PHILADELPHIA—At a homeless encampment in North Philadelphia, organizers Jennifer Bennetch and Sterling Johnson seek shelter from pouring rain under blue tarps strung up from tree limbs with bungee cords, looking out on a landscape of pitched tents and a wall of pallets. The encampment they are in is mostly empty, and for good reason. After a campaign that began with the March occupation of several vacant houses owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) and expanded to two homeless encampments, they successfully forced the authority to promise that it would turn over up to 74 vacant buildings it owns to a band of homeless people.
“There’s nothing scarier than a free black person,” Johnson says as mottled fall leaves course through rivulets of rainwater around his feet. Graffiti scrawled on a pallet encircling the encampment, part of a wall built to protect against the threat of removal with bulldozers, reflects the same sentiment: “The Unpalletables,” it reads. The occupation, the two say, was an attempt to overcome homelessness through collective housing takeovers, not begging for paternalistic help.
“It’s an abomination to say ‘we don’t need your help,’” Johnson adds. “People cannot believe how many skills there are in a homeless encampment,” says Bennetch.
In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to shut down the economy, a group of mainly women with children began occupying disused PHA-owned row houses and fixing them up to be habitable, eventually moving in to 15. In June, as the police killing of George Floyd sparked protests around the nation, a few hundred homeless people pitched their tents in two camps: Camp Teddy, in the shadow of the authority’s multimillion-dollar headquarters in North Philly, and the James Talib Dean camp on 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, along the boulevard that leads to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their demand was to get permanent housing.
Now, many of the camps’ unhoused residents will likely not have to spend the winter outside. On Sept. 25, the PHA reached a tentative agreement with the Philadelphia Housing Action coalition to turn over 50 vacant buildings it owns to a community land trust. The details are still being ironed out, but the land trust will additionally include some of the 15 occupied houses. The PHA has also agreed to a moratorium on selling property it owns pending an independent study, as well as reforms to its police force and protections for the squatters.
Philadelphia Housing Action has filed paperwork to become a nonprofit organization and consulted with Max Rameau from Take Back the Land on how to set up a CLT to manage and repair buildings. And on Oct. 5, in exchange for the occupiers vacating Camp Teddy, the PHA agreed to add nine more units, which will be “rehabbed to code by the building and construction trade unions, and residents can get trained and get union jobs,” Bennetch said in a text message.
That agreement came about, according to Bennetch, because plans to begin constructing a development on the occupied site were “very close to falling apart.”
The PHA press office didn’t respond to an inquiry for comment.
The organizers, most of whom had experienced homelessness themselves, believed the time was ripe for bold demands, including permanent low-income housing, a moratorium on the city selling land to private developers until all people on the PHA’s waiting list have been housed, and an end to homeless-removal sweeps.
PHA’s waiting list, closed to new applicants since 2013, has nearly 50,000 people registered. In a city where more than two-thirds of households earn less than $30,000 a year, the authority has continued to auction off vacant properties. The 15 houses occupied, organizers say, were all slated to be sold as part of the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, in which the PHA raises money to build new units by selling old ones to private developers, who can convert them to market rate after 15 years.
“The encampment provided me with food every day, a place to take a shower, you know what I mean. Even though we was outside, they made sure we was okay,” says Ciera, 26, who has been living in one of the rehabilitated row houses with her 7-year-old daughter. Since her mother died in 2011, Ciera, who asked to use a pseudonym, had been “battling homelessness for a hot minute” and going from one shelter to another without ever coming off the waiting list for permanent housing.
Two years later, fed up with the “false hope,” she left the shelter system. At first, she was couch surfing, but wound up sleeping on the street, or during the winter, at Suburban Station, a commuter-train hub in the city’s center. On a below-freezing night in January 2019, police forced her and 200 other homeless people out of the station, pepper-spraying some of the ones who resisted.
Ciera returned to the station afterwards, avoiding the police crackdowns by sleeping in parks sometimes.
Early this year, she got a job as a relief worker at a packaging company across the Delaware River in New Jersey. She’d learned about it from another homeless person who worked there. The money she was earning brought her the hope that she could reunite with her daughter, who had been staying with family. But she lost the job when the pandemic hit.
Ciera felt like she was losing her mind, her “mental health broken” from all the indignities of living in the street, from people stealing her belongings and identification, and getting into fistfights. But when word of mouth about the encampment on the Ben Franklin Parkway spread among the city’s homeless people, she packed her belongings and headed there.
“I’m blessed right now,” she says, happy her new housing stability is enabling her daughter to have playdates.
Luis Feliz Leon is an organizer, journalist, and independent scholar in social-movemnt history making good trouble in New York City.