Residents of the James Talib-Dean tent encampment, set up on June 11 on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, held a press conference July 13 to denounce city plans to evict them. Calling for housing now for people who are homeless, camp residents say they are not willing to leave.
Named in honor of a housing organizer who recently died, the JTD encampment brought together around 150 activists and houseless people to bring attention to the lack of affordable housing, poor conditions in city shelters and the need for permanent low-income housing. The city has posted notices outside the encampment that it must be vacated by 9 a.m. on July 17.
Organized by the advocacy group Philadelphia Housing Action, Occupy PHA, Workers’ Revolutionary Collective, and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC), the encampment also reflects the broader movements against racist police brutality with street-width banners declaring “Black Lives Matter” and “No cop zone” and signs throughout. Their primary demand is for an emergency transfer of vacant city-owned property into a community land trust for permanent low-income housing.
Philadelphia Housing Action spokesperson Sterling Johnson, also with BBWC, denounced the failure of Philadelphia officials to do more than offer meetings and empty promises. “The unhoused are demanding housing now! What has the city given us — lies, distractions, and promises of tiny homes, and out-of-sight sanctioned encampments. … They will simply shift the burden to another area of the city, and we will start this process all over again.”
In recent months, Philadelphia city officials have cleared several homeless camps, including one outside the Convention Center and one along an I-676 overpass. Most recently houseless people sleeping at the Philadelphia International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic were forced to leave. Only a few individuals who are high risk for COVID-19 were given temporary shelter in empty hotels.
Encampment organizer Jen Bennetch stated: “This protest is really part of a civil war between homeless people and the city which has pushed us out of our homes and sold off public housing to gentrifiers.” She called for defunding the police and other city departments whose administrators make six-figure salaries but essentially do nothing to address the housing crisis.
Bennetch also denied claims that housing outreach workers were prevented from speaking to camp residents. “Nobody’s ever stopped an outreach worker. But most encampment residents don’t want outreach workers to begin with. They’re on a first-name basis with outreach. Yet they’re still homeless.”
‘Stop evictions during pandemic’
Scott Matt, another encampment organizer, addressed the city’s eviction threat. “The city has asked us to leave based on the promise that they will do some things. But if we leave, all we have is promises. … In this pandemic people are losing jobs and there are about to be more homeless people [when the city moratorium on evictions ends on August 31].
“They should be hiring people to fix up PHA [Philadelphia Housing Authority] houses so people can move in. They should create an apprentice program to train people to do this work. This would help our economy and homeless people. Stop evicting people during this pandemic.”
According to columnist Robert Reich, 32% of U.S. households are behind in making housing payments for July, the fourth month of historically high, missed housing payments — a clear sign that the economic devastation wreaked by COVID-19 is far from over.
Encampment activist Leonard Flowers, one of the last speakers, poignantly described how lacking permanent housing impacts all facets of his life. “Without a house I can’t get regular mail or phone calls. If I apply for a job, I end up missing interview calls or notices. Without a home, I can’t take showers or wash my clothes. If I come into an interview smelling bad and wearing dirty clothes, I’m not going to get the job. It also keeps me from coming into a classroom for job training.
“How can we become part of the community, get a job or education, or pay taxes without a place to call home? This struggle is about equality. Housing is dignity. We demand that Philadelphia house their homeless!”