As killings surge in Philadelphia, city considers $500,000 package to move residents threatened by violence

Sonja Bingham stands in her kitchen

Sonja Bingham at her home in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sonja Bingham is still processing the phone call she got from a neighbor in late September.

As she stood in the parking lot of a chain hotel, the block captain learned that someone had firebombed her house in Harrowgate, while her 20-year-old son was asleep inside.

She immediately pictured her rowhome engulfed in flames.

“I remember running around the hotel parking lot screaming ‘my son is in the house. My son is in the house,” said Bingham.

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Her worst fears didn’t come true. But Bingham, an anti-violence advocate, is still shaken by what happened that Wednesday morning, an incident she suspects has ties to the group of out-of-town drug dealers she confronted just days earlier after they set up shop on her corner.

She now has a state-of-the-art security system, window bars, and a security gate on her front door. Neighbors helped her pay for the repairs.

“I’m in a cage,” said Bingham. “I’ve never lived like this.”

Protecting witnesses by moving them

Bingham’s experience is not singular. While firebombings are unusual in Philadelphia, the city has a history of suspected criminals terrorizing family members and friends because someone in their circle has cooperated with law enforcement or prosecutors as part of a criminal investigation or court case.

In response, City Council is now considering a budget measure that includes a proposal to create a program that would give these people the option to relocate. If approved, the initiative would start with $500,000, with the potential for more to be added during the city’s next budget cycle.

“This type of thing is another level of violence in this city that needs to be addressed and needs to be stopped so that it does not become something where it is very common,” said Councilmember David Oh, who pushed for the funding after meeting with nearly a dozen mothers. He said one of them told him she was beaten up and shot at multiple times because her son cooperated with homicide prosecutors.

The logistics of this new program, which comes amid what may be Philadelphia’s deadliest year,  have yet to be hashed out. Oh said he envisions the funding being separate from the money witnesses can currently apply for if, for example, they’ve been subpoenaed to testify in a criminal case, and want to move — temporarily or permanently — so they can feel safe taking the stand.

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And he wants to make sure the money is well-spent.

“I think we want to be very careful and make sure what we’re doing is saving lives — that we are really dealing with people who are being targeted and that it is really absolutely necessary that they be relocated,” said Oh.

The state offers funding for witness relocation through the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. The $1.2 million program, part of the state budget, requires local law enforcement or the relevant district attorney’s office to essentially apply for funding on behalf of a witness.

In Philadelphia, the district attorney’s office has the option of using its own funding to help offset relocation costs if the AG rejects a referral.

Residents can also apply for up to $1,000 through the state’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program, which also provides money for funeral costs, grief counseling, and child care.

Under the program, funding for relocation is only distributed after the move, meaning participants have to front first and last month’s rent before being reimbursed.

Threats escalated by social media

A hearing on the bill, which would also send money to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and the Free Library of Philadelphia, is scheduled for Wednesday.

Isaac “Ikey Raw” Gardner, who leads Unsolved Murders in Philly, is among those who hope Oh’s proposal remains part of the broader bill, known as a midyear transfer ordinance.

“That’s long overdue,” said Gardner.

Gardner, whose group provides counseling to families who have lost loved ones to gun violence, said it’s becoming increasingly common for suspected criminals to threaten, and in some cases kill, people they think might cooperate with law enforcement or prosecutors, even when there’s no evidence of that.

Social media is a big reason why. Gardner said people become targets simply for expressing their condolences online. For example, if they comment on a memorial photo of a murder victim posted by a friend or family member.

“Somebody might comment under it ‘Oh I’ma miss you’ and then somebody will comment under it ‘You next,’ from a fake page or whatever,” said Gardner.

“It’s sad out here,” he said.

‘You’re not going to push me out’

Melany Nelson, executive director of Northwest Victim Services, said she gets calls nearly everyday from people wanting to be relocated because they’re afraid they’ll be retaliated against.

She can help some of them. But others may not qualify for an existing relocation program because they aren’t considered a victim.

“And it’s heartbreaking when you get those cases on a Friday at like four or 4:30 in the afternoon because it’s like ‘Oh my goodness, everybody is shutting down for the weekend.’ But this program hopefully will be available to those victims in the evenings and weekends,” said Nelson.

Bingham, the anti-violence advocate, has mixed feelings about the new funding proposal. She understands why it’s necessary, but she also thinks the city should be focusing on more long-term solutions — so that no one feels the need to be relocated in the first place.

“On the one hand, it’s a wonderful tool, right? But on the other hand, it’s like, ‘Well why do we need it?” said Bingham.

Asked if she would take advantage of the program, Bingham didn’t hesitate for a second: no.

Sonja Bingham sits on her couch
Sonja Bingham at her home in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I’ve been working to make the community better. It’s happening. And you’re not going to push me out. Because if I leave, they win. And all of the strides we’ve made goes where?” she said.

Police have made no arrests in her case.

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