Federal judge permits city to disband Parkway encampments due to public health, safety

UPDATED: 4:50 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A federal judge has ruled that Philadelphia officials may shut down the protest encampment along the Parkway and two others, in the interest of public health and safety.

Judge Eduardo Rebreno ruled on an injunction request from three encampment residents, claiming that closing the camps would violate several of their constitutional rights. The judge went through each claim, concluding the case would be unlikely to succeed on any of them. 

On the claim that shutting the camps would violate the residents’ First Amendment right to protest, for example, the judge noted that the government may regulate protests as long as it allows alternatives, doesn’t discriminate, and is serving a significant interest. 

The judge found the city had met all three conditions, and it “has a significant interest in exercising its police powers to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of all City residents,” and “had reasonably determined that the encampments pose health and safety risks to encampment residents and to other community members.”

One condition the judge put on the city is that it must post another notice — in addition to the two it has already posted — giving campers a 72-hour notice before the shutdown.

Mayor Jim Kenney has said he would prefer to resolve the situation amicably, but protest organizers have been unwilling to negotiate. He said the situation could not go on indefinitely. 

In addition to the health and safety concerns, city officials have noted that the North Philadelphia encampment is delaying the construction of a supermarket in a neighborhood that is considered a food desert.

In a statement, Kenney said he appreciates the court’s “careful attention” to the matter, and the city is evaluating its next steps.

“We maintain the position that the camps cannot continue indefinitely, however, an updated timeline has not been established. I urge those still in the camps to voluntarily decamp and avail themselves of the beneficial services being offered.”

He said more than 100 campers have already accepted city services, like temporary housing, rapid rehousing, or treatment, which, he said, all include a “pathway to long-term housing.”

“We are encouraged that camp organizers have honored our request to take down empty tents. The footprint of the camp has shrunk.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Mike Huff, said in a statement that they are “disappointed” but respect the judge’s decision.

“We appreciate the opportunity that was given to us to present our case and permit those directly impacted by homelessness and poverty to have their voices heard. … In the Opinion, the Judge correctly indicates that the problems of homelessness fall squarely on the shoulders of the City’s elected officials. We hope that this lawsuit raises public awareness and motivates our elected officials to offer long term solutions. A decision to appeal has not been made at this time.”