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Philadelphia officials say homeless encampment clearing could take days

Organizers and some residents of the protest encampment remained resolute in their determination to stay put until the city meets their demands to provide permanent housing to encampment residents.

Peyton McKoy, a resident of the homeless encampment, speaks during a news conference alongside protest camp leaders on Thursday morning near 22nd Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Peyton McKoy, a resident of the homeless encampment, speaks during a news conference alongside protest camp leaders on Thursday morning near 22nd Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

A day after the deadline for residents of several protest encampments to clear out came and went, Philadelphia city officials said Thursday the “resolution” of the camps where dozens of homeless people live will likely be a “multi-day operation.”

“We’d like to resolve this amicably,” Mayor Jim Kenney said during a news conference Thursday, adding that the city would reassess the situation if a compromise between officials and camp leaders cannot be reached.

“We don’t want to send the police in at all,” he said, adding that forcibly removing camp residents would be “a last resort.”

However, the mayor would not disclose the city’s plans, saying he did not want to share strategies and put first responders at risk.

A spokesperson for Kenney said residents who live near the largest encampment, which has been on a ball field at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and 22nd Street since June, should avoid the area.

On Thursday morning, organizers and some residents of the protest encampment — exhausted from staying up all night prepared to the defend the camp from an overnight sweep that never came — remained resolute that they would stay until the city meets their demands to provide permanent housing to the residents. City officials contend that offering shelter is a pathway to permanent housing, but organizers and encampment residents say the city’s shelters are untenable, and the wait list for public housing in Philadelphia has been closed since 2013.

“We have provided for people for over three months things the city has not provided for them in years,” said Dominique McQuade, a recent West Chester University graduate and an organizer with the camp. “Don’t make them move. … Help us, let us stay here until we can come to an agreement on what housing looks like for these people.”

Added Peyton McKoy, a resident of the encampment who has had negative experiences in shelters, “I’d rather be in the street than in a shelter.”

If the city can’t meet their demand to license vacant city-owned property to residents, activists said, officials should formally sanction the current encampments through the pandemic. City spokesperson Mike Dunn called this condition a nonstarter, saying parkland is “for all residents, not a select few,” and the encampment’s location has “created serious health and public safety concerns."

» READ MORE: What will happen to the homeless now forced to leave the Parkway encampment?

The deadline set by the city Wednesday to clear the encampments came after months of failed negotiations between the protest leaders, city officials, and homeless advocacy organizations related to the tent city on the Parkway, as well as at three hybrid sites at the Rodin Museum, the Azalea Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters on Ridge Avenue.

Kenney’s administration says it has supported the establishment of a village of tiny houses this year and would consider sanctioning a temporary encampment in a different location, only with the support of the community and district councilmember.

Kenney said Thursday that negotiating with the encampment organizers has been difficult because their demands have shifted, often after the city agrees to meet some of their requests. He said he personally met with the organizers twice.

Meanwhile, those who live around the encampment on the Parkway are growing more restless. Jennifer Faller, 57, said she initially supported a small encampment of homeless people who slept in tents near her home, but she said the camp has since grown to become untenable. She said she has been shouted at and fears for her safety.

“I respect them as human beings,” she said. “I want them to respect me, too."

Overnight on the Parkway, encampment residents and dozens of activists — who have said they are willing to risk arrest defending the camp — fortified barriers around the perimeter with wooden pallets, tree branches, soccer nets, and repurposed bleachers.

Jamaal Henderson of ACT-UP Philadelphia said the barricades are to keep residents safe. He said activists have not allowed city officials in the camp to assess its layout and “try to figure out exactly what’s here, so they can drop tear gas and send a riot squad in here.”

The city says it is protesters who are taking a hostile posture, pointing to dozens of people who showed up Wednesday clad in black and wielding shields, ready to defend the camp. Asked Wednesday whether the use of force is possible, including tear gas and other dispersal tactics police used in May and June during civil unrest in the name of racial justice, Kenney didn’t rule it out, saying, “We’ve tried to avoid, over months and months of time, any kind of confrontation.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia keeps clearing homeless encampments. But who is being helped?

But speaking Thursday from behind a pallet barricade reading “leave us alone,” Henderson and other organizers rebutted the city’s claims that protesters were hindering encampment residents who wanted the city’s help from getting it.

City officials have said that more than 130 people from the camps had been placed in shelters, hotel space, or recovery treatment in the last three months, with outreach workers visiting the site again Thursday morning and helping place a few more people into shelter. As of Thursday, organizers said they estimated the Parkway camp still houses around 120 people, but that the number is difficult to gauge as they come and go throughout the day. Some people who have accepted the city’s help have also returned to the encampment, they contended.

“This is not just a homeless encampment. It’s not just something that popped up because people needed a place to stay," Henderson said. "This is a protest, this is a statement, this is an indictment on the city’s 100-year failure to deal with the homeless issue in this city.”

Several people experiencing homelessness stood by the organizers Thursday, reiterating that some of them have spent years in and out of the city’s shelter system and find it inadequate. Add on the presence of COVID-19, known to spread in congregate settings, and encampment residents say they feel more safe outdoors in a tent, which allows them to keep a safe physical distance from others.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia keeps clearing homeless encampments. But who is being helped?

Many residents have also found a sense of community in the camps.

“This is what we have to do to help our own selves,” said Lindell Payne, who has lived in the Parkway encampment for more than a month. “And when you’re not getting help from your own state, the people have to come together, come together as a whole, and help each other.”

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.