Following months-long negotiations and a recent court order, residents of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway must officially vacate the area by 9 a.m. Sept. 9, the city announced Monday.
City officials posted the bright orange eviction notice for the third time Monday morning, about a week after a federal judge ruled that the city could clear the camp, which has supported about 150 people experiencing homelessness for more than two months. Two smaller encampments, at the Azalea Garden behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art and on Ridge Avenue outside of Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters, must also vacate by the same deadline.
“We have spent nearly three months engaging in good-faith negotiations with organizers and those who are living in the camps. We’ve listened, discussed, and responded to their demands, and I’m proud of a number of actions that are already underway,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement.
Kenney said the encampment protests have “brought new attention to the magnitude of the suffering endured, primarily by Black Philadelphians, and I appreciate all involved for shining a spotlight on this critical issue.”
“However, for the health and safety of all involved, including the surrounding community, we can no longer allow the camps to continue,” he said.
Although the clearing of the encampments has been halted twice before — once because Kenney directly intervened to jump-start stalled negotiations, a second time because of a lawsuit — that won’t happen again, said Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of health and human services.
“It will happen at 9 a.m. on Sept. 9,” Gladstein said. “We’ll be taking action that day. What that actually looks like, we’re still working on it.”
The encampment on the city-owned Von Colln Athletic Field on 22nd Street, led by a coalition of housing activists, was started in mid-June to advocate for permanent housing for the city’s large homeless population. It quickly became a sprawling community, supported by dozens of volunteers and an outpouring of donations from community members, including tents, hot meals, port-a-potties, and clothing.
But over time, amid heat waves, rainstorms, and health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic, it became a center of debate among neighborhood groups. Crime occurred, including a stabbing that left a man in critical condition, and residents of the nearby condos and apartment complexes reported increased human waste, trash, and needles.
The camp was quiet Monday afternoon, but the air was tense as a firm deadline loomed.
Janell Johnson, a nurse at the camp, said she was not overly concerned. Despite the bright orange notice lying on the sidewalk nearby, she said she was “very optimistic and hopeful” that negotiations with the city would yield an acceptable solution.
A gaunt 30-year-old man in sagging pajama pants who would only give his name as “Sha” did not share Johnson’s optimism. He expressed concern about possible police violence in a forceful clearing of the group.
Gladstein stressed that any action the city undertakes will be “human-centered,” explaining that officials intend to “work with the camps to make sure there’s no confrontation or conflict.” She said that for the first time, the city will “intensify” clearing efforts by working with new partners — members of the faith community.
“By engaging them, we hope they will participate in conversations with encampment residents,” Gladstein said.
She added that city officials have been increasing efforts to send outreach workers to help encampment occupants, but that the workers have been rebuffed and are allowed to linger only at the perimeters of the Parkway encampment. Organizers have said outreach workers have had contact with encampment occupants many times before, and don’t have much to offer.
The encampment was set to be closed July 10, but Kenney postponed the action to personally intercede. Then, after Kenney said the encampment organizers continually shifted their demands, a second clearing deadline was set for Aug. 18. Groups of activists wearing all black had gathered around the encampment to protect it, wearing helmets and homemade plastic shields, prepared to fight back against police action.
But at the last minute, lawyers representing the encampment sought an injunction against eviction, and the city called off the clearing. Last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno ruled that the city could clear the encampments, but that it must provide at least 72 hours’ notice before vacating the sites, and store and return any property seized there.
As city outreach intensified and clearing notices were posted, residents began to leave the area. The city has said that 111 people have accepted outreach and moved from the encampment into shelters or coronavirus-safe hotel rooms.
Gladstein said city negotiators have “bent over backwards” to accommodate organizers. But little has been accomplished, frustrating both city officials and encampment representatives.
Jennifer Bennetch, an original organizer of the Parkway encampment and the chief organizer of the PHA encampment, disagreed that the city’s done all it can.
“We’ve offered nonradical demands to create more ways people could access affordable housing,” but the city hasn’t received it well, she said. “I felt the city could have worked with us more.”
Bennetch said city officials offered only “abstract” solutions that couldn’t easily be applied to the circumstance of getting housing to homeless people immediately.
Asked to predict what clear out day will look like, Bennetch predicted that some encampment occupants will simply move on, but that others will resist.
“I don’t think there’s a way to avoid violence that day,” she said. “There are going to be people who will stand their ground. I’m pretty sure the city will use force, and if people don’t want to move, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Dennis Boylan, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said Monday’s announcement demonstrates a “final gesture towards peaceful conflict resolution” that the neighborhood “appreciates and acknowledges.”
“For now, the neighborhood is holding the city to its commitment to fully restore this area to its condition before the encampment arrived as there are many neighborhood institutions that are anxious to resume usage of the park space,” Boylan said in an email.
Stephanie Sena, a professor who teaches courses on poverty at Villanova University’s Widger School of Law and who spearheaded the injunction lawsuit, said the encampment’s “intention was never to be in the ball field indefinitely, but to raise awareness of the need for safe and affordable housing.”
Calling encampment clear outs, or “sweeps,” both “costly and ineffective,” Sena, an expert on homelessness, predicted that once individuals move out of the Parkway site, people experiencing homelessness will simply make camp elsewhere.