At around five minutes to nine on the morning of August 18th, a helicopter started circling over the Von Colln Memorial Field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. People on the ground, gathered in small groups at the perimeters of the field, couldn’t immediately tell whether the chopper was flown by a local TV news station or by the police. But under the sound of the whirring blades, they had to raise their voices to carry on their conversations, and as they did, tensions started to rise, too.
For ten weeks, a group of more than a hundred activists and people experiencing homelessness had occupied the large field as a small tent city, complete with a shared kitchen, porta-potties, handwashing stations, and a medical tent. They had draped banners at the corner of 22nd Street proclaiming HOUSING NOW, and NO COP ZONE, and enumerating a list of their demands, which included the transfer of vacant properties into a community land trust run by the organizers, a repeal of laws against camping on park property, and a complete dissolution of the Philadelphia Police Department. Weeks of negotiations between organizers and city officials had failed to produce an agreement. And so the city had posted an eviction notice, telling campers to leave the park by 9 a.m.
By mid-August, residents of the surrounding neighborhood of Logan Square, a wealthy area packed with cultural institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, were increasingly frustrated with the encampment. But organizers were increasingly committed to defending it, too, and they had attracted a motley crew of supporters. That morning, as the dew evaporated off the grass, homeless outreach workers stood nearby hoping to offer services to any residents looking to move on from the encampment, legal observers lingered on the sidewalks, and news crews gathered at the corner of 22nd and the Parkway. Meanwhile, a group of camp supporters — most of them young and white and new to the encampment, some dressed in all black with helmets and shields, or big badges that said “MEDIC” — lined the fields, tying wooden pallets together with cords for makeshift barricades, expecting to beat back a full-blown invasion by police.
As the crowd grew, so did the atmosphere of suspicion. Was the clean-cut white guy with a floral-print shirt and no COVID-19 mask associated with the far-right boogaloo boys? Were the people taking pictures journalists or cops? What to make of the Black Guns Matter t-shirt? TV interviews devolved into arguments between camp supporters and people passing by. As 10 a.m. approached, two members of the city council showed up to try to help keep things from boiling over. While they were giving an interview to reporters at the corner of the encampment, a handful of camp supporters and opponents started to crowd in front of the cameras and argue amongst themselves. The cameras stayed put, the arguments kept on, and the two council women quietly walked away to talk to organizers, in hopes of negotiating a deal. Eventually, word spread that residents had filed an injunction to prevent the eviction from happening that day. The cops kept their distance. And everyone went back to their corners to reset.
In Philadelphia, it was a summer of conflict and solidarity, as the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests blossomed into new coalitions demanding housing rights for people experiencing homelessness. Two sustained protest encampments have forced city agencies to confront the failures of their strategies for housing the most vulnerable people. Organizers have now declared a historic victory, with the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority agreeing to transfer dozens of vacant properties into a community land trust run by encampment residents. But even now, with the encampments cleared, many vulnerable people are faced with few options for stable, permanent housing, and the economic downturn threatens to push even more families into homelessness.
“We didn’t set out to end homelessness in Philadelphia. We didn’t set out and say we were going to feed every unstable and housing-insecure person in Philadelphia. But we honored the commitments to the people that we made relationships with this summer, to make sure that people got into housing before it got cold,” says Indigo, a 20-year-old organizer who lived at the Parkway encampment for most of the summer. “And some of what we were able to do sets a precedent, not just in Philadelphia but across the country, that there are tangible outcomes that can come from resistance.”
(Photo by Jared Brey)
Philadelphia officials have been struggling to deal with homeless encampments for several years. In 2018, as the opioid epidemic gripped parts of North Philly, encampments of heroin users made national headlines. After clearing some of those camps, under criticism that it had let them develop out of neglect for not only people experiencing homelessness but the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, the city announced earlier this year a new “encampment resolution program” meant to guide clearance of future homeless encampments by leading with social services. Still, homeless encampments kept forming.
