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July 10, 2020

Philly to shut down homeless encampment on Ben Franklin Parkway

Negotiations break down over solutions for residents, officials say

Protests Homelessness
Ben Franklin Homeless HughE Dillon/for PhillyVoice

A Philadelphia homeless encampment organized by Occupy PHA, Workers Revolutionary Collective, and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative has remained on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway since June. City officials posted a notice to shut the site down on July 17 after a breakdown in negotiations with organizers.

Nearly 100 homeless residents will be forced next week from an encampment on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where a protest against insufficient housing and homeless services has persisted for more than a month. 

Weeks of negotiations between city officials and the protest's organizers broke down earlier this week. On Friday, city officials announced they would clear the encampment on July 17. 

"I am disappointed that we are at this point after spending the last four weeks trying to avoid this very scenario," said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of Health and Human Services. "We respect the right of people to protest peacefully, and fully share the residents’ concerns about the lack of affordable housing. However, these efforts take time and often require approvals from other entities outside of the city, so we are not able to deliver this immediately."

The encampment was organized on June 10 at Von Colln Memorial Field, near the intersection of Spring Garden Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and is now concentrated around 22nd Street and the Parkway.

The field became a tent encampment for people in search of lasting solutions for chronic homelessness and other deficits in city housing services. The protest has been led by OccupyPHA, the Worker’s Revolutionary Collective and the Black and Brown Worker’s Cooperative.

These groups, which have been critical of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, published a list of demands to address underlying barriers to permanent housing. Their primary demand has been the emergency transfer of vacant city-owned properties to a community land trust that would be operated and administered by the WRC. They also sought a city sanction for the Parkway encampment until a long-term solution is developed.  

In recent weeks, concerns have grown over crime, sanitation and drug use at the site, which organizers have labeled a "No Police Zone." Authorities are investigating two separate stabbings in the vicinity of the encampment, which has grown in size over the last month and sits near the 9th District police headquarters. 

Between 70 and 80 people, including homeless individuals and protest organizers, remain at the site.

City officials said the encampment must be cleared by 9 a.m. on July 17. But they were noncommittal when pressed about enforcement. 

"We're hopeful that people leave of their own accord," Gladstein said.

Officials are still planning for the possibility that people won't willingly leave the encampment. They have not determined whether police will be used to enforce the closure.

"We're just not there yet," Gladstein said. "We haven't made these decisions yet."

The city will intensify its housing and health services outreach next Wednesday and Thursday ahead of the planned shutdown. There are enough temporary beds available at shelters, treatment facilities and the city's COVID-19 prevention site in Center City, which is only available to high-risk individuals.

"We do have enough beds to house the people there if they want to take that opportunity," Gladstein said.

About 15 elderly residents have been placed at an undisclosed Center City hotel serving as a COVID-19 shelter space since the protest began. 

In a statement issued earlier this week, the protesters announced they had cut off negotiations with the city, arguing that officials have failed to mandate the transfer of PHA properties as outlined in legislation signed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012.

"The amendment’s purpose was to bring Philadelphia in line with the state of Pennsylvania and every other major jurisdiction where the Housing Authority is an extension of the city government instead of enabled to act as if it is sovereign," the statement said. "The mayor has explicit powers to remove up to five members of the nine-person board in any given year. [Mayor Jim] Kenney and [Managing Director] Brian Abernathy are culpable as they intentionally ignore the Housing Authority’s malfeasance and neglect."

Gladstein refuted this claim Friday, saying the city cannot immediately take action to transfer PHA resources and property without the intervention of the federal government. She said the city remains hopeful that a sustainable long-term plan can be developed to help everyone in need.

In another statement Friday, the protest organizers challenged the city's description of how and why negotiations broke down. One resident of the encampment explained that the people there are aware of what the city can offer them. 

“We’ve all talked to outreach a bunch of times,” said camp resident Art Richardson. "Nobody here is new to the streets.  Outreach can’t give us what we really need, they can’t give us housing.  All they can get us is into drug treatment or a ride to a shelter.  Nobody here is being held captive, we can walk for ten minutes and get what they are offering at Hub of Hope or project H.O.M.E.”

People who agree to leave the encampment will be offered storage for their belongings and transportation. Outreach workers, many of whom have been shut out of the encampment, will attempt to work directly with individuals on their specific plans, officials said.

"It is the city’s goal that by the end of next week, everyone in that camp will have a plan and a place to go right away – if the camp organizers allow," said Liz Hersh, director of the Office of Homeless Services. "We are heartbroken that we have not been able to do more to help people. This camp cannot continue, but the unmet needs of homeless people remain. And we remain resolute in our work to end homelessness."

"One size doesn't fit all," added David Holloman, chief of staff at the Office of Homeless Services. "Many people have medical and behavioral health issues."

Holloman said the city empathizes with the demands of the protesters and the needs of the city's homeless population. They agree that not enough has been done to ensure more lasting and satisfactory solutions for people who don't have housing or live with addiction and other complex needs.

In the city's negotiations with protesters, officials said they made several offers:

• Providing housing for people who are most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 cases

• Committing to the establishment of a “tiny house village"

• Agreeing to develop an individualized housing plan with immediate placement in temporary housing

• Working collaboratively on the development of a sanctioned encampment

City officials said these offers were met with new demands. 

They pledged to continue to consider the establishment of a sanctioned tent encampment at another location, but they insisted protest organizers allow them to help manage governance of the site, including safety, security and relations with nearby communities. No sites have been identified at this time.

Gladstein rejected comparisons between the current encampment and the former Gurney Street drug market that was cleared in Kensington in late 2017. She described the situations as different and said the encampments that later cropped up in Kensington were not comprised of the same people at the Conrail tracks by Gurney Street. 

The city could not answer where those at the Parkway encampment would go if they refused to accept shelter placement and were forced off of the site. 

In Kensington, where problems have persisted after encampment shutdowns, residents confronted Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner earlier this week to denounce the neighborhood's widespread drug use and violent crime. The confrontation came against the backdrop of an ongoing court battle over the creation of Safehouse's planned Overdose Prevention Site, which was stalled after intense community backlash against a site selected in South Philadelphia earlier this year.

Gladstein said the Parkway encampment cannot continue in light of the risks.

"We have been clear that this camp is not a long-term solution to homelessness, and we are concerned about the safety and health of the individuals there," Gladstein said. "We thank our external partners who have worked with us in this effort, and we thank the neighbors near the Parkway for their patience."