More than 50 Philadelphians experiencing homelessness — supported by volunteers and donations — have formed an encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to call on the city to provide low-income housing and improve treatment of the homeless.
“This is about to literally be a community of Black Lives Matter,” said Jonnell Flowers, one of the residents of the encampment. “This is for the people who got thrown to the wayside. We all matter. We came together to let the city and world know that we matter.”
The protest started Wednesday morning, when Flowers’ husband, Leonard, and four others set up their tents at 22nd Street and the Parkway. They were inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping across the city and wanted to press officials to invest in low-income housing and stop dispersing encampments. They reached out to the Workers Revolutionary Collective (WRC), a grassroots organization that often works with the homeless, for support, said Alex Stewart, the collective’s co-founder.
With the help of WRC and Occupy PHA, a movement that advocates for fair housing, the group formed a list of six demands, including: building permanent low-income housing; sanctioning encampments as no-police zones; stopping the clearing of encampments; and firing police officers who mistreat the homeless.
More than 50 volunteers arrived, offering food, clothes, and first-aid supplies, Stewart said. News quickly spread through the homeless community, and by Friday afternoon, the five tents had grown to more than 50. According to the city’s website, Philadelphia has about 5,700 people experiencing homelessness, 950 of whom are unsheltered. As rents increase and income does not, the number is rising, experts have said.
"They repeatedly provided the city with demands for low-income housing ... and the city has refused to listen to them,” said Stewart, 27. “They also wanted medical support to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”
Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the city respects their right to protest peacefully.
“However, tent encampments often pose a health and safety threat, and are specifically prohibited on park property," he said. "City officials are reviewing this particular encampment and are considering available options for responding.”
Dennis J. Boylan, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, called affordable housing a pressing issue, but said the camp was “not conducive for the greater public health of the entire community. That includes those living in the tents and those who live nearby.”
Local residents have delivered carloads of donations, including hot meals, masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, as well as things like condoms, trash bags, and paper towels. Areas for first aid, clothing, and tent supplies were set up, as well as coolers of water, two porta-potties, and a solar-powered shower.
For many, the encampment has provided a safe haven, especially after the recent unrest in the city. When peaceful protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd turned destructive, causing streets to be shut down and the National Guard to move in, some homeless residents lost their belongings or were forced to leave their sleeping area.
Tanya Lilly said she was living outside the Municipal Services Building and John F. Kennedy Plaza, but when fires and looting started happening near City Hall, all of her belongings were destroyed, including her identification cards.
“We lost everything,” she said. Lilly, 49, who has been homeless since October after an incident with her landlord, said she’s appreciated the support and feels safe. She sat in her white and grey tent Friday, with neat stacks of donated clothing folded inside and plastic roses woven to the outside for decoration.
“All we have is each other," she said.
The space around the tents was clean, with trash cans set up throughout and signs reminding residents that “this is home" and to keep things neat.
Some residents were nervous about police intervention, reminded by the city’s decision to clear out the 150 people who were living in the terminals of Philadelphia International Airport last month. Nicholas Molinuevo, who has been without housing for 10 years, is concerned that the city will come in the middle of the night to clear them out. Molinuevo was at the 2011 Occupy Philly protest, when dozens of people took over Dilworth Park to bring attention to poverty, racial injustice, and corporate greed. The city ended up bulldozing the encampment and arrested 52 demonstrators.
Homeless Outreach workers who visited the Parkway site to offer housing and services "were told by the organizers that their presence was not welcome,” Dunn said. “It is very unfortunate that these groups are denying those who are unsheltered the opportunity to speak with outreach workers, who can offer services and housing.”
Stewart said a few city officials arrived Wednesday to “negotiate” with and try to disperse the group, but he said they were exercising their First Amendment right to protest and wouldn’t leave until their demands are met.
Jonnell Flowers, 35, was optimistic for now, and said she was planning to create signs for trees to act like street signs.
“This will literally be a neighborhood,” she said with a smile.
Leonard Flowers, 42, said the support has been "a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “You go through life thinking nobody cares about you.”
“But then you realize,” Jonnell Flowers added, “you’re not alone in this struggle.”