Home Politics A Movement for Housing Justice Is Camped Out on Philly Streets

A Movement for Housing Justice Is Camped Out on Philly Streets

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Philadelphia Police Block Traffic

Philadelphia police vehicles block traffic near an encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on September 9. (Matt Slocum / AP Photo)

On the morning of September 9, close to 200 people gathered at the intersection of 22nd Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia and clustered between a group of police officers and city liaisons and a multicolored sprawl of dozens of camping tents. It was supposed to be eviction day for the James Talib-Dean Encampment for Permanent Equal Housing, or Camp JTD, a site for the homeless and for protest, and these encampment residents, activists, organizers, and supporters were not going to let that happen.
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The camp’s protectors positioned barricades around the entrance to the encampment, and at around 9 am—the City-imposed deadline to vacate—they held a press conference. Still wearing her protective goggles, Tanya Scott addressed reporters. “I don’t understand why [the city is] trying to remove us,” she said, explaining that she had experienced homelessness on and off for four years. “What are we doing that’s so wrong? Are we invading your home? Are we disturbing your peace, your privacy? These people don’t have privacy.”

She gestured to the crowd behind her. “This is more than just Black Lives Matter. You got homeless people, you got LGBTQ, you got the whole motherfuckin’ nation out here. This to us, this is our family.”

The presence of so many people apparently spooked the police. Officers left that morning, giving little indication of what they planned to do about the eviction order. Organizers assumed they would return later that night, or perhaps early the next morning, so they urged those not residing at the camp to stay, or to come and go in shifts to ensure a constant, sizable assembly. They were determined to preserve the space.

For Philadelphia, Camp JTD is where long-brewing, overlapping crises—the Covid-19 crisis, police brutality, and a lack of affordable and public housing—have boiled over. It’s where years of housing rights activism and the energy of the ongoing protest movement against racism and policing have united. In JTD, the city’s poor, homeless, young, Black, and left have found a way to physically resist the violent systems they experience and decry.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said Scott.

The group responsible for erecting Camp JTD, a small coalition known as Philadelphia Housing Action, formed this past winter, around the time local officials appeared to launch a campaign to dismantle homeless encampments around the city. Some of the encampments had been around for years, according to activists, and provided many with an alternative to shelters and other homeless services that were inaccessible, overly strict, or, especially after Covid-19 hit, unsafe. As the City destroyed residents’ spaces and funneled some of them into forms of temporary housing that they had already rejected, it became clear that poor and homeless people urgently needed better alternatives.

“What we really wanted was to have houses where people were building something that was their own,” said Sterling Johnson, a housing lawyer and member of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, a Philadelphia-based direct action group. So he and other activists began articulating demands for permanent housing—namely, the ownership transfer of some of the thousands of empty Philadelphia Housing Authority–owned buildings to a community land trust. The buildings would be occupied by members of the city’s largely Black poor and homeless population and administered by community committees.

Organizers say the community land trust idea is a rejection of the paternalism and policing that permeates government and nonprofit-run homeless services. Entry logs, surveillance, security measures that remind people of jail, detox requirements for those with drug addictions—“People don’t want to feel like they’re going to be institutionalized,” said Johnson. “If the only thing that you have for a person that’s poor and Black is an institution, that doesn’t make any sense. Why can’t they just be free? They should be able to live in a house.”

As a step toward their goal of securing buildings for a community trust, Philadelphia Housing Action activists had to, as Johnson put it, “have proof of concept.” They researched squatting laws and tactics used by the National Union of the Homeless, which had its roots in Philadelphia, when it staged housing takeovers in the 1980s and ’90s. And in late March—as the City continued to destroy homeless encampments against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—they began moving people into vacant small buildings owned by the municipal public housing authority. They made repairs to about a dozen sites and helped register utilities for the 50 or so inhabitants, who have been living openly in the homes since.

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Then, as summer came around and the protest movement after the police killing of George Floyd grew, the time came for more visible activism. Some organizers, including Johnson’s cousin James Talib-Dean Campbell, cofounder of Philadelphia’s Workers Revolutionary Collective, were especially keen on establishing an encampment—as a protest against the city’s housing and homelessness police, but also for homeless folks to have a safe, cop-free space to live among and care for one another. It was to be Philadelphia’s version of the autonomous zones that popped up across the country, like those in Seattle, New York City, and Los Angeles.

