City, activists come to agreement to clear Ridge Avenue homeless encampment

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)

Updated at 9:30 p.m.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority and leaders of the #OccupyPHA Camp Teddy encampment at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue have reached an agreement to clear the site to make way for construction of a mixed-use development that will include a supermarket and 98 units of housing.

In exchange for the  Monday evening departure of the 20 or so people who had been living on the PHA property,  the agency agreed to start a pilot program called “Working for Home Repair Training Program” with the Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC). The program will offer encampment residents housing and job opportunities through the renovation of vacant PHA properties, some of which have been unoccupied for over 20 years.

The dozen or so people who have been squatting in PHA homes after encampment organizers fixed up boarded units and encampment residents moved in will be allowed to stay while PHA works with them to find a more permanent solution, said Nichole Tillman, a spokesperson for the housing agency.

The new agreement ensures those people and other residents of the camp can participate in social services from Project HOME or the city and be given a pathway to permanent affordable housing.

“I’m happy with it, it’s a really big step,” said camp leader Jennifer Bennetch. “It’s more than I really expected to get out of this.”

The agreement will also create a community land trust through which the permanent low-income housing will be managed. Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of PHA, praised Bennetch and encampment leaders for “highlighting the urgent need for long-term permanent housing and the need for more resources to address homelessness.”

“I have always said that there is an affordable housing crisis in Philadelphia and that PHA is willing to do its part to help solve this problem, but we cannot do it alone. There needs to be true collaboration of resources and ideas to meaningfully address this problem,” said Jeremiah.

Bennetch expressed excitement about the land trust pilot, an experiment with a strategy that has worked in cities nationwide. “Residents will also get to get a chance at really good jobs that they could have even after this,” she said.

Sharswood residents had protested the encampment in August because they feared it would delay or kill plans for the Ridge Avenue  supermarket development, an amenity and job-generator in a neighborhood starved of both.  The closure of the camp will enable the project to move forward.

PHA also announced at the next virtual board meeting, on October 15, officials will ask the Board for authorization to establish the COVID-19 Homeless Relief Program. If approved by the Board, PHA will allocate 25 permanent housing opportunities for homeless families who are referred to PHA by qualified service providers. The housing opportunities can be for public housing units or a Housing Choice Voucher program.

Negotiations between city officials and organizers at the much larger Camp JTD on the Ben Franklin Parkway are still ongoing.

“We hope this agreement will lead to a resolution of the separate protest camp on the Parkway, said Mayor Jim Kenney. “And we hope it will lead to new impetus among all partners to solve these vexing problems.”

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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