Editor’s note: This editorial originally called for the city to postpone the evacuation of the Parkway encampment. When city officials announced its delay late morning Thursday, the Editorial Board updated accordingly.
Since June, an encampment housing over 100 people experiencing homelessness has been set up on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as an act of protest as well as an option for shelter. An outgrowth from protests over police brutality, and predominantly Black, the encampment has been effective at drawing attention to racial disparities in housing.
The city wants to disperse it due to practical concerns — about its presence in a public space, violent incidents, and health and sanitation issues.
The city of Philadelphia was scheduled to shut it down on Friday. But on Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the shut down will be postponed and that he will meet with encampment representatives next week. The original evacuation announcement followed what the city called failed negotiations with organizers, who wanted a commitment for permanent housing options. The city did commit to some of them, including building a village of tiny houses, developing individual housing plans with immediate placement in temporary housing for encampment residents, and agreeing to a sanctioned encampment in a different area.
The extra time is not a bad thing: The last thing Philadelphia needs is an escalation between police and some of the city’s most vulnerable Black residents — a not unlikely outcome of an effort to forcibly shut down the encampment. In addition, CDC pandemic guidelines recommend against dispersing encampments without a COVID-19 safe housing option for its residents.
Unlike other previous encampments — in Kensington, Vine Street, the Convention Center, or the airport — the Parkway encampment is intended as a deliberate protest to connect homelessness to the forces that drive economic and racial inequality in the city.
Housing is a key driver of racial inequality and always has been. The problem has been exacerbated by racially restrictive covenants, redlining, and housing discrimination, and predatory lending practices that persist to this day.
In the Philadelphia metropolitan area, the homeownership rate for white households is 26% higher than for Black households. As tenants, Black Philadelphians — and particularly Black women with children — are at high risk of eviction. The eviction rate in predominantly Black neighborhoods is three times higher than in predominantly white ones.
Without a mechanism to generate wealth, it is no surprise that the vast majority — 75% according to the Office of Homeless Services — of people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia are Black.
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Philadelphia’s response to homelessness requires a larger view that goes beyond food drives and shelter beds. It requires a look at a pipeline to homelessness that generates racial inequity. For example, the Pennsylvania Housing Authority can deny housing assistance based on past criminal activity, a policy with major racial implications in a city where one in 14 Black adults is under parole or probation. It also requires a reexamination of land-use policy in a city that has both a large homeless population and tens of thousands of vacant lots and properties.
Just as protests pushed the city to rethink policing, the Parkway encampment makes it clear that Philadelphia needs to rethink housing policy and homelessness prevention strategies. That requires new voices and perspectives — and finally confronting the drivers of homelessness and whom they impact most.