Jose Alicea’s path to homelessness began with an assault. He ended up in the hospital for three weeks, lost his job, lost his apartment, and then began living beneath the overpass at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. When the city cleared that ad hoc encampment in March, he began sleeping on a doorstep in Chinatown, where the owner provided him food.
Today, he’s one of about 150 people living at the growing homeless encampment at 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, sleeping in a tent on the grass.
“This ain’t fun,” said Alicea. “You know how uncomfortable it is to change clothes in here? People walk by, like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a big tent.’ Yeah, a big tent. Until you’ve got to stand up and change your pants. Let’s see you give it a try.”
But sleeping on grass is better than concrete, Alicea said. And like a lot of people at the encampment, he loves having access to food, water, clothing, and medical care all in one place.
“It’s a little more peaceful here, you don’t have to worry about getting your head popped open,” he said. “But, you know, things go wrong. You got the drug addicts. You got the drunks, so there’s always gonna be a conflict somewhere.”
The tents began appearing along the edge of Von Colln Memorial Park in early June. Usually at this time of year, the park would be busy with kids playing T-ball, softball and baseball. Tourists would be flocking to the Rodin Museum across the street, or the Barnes Museum. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is within sight, just a couple of blocks away. But COVID-19 has mostly kept the kids and the tourists at home.
Inspired, in part, by the Black Lives Matter movement, the encampment is part-housing solution, part-housing protest. Negotiations between the city and residents of the encampment over their demands for permanent housing seem to be at an impasse. As the camp continues to grow into a small village on the ballfield near the Parkway’s museums, many of its neighbors and the city want it dismantled.
The Logan Square Neighborhood Association collected signatures on a petition presented to the city last week, asking officials to take action. The petition says that 400 children from across Philadelphia signed up to play ball with the Fairmount Sports Association, but are currently blocked from doing so by the encampment.
“The undersigned are asking for the needed resumption of the organized youth-oriented activity for which this park is known and for the timely and humane conclusion of the ongoing encampment,” the petition reads.
Dennis Boylan, president of the neighborhood association, has also met with city officials and said he’s heard complaints about trash and raw sewage.
“The impact on the neighborhood is tremendous, and the neighborhood has shown a lot of restraint,” he said. “My goal is that we let the city focus on resolving the issue successfully.”
Boylan said he worries that the available services, including food distribution, will become a “magnet” to attract more people, and that he’s frustrated the city didn’t act sooner.
Residents of the camp said they’re not there to cause trouble, but some insisted that unless their demands are met they won’t leave.
Tanya Scott is an activist and volunteer at the camp.
“You want us gone? We want housing. Simple and plain,” she said. “We all want something, let’s just compromise so we can get out your way and we get what we want.”
Scott said she’s not homeless but loves serving people and helping to organize the supply tents. She said, for the most part, it’s peaceful.
“We might have situations from time to time,” she said. “What family doesn’t?”
There was a stabbing at the park last week.
Scott said her own brother, whom she described as having serious mental health issues, has been homeless for 10 years.
“This is a peaceful community,” she said. “We just want permanent housing.”
The camp has a donated generator that provides power to the site, a kitchen, a library, portable toilets, and a makeshift shower that uses a gravity-fed tank of water.
Signs encourage hand-washing and mask-wearing. There’s a medical tent staffed by volunteers and free testing for COVID-19. So far, at least one person has tested positive.
At the supply tent, Jessie, who didn’t want to give his last name, said they’re not looking for a fight.
“We come in love and peace,” he said. “We’ve got to stand for something. Black lives do matter.”
Several groups, including the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, Occupy PHA and the Workers Revolutionary Collective helped organize the camp’s residents. But the groups shy away from claiming any permanent leadership role. They cite a long history of social justice movements creating self-sufficient encampments like this one.
Alex Stewart, with the Workers Revolutionary Collective, said the idea for the encampment on the Parkway began after he and other organizers witnessed several evictions from other homeless encampments across the city over the past year. He said he forged relationships with those who were evicted.
“Once we educated our brothers and sisters on what their options were, they said they wanted to set up an encampment here as an act of protest,” said Stewart. “So we supported it. And that’s pretty much how we ended up here.”
Stewart said the Workers Revolutionary Collective was formed a couple of years ago, and has a class-based critique of society.
