Community support prevented the eviction of a massive tent city and protest in Philadelphia, and unhoused organizers say they are not going anywhere until all residents have a guaranteed home.
The encampment formed June 10 to provide shelter, social support, and resources to Philadelphia’s unhoused residents, many of whom have been denied access to housing and COVID-19 prevention hotels. But its existence remains threatened by the city, which is determined to remove hundreds of unhoused people to prioritize the needs of the baseball field upon which the encampment has encroached.
Hundreds gathered on July 13 for an anti-eviction rally outside the protest encampment. Large “No Cop Zone” and “Housing Now” banners hung high over the neighboring streets. Protest demands were posted in all communal spaces and distributed as flyers to passersby.
“Make no mistake, this is a homeless encampment, this is a protest,” said organizer Jennifer Bennetech. “But this is really a civil war between the poor and Black citizens of Philadelphia, and the city.”
For many left without homes or shelter of any kind in Philadelphia, this tent city is a haven. Encampment founders, inspired by the recent anti-police revolts and frustrated by the city’s inaction to protect unhoused populations from the COVID-19 outbreak, formed an encampment of five tents. Word-of-mouth quickly increased that number to over 150 in a sprawling tent city on a grassy field along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Organizers look for more stable housing for those who arrive with children, and they have moved nearly fifty families into empty public housing units. For those living at the encampment, every resident is provided with a tent and access to free supplies, a medic station, a library, and even movie nights.
Despite meetings between organizers and city officials to discuss encampment demands and negotiate housing solutions, the city has offered no plan for where camp residents could otherwise live. Instead, they asked campers to relocate based on the hope of housing some time in the future, including the “potential” of a city-sanctioned encampment or tiny houses.
For people under the severe stress of living without a house during a global health crisis, a far-off promise wasn’t good enough.
On July 9, organizers announced the dissolution of negotiations, citing “the failure of the City to provide or even offer a single unit of housing to any of the camp’s 150+ residents.” Shortly after, they received a notice to vacate the parkway encampment by July 17.
Residents held strong, yelling publicly and tearfully at a press conference days later that they would not be moved.
“They’ve been painting it as if we want to live here–in tents, out in the rain, relying on donations,” said camp resident Scott, standing in front of a sea of tents and signs demanding housing. “If you want people out of here by Friday, then by Friday take our elderly out of here. Take our very young people out of here. Take our people with disabilities out of here. If the city wants us to play our part then they can stop being the obstacle.”
Unhoused organizers called for the city to rally around them on eviction day and defend the camp at all costs, assembling supporters through public Facebook events. The day before the camp’s removal was to take place, city officials backed down and it was postponed.
This did nothing to sway hundreds of supporters from gathering in the early hours of the morning to deliver a clear message that the city would not be able to dismantle the camp without pushback.
Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted about the postponed closure of the camp, noting “this also gives our outreach teams and providers more time to engage people experiencing homelessness to offer housing and other services.”
However, according to organizers, the only services offered so far were abstinence-based drug treatment and access to the COVID-19 prevention hotel for people with certain health conditions. While offering far-off promises of affordable housing, the city has offered no solutions for housing at the time of the camp’s end.
A Home And A Protest
James-Talib Dean Camp, as its residents now call it, is both a home and a protest. The community is visible from every intersecting street surrounding the massive field. Tents are decorated with sunflowers and front porches sculpted out of tarps with cushions for visitors. There are PPE giveaway and handwashing stations, with COVID-19 testing offered every Monday.
Residents can charge their phones at a charging station. Medical, kitchen, and supply tents form the heart of the field, surrounded by long strips of tents. This includes mini-communities for queer and trans inhabitants.
Days after the city agreed to postpone the closure, a new street mural appeared along the stretch of the parkway, spelling out boldly “I Will Breathe.”
While the Workers Revolutionary Collective and Occupy PHA have supported the unhoused organizers from the beginning, the camp has since taken on its own life. It is led by unhoused people.
Many of the residents have experience with foodservice and restaurants, allowing for careful kitchen hygiene as mass meals are prepared and served. Groups of unhoused organizers sort through piles of clothing donations, pick up trash, and set up tents for the steady flow of new arrivals.
Tara Taylor moved to the camp as a full-time resident after leaving unstable housing. For them, community is really what this is about.
