A group of homeless people and activists who have set up tents along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and camped there for about a month will be ordered out of the camp by July 17, city leaders said Friday.
Camp leaders and city officials had been in talks about the group's demands, which include permanent housing for homeless people, designation of the camp as a "no police zone," and disarming and disbanding the Philadelphia police. The group asked that the city stop contacting the camp unless they were prepared to offer permanent housing. Negotiations broke down this week, and the activists walked out.
The camp, at Von Colln Field near the Rodin Museum, started to grow around June 10. David Holloman, chief of staff for the city's Office of Homeless Services, said about 70-80 people live there, though it's a "fluid situation." It's also unclear, other leaders said on a Zoom call with reporters, how many people there are homeless and how many are activists joining in.
The group has shown no signs they will leave soon. And city leaders would not say on the call what they would do when July 17 comes, and if Philadelphia Police would get involved.
“We’re hopeful that people will leave on their own accord when we’re able to connect them to services," said Eva Gladstein, the city's deputy managing director of health and human services. "But I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about the day itself at this point.”
The group's demands also focus on the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which controls some vacant properties, including multiple empty lots right outside its headquarters. A separate camp had formed on those lots and was served a letter from a PHA lawyer, according to journalists from Unicorn Riot.
"There is no reason for any person to be unhoused when there are thousands of empty city-owned properties available for habitation," the group Philadelphia Housing Action wrote in a statement Thursday night about talks with the city breaking down. "It remains a criminal act to allow these properties to remain vacant while people are dying on the street during anytime and is especially vile during a global pandemic."
"We're trying to reinstill a sense of community in people who have lost it," Indigo Vaughan, an organizer of the camp, told NBC10. Vaughan was among those who walked out of the negotiations, and said the camp residents will stay put unless they see a plan with a timeline to meet their demands, which also include putting PHA's vacant properties into a public trust.
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The city has maintained that it doesn't control PHA. Leaders are committed to giving temporary housing to people vulnerable to the coronavirus, and want to see a "tiny house village" where homeless people could move in, a city statement says. In the city and other parts of the region, tiny houses have been mentioned as a possible solution to homelessness, being mobile and cheaper to build than a freestanding rowhome or apartments.
It wasn't clear Friday where the tiny houses would go or how they would be paid for. "Aspects like funding and location are still being determined," a city spokesman said in an email.
City leaders said building more permanent housing will require lots of "hard work" like generating political will and funding from the state and federal governments.
"We need more voices like theirs and we need them in the long haul to do the hard work," said Liz Hersh, the city director of homeless services said of the protests. "I think we all have a list of demands, right? There's a million things I would like to be different, more housing for homeless people being at the top of the list."
The city is also concerned about safety in the camp, and has seen human waste and syringes on the ground, Hersh said. And outreach workers have been turned away from trying to offer services like temporary beds in shelters.
Holloman, Hersh's chief of staff, said the city has placed 15 people from the camp into a quarantine hotel the city rents for people at a high risk for serious consequences of COVID-19. Those people are elderly adults who reported underlying conditions, he 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," Hersh said in a later statement. "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.”