Parkway homeless camp residents: ‘We are not going anywhere’

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk 

People living at a homeless camp on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway vowed Monday to defy a city order to remove all tents by Friday unless they have the option to move immediately into permanent housing.

Charles Holcomb, who became homeless at 19 after several years in the foster care system, said he has no plans to vacate the area.

“We are not going to leave until we feel as though our demands are being met,” said Holcomb, who spoke at a press conference and rally Monday morning. “This camp is ours, and we are not going anywhere.”

It’s unclear how the city will deal with people who do not comply with the order.

“We will make every effort to assist homeless individuals who are at the camp to connect to services and leave voluntarily,” a city spokesperson told Metro. “We hope that no one on site will refuse to leave.”

Leonard Flowers speaks on Monday at the homeless camp at 21st Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Those living at the camp called on people to show up Friday morning to lend their support.

“At one time, we were just like you,” Leonard Flowers, a camp resident, said. “We had houses. We had family. We were able to take care of ourselves.”

Tents popped up near the baseball field at 22nd Street and the Parkway more than a month ago. Following in the steps of Black Lives Matter protests, camp residents said they were extending the effort to include the city’s treatment of the homeless and a push for affordable housing.

More than 150 people are currently living there, according to Philadelphia Housing Action, the coalition that established the camp.

Organizers say their main goal is to get the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority to turn over vacant properties to a “community land trust” to be used as permanent low-income units.

Last week, the Kenney administration announced its intention to clear the camp by Friday at the latest, a move officials called a “last resort” after four weeks of negotiations. Talks between the sides were hindered by a lack of clarity on who speaks for the camp as well as a shifting list of demands, city officials said.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Administration representatives said the city offered temporary shelter for people at higher risk of COVID-19; a commitment to build a “tiny house village;” help in developing a sanctioned encampment; and an agreement to draw up individualized housing plans for residents of the camp.

Camp leaders said they are looking for housing now, not promises or opportunities. They want a place to go for everyone living in the tents.

A city spokesperson said there is not enough affordable housing for all of Philadelphia’s homeless population and that it would be unfair to allow those in the camp to jump ahead of everyone else.

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Officials also said they made the decision to issue the order because of increasing concerns about health and safety within the camp. Neighbors have complained about human feces, needles and other health issues.

There has been an overdose death and two stabbings at the camp, according to the city. Camp organizers said one of those stabbings was down the street and unrelated to the encampment.

The Kenney administration said an outreach worker was also hit by a camp leader, a claim organizers denied.

Shamya Ruff, who has been homeless for two years, says she plans to stay put if authorities try to break up the encampment. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

There is a feeling in the camp that it is safer there than inside a homeless shelter, which is seen as a potential hotbed for the novel coronavirus.

“It doesn’t make sense to break up this encampment, and you have no options,” said Jamaal Henderson, a member of ACT UP Philadelphia who used to be homeless. “Going into the shelter is not safe during this pandemic.”

Out of 50 COVID-19 tests conducted at the camp, only one has come back positive, organizers said.

Shamya Ruff, who has been homeless for two years and has bad asthma, said outreach workers a month ago offered her a room in one of the hotels the city is renting as quarantine space. She said she hasn’t heard back.

“The city really hasn’t done anything since I’ve been here,” Ruff said.

She plans to stay put if authorities try to break up the encampment.

“I’m glad that we’re doing this, and we’re giving them something that they should remember,” Ruff said.