Organizer refuses to dismantle smaller housing-protest camp targeting PHA

Jennifer Bennetch of Occupy PHA speaks on behalf of residents of a protest encampment at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue, which the city has ordered closed by Friday. (Susan Phillips/WHYY)

Jennifer Bennetch of Occupy PHA speaks on behalf of residents of a protest encampment at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue, which the city has ordered closed by Friday. (Susan Phillips/WHYY)

Residents of a small homelessness-protest camp set up across from Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters in North Philadelphia say they will remain at the site despite an order to leave by Friday morning.

Some 15 to 20 people are living in tents on a vacant lot owned by PHA at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue. They have targeted the federal agency for inaction on the city’s housing crisis, which includes more than 5,000 individuals experiencing homelessness and 47,000 people on a waiting list for subsidized housing.

“Obviously, it looks horrible, for people to sleep in tents under their $45 million headquarters that they built compliments of the taxpayer,” organizer Jennifer Bennetch said at a press conference Wednesday at the site.

Lakesha Pannell, a resident of the PHA protest encampment holds a notice that the camp will be cleared starting at 10 a.m. on Friday. (Susan Phillips/WHYY)

A larger, more high-profile encampment at a city ballfield on Benjamin Franklin Parkway also faces an eviction notice for Friday morning.

“We understand that on the Parkway that is a space that is utilized,” Bennetch said. “This lot has sat empty since PHA seized it through eminent domain and knocked down the Black-owned motorcycle club that was here. It’s vacant. It’s dark.”

Bennetch said PHA officials told her the protesters would be charged with criminal trespass if they did not leave the site by 9 a.m. Friday.

The group plans to start picketing the home of Kelvin Jeremiah, CEO of the housing authority, until he meets with them in person.

“We will move to his house if we have to,” Bennetch said. “We’re going to be at his house every day. And this isn’t about violence. This is about being tired of being kicked around. Being tired of [PHA’s] refusal to answer questions and be accountable for these tax dollars.”

PHA has offered to meet with the camp’s residents virtually because of COVID-19. But Bennetch said people who are experiencing homelessness don’t have access to computers. She offered to meet outdoors in a socially distanced setting.

PHA attorney Larry Redican said the agency is willing to meet, but not face-to-face. He defended PHA’s commitment to its tenants and homeless individuals in an email to Bennetch, saying that she has spread “false, misleading and slanderous statements” about the agency and its staff.

“You have exhausted every opportunity to be reasonable to find a collaborative way forward to address the issues you claimed to be concerned about,” he wrote in the email.

Redican said the agency, which relies solely on federal funding to provide 80,000 people with affordable housing, cannot transfer property without the approval of the federal government.

Bennetch, who noted that she attended dozens of PHA board meetings until she was banned from them earlier this year, said that property transfers happen regularly and that the federal approval process is merely a rubber stamp.

“PHA has auctioned almost 600 properties off in the past 5 years, they have transferred hundreds of properties to nonprofits, and they have sold properties at market rate,” she wrote in an email.

PHA has said those living in tents at the vacant lot need to leave because the agency is closing on a $51 million deal to build a supermarket there.

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