Philadelphia is one of the poorest cities in the country. At the January 2019 point-in-time count, more than 1,100 unsheltered homeless people were living on the streets, more than half of whom had a substance use disorder and more than 400 of whom had a serious mental illness. According to Project HOME, a housing and homelessness nonprofit, more than 8,000 individuals used emergency shelters in the city in 2018, and more than 7,000 students experienced homelessness during the 2017-18 school year. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, like other authorities in other cities, has nowhere near enough housing to serve everyone who qualifies. The waiting list for an apartment or housing choice voucher is more than 40,000 people deep. Even before the pandemic began, officials were planning to launch a shallow rent-subsidy program to help some of the city’s thousands of low-income families pay for housing. The pandemic just exacerbated existing problems.
On March 22, as U.S. institutions were starting to come to grips with the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines saying that unless individual housing was available, cities should let encampment residents remain where they were. The very next day, the city cleared a homeless encampment near the Philadelphia Convention Center in Center City, carrying out a plan it says had been in the works for months. Just a few weeks later, a COVID-19 outbreak hit a local shelter where at least a few of the people who were cleared from the encampment had landed, and one man died, according to reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The city said at the time that there was no connection between that sweep and the outbreak. And in a recent email to Next City, a city spokesperson defended the sweep, noting that the CDC’s guidance “has since been changed to a ‘whole community approach’ that acknowledges what the City of Philadelphia already knew — people are not necessarily safer outside in a northern climate without access to sanitation, regular meals, medical care and social services.”
At the end of May, as the Inquirer reported, the city removed 25 people from the Philadelphia International Airport, while offering COVID-19 testing to anyone who was planning to move into a shelter. Within days, protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were growing across the country. Protestors flooded the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, and, starting with a handful of tents, the seed of the protest encampment was planted.
By mid-June, dozens of tents were lined up beneath the allée of london plane trees lining the Parkway next to Von Colln field. One morning, a 44-year-old man named Frantz was sitting in a camp chair near one of the tents, getting ready to light a cigar. Declining to give his last name, he said he hadn’t been in permanent housing for a year and a half, and that he had recently been staying at the airport. He said he worked in home healthcare, and also did maintenance work, but didn’t have enough money to get a place of his own. He had spent time in shelters — most recently the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission in Center City — and tried to avoid them whenever he could.
Staying in shelters is “right next to jail, because of all the rules and stuff,” Frantz said. “It’s not the situation you want to be in. And with COVID I’d rather be outside.”
All the provisions at the camp, including the tents, had been provided by donors and people passing by, he said.
“It’s been quite peaceful. There haven’t been any real problems. Everybody has been working together and trying to survive out here.”
From the outset, though, city officials and homeless advocates were expressing concerns about the encampment, saying it had the potential to spread COVID-19, and claiming that activists were using unhoused people as “pawns,” as the Inquirer reported. Outreach workers were reportedly turned away from the encampment; one advocate told the Inquirer, anonymously, “We’re all equally baffled about who formed it, what it is.”
Organizers say the city’s official homelessness apparatus was antagonistic from the beginning. Indigo, a student at Temple University, says their father was evicted from his home in January. When Temple shut down campus during the COVID-19 outbreak, Indigo was allowed to stay in the dorms until the end of the semester. But in May, they were told they had to leave. They had nowhere to live until the encampment formed.
“I wasn’t per se sleeping on the streets, but I was homeless,” Indigo says. “I was staying in between friends’ houses, which I felt wasn’t safe during a pandemic.”
Indigo says there was “a campaign against the integrity of our fight” by the city, in the news media, from the beginning of the encampment. The city’s attempts to emphasize divisions between organizers and residents had an effect, they say. Meanwhile, the populations at the encampment kept shifting as some people accepted temporary housing from outreach workers or otherwise moved on and new people arrived.
“The biggest problem was being able to maintain joy and happiness amidst a space that was very much informed by trauma and neglect and disenfranchisement,” Indigo says.
Negotiations between the city and encampment organizers continued throughout June, as outreach workers continued offering shelter and temporary housing services to residents. At the same time, since the beginning of the pandemic, a group of homeless families had been squatting in a dozen vacant North Philly homes owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. The actions were organized by separate activists, but the Parkway encampment organizers had begun demanding that PHA turn over vacant properties for people experiencing homelessness. By that point,, the Authority hadn’t even participated in negotiations, says Jennifer Bennetch, a North Philly woman who helped organize the occupation of PHA homes. So at the end of June, Bennetch and a group of others set up a second encampment in a vacant lot across the street from PHA’s new headquarters.
