Deadline to clear out passes without incident for Philly protest encampments


UPDATED: 3:50 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio)  The 9 a.m. Wednesday deadline for protest encampments in Fairmount and in North Philadelphia to clear out has come and gone. Organizers say they’re not moving. So far, the city hasn’t forced the issue.

The 9 a.m. deadline is approaching.

— Tim Jimenez (@TimJRadio) September 9, 2020

Leading up to that time, the city tried to continue its outreach efforts.

Organizers used metal barricades and wooden pallets to seal off entrances to the site at 22nd Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

— Tim Jimenez (@TimJRadio) September 9, 2020

Outreach workers, including clergy members, were twice denied entry. Organizers said they couldn’t come without real long-term housing solutions.

Father Louis Centeno said when he approached, he was refused entry and cursed at.

“We regrouped, we prayed a little bit and we approached again, I said, ‘here’s what we provide: the physical, the psychological, the spiritual, we provide resources for those who do not have resources’ and they didn’t want to hear it and we were asked to step back,” he said.

The city maintains some of the protesters' demands are unreachable, so city and encampment leaders are at a standstill in negotiations.

“This protest started here and happened here because we know this is a blight for this city. We’re doing this here because we know, if we take this Parkway, the city has no choice but to pay attention to us.”

There was a rally when the 9 a.m. deadline hit. One speaker, Tanya Scott, who has experienced homelessness, said they’re people too and want to be treated like it.

At Tuesday's COVID-19 media briefing, Mayor Jim Kenney described the encampments as “untenable.”

“To have this other health issue surrounding people living outdoors, defecating outdoors, using drugs outdoors in an environment that has created this situation,” Kenney said.

People who live nearby have complained about security issues in their apartment buildings. In an email, a resident wrote, “More than a handful of residents have shared stories of being followed or harassed by homeless people, assumed to be camp residents.” 

"We’ve interacted. We’ve put forward proposals. We’ve responded to proposals, and it just goes back and forth," Kenney said.

For the district councilmember who represents both neighborhoods, the camps can’t be shut down fast enough.

Council President Darrell Clarke, who has represented the district for 20 years, sees a paradox in housing advocates occupying, and halting development on, land that could transform the fortunes and quality of life of a Black community that has suffered generations of disinvestment.  

The North Philadelphia encampment is on the site of a planned $52 million project that includes a supermarket, a health center and housing.

Clarke notes the developer, Mosaic, is a Black-owned firm. He said, though the protest grew out of the Black Lives Matter marches in June, it’s now halting steps toward racial justice.

"The construction of a $52 million shopping center in an area that has had food deserts for quite some time, an area that has health care disparities, an area that fits this whole notion of making sure all of the disparities that have been magnified over the last several months, we should be in a position to alleviate," he said.

Organizers say the encampments are the best places for the homeless to be right now. 

“Where does everyone go? They have nowhere else to go. They’re going to go back out on the street. They’re going to not be provided with food every day. They’re not going to have a shower to shower in. Have medics,” one organizer said to reporters on Tuesday. 

“We’ve put people in hotels. We put people in drug treatment, into housing, into shelter, and we want to do it with everybody,” Kenney said.

The protesters have allies on City Council. 

Freshman councilmembers Kendra Brooks and Jaime Gauthier have mediated the talks between both sides, and they think the encampments should stay.

“The fact that an agreement remains unattainable is a reflection of just how difficult it is to secure safe, permanent housing for all Philadelphians, but it still does not justify clearing the encampments during a global pandemic,” they said in a joint statement. 

The councilmembers cite CDC guidelines:

“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.

"Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Philadelphia’s Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, during Tuesday’s briefing, said that doesn’t tell the whole story.

 “(The CDC) says: Take into account the totality of the risk of the situation, that there are other health risks besides COVID of a group of people living outside, perhaps in poor sanitation or they could transmit other diseases or have other health problems,” he said.


KYW Newsradio's Tim Jimenez and Pat Loeb contributed to this report.