Homeless mothers squat federal housing sites as encampment deadline looms

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Homeless encampment on Ben Franklin Parkway

Tents fill a grove of trees on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 4:13 p.m.

People living in tents along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and farther north on a Ridge Avenue lot owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, face a third and likely final deadline to leave Wednesday by 9 a.m. The three-month-long protest against homelessness cast a spotlight on the lack of affordable housing and extreme poverty faced by the roughly 5,500 city residents who experience homelessness each year.

Set up by a coalition of housing and racial justice activists and staffed by volunteers, the Parkway encampment known as Camp JTD, for a resident who died, served several hundred unhoused city residents with a medical clinic, kitchen, toilets, a shower and donated supplies.

For many who had been in and out of shelter systems for years, it offered freedom from curfews, rules and restrictions, and galvanized them toward collective political action.

“To me, it was amazing,” said Sierra, a camp resident who had lived in shelters for the past four years. “They gave us advice, gave us hope. I thank God for the people out there in that camp, because for the time that I spent out there, they helped me live life a little bit more easier.”

Sierra said that after years of shelter living, chasing one program after another that never seemed to get her on her feet, the Parkway encampment really gave her the boost she needed.

The organizers also helped Sierra move into a boarded-up PHA house, which reunited her with her daughter, Diani. They’re one of more than a dozen families that are squatting vacant federal housing.

Those aren’t their real names — Sierra agreed to talk to WHYY News as long as we didn’t identify her or her 7-year-old daughter.

Jenn Bennetch, an activist with Occupy PHA, said she scouts for the houses by looking for any that are boarded up, and then checks property records. She said many don’t need much repair at all, and in many cases the utilities are still on.

Jennifer Bennetch of Occupy PHA
Jennifer Bennetch of Occupy PHA joined volunteers protecting the Ridge Avenue encampment on Aug. 18. Bennetch met with city officials and other organizers to try to reach a compromise on two encampments that the mayor has ordered cleared. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

That’s the case with the house that Sierra now lives in, on a narrow one-way street in North Philadelphia, where on a recent day Diani was playing on the sidewalk out front.

“When I first came into this house, the look on my face was pretty like a surprise, like this,” she said, her eyes and mouth wide open. “And when my mom showed me my room, I was so happy.”

The tidy two-bedroom house has linoleum floors, a donated couch, and found portraits of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela hanging on the wall. A fan blows, for cooling in the humid August heat.

Diani, who has been living with her godmother, shows off her new room upstairs, where her bed has fresh new red sheets and her favorite part:

“It’s a curtain thingy,” she said. Her mother explained it’s called a canopy. “Yeah. But at night when I’m hot, I just lift this up and put the fan here.”

Back downstairs, Sierra pointed to things she found in the basement to decorate the walls, including women’s straw hats.

“A lot of this stuff is recycled, I’m big on recycling,” she said. “I didn’t want it to go to waste. It was beautiful. So I said, why not.”

Sierra knows she could be evicted at any time. But like a lot of residents of the encampments, she’s frustrated by the amount of time she spent waiting for subsidized PHA housing — she’s been on the list for eight years. She teared up talking about it.

“Probably this was the wrong way to go about things. But my daughter is safe and sound, and she’s with me, she’s happy. And that means everything to me.”

Organizers of the homeless encampment like Bennetch who helped Sierra move into this house said the Philadelphia Housing Authority is boarding up perfectly good houses to sell them off to developers.

“They’re paying for rodents to live in these houses,” said Sierra. “They’re paying for animals to live in these houses, mice and rats. That’s what lives in these properties. Not regular people.”

Who gets to use the houses

The issue became a stumbling block in the lengthy negotiations between encampment organizers and city officials. Bennetch said that instead of being sold to developers who would build market-rate housing, the homes should remain as affordable-housing options by being handed over to a community land trust that would fix them up and manage them in perpetuity as housing for the city’s poorest residents.

It’s a model that has worked in the past.

In the early 1980s, the first time homelessness became a crisis in the city, a group of unhoused Philadelphia men created a group called the Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless that grew into a nationwide movement known as the National Union of the Homeless. They protested poor conditions in city-run shelters, they interrupted City Council meetings to demand change and reform, and they followed the mayor to public events to keep the pressure on.

In 1987, they squatted 14 abandoned houses owned by the city.

Dennis Culhane was one of the organizers at the time, and he is now a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on homelessness.

“Essentially, we chose the highest-quality vacant houses we could find,” said Culhane. “And in the best neighborhoods that we could find, because we knew that would increase the political pressure on the city to concede to the demands of the time.”

Culhane said the group prevailed in getting then-Mayor Wilson Goode to hand over about 200 houses to a nonprofit. The organization created to fix up and manage those houses, Dignity Housing, exists to this day.

As a result of the current negotiations, PHA did agree to hand over 62 houses to nonprofits. The city also has a plan to use federal funds from the CARES Act to pilot a tiny house village, create between 900 and 1,400 new affordable-housing units by expanding single room occupancy (SROs), offer new rent subsidies for homeless residents, and initiate a program called “shallow rent” that helps prevent the poorest residents from becoming homeless.

But the camp negotiators said they wouldn’t leave until all the residents had a permanent housing option, which the city says it cannot provide.

Bennetch, from Occupy PHA, said she is working with a neighborhood community development corporation to apply for some of the PHA housing on offer. But she said that it’s not nearly enough to meet the need, and that there are hundreds more houses that could be relinquished.

Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah said the houses currently being squatted are on the list for rehabilitation and upgrades. He said squatters like Sierra have jumped the queue, a line that includes 47,000 people and has been closed off to any new applicants since 2013.

And although PHA plans to enforce the Wednesday deadline for residents of Camp Teddy, who are squatting federal land across from PHA headquarters, those who have taken over PHA houses are safe for now.

