Federal judge to decide if city can evict protesters from homeless encampments along Parkway

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A federal judge will decide whether Philadelphia officials can evict protesters at homeless encampments set up along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Azalea Garden, and a corner on Ridge Street in North Philadelphia.

Lawyers for the encampment filed a motion for an injunction, and a temporary restraining order, to keep the city from moving them off of Von Colln Memorial Field, where the protesters have been living for the last two months. 

According to court documents, the encampment — made up of at least three different grassroots groups — has refused to leave unless all of their demands are met, including turning over about 4,000 city properties to people who need housing.

However, city officials say they legally can’t do that, and instead have offered more than five dozen properties to organizations that deal with homelessness.

“Here, the City’s purpose in removing the encampment is multifold and rooted in the City’s duty to exercise the police powers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all its residents and visitors, including the organizers and occupants of the encampment,” according to court papers. 

City officials say they have offered nearly a dozen services to the group, including substance abuse and mental health treatment, behavioral health support, shelter placement, and services to reconnect some of the homeless with their families. 

Representatives for the encampment argue the city is violating their constitutional rights — their right to protest, their right against unreasonable search and seizure, if the city were to take belongings from the properties, and their protection of citizens’ rights. 

But all constitutional rights have parameters, the city countered, and because they are taking over a park, the city can’t favor one group of people over another — like the people who live in the neighborhood or those who want to visit the park.  

And, they say, the encampments are also a major health problem due to human excrement, drugs and trash — plus the risk of COVID-19. 

“It’s a difficult situation to balance,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “We understand the housing needs in this country. We have the needs and desires of people who live in both neighborhoods — one in North Philadelphia, and one out on the Parkway — unhappy with the situation. We are stuck in the middle trying to balance with very little resources, and hopefully we will resolve it in an amicable way.”

Kenney noted the city has been trying to work with the protesters for two months.

The hearing will continue on Monday. The judge is expected to make a decision next week.