Outreach Workers Barred From Large Homeless Encampment on Parkway, City Says

The activists are making a statement that they want permanent, not temporary housing

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An encampment along Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway has grown to more than 100 tents over the past few days, and its organizers want the city to house the residents permanently.

Homeless outreach workers in the city, though, say they could get those people off the streets now - but have been turned away.

An early version of the camp near the Rodin Museum can be seen in videos the organizers, the Workers Revolutionary Collective, posted to Facebook June 10.

When NBC10 visited Tuesday, the areas behind the sidewalks near Von Colln Field were filled in with tents and organizers have setup medical care and outdoor showers too, a homeless outreach worker said.

The Von Colln sign was replaced with a duct-taped piece of cardboard that read "NO COP ZONE." The 9th Police District headquarters is steps away from the encampment.

The encampment group is advocating for permanent low-income housing, the city's blessing of their right to be at that location and for two other "no police zones" to be setup for tent cities. The group wants to end "homeless sweeps" that it says "hides the fact that no housing is being offered and people are being displaced."

For Carol Thomas, who's been working with people experiencing homelessness for 35 years, the encampment brings up memories of the Occupy movement, where people camped out in tents by City Hall.

Referring to Black Lives Matter signs and concerns about policing, "There are a lot of crucial issues that they’re bringing to the forefront," said Thomas, the director of homeless services at Project HOME, one of eight organizations that does homeless outreach in the city.

But she said Project HOME is not out in full right now since organizers have previously turned them away. Mayor Jim Kenney said something similar at a city press conference Tuesday.

"Our folks have been shunned away or scooted away by the organizers of the event, of the protest," Kenney said. "While we recognize that it is a protest, we have beds available, we have services available ... we would like to avail them of those services."

"We do not want to be blocked from doing our job as outreach workers and professionals from helping people," Thomas said. "I don’t feel outreach is the enemy, and we certainly don’t feel anyone there is an enemy...we’re there to support people."

Thomas said the activists' goal is clear: "People do need permanent housing," and that's not something the city has a ton of right now.

"To address homelessness long term, housing is the key," Thomas added.

But for now, there are hundreds of temporary beds available. The city has a total of 11,500 emergency, temporary and permanent beds. And the city's homeless population is about 5,700, including 950 who are unsheltered. The city offered hotel rooms to some people at the encampment, NBC10 learned.

“It’s their time, it’s their time to have a place to call home,” one person at the encampment said. “These lives do matter, some of these people have been out here for years."

Kenney said the camp will stay for now, but "it's not going to last forever."

"At some point in time we’ll have to assess the health and safety issues surrounding the encampment and make a decision that’s good for the health and safety of others," he said.

The city has also said the spread of the coronavirus in the encampment is a concern. Thomas said the outreach team has been spreading the word about the virus' dangers and social distancing, and handing out masks and hand sanitizer and believes the encampment organizers are taking precautions as well. Anyone can call the outreach hotline and ask for masks and hand sanitizer, Thomas added.

It's crucial, especially for people on the streets who might have a greater risk because of underlying conditions like diabetes, asthma and hypertension, which are particularly prevalent in homeless adults. Those conditions can exacerbate COVID-19, studies show.

Thomas hopes the outreach organizations can help in the long term as workers build relationships and try to get people housed. And she stressed that anyone can call in to the hotline.

"Anyone can call in and say, 'Hey I’m concerned about this person who’s living up in the Far Northeast,'" Thomas said. "We go anywhere in Philadelphia."

If you are experiencing homelessness or know someone who is, the Homeless Outreach Hotline is 215-232-1984.

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