City and activists reach an agreement to close the homeless encampment outside PHA headquarters in North Philly
The final 20 encampment occupants left between 7 and 8 p.m. Monday, after agreements were reached over the weekend.
After more than three months of standoffs and acrimony, the occupants of a homeless encampment outside the headquarters of the Philadelphia Housing Authority on Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia vacated the site Monday night.
In exchange for leaving, the 20 residents of “Camp Teddy,” named after one of the occupants, will begin a process that will eventually get them into nine now-vacant houses in Strawberry Mansion. Several of the people experiencing homelessness will themselves work on the rehabilitation of the houses.
“I want to thank all of those whose hard work and good faith negotiating resulted in this resolution,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Monday. “As I have said from the start, the issues raised by the camp leaders — homelessness and the lack of affordable housing — are deep-rooted and urgent.”
Kenney added that he hoped the PHA agreement “will lead to a resolution of the separate protest encampment on the [Benjamin Franklin] Parkway,” a much larger site of 100 to 150 people living on a ball field on North 22nd Street, as well as two other ancillary sites.
The encampments were scheduled to be shut down three separate times, but each time, the city relented.
“I’m happy with this agreement,” said organizer Jennifer Bennetch of Occupy PHA, who helped establish the site in late June and served as its leader. “We’re proud that we were able to get a win like this.”
Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, acknowledged that Bennetch and other activists who established the encampment as a protest and a means toward finding housing for homeless people were part of a “difficult, difficult negotiation” over the last months. “But,” he added, “I’ve got to tell you, I frankly appreciated the encampment leaders bringing to the forefront the urgent need for long-term affordable housing. They did a masterful job, and we have to give them credit.
“Remember, our ultimate goal was no different than theirs: promoting the urgency of getting affordable housing.”
One factor that played heavily in the negotiations: The encampment was blocking the construction of a $52 million mixed-use development, including a supermarket for the Sharswood neighborhood, long sought by the community, along with 98 units of housing, a bank, an urgent care center, and other retail businesses.
That construction deal “was on the brink of collapsing,” Jeremiah said Monday night. “It had to get agreed-upon literally today.”
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, whose 5th District includes the site, said the agreement enables the “urgently needed” development to move forward.
“The issues that City Council has spoken about all year – racial disparities magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of access to healthy foods, adequate health care and affordable housing – are all being addressed by this development."
The final encampment occupants left between 7 and 8 p.m. Monday, Jeremiah said, after agreements were reached over the weekend. All the parties involved — the organizers, the city, and PHA — had not publicly discussed the resolution until Monday evening.
In a statement describing the deal that was struck, PHA announced that it has “created an unprecedented pilot program called ‘Working for Home Repair Training Program’ with the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC). The program will create housing and job opportunities for those experiencing homelessness through the renovation of long-term vacant structures, some of which have been unoccupied for over 20 years. This will allow those without homes to put in sweat equity alongside union workers to become invested in their home and the community.”
Essentially, encampment residents will be trained by building and construction trades to rehabilitate nine properties on Westmont Street. The now-uninhabitable properties will be placed in a land trust, renovated, and brought to code, according to the agreement.
People who ultimately move in will be asked to pay only 15% of their income to live in the buildings, which are currently owned by the federal government since PHA is a federal program.
Jeremiah said PHA plans to secure grants to help with fixing up the properties and expects labor and materials to be donated.
Work may start within 30 days, and some of the properties might be refurbished by year’s end, Jeremiah said.
He was unable to say how much money will be spent, adding that the speed of the settlement was such that his staff will first go out Tuesday to assess costs.
“This was a fast-moving agreement,” he said.
Around the time the encampment was established, a group of homeless people connected to organizers occupied 15 PHA properties, Jeremiah said. “Part of the agreement is they may have to leave, but they will not leave and become homeless,” Jeremiah said. “We will work with them.”
“They decided to come up here to live safely and peaceably, and to put pressure on the housing authority,” said Bennetch.
The encampment, in a vacant lot on the corner of Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street in Sharswood, began June 27 to protest the housing authority’s leadership, property management, and treatment of the city’s homeless.
Soon enough, about 35 people were living in tents on the lot, supported by donations of food, drinks, clothing, tents, and medical supplies. Signs saying “All are welcome here” were posted along a wooden fence around the lot.
Some of the residents said they came to this space from the encampment on the Parkway after it grew crowded and less safe. Though this group was separate, its demands were similar, including increasing access to vacant PHA housing for low-income residents and restrictions on selling off PHA property.
Organizers such as Bennetch questioned why the housing authority has built new developments instead of repairing vacant properties that could house needy residents.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.