Showdown looms over the Parkway homeless encampment

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Von Colln Field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has become home to more than 200 people protesting Philadelphia's treatment of its homeless population. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Von Colln Field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has become home to more than 200 people protesting Philadelphia's treatment of its homeless population. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Years of perceived inaction on the part of Philly officials over affordable housing could come to a head this Friday, when the city plans to evict people living in an encampment along the Ben Franklin Parkway

What began as just a handful of tents grew to almost 200 — and has become both a place for people experiencing homelessness to live and eat, as well as a protest to demand more action, like creating community land trust and building a village of tiny houses. But negotiations between the city and the protesters recently broke down, with organizers saying they’ll refuse to leave.

WHYY’s Susan Phillips spoke to residents of the camp about life there and explains how the issue of affordable housing fits into the wider movement against systemic racism.

Hear the whole story on The Why

Interview Highlights

On what the encampment protestors want

The main thing they want is affordable, permanent housing. And they have a number of ideas to get there. One is to force the Philadelphia Housing Authority to transfer all its vacant property to a community land trust. But it’s important to note that PHA is a federal agency guided by a complex web of federal red tape, so they can’t just necessarily hand over their housing stock to a land trust. Also, they want the city to build a tiny-house village. Tiny-house villages consist basically of one-room structures. It’s basically a wooden tent the size of a one bedroom and residents who live in these villages share a common kitchen and bathroom facilities. And it’s a model that’s been used successfully in Seattle.

On the state of affordable housing in Philadelphia

When I talked to Kelvin Jeremiah, he runs the Philadelphia Housing Authority, he says that there’s close to 50,000 people on the affordable housing waitlist, and that includes things like Section 8 and public housing. And the city says … more than 5,000 people in Philadelphia are considered homeless and about 950 are actually living on the streets.

Both city officials and the organizers of this encampment agree that it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. I think it’s just where they disagree is how the city could address this issue immediately.

On neighbors pushing back

There are neighbors who are supportive of it. There have been even people who have been going down there and making donations. But there’s also a large group of people who are very worried about it for a number of reasons. You know, they’re worried about trash. They say they’ve seen feces at the camp. They’re worried about drug use. Dozens of people signed a petition drafted by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association urging the city to act because there’s 400 kids who have signed up to play ball with the Fairmount Sports Association [but are currently blocked by the encampment]. And, you know, these are kids that have been shut in all spring and they want to start playing again, so that’s been a big issue.

On how the encampment fits in with the anti-racism protests

Black Lives Matter protests have mostly focused on police brutality, but the issues they talk about — institutional racism, poverty — extend beyond police brutality … You know, the majority of residents at the camp are people of color. Both city officials and organizers agree that they these are systemic issues that touch upon racial and economic justice. They just couldn’t agree on immediate solutions. But, you know, the city’s position now is that this is a public space designated for public use and the camp is preventing that use, so that’s one of the reasons why they’ve set this deadline that everybody has to be gone by Friday.

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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