“We do not want to just kick these families and individuals out on the street in this environment,” said Jeremiah. “We want to work with them and the city to provide them with whatever housing they need in the short term while we work on long-term solutions.”

But like the encampments, he said they can’t be there forever.

“They just want the units where they are squatting in. And that is not something that we can do at this time,” he said.

PHA has about 4,000 scattered site houses throughout the city, and all but about 600 are occupied, according to Jeremiah. He said they’ve raised $20 million dollars by selling off about 600 properties over the past eight years. And that money gets funneled back into desperately needed affordable-housing projects. Still, it’s not enough to keep up with demand, and that’s frustrating for him.

“So folks are calling upon PHA to make units available,” he said. “And I am asking where and with what resources? If it cost us $250,000 to $300,000 to build one unit, imagine how much it will cost to build 47,000? PHA does not print money.”

What’s affordable?

The site now occupied by the encampment on Ridge Avenue is slated to be developed into a supermarket that Jeremiah said is desperately needed for the Sharswood neighborhood, where the average median income is just $21,047, about half of the city’s average of $40,649.

The new development, which grants tax breaks to a private developer, includes 98 new housing units. According to an excerpt from the ground lease provided by a PHA spokeswoman Tuesday afternoon, at least 17 of those apartment units will be reserved for and marketed to households “with incomes no greater than and at rents affordable to households with incomes at or below sixty percent (60%) of area median income,” as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “At least thirteen…other apartment units will be made available to households with incomes no greater than and at rents affordable to households with incomes at or below 80% of AMI,” but those 13 units will not be rent-restricted, the excerpt provided to WHYY says.

Activists said use of the term “affordable housing” to describe these units is a misnomer.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development uses the AMI for the region, not the city or even the zip code where the housing exists. As a result, the income requirements for the new housing project range between $57,960 and $77,300 a year for a family of four.

“When politicians or bureaucrats say ‘affordable housing’ in Philadelphia, they are talking about stuff that probably half of city residents can’t afford,” said Wiley Cunningham, an activist with the Philadelphia Housing Action coalition. “That’s why we began saying ‘extremely low-income’ housing.”

A homeless encampment at 21st and Ridge Avenue
A homeless encampment at 21st and Ridge Avenue adjacent to PHA headquarters in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Cunningham said that PHA projects like the one planned for the Camp Teddy site actually encourage gentrification, and that there’s little incentive for anyone to develop housing for those in the bottom 25% of income range.

PHA countered by saying it provides housing to 80,000 residents with an average annual income of $15,000, including at other new developments in the Sharswood neighborhood.

The Housing Authority’s Jeremiah said the bulk of the federal dollars geared toward supporting PHA are aimed at maintaining the current housing stock and not creating new units.

“I would love for the encampment leaders to work with us to advocate for more housing in Philadelphia,” said Jeremiah. “We are a big, poor city that has a desperate need for low-income housing. I would love to go out and build more units and have more Section 8 vouchers. It’s limited by the funding that we receive. That’s the unfortunate reality.”

Another point of view

Sierra said she’s been on the PHA waiting list since she gave birth to Diani seven years ago, when she was still a teenager. Her own mother, also a single mom, died earlier the year before Diani was born. The loss of her own mother left her grief-stricken, frightened and alone. She lived with a sister, then an aunt, then a friend’s mother. But there wasn’t always enough room in the house for a teenage mom and her child. The mother of a friend, whom Sierra calls her godmother, agreed to keep Diani. And Sierra began her journey through the shelter system.

“You lose it all out there,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I lost it all. I became very miserable. I was drained out there, just drained.”

Like a lot of the mothers interviewed for this story, she made sure her daughter lived with friends and family to avoid gaining the attention of social workers and losing her to the foster care system. She said living with her daughter in their own house with a key that can lock the door behind them is a godsend.

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“Especially when you’re getting woken up on the floor by cops all day, and you can’t close no doors,” she said. “It’s a good feeling, it’s a wonderful feeling I would say.”

Sierra’s income is $335 a month in food stamps. She just turned 26, and started her first job in January, which like a lot of things, she referred to as a blessing. But the coronavirus pandemic ended that job.

Culhane said today’s housing crisis actually began in the 1980s, as the late baby boomers came of age and there were not enough jobs to go around. Housing costs rose, and those hurt the most by lack of jobs and affordable housing were Black residents. Today, many of those folks still struggle with intermittent homelessness. But the Great Recession has added another cohort to the homeless population — primarily young Black people of Sierra’s generation.

A homeless protest encampment occupies Von Colln Field on the Ben Franklin Parkway
A homeless protest encampment occupies Von Colln Field on the Ben Franklin Parkway on August 20, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“The millennial homeless population, these are people who are now in their late 20s and up to their mid-30s,” he said. “And so there is a definite spike associated with the Great Recession, which once again, it coincided with an increase in population that was coming of adult age.”

He said the recession meant that a lot of young people never got decent jobs.

“The research is pretty strong in showing that if you don’t get a toehold in the labor market, by the time you’re 25, the odds that you will have a secure position in the labor market for the rest of your adult life are quite low.”

Sierra said people like her do need help, and she still worries about the knock on the door that would put her back on the street again.

“Some people need that first push,” she said. “You know you’re on a swing, and you don’t know how to swing, some people need their first push to get them started. Because I know I do. I never saw anybody homeless growing up really. I never saw it.”

Seven-year-old Diani sits quietly beside her mother on the couch, listening.

“I felt like I wished that I could help her,” Diani said. “Basically, I wanted to help her. And now that she’s got her place. I’m happy for her.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify average median income figures and to clarify details of the proposed housing development in Sharswood. 

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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