Philly officials to meet with encampment protesters, seek peaceful end

Jennifer Bennetch, one of the organizers of the Parkway encampment, speaking to reporters.
Photo credit Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia officials are scheduled to meet Thursday with organizers of two protest encampments — on the Ben Franklin Parkway and in the Sharswood section of North Philadelphia — in hopes of closing the camps voluntarily.

Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) executive director Kelvin Jeremiah said officials plan to present proposals for addressing the concerns encampment organizers have raised about homelessness in the city.

“No one wants to see the encampment disbanded in an involuntary way,” he said. “I believe that the plans that we have and what we will present to the encampment leaders allows us to resolve it in an amicable way if they are willing to work with the city and with PHA.”

Jeremiah and Mayor Jim Kenney first met with encampment organizers last week in a session that both sides called productive.

“It seemed like the mayor was really interested in some of our ideas and looking into ways to get some immediate solutions for people that are outside,” said Jennifer Bennetch, one of the leaders of the protest.

Jeremiah said officials agree with the protesters that there is a need for more housing and appreciate the attention the encampments have focused on the issue.

He and other city officials say, however, that getting sufficient affordable housing in the city is a long-term proposition that will require greater funding by the state and federal governments.

Jeremiah said some of the short-term solutions the organizers have proposed, such as squatting in vacant PHA properties, are dangerous.

“Only about a week ago one of the squatters started a fire that completely destroyed the unit. Now, there is one less unit available for the 40,000 people on the waiting list,” he said. “Not only is it dangerous, it’s illegal and it’s unfair to the people who have been waiting patiently for housing.”

Jeremiah also criticized the protesters for occupying a site where PHA plans to build new affordable units.

“Their using that site as a protest, as an encampment, is preventing us from moving forward with the very thing they’re advocating for,” he said.

Bennetch dismissed the criticism as an effort to make the protesters “look bad.”

She said the mixed-use development includes only 17 units of PHA housing and a 200-car garage for use by PHA employees.

“I believe it’s very inappropriate to use our tax dollars for a private parking garage while there are homeless people all over the city,” she said.

The protesters have singled out the Sharswood development for particular criticism, accusing PHA of spending money that could be used for affordable housing to put its headquarters there.

Jeremiah, though, maintains the agency is saving more than $2 million a year by consolidating all of its operations there and revitalizing an area that had suffered from years of disinvestment.

“It appears that the facts don’t matter,” he said, clearly frustrated. “They would rather, I suppose, PHA spend $2 million more and be scattered around the city, not being effective in carrying out its operational responsibilities.”

Despite the remaining tensions, Jeremiah said he hoped PHA and the protesters could become allies in the struggle for more affordable housing.

Bennetch made no promises about accepting the officials’ proposal on Thursday and agreeing to resolve the encampments but didn’t rule it out.

“I think we could,” she said.