Philadelphia officials say they are nearing an agreement that could disband the homeless community camped on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway by the end of the month, but some organizers of the encampment caution that a deal is far from certain.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll reach agreement this week around the timeline for the camp to voluntarily dissolve,” Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of health and human services, said Tuesday of the encampment of more than 100 people. “From the beginning, we had agreement about some of the goals that were focused on the need for affordable housing, and we need to respect that point of view and try as hard as we can to reach those goals.”
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The agreement would involve the city setting up an area near the cluster of tents at 22nd Street where, for several days, encampment residents could access social services and get assistance enrolling in programs on housing, health care, and behavioral health, Gladstein said. Organizers of the encampment had previously rejected offers for services, but some are open to it now, she said.
If both sides move forward with an agreement, the city could, as soon as this week, set up shop near the encampment, which in turn would be disbanded two weeks later, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.
Leaders of the encampment, which sprang up during the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and has been labeled by its inhabitants as a “no cop zone,” have backed off some of their initial demands, such as disarming police officers.
But other issues remain unaddressed by the proposed deal, and some organizers said the city’s offers don’t go far enough. There are several groups and leaders active at the encampment, and they do not always align on their priorities. At various points, residents have asked the city to build a community of “tiny houses” for people experiencing homelessness, to end “homeless sweeps,” and to disband the police.
Jennifer Bennetch, founder of the activist group Occupy PHA, said persuading everyone to leave would require concrete action from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which is independent from but works with the city.
“We feel like [the city’s current offer] is inadequate, especially if they’re not offering people permanent housing,” Bennetch said. “We told them that we needed more time to deal with PHA, and they said that they were willing to see where that conversation goes.”
Bennetch said that she would support ending the encampment if PHA transferred vacant properties it owns to a community land trust that could provide affordable housing.
Kelvin Jeremiah, CEO of the housing authority, which is funded almost entirely by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said it cannot transfer property without federal approval. The authority would be open in the future, he said, to seeking approval for transferring some of its vacant properties to the Philadelphia Land Bank or a nonprofit that could use them to create affordable housing. He noted, however, that there are tens of thousands of Philadelphians on wait lists for affordable housing units.
Occupy PHA has feuded with the authority for several years and recently set up a splinter encampment at the housing agency’s headquarters in North Philadelphia. Jeremiah said he hopes the city’s efforts to disband the Parkway encampment will include a resolution to the one on Ridge Avenue, where the protesters are on PHA property slated to be redeveloped as affordable housing units and a grocery store. Otherwise, he said, the residents of the Parkway camp may head north to the other site.
“I hope that the city’s resolution will include the disbanding of the encampment next to our headquarters as well,” Jeremiah said.
But a resolution to the Parkway camp remains uncertain. Sterling Johnson, an attorney who describes himself as a spokesperson for the encampment, said Tuesday morning that no agreement had been reached.
“We’re still talking to the city,” he said. “Nothing is a done deal.”
Johnson, an organizer of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, was one of the encampment representatives who initially demanded that police disarm and disband. But on Monday, he indicated that police-related demands may be put aside for the time being and echoed Bennetch’s call for the PHA to transfer properties to a land trust for housing.
“The demands about police have only distracted people,” Johnson said. “We still care about them, but when it comes down to the residents of the Parkway encampment, we’re focusing on that one demand of permanent housing.”
Meanwhile, residents of high-rises near the encampment are continuing to express frustration, complaining that they’re being asked for money by people living in the tented site.
Some 1,200 people who live in the area sent a petition to city officials calling for a humane dissolution of the encampment, officials from a neighborhood organization said.
Fears that the encampment could become dangerous were stoked after a 26-year-old living there, identified by supporters only as Anabeastee, was stabbed multiple times after trying to break up a fight between nonresidents.
Police are investigating the incident and said those responsible for the stabbing had fled before officers arrived. Advocates have organized a GoFundMe for Anabeastee’s recovery that has raised more than $3,000.
Last month, a group of about two dozen academics from the region wrote a letter to the city, urging officials to find housing for encampment residents.