An acquaintance has been staying at one of the homeless encampments, and I decided to go visit.
But as I waited for her Wednesday at 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, I felt uneasy.
Would I be treated like an intruder? Would I be safe walking around in there? A friend who lives nearby had been pelted with trash by a resident of the encampment. But that was mild compared with some of the horror stories I’ve heard.
All of this was going through my head when a young man with a friendly smile approached me. I told him I was waiting for someone.
Then, I spotted my friend in the crowd and waved. She was otherwise occupied, but introduced me to Dominique McQuade, a 2020 graduate of West Chester University. McQuade, 23, identified herself as “a nonresident community member” who had been coming to the encampment for months to help out.
“This is my family. These are my people,” she told me.
As I talked to her about what it was like inside the encampment now that yet another city-imposed deadline for the residents to evacuate had passed, I kept a wary eye on what was taking place around us. It was surreal. A group of college-age people dressed in black stood to the side talking among themselves. One had what looked like a metal shield.
Music played in the distance. Encampment residents relaxed in front of tents scattered across the ball field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. I watched as one resident spray painted what looked like a metal trash can a beautiful shade of hot pink.
Eventually, I got up the nerve to go deeper inside the camp, and I was surprised to see that in the midst of so much abject poverty and activity, there was a semblance of order.
There’s a medical tent. A makeshift station accepts clothing and other donations. An outdoor camping-style shower stands on a corner. Portable latrines are available. There’s plenty of food and fresh water.
The afternoon I was there, Jenna Birdy, a social worker who volunteers in the makeshift kitchen, handed out individually packaged salads and turkey sandwiches.
At one point, I paused in front of a swing hung from a tree branch. Judging from the lack of grass underneath, people have been using it. I was startled by the sound of a woman’s yell, turned and noticed small children playing. One tent I walked by had clothes strewn haphazardly. Others were orderly. A couple of folks were nodding out. One man glared and made an obscene gesture. Then there was all the trash. I saw rotting bananas and discarded prosciutto still in its wrapper, of all things. It’s a mess.
But the longer I spent there, the less fearful I became, and the more compassion I felt for the poorest among us.
I don’t know what the resolution will wind up being between residents of the encampments and the city, but it needs to be peaceful.
I commiserate with beleaguered area residents who have been warned to stay away until the situation is finally resolved.
But I also feel for the homeless. On the Parkway, the city’s most beautiful avenue, they can be free, which is what anyone would want. They are part of a community as opposed to being alone on a corner or in an unsafe shelter.
“There are a lot of misconceptions even among the progressive community until you get here,” Michael Wilson, an activist who volunteers, said. “This is about your basic ability to survive and to move forward. These people have no shot."
He added that Mayor Jim Kenney "can come tear this up when he wants to, but we’re going to start something else because this housing war is not going to end until the people are housed.”
Philadelphia is a big city. There’s enough housing here for everyone.