What it’s like to live inside Philly’s airport during the pandemic

Willie Warren sleeps on a baggage carousel at the Philadelphia International airport, near midnight, on May 21. Warren works during the day as a demolition and concrete contractor, he has been staying at the airport for several weeks, and hopes to be matched with a place to stay by homeless outreach coordinators. “Sleeping on the baggage carriers does offer some degree of protection. You know, people are always wandering around here and stealing stuff. So, if someone tries to get up on this carousel they would have to be real quiet to get up here without waking me up.”
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Willie Warren sleeps on a baggage carousel at the Philadelphia International airport, near midnight, on May 21. Warren works during the day as a demolition and concrete contractor, he has been staying at the airport for several weeks, and hopes to be matched with a place to stay by homeless outreach coordinators. “Sleeping on the baggage carriers does offer some degree of protection. You know, people are always wandering around here and stealing stuff. So, if someone tries to get up on this carousel they would have to be real quiet to get up here without waking me up.”

As the coronavirus began its spread in Pennsylvania, stay-at-home orders were issued. But where do you shelter in place when you don’t have a home?

Many in Philadelphia’s homeless community took to the airport’s Terminal A, where they were grateful to have a roof overhead, warmth, and clean bathrooms.

On Tuesday, homeless outreach workers and city police worked together to remove those who had been living there for several weeks.

While shelters throughout the city were available, some were averse to going to them. And the Center City hotels that were repurposed for those in Philadelphia’s homeless community were reserved specifically for those over the age of 65 who are immunocompromised, or who had tested positive for or were showing signs of COVID-19.

Word about the temporary shelter at the airport spread throughout the community. People had made connections with one another through library services, or knew one another from the 30th Street and 69th Street SEPTA stations, where some used to stay.

At first the scene was chaotic and incidents of violence and theft occurred. But once those bad actors were removed, life moved on as normally as it could during this very abnormal time.

Over the course of several weeks, advocates worked with those staying at Terminal A to find a suitable housing option for their needs. Some were worried about being separated from their partners. While many were matched with a place to stay, some made the decision to return to Center City and take their chances on the street.

While there were no issues with relocating people Tuesday, advocates last week had threatened to sue the Kenney administration if the city did not provide COVID-19 testing for those who left the encampment. City officials said people who left were offered tests, but could not say how many took them.

Rachel Molenda, Digital photo editor

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