“I think there’s this idea that the homeless don’t already have communities, which isn’t true. They very much do have communities, even though they are displaced and often disconnected from one another.”
Despite the hardship of living outside, this is home for Taylor. “When you walk around here, we call each other ‘neighbor,’ and it actually feels like that.”
The city feels differently about the encampment. Marsha Cohen of the Homeless Advocacy Project shamed the camp for its risk during a pandemic, calling the unhoused people living there “political pawns” of the organizers.
“The problem is that folks refuse to recognize that the homeless are organizers. So yes, these are the demands that were put together by the organizers of this homeless encampment, which is the homeless,” Tara explains.
“They wanted permanent ownership that was going to be able to be managed by people they trusted. We brainstorm and talk about actions together.”
Taking Housing Into Their Own Hands
The residents’ most pressing demand is to transfer city-owned properties into a community land trust for permanent low-income housing. The city estimates it has approximately 40,000 vacant parcels of housing and lots, 26 percent of which are publicly owned. Though many homes are in need of major repairs, some are ready to move into.
Sterling Johnson, an organizer with the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, insisted a community land trust is the only viable solution.
“People can be in community, work together, survive together. But not within a program, not within a security state or a surveillance state. The focus is on getting actual houses for people so they can have a stake in the property ownership.”
In the meantime, people are taking housing solutions into their own hands. Encampment organizers have moved fifty unhoused families into empty publicly-owned properties, with volunteers doing the work themselves to fix up the homes. The Public Housing Authority (PHA) has given out notices to vacate, but people see no reason to bring their children back outdoors when the properties have otherwise been sitting empty.
Camp residents claim they have the ability to remove blight and transform this unused property into stable and safe housing if given the chance.
Dee Black, a lead organizer at the camp, quickly points to the handwashing, medic and kitchen stations, and other structures that required handy skills to create.
“All we are asking for is at least an abandoned building, a big one, that we can actually fix-up. We got some of us in the community that know how to fix cars, houses, you name it.”
Others point to the money invested in the police budget, which could be used to pay people to repair houses.
‘It Shouldn’t Be A Crime To Exist’
The tent city was birthed in the weeks following the Black Lives Matter uprisings, as is evident in the primarily Black (though multi-racial) demands around policing.
Residents demand both disarming and defunding the police, including the housing authority’s private police force. Early on, they established their space as a no-cop zone, an attempt to combat the police harassment experienced by many residents.
As Johnson put it, “We’re talking about people being able to smoke without being hassled, being able to go without being sexually assaulted by police or harassed by police, woken up by police or outreach workers on a daily basis. It shouldn’t be a crime to exist, but it is right now.”
In Philadelphia, camping in tents on the streets is illegal. Designating the camp as a protest rather simply than a homeless community provides the unhoused with more protection from the police.
On hot summer days, a tent offers relief from the sun, in addition to privacy and the ability to social distance. Tent living without police harassment draws many people to the camp.
Cops seem to have accepted their exclusion from the area despite conflict between camp residents and its neighbors. Tara reported that annoyed neighbors would come to ask questions, but they were often unwilling to call the city and ask for housing for the residents so they could relocate.
Taylor has had to de-escalate fights between neighbors and residents. Most recently, they responded to tension when a white woman jogging past the camp confronted residents in their tents. She was annoyed she paid $1700 a month for her apartment only to have a homeless camp outside of it. Tensions escalated, and an organizer called the woman a racist. The woman called the cops, but none came.
Declaring a no-cop zone has its difficulties, but it’s given residents room to breathe. Black told Shadowproof, “It’s beneficial to have a no-cop zone. It gives us the time to dwell on what we need to do, what steps we need to take, to get paperwork done.”
Black has been struggling living without stable housing for the last eight years, separated from her children who she wanted to keep off the streets. Her goal is to have a place—any place—she can call home and bring her children.
This has sparked her organizing. Black created a petition demanding permanent housing for Philly’s unhoused. She’s humbled by the signatures it has received–her initial goal was for only a thousand. “I’m not just speaking for myself, I am speaking for every individual that is homeless out here. Who can hear us if we don’t speak out?”
Surviving Without Shelter During COVID-19
The root of the encampment is the substantial failure of the city to meet the needs of its unhoused population, and to offer only basic services rather than housing.