“There’s a group of us that are being oppressed, and yet we are divided,” he said. “Whether you’re homeless, whether you’re housed, whether you’re gay, straight, whether you’re Black or white. But we don’t realize that there’s a class of people who [benefit from] us being divided while they oppress us.”
The encampment residents have a list of demands, including disbanding the police department, turning vacant PHA-owned housing over to a community land trust, and building a tiny-house village. Tiny houses are one-room structures where residents have privacy but share common kitchen and bathroom facilities.
Mike Dunn, a spokesman from Mayor Jim Kenney’s office, said Tuesday afternoon, “We continue negotiations with representatives of the protest camp toward a resolution, and we remain hopeful that we could reach agreement this week.”
Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, said she supports building tiny houses, a successful model used in Seattle. Hersh said sites for a tiny-house village are actively being sought.
“We want to hear what they have to say,” said Hersh. “And we want to be in dialog with them and see what we can do. This can’t go on indefinitely. But at this point in time, we really do want to see where we can work together to improve the lives of the people who are there.”
Hersh said the protest encampment has laid bare the stark racial disparities in homelessness and poverty. Addressing the root causes of homelessness is about money, she said.
“I think COVID has really shown once again that when we want to do something as a society, we find the money.” she said. “These are really money issues, money for people to live on, money to make housing affordable for people who will never have a lot of money. When people have a place to live, they’re not homeless anymore.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hersh said, the city had been making progress on affordable housing. And city officials moved several dozen people to hotels set up to house those vulnerable to COVID-19.
But negotiations have been difficult, and city officials emphasized they have no authority over PHA.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority is federally funded, and is one of the largest public housing agencies in the country. Currently, it has about 47,000 people on an affordable-housing waiting list, Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA’s president and CEO, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
Regulations governing the housing stock make it difficult to simply hand over vacant properties to a land trust, he said.
Organizers of the encampment said PHA officials have refused to meet. Jeremiah said he offered to organize a virtual meeting due to the coronavirus outbreak, which he says the protesters rebuffed.
A group has left the Parkway encampment and established a smaller protest at a PHA-owned vacant lot next to the agency’s headquarters in North Philadelphia. PHA used bulldozers and fencing last week in a failed attempt to dismantle that camp. They also threatened its residents with criminal trespass.
“We would love to provide affordable housing to every single person in need,” said Jeremiah. “But the resources we’re provided don’t allow that. It’s not something PHA alone can solve, it requires the alignment of resources at city, state and federal levels.”
Jeremiah said the protesters should re-focus their efforts supporting legislative initiatives both locally and nationally, that would provide more funds for affordable housing developments.
Alex Stewart said that, despite talks, there had not been much progress with the city. He hadn’t yet spoken to anyone from the Fairmount Sports Association or the Logan Square Neighbors Association.
“So, yeah, baseball or housing, we’ve got to choose our priority here in America,” said Stewart. “If they’re willing to evict people out of this park for baseball and not provide permanent housing, that really shows you the state of our city.”
Residents of the encampment have covered the city’s Von Colln Park sign with one reading “No-cop zone.” The park is named after Frank Von Colln, a police officer who was killed by a member of the Black Liberation Army in 1970. Though most camp residents interviewed didn’t know the history of the park’s namesake, Boylan, of the Logan Square Civic Association, said he took offense to that.
Back at Jose Alicea’s tent, a group sat around chatting about the future of the encampment.
“People don’t understand that things take time,” he said, as others nodded. “Things just don’t happen because you say, ‘You know what? I want a house.’ It’s not going to land right here.”
Alicea counts himself as one of the lucky ones. He has a commercial driver’s license and says he hopes to soon be back at work driving a truck.
He said he’s not going into a shelter because the workers don’t treat residents with respect. That’s another demand: Fire all city workers who disrespect people experiencing homelessness.
With an empty softball field behind him, Alicea pointed to the Whole Foods store kitty-corner to the park and the brand-new condominiums next door.
“Just think about it. Look, those people in condominiums. You think they want to look out the window, having paid over half a million dollars to see this? No, they’re gonna figure out one way or the other to get rid of us.”
City officials say they’re hopeful of reaching an agreement to dismantle the encampment by mid-July.
WHYY is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.
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