Lindell Payne raised a bullhorn as he stood in front of the homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the place he has called home for a month. Signs flapped overhead reading “Housing Now” and “Black Lives Matter” — two messages he believes are one and the same.
“I am an example of chronic homelessness,” the Black 40-year-old told reporters last week, describing two decades spent in and out of shelters and jail, in part, he said, because of a criminal justice system he couldn’t get out from under.
The tent city where he lives was organized by activists who have tied the fight for housing to racial justice, saying Payne and many of those living in the camps — which city officials are threatening to clear any day now — have faced homelessness as a result of policing and mass incarceration systems that disproportionately impact Black people.
This summer of protests for Black lives has revitalized the affordable housing movement in Philadelphia. Two weeks after thousands began taking to Philadelphia’s streets in June to protest against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, activists began setting up the encampment on the Parkway, which some at the time called “a community of Black Lives Matter.” The camps on the Parkway and in North Philadelphia outside Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters, where the residents are overwhelmingly people of color, are part home, part political statement.
The encampment organizers are some of the same people who led this summer’s uprising in the city, and they say racism, policing, a lack of affordable housing, and homelessness are inextricably linked.
They aren’t surprised housing justice has become a focus of the movement in Philadelphia, among the poorest big cities in America, one where the waiting list for public housing stretches about 40,000 people long and has been closed for seven years; one where, according to a recent study, there are twice as many households that earn less than $30,000 per year than rental units those households can afford; one that could be facing a looming eviction crisis.
“So many of the protesters in the streets this summer talked about wanting criminal reform, but at the end of the day, almost all these systems … [have] a disproportionate impact on Black and brown lives,” said Jared Trujillo, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys. “They’re really part of the same system, and they’re ultimately the same people.”
The city has provided several warnings to vacate, calling the encampments safety hazards, but organizers and residents, supported by a network of volunteers and donors, have refused to leave. They’re demanding the city license vacant property to encampment residents, rather than provide shelter or other temporary options.
In addition to the camps, protesters have held anti-eviction signs and demanded a rent freeze at protests aimed at reducing the police budget. Some of the same people who organized marches against police brutality were arrested this month for blocking the entrances to landlord-tenant court in Center City. They were hoping to stop evictions from proceeding as Philadelphians face losing their homes amid a pandemic and an economic crisis.
This fight for housing, protesters say, wouldn’t have the support and attention it does today without the renewed fight against racism.
“This feels like what it’s culminating to,” said Jamaal Henderson, an activist with ACT UP Philadelphia who campaigns for people with HIV, including housing. He’s experienced homelessness himself, and said only after he found permanent housing did he feel he could improve other aspects of his life, including mental and physical health.
Henderson said ACT UP sees housing as a core tenet of its work. He said the encampments have forced new conversations about the shelter system and the pathway to permanent housing. Across America, people experiencing homelessness are three times more likely to be Black than white.
As for the connection to the protesters' push to “defund the police,” Henderson says it’s math: The police budget increased by more than $130 million over the past six years. What if that money went to homelessness prevention instead?
Trujillo said poverty is “over-policed," in that people who live in public housing or shelter systems that have their own police forces, or attend schools in low-income neighborhoods, are more likely to have interactions with law enforcement.
“And if you’re more likely to have these interactions, you’re more likely to have negative interactions,” he said. “So the criminalization [of homelessness] just goes hand in hand with poverty, with racism, and then being seen as so much less human in so many different systems.”
A fight that’s lasted generations
Racial justice movements have historically been ignited by police brutality, then expanded to economic equality, whether it’s jobs — like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 — poverty, or housing, said Mary Frances Berry, professor of American social thought and history at the University of Pennsylvania.
She pointed to the 1968 Kerner Commission, which was convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson and concluded that civil unrest was largely caused by poor conditions in majority Black neighborhoods, including a lack of government investment in affordable housing and discriminatory policies.
In 2016, organizers in some communities advocated for housing affordability, while protest encampments demanding housing-related policy change have also sprouted this summer in Seattle and New York.
“The Black Lives Matter movement, it means exactly that, that Black lives matter,” Trujillo said. “It’s a call of cultural reckoning, even in these liberal cities like New York City, or Philadelphia, that governments need to treat people like it.”
In Philadelphia, racist housing policies have shaped generations, including thousands of property deeds that in the 1920s and ’30s included language that barred people who weren’t white from buying homes in certain neighborhoods, according to a study released last year.
Philadelphians have been “victims of predatory housing, redlining, discrimination and racial injustice, of police violence, of state violence, of neglect of abuse and mismanagement for generations,” Tara Taylor, an organizer and resident of the camp on the Parkway, said. "We’ve been fighting for access to permanent housing for low- and no-income Philadelphians for a long time, and we are not going to stop until we get it every day.”
Taylor said the encampment residents, fed up with shelters, worked with activists to create a community.
Michael Wilson, an assistant coordinator at the Parkway encampment, has worked for years with Philly for R.E.A.L. Justice and the Workers World Party on racial justice and affordable housing. Both grassroots organizations have been active in demonstrations this summer against police brutality.
After spending time with the residents of the camp this summer, Wilson said the fight against homelessness is now personal. A general contractor by day, Wilson said he’s taken off work for the last week to spend time at the encampment and provide supplies like water bottles and tents.
“The people have risen up ourselves, and we’re pushing this narrative by being in Who’s Who Philadelphia. As long as the rich and the poor have to exist this close,” he said, pinching his fingers and motioning to the apartment buildings overlooking the Parkway, “they’re not going to be able to look away.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many people are on the waiting list for public housing in Philadelphia. It is about 40,000 people.