Mayor Kenney, stop putting optics before solutions — your city needs housing now

An open letter to Mayor Kenney and Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO Kelvin Jeremiah about the city’s homeless encampments and demands for housing.

Encampment on Ben Franklin Parkway

By June 11, 2020, some 40 tents had popped up on the Ben Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street, part of a protest against a law that prohibits camping on public property. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

To Mayor Jim Kenney and Kelvin Jeremiah, Philadelphia Housing Authority CEO:

Please stop gaslighting us.

Kenney, you say the encampment is “unsafe,” “unhealthy” and “unsanitary.” But you only seem concerned with the safety, health and sanitation conditions of the houseless when you can see them in your nicer, wealthier neighborhoods. I just don’t believe you care beyond the image of the tent city we can now see on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Encampments have been a reality of Philadelphia for years, but this one is on a baseball field in full view of posh high-rises with complaining tenants.

The power of the people was demonstrated when the city announced it would delay plans to raid the homeless encampments. The evictions were scheduled for Friday morning, July 17 and we received word of the delay Thursday afternoon. The delay seems very convenient as hundreds of supporters were planning to show up and defend the encampments.

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Kenney, you may think delaying will wear us down and dilute support but we will not let that happen — the voice of the people will be heard. You cannot continue to make decisions based on appearances, only offering token gestures, empty words and meaningless symbolism. The high-rises overlooking the parkway demanded you remove the encampment so you scheduled an eviction which you then postponed because of the outpouring of support from organizations and individuals all over the city.  In the same breath you say you delayed encampment evictions because you want to personally negotiate, but you refuse to consider our central demand: permanent affordable housing for encampment residents now.

You are trying to play all the sides but winning none, putting optics before resolutions.

Kenney, at last week’s press conference regarding the homeless encampments on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and outside Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters (PHA), you stated it would be “unfair” for encampment residents to jump the waiting list for housing.

The waitlist for low-income housing has been closed since 2013 and those who got on the list have been waiting for eight years or more. PHA has more than 1,500 vacant properties, which instead of being converted to low-income housing, as per the agency’s mandate, are being sold off or just left to rot. The agency continues to sell off public housing and evict tenants — all while our city is undergoing a housing crisis. Instead of dedicating all of its resources to providing shelter to people in need, the agency built a $45 million headquarters last year. The CEO of PHA, Kelvin Jeremiah, is one of the top-earning U.S. public housing authority employees, earning over $300,000 a year when the federal employee salary is capped at $166,500. How is that fair?

Prices in the city are going up, people who earn working-class wages are being pushed out. Often pushed out into the streets. When your rent costs over 30% of your income, you are two months from being homeless. During this time, when unemployment is suddenly at an all time high and we are facing health risks unprecedented in our life times, what is the city doing beyond gaslighting the people? Trying to “place” people into shelters or temporary hotels is not a resolution.

Kenney, you say there has been violence at the encampment, but there is violence on streets all over the city. The difference is you can see the encampment from lofty high-rises.

My mom taught me safety in numbers. When people are on the streets alone with no housing, anything can happen with no one there to see. The encampment offers safety not available for the individual on the street.

Mayor Kenney, you say you worry about the health of residents and the risk of COVID spreading. The encampments are not breeding grounds for the virus — we follow guidelines as much as possible. There has been only one COVID-positive resident and due to our quick response and frequent testing, the spread was stopped.

Kenney, you say you are concerned about the hygiene of the camp. The parkway encampment is only unsanitary because the city has pressured the port-a-potty company to cancel our contracts. You are using dirty tactics to disrupt and disturb the encampment, playing politics while people suffer.

Lastly, every decision made is based on consensus of residents — the encampment is an autonomous zone. That autonomy is grounded in the decision making power of houseless and housing insecure residents. Organizers are not denying residents the ability to talk to city outreach, the encampment is fully directed by residents. Due to a history of abuse and the belief that allowing these organizations into the encampment would be akin to allowing the police free access, residents have banned city workers. The very real history of abuse and neglect is on the side of the city, not the organizers nor the residence nor anyone involved. If you mean to respect the agency of residents then feel free to offer to the residents to talk to you outside the encampment, there is nothing stopping them from coming to you, they just don’t want to.

Residents are safer both from the regular dangers and pandemic danger at encampments. The houseless in our city are people who have often been ignored and forgotten — this is easier to do when they are dispersed and alone.

Maureen Bellwoar is a student, activist and resident of Philadelphia volunteering at the encampments.

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