing, three residents of the encampment testified about experiences of verbal and physical abuse in shelters, and described brutal tactics by police clearing encampments in the past.
One, Joanell Johnson, 35, said she serves as the head nurse at the Parkway encampment, including helping administer weekly COVID-19 tests. She said she’d been homeless due to a fire, and avoided shelters after being assaulted at one and having her possessions stolen at another.
“It’s not just because I’m also experiencing economic hardships and am without a house. It’s also because I believe in the reason why we are fighting,” she said. “Housing for everybody.”
Another, Jeremy Williams, 29, said he had been evicted from informal encampments on three occasions in the past — at times by force and with as little as nine minutes’ notice — losing personal property such as his medication, photo ID, and birth certificate.
Gladstein said the city was not involved in those incidents. She described a kinder encampment resolution process, involving extensive outreach to place residents with housing and services, and a storage system to ensure anyone displaced can retrieve their belongings.
“During the time of COVID, I have witnessed at least 20 individuals seeking shelter and being turned away at intake,” said Stephanie Sena, a professor of poverty and policy at Villanova University’s Widger School of Law, who has advocated tiny houses as an interim solution. One man, being discharged from the hospital after a leg amputation, was told he could only have a bed — but it would have to be a top bunk, which he could not climb into, she testified Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advise against dispersing encampments due to the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Outside the federal courthouse Thursday, a group of around 50 supporters of the encampments gathered. Alternating between chants for “housing now” and “Black Lives Matter,” they marched to the Parkway, momentarily blocking traffic, and escorted by a small group of Philadelphia police officers on bikes and in vehicles.
As news that the camp could stay for a few more days disseminated through the Parkway encampment that evening, activists and residents cheered, continuing to prepare a barbecue chicken dinner.
”That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” exclaimed a camp resident known as “Beast,” who’s lived on the Parkway since May. He said he’s been eyeing the traffic flow near the encampment for days, looking for police vehicles, but is remaining calm.
”We’ll see what the city comes to the table with,” he said. “They should at least try to negotiate.”
Some residents said they had packed their belongings in preparation to move to avoid conflict with the city or police, while many said they were waiting to see what the coming days would bring.
Staff writer Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.