City officials are preparing to remove about 150 homeless people who have been sheltering at Philadelphia International Airport, as the airport prepares to restrict access to its terminals to employees and travelers.

Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said Thursday that he believes there will be enough shelter beds available for the approximately 150 people currently sleeping at the airport.

The city is making more shelter beds available, and some will open up as vulnerable residents are moved from shelters into safer living quarters at hotel quarantine sites, Abernathy said.

“So there’s a few moving pieces, but we’re working very well with SEPTA and the airport to be able to address those issues,” Abernathy said Wednesday.

The airport, meanwhile, plans to restrict access to its terminals beginning on May 22.

Charlene Theresa Williams uses a wheelchair to move her belongings, at the Philadelphia International Airport outside Terminal A-East on Monday. Williams has been sleeping at the airport.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Charlene Theresa Williams uses a wheelchair to move her belongings, at the Philadelphia International Airport outside Terminal A-East on Monday. Williams has been sleeping at the airport.

The airport has thus far permitted people to shelter at the airport during the coronavirus crisis, and has directed them to Terminal A-East, which has not been in use for flights.

But the situation has raised concerns, including a security breach this month when a man who airport security officials believed was homeless was found in the bathroom of a Southwest Airlines plane as the flight crew prepared it for boarding. Airport security communications obtained by The Inquirer indicate the man “got into the airfield through the Gate 2. … Then the person walked to the Gate E17 and entered to the aircraft through the Jet Bridge stairs.” The airport acknowledged the May 2 security breach, but declined to provide additional details, citing federal regulations.

And the planned relocation of those staying at the airport comes as tensions continue to rise between city officials and those who serve and house the homeless. In letters to Mayor Jim Kenney, advocates have called for greater transparency and urgency in the city’s treatment of the homeless during the pandemic.

Some advocates and providers said Thursday they were surprised by the city’s decision to move people out of A-East, and said it was unusual they had not been consulted.

“I didn’t realize they were doing it,” said David Fair, who serves on the board of directors of SELF, the city’s largest provider of emergency housing. “We’d been recommending they not do that. The advocates are united that [homeless individuals] shouldn’t be moved until we know for certain there are safer places to move them.”

When an encampment is broken up, Fair said, many homeless people decline to go to shelters.

“A lot of times, they just find another bridge to sleep under,” he said.

City officials signed an emergency regulation Wednesday that will allow the airport to limit access to only ticketed passengers, employees, and others with official airport business.

“PHL is among many airports in the country dealing with the difficult balancing act of engaging individuals without shelter with compassion while keeping passengers, employees and the facility safe," airport spokesperson Florence Brown said in an email Thursday.

Abernathy said Thursday that the city had already made some shelter beds available this week, and will continue to direct people at the airport to shelters. Some individuals currently at the airport and in homeless shelters will also be moved to the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Center City. The city initially leased the hotel as quarantine space for first responders, but is converting it into a place for individuals who would be most at-risk if they contracted the coronavirus.

“We do expect that folks [at the airport] will have a place to sleep if they so desire,” Abernathy said.

Robert Jacobs, far right, sits quietly in the baggage claim area of Terminal A at Philadelphia International Airport.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Robert Jacobs, far right, sits quietly in the baggage claim area of Terminal A at Philadelphia International Airport.

The new airport regulation states that “individuals experiencing homelessness will be offered information about appropriate services … but shall not be permitted to remain on the airport premises or in the airport terminal buildings."

Philadelphia faced criticism for clearing a Center City homeless encampment in March, counter to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on dealing with homeless camps during the pandemic. Advocates expressed the same concern Thursday about the airport encampment.

But Mike Dunn, a city spokesperson, said the CDC guidance involved outdoor encampments, unlike that at the airport. The CDC emphasizes the need to provide safe housing to the homeless, Dunn said, and the city is doing that at the airport.

“Unfortunately, what’s happening at the airport isn’t safe for those who are unsheltered, its workers, or its customers," Dunn said. “Our goal is to provide safe options and services for these individuals.”

At the airport this week, the scene in A-East was mostly tranquil as the homeless staying there talked, read, and slept. City officials have said there are about 30 people there during the day, but the population increases at night to about 150.

Several people said they’d resist going into shelters. “It’s the same old same old,” one man said.

Brown said airport security will enforce the restrictions by approaching individuals whom they observe to be waiting in the airport for “prolonged periods of time" and advising them to leave if they do not have official airport business.

Airports in other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas, have taken similar measures during the crisis. Philadelphia’s airport also requires all passengers and employees to wear masks, under a regulation that took effect Monday.

Staff photographer Jessica Griffin contributed to this article.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.