Tension builds at homeless camps

Supporters of the Parkway encampment set up barricades Wednesday, Sept. 9. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

A standoff between Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and organizers of two homeless encampments continued, as a third deadline to clear the camps came and passed Wednesday.

Police closed streets Wednesday around the larger encampment, on a ball field at 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and activists, some armed with makeshift shields, constructed barricades around the site.

Outreach workers again gathered half a block away in front of the Rodin Museum, and a group of clergy were rebuffed by camp leaders.

Last week, the city issued an eviction notice to residents of the encampment, along with another at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue near the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s North Philadelphia headquarters. They were told to vacate by 9 a.m. Wednesday.

There was a feeling at the camps that officers would move in early Thursday morning, after supporters and media thinned out, but the tents remained.

Kenney, in a Thursday afternoon press briefing, again said officials are “assessing all of our options.”

It will be a “multi-day operation,” the mayor said, with outreach workers continuing to offer services and alternative housing. He declined to speak about exact details or timing of plans to clear the camps.

“The city will use every tool at its disposal to maintain order and to resolve the camp humanely and peacefully,” Kenney said. “Forcibly removing camp residents will be a last resort.”

He said some organizers have adopted a “hostile posture,” and Acting Managing Director Tumar Alexander suggested Thursday that the sites are “more of a protest encampment” than a place for homeless people.

“We have evidence that the protesters are stockpiling supplies to aid in their resistance,” Kenney said.

Jennifer Bennetch, a camp organizer and activist, said supporters of the encampment have crafted shields, but she insisted that there are no weapons and that they are not looking for a fight.

The tents popped up in June as a protest for affordable housing and racial justice, in the wake of massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Advocates renewed that call on Wednesday, demanding immediate, permanent housing for people living the tents and the formation of a community land trust to handle vacant properties owned by the city and PHA.

“You can pull money from the police who you use to terrorize homeless people,” said Jamaal Henderson of ACT UP Philly, a group that focuses on AIDS-related activism. “It can be done. If you don’t do it freely, we will force it.”

Jamaal Henderson, of ACT UP, speaks Wednesday, Sept. 9, during a press conference at the Parkway encampment. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

City leaders, including Kenney and PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah, have said it is not feasible to just turn over the keys to empty homes and apartments due to federal regulations.

In addition, some of the properties are uninhabitable, and thousands of people are already on the housing authority’s waitlist, they said. Many camp residents also have addiction and mental health issues that need to be addressed, Kenney added.

A total 142 people from the encampments have been placed in COVID-19 quarantine hotels, shelters, recovery centers and other temporary housing, according to the city.

Deputy Managing Director Eva Gladstein said 25 have enrolled in the city’s rapid rehousing program, and two have already identified apartments.

Officials have been frustrated that outreach workers have been barred from the sites and forced to remain on the outskirts.

A group of clergy was turned away Wednesday at the Parkway camp. Henderson and others told them to leave if they weren’t offering permanent housing.

“They cursed at the clergy, and they threatened violence and destruction,” Kenney said. “This is a shame, and, quite frankly, unacceptable.”

“I’ll leave it to you to determine whether the motivations of the camp leaders are at odds with the needs of those who are unsheltered and who may need help,” he told reporters.

The Rev. Louis Centeno, pastor of Barnabas Transformation Ministries in the Lower Northeast, was one of the clergy members who was repelled.

“We don’t have an agenda other than to care and to provide the service you need,” Centeno later said at a city-run press conference.

Bennetch, who was at the Ridge Avenue location, said no one there threatened clergy, but they were alarmed when the group approached the camp with police officers.

“I just didn’t understand why they were there,” she told Metro. “What I don’t get is why they chose these random clergy, people who have never been concerned with homelessness before.”

Other faith leaders who have worked with the homeless for years have regularly visited the encampments, Bennetch said. She added that the groups of clergy that came Wednesday were just acting as city outreach workers.

Supporters of the Parkway encampment created makeshift shields in an attempt to defend the site. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Supporters of the camps vowed to help rebuild if the city removes the tents, and organizers urged activists to remain on-site to guard the camps.

Rachel Rodriguez, who works in the theater industry, isn’t homeless, but she showed up Wednesday to help defend the encampment.

“As an artist who has a lot of friends that are currently on unemployment, I feel like we are all on the precipice of losing our homes,” Rodriguez said, “and if the city’s unable to take care of our most vulnerable people right now, what does that mean for all of us?”

She is part of a group called Artists Against Abernathy, which pushed for the resignation of Managing Director Brian Abernathy. He announced he would be stepping down in July, and his last day on the job was last week.

Vanessa, who didn’t feel comfortable providing her last name, said she wanted to come out and support the cause because she used to be homeless.

After losing her job, she slept in a friend’s basement and, after returning from a trip, found she was suddenly locked out.

She stayed in shelters, where she said she had to hide her belongings to protect against thieves.

“You were safe if you slept with one eye open,” she said. “In some cases, you were safer on the streets.”

More than 200 shelter beds are empty, officials said, but those at the camps didn’t seem eager to leave.

“We will not go quietly. We will not just disappear and live in some back alley somewhere,” Henderson said. “We’re not demanding anything but what’s due to us.”