The Kenney administration backtracked Thursday on evicting two encampments of pro-affordable housing protesters on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and in North Philadelphia.
Renewed negotiations with demonstrators at the separate camps delayed the city’s planned eviction of the camp, which originally was set for Friday morning.
Yet Mayor Jim Kenney did not rule out eventually using police to remove scores of protesters from the camps, saying the larger camp on the parkway was “unsafe, unsanitary and a possible hotspot — we don’t know yet — for” the novel coronavirus.
“We’re not looking to use force in any situation, but at some point in time the government has a responsibility to make things safe and to make things hygienic,” Kenney said during a video news conference on Thursday.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s devolving into a real concern.”
The city is aware that some people at the encampments have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but officials do not know their whereabouts or how many others they have come into contact with, said city Managing Director Brian Abernathy.
City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said he was concerned about how the novel coronavirus could spread around the encampments.
“We would definitely not want to have the encampment there,” he said.
Kenney and Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), said they will meet next week with delegations from both the parkway encampment and the North Philadelphia encampment.
Kenney declined to talk about the location of the upcoming meeting and whether he would visit the encampments. He has never personally met the organizers.
Alex Stewart, an organizer for the parkway camp involved in discussions with the city, said negotiations with the Kenney administration picked up only today.
Stewart said city officials’ reversal was an acknowledgment that “they’re on the wrong side.”
“They’re not providing the services and the needs [for] the people of this park and they have delayed, due to our support, that brute force is not the answer,” said Stewart, an activist with the Workers Revolutionary Collective.
Stewart maintained that protesters will remain at the parkway camp until the city provides permanent, low-income housing using thousands of vacant properties owned by the PHA.
“If we don’t come to an agreement, it’s because that demand was not met,” Stewart said. “Our demand is clear. The city just has to choose to make the right decision.”
Jennifer Bennetch, founder of activist group Occupy PHA and one of the organizers of the smaller North Philadelphia encampment, remained optimistic that the two sides could reach an agreement.
“We are happy that we can and try to resolve this without any police confrontations,” Bennetch said. “I hope we can start this conversation from a place of finding solutions.”
The city’s turnaround defused a confrontation between the city and protesters, the latter of whom had refused to abide by the original deadline to vacate.
Kenney generally agreed with protesters that the city needed more affordable housing, but said the larger parkway encampment, which was made up of more than 200 people, was not sustainable and has been the site of recent violence, including stabbings.
“The encampment is not sustainable indefinitely,” Kenney said.
No arrests have been made at the camp, Abernathy said.
The mayor did not provide a new timeline for when the city would order protesters to vacate.
The parkway encampment is made up of more than 170 tents and makeshift shelters pitched on the edge of Von Colln Memorial Field, located at the intersection of 22nd Street and the parkway.
The protesters set up the James Talib-Dean encampment on the parkway, named after an affordable housing advocate who died on June 7.
Outreach teams have worked for the past week to offer support services to those at the parkway camp, which has led to 17 more individuals taking up the city’s offer to be relocated to safe havens, bringing the total number of people who have relocated to at least 33, the city said in a written statement.
The mayor said city officials have had trouble negotiating with parkway encampment organizers because they would not allow outreach workers into the camp.
“We can’t identify their needs, help them with what they need, if we can’t interact with them,” the mayor said. “And that’s been kind of a bone of contention ….”
Outreach workers continue to provide services around the perimeter of the camp and along the parkway. Protesters also declared the camp a police-free zone, which the city has respected.
The smaller encampment on a vacant lot at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue includes about 20 individuals, some of whom were previously at the parkway camp. That group was also calling for PHA to use vacant housing stock to provide housing for those camped there, among other things.
Jeremiah said PHA officials were coordinating outreach to the North Philadelphia protesters with the city. He also has had ongoing talks with the North Philadelphia protesters.
But both Jeremiah and Kenney said tapping into PHA housing stock was a nonstarter.
“There will not be a house for every single person at that encampment,” Kenney said. “But what we hope to have is a plan to be able to address their needs now and get them into the system so they can eventually be housed.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pays for the bulk of PHA’s $400 million budget. The housing authority holds properties in trust for the federal department, Jeremiah said, and transferring them requires a lengthy regulatory process.
Protesters cannot leapfrog the 47,000 people already on PHA’s affordable housing waiting list, Jeremiah added.
“It would be fundamentally unfair to have folks who have not been in the pipeline, who have not been waiting for housing, jump that pipeline simply because they were able to get into a squatters site,” Jeremiah said.
Bennetch, however, contended that PHA should transfer homes to protesters that the housing authority has kept vacant for years, sometimes decades, and those properties slated for sale to developers who plan to build high-end homes.
“We’re talking about these long-term vacant properties that they [PHA officials] are not going to move people into,” Bennetch said.
Abernathy said city officials cannot solve Philadelphia’s affordable housing crisis — shared by several other major U.S. cities — without policy changes and funding from the federal government.
“We are doing everything we can to provide housing for our residents, but we can’t do it alone,” Abernathy said. “And federal policy and funding has really been a hindrance.”