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Housing activists stop Rittenhouse encampment cleanup, likening it to ‘eviction’

A still from a video showing homeless outreach workers appearing at 2000 block of Ionic Street in Rittenhouse to clean up an encampment.

A still from a video showing homeless outreach workers appearing at 2000 block of Ionic Street in Rittenhouse to clean up an encampment.

Activists interrupted a “service day” planned by the city’s homeless outreach office that aimed to clean a Center City sidestreet where several homeless people had been living.

Videos obtained by PlanPhilly show police, a city trash truck, and outreach workers appearing Tuesday morning at the 2000 block of Ionic Street, a small, dead-end alley in the Rittenhouse neighborhood where several individuals had been living.

A small group of housing activists met the city workers as they attempted to enter the alley, where shopping carts and makeshift shelters made out of blankets, cardboard, and other materials could be seen.

Although there was little in the way of a confrontation, the city crews eventually left largely empty-handed after surveying the scene. Housing activist Alex Stewart, who was present on Tuesday, said that, ultimately, most of the people who had been living on mattresses on Ionic Street dispersed anyway.

City officials say the outreach workers went to the alley to clean and offer social service resources to people there as part of a routine “service day.”

But activists compared the cleaning to an “eviction,” comparing Tuesday’s abortive service day to the city clearing out homeless encampments elsewhere in Center City.

Stewart accused the city of effectively dispersing homeless people who could often not safely self-isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if they were offered space in city shelters.

“The city is forcing them to be displaced and move to other areas, spreading the virus, if anyone in that area had it, to other homeless community encampments,” he said. “Rather than spend time, money, and resources to conduct numerous encampment evictions and service days, the city should work towards permanent solutions.”

The Center for Disease Control recommends against breaking up homeless encampments during the coronavirus pandemic because of the risks of moving people who may be infected with the virus into the close quarters of city shelters.

In April, 10 days after city workers broke up an encampment outside the Convention Center, a man living in a Center City homeless shelter died of the coronavirus.

Office of Homeless Services spokesperson Josh Kruger said the city called off Tuesday’s “service day” after workers realized more individuals were living on the side street than they initially thought.

“Out of an abundance of caution, and given social distancing requirements for workers who are already taking risks providing critical city services during this trying time, when it was clear many more people were there, we postponed the cleanup,” he said.

Kruger said that the city typically conducts around 150 similar actions annually and that OHS provides 72 hours’ notice to the people living there so they can move their belongings while crews clean the area. Notices posted by the city in the area, dated from April 29, stated that the area was scheduled for cleaning and social service outreach, with a note to “remove all personal belongings.”

Kruger described recent city efforts to clear larger encampments as far more time and labor-intensive undertakings, and disputed that “service days” were similar.

“Police are on hand simply to maintain safety and peace for all. After any hazardous materials, debris, garbage, or other trash is removed, city crews leave,” he said. “These are simply clean-ups that also provide opportunities for people to connect to social services, like housing and drug treatment or other supports.”

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has struggled with how to provide shelter for Philadelphia’s population of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The administration recently changed its policy on admitting individuals to a quarantine facility designated for homeless people to allow elderly people without shelter and other vulnerable people who have not tested positive for COVID-19. The decision to loosen the admission policy came after individuals reported being turned away from homeless shelters while rooms rented by the city went empty at quarantine hotels.

Jose DeMarco, an organizer with ACT UP Philadelphia, said that policy change was not enough.

“Unhoused and disabled people need isolation housing … We find it no coincidence that it is Black and brown communities that must bear the burden of the COVID-19 crisis,” he said last week.

ACT UP sent out a press release Tuesday indicating that the group planned to protest outside the home of Philly managing director Brian Abernathy on Wednesday morning over its concerns about homelessness.

Stewart said he also believed the city could be doing more, even despite battered city finances. He pointed to research showing that providing permanent housing was ultimately more cost-effective for cities in the long run than other alternatives.

“Real outreach is providing people with a solution,” he said. “A permanent solution.”

WHYY 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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