It was just Campbell and a few others who set up the encampment in front of a public baseball diamond on the parkway on June 10. But in a couple of weeks, as many as 200 people were staying there on a given night, according to organizers. Donations poured in, allowing the encampment to provide food, supplies, and Covid-19 testing. Residents rigged electricity for charging stations, and tapped into public water sources for a piping system that runs through the trees and feeds the camp’s shower and three sanitation sinks. Campbell wasn’t able to see all of this growth; less than a week after setting up the first tents, he died of a drug overdose. The surviving organizers named the space after him.

Even as the weeks went on and Camp JTD began to attract more attention from the press and public, it was clear to organizers that city officials were not taking their demands—particularly their demand for a community land trust—seriously. So they again decided to escalate—with a second, smaller encampment.

Camp Teddy, named for a beloved encampment resident and protest chant leader, has routinely housed about two dozen people, and is located on a plot in North Philadelphia owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). It’s ringed by a makeshift fence made of wood pallets—a reluctant design choice resulting from the PHA’s early attempt to raze the encampment with bulldozers. Nearby sits the new $45 million, 136,000 square foot glass PHA headquarters, which is surrounded by boarded up buildings, as well as some new units, styled in the cheap modernist designs of gentrification chic.

Camp Teddy’s setting illustrates why Philadelphia Housing Action is specifically targeting the PHA. Whereas many cities’ public housing takes the form of massive complexes, the PHA also owns thousands of “scattered sites”—small properties, including many of the boarded up North Philly buildings, dotting neighborhoods across the city. These units, according to the PHA, are difficult to manage, and, since housing demand plummeted in the decades after the authority purchased them in the 1960s and ’70s, many have fallen into disrepair.

Today, poor people need those houses. The PHA’s public housing waiting list—which has essentially been closed since 2013—has nearly 50,000 people on it. And many more would apply if they were able. Even before the pandemic, more than half a million Philadelphians lived in households that were “cost-burdened” by rent, and 69 percent of those households brought in less than $30,000 a year. But the PHA doesn’t seem to be trying to boost public housing—in fact, it’s further privatizing the City’s stock by auctioning off vacant properties to private developers, while using eminent domain to gobble up space for large redevelopment projects that housing activists say will spur the displacement of low-income residents.

“The housing authority is being utilized to refine our neighborhoods through gentrification,” said Jennifer Bennetch, founder of Occupy PHA and Camp Teddy. Bennetch has been fighting for years—attending board meetings, keeping lists of the PHA’s vacant properties, camping outside the PHA headquarters, and now facilitating the takeover of vacant PHA units—against what Philadelphia Housing Action sees as a city authority acting counter to its mission.

To organizers, the PHA’s approach to public housing represents exactly the kind of policies that stand in the way of housing liberation—and the encampments are only the most recent attempt to redirect its resources toward safe, permanent shelter for those who need it.

The encampments are “not something that just fell out of the air,” Bennetch said. “The fight against this housing authority and its role in displacing Black and brown and poor people is years long, and this is the culminating point of it.”

The cops didn’t show up (at least not in full force) the night after last Wednesday’s eviction defense, as protectors kept lookout in the rain. Nor did they show up the next morning. Since then, the city and Camps JTD and Teddy have been playing a cat and mouse game, with police and the PHA sending patrol cars, preparing floodlights, or showing other signs that raids are imminent, but not following through.

Nonresident protectors mostly went home after the initial defense, but groups quickly return when the camp sends out social media or text alerts. Organizers have planned activities like movie nights and craft stations to build community during these tense days (they half-trollingly invited Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who has labeled the encampments “hostile,” to a catered brunch on Monday, to which he predictably didn’t show). But the constant state of alarm the city is imposing upon the encampments is exhausting, and has put many residents on edge.

Irvin Murray, who left a crowded and strict shelter in early July to live at Camp JTD, is concerned about the future of the encampments. But like many residents, he is still fully on board with the cause, including the community land trust.

“The city is saying they don’t give a damn about us,” he said. “We need that housing.”

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