Bennetch says she has been protesting PHA since 2016, after an interaction with a group of Housing Authority police officers who she says were indistinguishable from Philadelphia police officers at the time. She says she went to the police station to complain about the interaction, only to be told that no Philly police had ever been to her house. (Bennetch doesn’t live in PHA housing herself, but she says she lives in between three homes owned by the Authority.) After the interaction with police, Bennetch says she began attending the Authority’s monthly board meetings, and pushing the Authority to change its officers’ uniforms and squad cars, so members of the public could better identify them. In the process, she realized that PHA was regularly auctioning off vacant properties to private developers, and last year, she staged a protest outside the Authority’s new North Philly headquarters with a long list of demands.
The choice to create a new encampment on the lot across from the headquarters turned out to be strategic. For the last half-decade, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has been spending much of its energy on a plan to rebuild the neighborhood known as Sharswood, in the area around the former Norman Blumberg public-housing towers, which were demolished in 2016. A key part of that plan is the development of a mixed-use project on Ridge Avenue with 98 mixed-income housing units, a grocery store, an urgent care clinic, and a bank. The project, which was slated to break ground over the summer, was planned for the lot where the second encampment was built. The encampment threatened to derail the plan.
Gallery: Philly’s Encampment Summer
One of the encampment's residents rinses his face at a wash station on Monday, September 14, 2020. (Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel)
Jonnell Johonson searches through the encampment's medical supply tent for a pen and paper on Monday, September 14, 2020. Johnson helps run medical at the encampment, where she was also a resident. (Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel)
"Housing Now" and other slogans are spray painted onto 22nd Street outside of the encampment on Monday, September 14, 2020. (Photo by Kriston Jae Bethel)
After the injunction was filed in August, a federal judge ruled that the city could clear the Parkway encampment as long as it gave the residents 72 hours’ notice. The city posted another eviction notice for September 9th. That morning, as cop cars lined up on the Parkway, even more supporters showed up to defend the encampment than had appeared in August. Many of them were dressed in what appeared to be riot gear. The makeshift barricades were reinforced. Around 9 a.m., organizers began a press conference at the corner of 22nd Street, where police, city officials, outreach workers, and news reporters had begun to amass. In the middle of the speeches, a group of clergy briefly tried to enter the encampment, but were shouted down. There were tense arguments between camp supporters and antagonists.
By 10 a.m., after the press conference was over, the police had gotten no closer to dismantling the encampment. Helicopters buzzed overhead and cicadas sang in the trees. Small groups of black-clad camp defenders stood around talking and smoking cigarettes. Some of the defenders remained lined up by a barricade near where the press were gathered, repeatedly asking photographers not to take their pictures. A small argument formed about the presence of the press. Jamaal Henderson, an ACT UP organizer who had emceed the press conference, told the supporters who had arrived that morning that they should tolerate the press, who could help spread the group’s demands, and whose presence might keep the police from becoming violent.
“If you’re on the front lines and you’ve got a problem with the cameras, get off the front lines,” Henderson said.
“Seriously dude?” someone replied. Two of the supporters walked away.
Eventually, as crowds dwindled, the police backed away too. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney later said that the city was hoping to avoid a violent confrontation, and that dismantling the camp would be a “multi-day operation.”
“That was probably the biggest action that I’ve ever had any kind of leadership role in,” Henderson later said of the press conference on the day of the scheduled eviction. “It was challenging, especially when you have all those different people from all those different backgrounds, and some want to do one thing and others want to do another. But we just kept trying to lift up the fact that we were there for the residents. We were there to help them, and that was one of my main things, was making sure that their voices were always centered in that.”
Henderson, who has worked with ACT UP since 2013, says he lived on the street in various states for a number of years, but he began the process of getting permanent housing once he moved to Philadelphia. He didn’t live at the encampment this summer, but a fellow ACT UP member was one of the early organizers, and Henderson pitched in to help communicate with the press. Henderson says he knows from experience that shelters are unsafe. He had his belongings stolen in one shelter, and says someone tried to sexually assault him in another. At a third shelter, Henderson says, he had to stand in a long line to get his medication, where staff weren’t respectful of residents’ HIPAA rights. Navigating the various groups at the encampment on the day the city was trying to evict people was difficult, but it was validating too, he says.
