Philly Leaders Say Homeless Camps Are ‘Untenable.' But They've Been a Lifeline to Some

'If you have to sleep outside, there’s some strength and safety in numbers,' one professor said of the 3 camps that have sprung up in Philly. Residents of the protest camps want permanent housing.

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What to Know

  • The city has ordered residents of 3 protest camps across the city to leave by 9 a.m. Wednesday.
  • The residents don't want to leave, saying the camps provide food and shelter, no questions asked. Many plan to stay.
  • It's unclear if the city will use force to enforce the order to vacate.

NBC10 is one of dozens of news organizations producing BROKE in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

In their push to disband three homeless camps that sprung up in the city this year, Philly leaders have cited drug use, unsanitary conditions and safety issues. They say after multiple rounds of talks, the situation at the camps has become "untenable" and gave the camps until 9 a.m. Wednesday to leave.

"We’ve gotten to a point where it’s just untenable to have this other health issue surrounding people in the outdoors, defecating outdoors, using drugs outdoors, in an environment that has created this situation," Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday of the camps on the Parkway, behind the Museum of Art and near the Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters in North Philly.

By Wednesday morning, police could be seen blocking part of the parkway. Police officers told NBC10 that all streets around the parkway camp would be closed before the 9 a.m. deadline.

But many residents of the camps don't want to go. They say they feel safer in the impromptu tent communities, supplied by organizers and full of people experiencing homelessness.

Food, clothing and other resources are easier to access there than in a homeless shelter, they say. Plus, some camp residents have been blacklisted from shelters and have nowhere else to go. Others don't want to compromise from their demand for permanent affordable housing.

Since the camps first formed, the city says more than 30 people from the camps were placed in hotel rooms reserved to house vulnerable populations. A total of 130 people from the camps were taken to shelters or drug treatment programs.

Still, others are staying – and have no plans to leave on Wednesday, the city-imposed deadline to vacate the sites.

“Food, water, clothes, anything that we need is really here,” Tanya Scott, an organizer and resident, told reporters during a press conference at one camp on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “We don’t have to wait in a long line to get it, we don’t have to sit there and fill out an application to get it, we don’t have to be told no. We don't have to sit on a corner and be like 'can I please, please have 50 cents for something to eat?'”

Anthony Lloyd, another resident, said the camps provide a safe place to sleep in between work shifts.

“I’m an able-bodied man, I can get up and work any day, I get up and work every day," he said Tuesday. "I don’t just use the encampment to sleep and eat, I get up and work. I’ve got two jobs. And I still can’t afford to provide for mine and provide for myself.”

Camp organizers have also been heavily critical of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which they say needs to do more to house people. Some housing activists affiliated with the camp have broken into vacant PHA homes, allowing people to squat there, according to news reports.

Part of History

These camps in visible locations might be the first that people have seen, but there have been others in the past. And across the country, more and more homeless camps are popping up – and have been since the Great Recession in 2007-08, said Stephanie Sena, an anti-poverty fellow and professor in Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law.

Joan Maya Mazelis, a sociology professor at Rutgers University-Camden, wrote a book about social ties and poverty – based on interviews with 25 members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, an organization that formed a tent city in Philly in 1995.

"When you’re living in extreme poverty and you don’t have a safe and stable place to live...if you have to sleep outside, there’s some strength and safety in numbers," Mazelis said. “People need to remember that people choosing to live in encampments at this point are choosing to because they don’t have any other options.”

The threat of evictions – due to the recent economic downturn and the coronavirus pandemic – could also result in more people on the streets and more camps, the professors said in separate interviews. Both said governmental response across the board has to improve, particularly in anticipation what could be a worsening crisis.

Leaders including Kenney, now-former Managing Director Brian Abernathy and PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah have said their hands are tied because of a lack of federal funding. Jeremiah, who has appeared at multiple city news conferences this summer to discuss the camps, said federal money would help rehab currently unlivable homes that PHA owns. (The housing advocates who broke into boarded-up homes told WHYY that some properties needed only minor repairs before they could house people off the streets.)

At the same time, housing authorities across the nation have been defunded for years, and that can't be the excuse forever, Sena said.

“We have the resources available to provide the solutions. I don’t think it is a question of lack of resources. It is about will...I think the city needs to do a better job about finding will, because there’s a massive need and it’s going to get worse.”

The city has set a deadline for people staying at an encampment and protesting homelessness in Philadelphia. This comes as a loss of income during the coronavirus pandemic has made more people vulnerable to losing their homes. NBC10's Lauren Mayk shows us if there's any help available.

Where Will They Go?

A question permeated the camp's press conference and talks with two academics: if you evict them, where will they go?

For now, the city can offer temporary solutions like shelters or the hotel for vulnerable populations. Other, more permanent solutions, like a village of tiny houses for people in need, are still being worked on and may not be ready until 2021.

City outreach teams were at the camp again today and will be there tomorrow along with members of the clergy, said Eva Gladstein, the city's deputy managing director for health and human services.

"We’ll be out there as long as there are people there who want to connect to services and housing," Gladstein said.

It wasn't clear Tuesday whether the city planned to use force or how much of a police presence would be at the camp to enforce the order to vacate.

"We’re not going to speculate on what may come," Kenney said. "We’re working day by day to get as many people out of the encampment into safe shelter as possible, which is what we’ve been doing for the past 3 months.”

"There’s nothing we would like more than everyone that’s at that encampment to voluntarily decamp, and we’ll find them a safe place to be," Kenney said. "We put people in hotels, we put people in drug treatment, we put people into housing, into shelter, and we want to do [that] with everybody."

Then he gave his statement where he called it "untenable."

The camp is in the midst of several expensive high-rise condo buildings and near a Whole Foods Market that boarded up its windows Tuesday.

“Yes, this protest came directly to Bougieville….to the haves," said Mike Wilson, an organizer. "And we’re sitting here, among the haves. And you can tear this one down, but we’re going to build another one.”

Sena hopes people who see the camp are moved to act, and not recoil from the descriptions the city mentioned.

"If you really feel discomfort, good, we should not feel comfortable keeping them on the streets," Sena said. “Let’s work toward addressing the housing crisis that people face, having a place to sleep at night.”

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