Philadelphia officials on Tuesday began removing dozens of people who have been sleeping at the city’s airport during the coronavirus pandemic and planned to administer rapid COVID-19 tests before taking them to homeless shelters.
Officials at Philadelphia International Airport had initially planned Friday to remove the between 50 and 100 homeless people who have been sleeping at a baggage claim area underutilized during stay-at-home orders. But airport and city officials agreed to wait until Tuesday after homeless advocates threatened to file a lawsuit if the people were moved to shelters without being tested.
Philadelphia City Manager Brian Abernathy said Friday that Delaware County officials will also be on hand Tuesday to offer to take individuals to shelters in the neighboring county. He said arrangements are in place to house anyone who wants to go to a shelter.
“Some may choose to go to Delaware County . … Some may choose to accept service in Philadelphia,” Abernathy said. “Some will not accept services at all, which is absolutely within their right, but they are certainly not allowed to stay at the airport from this point forward.”
The airport began enforcing new rules Tuesday, allowing only workers and those with airport business in the terminals and baggage areas.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Thursday that homeless advocates were concerned about individuals being moved from the airport without being tested for the coronavirus and the possibility that they could bring the illness into shelters. Representatives from the Homeless Advocacy Project and the nonprofit group SELF, among others, had signed on to legal action if the city moved forward with removal without testing, the Inquirer reported.
Phone calls and emails from The Associated Press to representatives from those groups were not returned Friday.
As airport security, outreach workers and city employees worked to test and relocate the homeless camped at the baggage claim areas, spokeswoman Florence Brown said in a statement Tuesday the airport had run out of options.
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“Recent strains on the region’s social service network due to the COVID-19 crisis have created an urgent need for the airport to narrow its defined usage of the facility’s public spaces,” she said. “The decision to limit building access to only those with airport business was a difficult one that followed months of attempted interventions, compassionate outreach and ultimately, a destruction of property and deterioration of safety.”
At the peak of the airport encampment, there were more than 150 people sleeping at the baggage claim areas around Terminal A, which in part serves international flights and has been out of use for about two months.
But problems have been mounting because of worker complaints and reductions in access to food, staff cleaning and stocking bathrooms in the area. Airport officials have said portions of the baggage claim area will be put back in use around June 4, which coincides with when the state is expected to ease pandemic restrictions in the city and neighboring suburbs.