“Being a Black person whose voice has almost always been silenced because ‘He’s just an angry Black man,’ there’s something to be said about being able to come together and see all those people from different walks of life,” Henderson says. “You had super privileged people out there right next to the people who have nothing. When we can replicate that on other issues, and on a much grander scale, we will see the change in this country that people have been trying to get.”
In the following weeks, the city continued sending outreach workers to the encampments and negotiating with organizers for a peaceful resolution. Between July and October, a city spokesman says in an email, city workers helped more than 180 residents of the protest encampments connect with transitional housing and other services.
But all along, the organizers’ primary demands had been the transfer of all city-owned vacant properties into a land trust controlled by the residents. And at the end of September, organizers of the Ridge Avenue camp, near PHA’s headquarters, declared victory, saying the Authority had agreed to let the families squatting in vacant PHA homes stay where they were, and to transfer fifty vacant homes into a land trust controlled by organizers of the protest camps. The Authority initially said the protestors’ declaration was “premature,” but later confirmed it would transfer properties in exchange for the dissolution of the Ridge Avenue camp. Congratulations poured in on social media. The announcement made national news.
“Public opinion really shapes the creation of policy,” Bennetch says. “We actually got results, which is a thing that is really hard to get from protests.”
On October 14, just days after the Ridge Avenue encampment was cleared, the Philadelphia Housing Authority held a groundbreaking for its Sharswood Ridge project. Bennetch and other protestors stayed away from the groundbreaking, but she says that the threat to PHA’s plans, combined with the high-profile protests on the Parkway, worked to the protestors’ favor.
Kelvin Jeremiah, the CEO of the Philly Housing Authority, speaks at the groundbreaking for its Sharswood Ridge project, which is on land that had been occupied by protestors. (Photo by Jared Brey)
Bennetch and others are now in the process of creating an organization that can manage a community land trust. She says that the organizers have decided to create a public-benefit corporation rather than a nonprofit organization, because they are all “loose cannons,” politically speaking, and don’t trust themselves to abide by IRS rules limiting political activity by nonprofit groups. The city says it’s supportive of the community land trust, but has no involvement in creating the organization beyond transferring vacant properties. According to a report in Shelterforce in early November, activists were still sorting out how to structure an organization and pay for rehab costs.
The agreement doesn’t meet all of the protestors’ demands. Even the organizers who were most involved in negotiating it acknowledge that it won’t serve everyone who needs housing from the encampments, let alone around the city. And some residents felt like the primary organizers failed to carry through on the promise of the encampments. mAstress Tara (they/them), a 29-year-old activist who lived at the Parkway encampment for part of the summer, says the agreement is “really a step downwards from the original demands.”
“Regardless of how many houses we got, it fails to really provide a system or a process that people can orient their expectations in,” they say.
City Council member Jamie Gauthier is chair of the council’s Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless, and one of the two council members who showed up at the Parkway encampment during the scheduled eviction in August. That day, Gauthier told Next City, she had gone to the encampment because “I think I have to share the experiences of the people who live here.” She said she also felt a responsibility to use her presence to try to keep things peaceful.
Gauthier and other city leaders also acknowledge that the city’s system for dealing with housing is too fractured, encompassing everything from the Office of Homeless Services to various city land-holding entities and the independent public housing authority, which too rarely work together to address the obvious needs of the city’s most vulnerable residents. One of the strengths of the protest was its emphasis on the fact that the city has many thousands more vacant lots and properties than homeless people, Gauthier says — a “very simple point” that doesn’t require any knowledge of land-disposition policies or HUD regulations to understand.
“People will ignore the issue of homelessness if it’s not in their face,” says Gauthier. “That was one of the brilliant things about this protest. The organizers and residents, they’re folks who are not always listened to. And they were facing off against huge bureaucracies. So I think protest is a beautiful way of leveling the playing field between people who are traditionally ignored and overlooked and people who are in power.”
This story was produced with support from Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Next City is one of more than 20 news organizations in the collective. Follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.