Both shelters and homeless outreach have fallen flat. Before the encampment, organizers fought for months for better services, like public bathrooms and expanded access for people to reside in hotels. None of their demands were met, and in the meantime, more tent encampments were destroyed.
The city reports that Philadelphia has about 5,700 people experiencing homelessness, and of those 950 are without shelter. COVID-19 prevention hotels have been offered to those on the streets, but only to those with disabilities and who are otherwise at high-risk for the virus.
These hotels also prevent partnerships. Some people are approved to enter hotels but return to the streets because their partner is still sleeping outdoors. It’s also common for people to be discharged from shelters, due to fights with other residents, drug use, for example. One mistake can get a person booted out of shelter access for months or even years.
Notably, the solutions of the camp have all developed outside the scope of what critics call the “nonprofit industrial complex,” a system in which nonprofits facilitate the government’s imposition of houselessness by providing an endless loop of ‘access to resources’ but never housing.
The camp has taken a position against allowing outreach providers, who organizers say have only offered drug treatment and spaces in shelters.
Johnson explained that many of the residents have been through treatment and shelters, and are already aware of the services available. He described how outreach providers were allowed in for the first two days but were dismissed by residents after they started taking photos and notes, which felt dehumanizing.
Between the documentation and the distribution of “mostly water bottles and granola bars,” their presence felt like an insult when residents have made it clear their biggest need is housing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, tent camps in Philadelphia were viewed by the city as a risk and broken up, leaving residents scattered. Yet breaking up the tent camps may pose a greater risk.
The city has been defying CDC guidelines and relocating residents from tent encampments to shelters. The indoor, crowded environment means these shelters have been a hotspot for COVID-19. The dismantling of one major encampment led to a large shelter outbreak and one death. While the encampment is not the stable home residents are demanding, it is the preferred option for many when compared with sleeping rough or risking the shelter system.
City officials’ reasons for shutting the camp down include safety and health concerns. But many of the risks are not inherent to the camp, simply risks that arise from being unhoused. Organizers maintained violence due to theft and health scares from lack of proper bathrooms are not new problems for those without stable housing.
COVID-19 is as much of a risk in the rest of the city, and regular testing of residents helped keep numbers down (at the time of reporting, there has only been 1 confirmed case). The encampment has seen both violence and overdoses, but “those are things that happen regularly in our city,” Johnson emphasized. “The way communities are safest is together. Here we reverse many overdoses for people who are using. We are also there to monitor drug poisoning due to K2 and crack. We’re providing Narcan.”
To the risks of setting up an encampment, they ask—what about the risks of leaving people homeless during a pandemic?
“We know that the demands we are fighting for are imminently actionable, and available to us right now” Taylor shared. “I think once the city sees we are not giving them any other options, they will follow our graceful guidance in terms of how they can make this problem go away.“
According to organizers, the city claims it doesn’t have control over the housing authority and cannot transfer its properties to a community land trust, despite an act signed in 2012 that explicitly grants it control over PHA. In response to this claim, organizers took the fight directly to protest at PHA headquarters, and have now established a second encampment there.
Housing activists have long complained about the practices of the public housing authority and its private police force. Last year members of Occupy PHA established an encampment at the same location to demand an oversight board. Many long-term Philly residents see PHA as simply a tool of gentrification.
The housing authority has been authorized by the city to practice eminent domain, recently seizing one-third of an entire neighborhood. But the city lacks the funds and capacity to repair all of its seized property. So PHA has held an auction almost every year since 2011, most recently auctioning off nearly 150 of their properties, including to large developers known for building high-income housing. To many unhoused people, a walk down the block past empty, publicly-owned housing is a looming sign of the city’s disordered priorities.
The unknown future of the camp is uncomfortable for people whose lives have already been steered by housing instability. But they are very clear they have no plans to go anywhere, regardless of the city’s actions or neighbors’ insistence on baseball as a human right. Every day living without shelter under COVID-19 is a matter of survival and a need to support the survival of others.
“It’s hard to be in a situation where you are fighting not just for your own life but for your families’ lives, and other people around you,” Black said of her fellow camp residents. “We might not be blood, but technically all of us are family. No matter how you see it.”