Advocates and people experiencing homelessness have long alleged that the City of Philadelphia routinely discards the possessions of individuals living on the streets.

So, last Aug. 17, the day before the city was scheduled to break up two homeless encampments in Kensington, Villanova University professor Stephanie Sena, Villanova law student Delaney Keefe, and ACT-UP Philadelphia activist Jazmyn Henderson attached Apple AirTags to belongings of eight of the encampments’ occupants.

After the encampments were cleared Aug. 18, the tracking devices revealed that four items wound up in a solid-waste facility in Conshohocken — a violation, advocates charged, of the constitutional rights of people living homeless.

One item found at the facility was a couch that had been in a tent set up on a Kensington sidewalk.

Keefe shared videos she shot on Aug. 18 that appear to show city workers pulling the couch out of the tent, then destroying the tent. Greg Ramseyer, then 39, said on camera that the tent was his property, assuring police and city workers it was not abandoned.

Other tagged and discarded items traced to Conshohocken were a black trunk and a plastic container of clothes belonging to a man identified as Tommy, as well as a black backpack belonging to a man identified as Peter. The bag contained a wallet with his identification cards, which are considered extraordinarily difficult for people who are homeless to replace.

“The city lied when it said it doesn’t take people’s stuff,” Henderson said. “This is what activists have been screaming for decades, while the city says we’ve just been imagining this.”

City says it stores items

City officials did not address the data gathered from the AirTags. They stressed that they work hard to inform people that an encampment is ending, then counsel individuals on how their belongings can be stored and retrieved.

The website of the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services states, “We will store personal belongings for free for at least 30 days” after a clear-out. A city spokesperson said possessions collected at the encampment were stored at Prevention Point, a public health and social services nonprofit in Kensington.

If something is thrown out, a city spokesperson said, it’s only because it’s dangerous, abandoned, or debris.

“The city takes multiple steps to avoid disposing of anyone’s possessions, and offers storage,” the spokesperson said. “For safety reasons, city staff do not go through individual bags.” The spokesperson added, “Individuals are encouraged to take their possessions with them and the city makes reasonable efforts to ensure that items that are clearly identifiable as personal property/personal belongings are not discarded.”

Nothing sent to the waste facility was dangerous or abandoned, advocates said. “And I never saw papers or information given out to people whose things were taken saying where they could pick them up from the city,” Keefe said.

Sena added that, in anticipation of a lawsuit, she took affidavits from Ramseyer, Tommy, and Peter last year. They swore that they were never told their belongings were considered hazardous and that they never received notice their things would be taken. “The city was not following OHS policy on Aug. 18,” Sena said.

The spokesperson did not directly answer questions about why Ramseyer’s tent was destroyed, adding, “If a particular city employee does not follow this process, we welcome that information so that we can provide further training on the city’s policy.”

Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington, said that cities will often “say that everything found at an encampment is hazardous, whether it is or not. It’s a loophole large enough to drive a truck through.”

Fraught episode

The breakup of the Kensington encampments was a fraught episode in the city’s history of homelessness. In the weeks before the clear-out, there were frequent arguments among those living on the streets, neighbors, advocates, and city officials. The morning of Aug. 18, the encampments were dismantled under police supervision while people went looking for new places to live, edgy and upset.

Although the city gave notice of the Aug. 18 clear-out, it didn’t retain some of the belongings, advocates asserted. According to national and local lawyers who are experts on homelessness, that’s a violation of the constitutional rights of encampment residents.

“It’s guided by the Fourth and 14th Amendments,” Tars said. “People have the right to be secure wherever they’re living against unreasonable searches and seizures. And no one can deprive a person of property without due process of law.”

Paul Messing, a Center City civil rights lawyer, agreed. “The tent being destroyed on the spot — that’s not supposed to happen. And the city can’t seize property without giving people the ability to reclaim any property seized.”

Beyond the law, said Dean Beer, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project in Center City, there are “moral and ethical problems” to consider: “Our clients hardly have anything, and taking every little bit they have and allegedly throwing it into garbage trucks is troubling.”

Two months before the encampments closed, Liz Hersh, Philadelphia’s OHS director, said: “I have heard [that possessions are taken] before, and I’m shocked. People’s things are constitutionally protected. I don’t know if what’s being alleged is true, but we’re looking into it. It’s not city policy and it’s not something being done by OHS under any circumstances.”

Challenging Hersh and other city officials are Sena, anti-poverty fellow at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law, who also heads the school’s Initiative to End Poverty and Inequality; Keefe, who’s on the board of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), a nonprofit founded by Sena; and Henderson, who in 2020 lent support to the beleaguered homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, perceived as either an urban scourge or a successful political protest.

Sena lost a lawsuit against the city in August 2020 to forestall the closure of the Parkway encampment. And, last July, she withdrew another lawsuit against the city for taking people’s encampment belongings after witnesses who were living homeless failed to appear in court.

“The AirTags prove an air-tight case,” Sena said. “They show the city can’t be trusted, and it continues to violate people’s civil rights.”

She doesn’t rule out using the AirTags as a basis for suing the city again. “The city continues to throw away belongings. It hasn’t stopped last August, and we’re continuing to monitor them,” she said.

Indeed, said Ryan Hrabin, 40, who slept in a tent on Kensington Avenue last summer, “the city always takes our stuff. It could be your mother’s ashes. A trash truck will show up in the morning and take them away.”

Sena’s idea to use AirTags was inspired by Michael Fuller, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who deployed the tracking devices last year to prove that the city was dumping possessions from a homeless encampment into a landfill. The city wound up paying for one of the destroyed items, a $500 painting, Fuller said. He added that civil rights advocates across the country are following his lead to preserve the property of people experiencing homelessness.

“No one ever believes people who are homeless when they say their possessions are taken from them,” Keefe said. “The AirTags are one step toward getting them believed.

“This is a wake-up call that the city needs to be held accountable. And it needs to stop throwing people’s stuff away.”

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.