Philadelphia’s homeless encampment on Von Colln Memorial Field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has nearly doubled in size since July. New tents can be seen on the green fields bordering Spring Garden Street, a residential district inhabited mostly of young professionals and students. Since July, the city has installed additional porta-potties along the camp’s perimeter, while camp residents have undertaken a few improvements as well—including the placement of a hose that snakes through the tops of several trees then falls downward, where it dangles, faucet-like, over a portable sink that may have been retrieved from an abandoned house.
It’s not only the new porta-potties and ingenious plumbing solutions that catch the eye as one passes through the camp; it’s also the extreme poverty. Homelessness is always grim, but the sense of sadness that pervades Von Colln is on another level. Broken human beings wander about like shades in the underworld. Some, apparently mentally ill, talk to themselves or scream at invisible tormenters. There’s a disconnect between these heart-wrenching scenes and the rhetoric of the camp’s organizers and advocates, whose hand-lettered signs cheerfully exhort passers-by to “Protect Our City’s Most Vulnerable.”
The city’s three previous attempts to negotiate a closure of the camp failed, due in part to the campers’ shifting demands and changing leadership. Some Philadelphians, however, have suggested that Mayor Jim Kenney has moved slowly to get rid of the camps because he is afraid of offending Black Lives Matter or the left-wing mobs that might view a decisive eviction as racist.
Offsetting these fears is realization of the damage that the city’s third large homeless encampment, Camp Teddy, is inflicting on Sharwood, a largely African-American neighborhood. Camp Teddy is located on the future site of a grocery store (Sharwood currently has none) and 100 housing units, 17 of which will be considered affordable housing. Construction on this $51 million project, part of a ten-year, $500 million plan to redevelop the neighborhood, is due to begin next month—but if the homeless aren’t relocated by then, all bets are off.
Several weeks ago, Sharwood residents held a joint press conference with Camp Teddy residents. The two bands of activists went head to head, and Philadelphia Housing Authority chief executive Kelvin A. Jeremiah seemed to take the Sharwood residents’ side in the dispute. “They want a grocery store,” he said. Camp Teddy residents, meantime, held signs declaring that “PHA is corrupt.”
Late last month, another gavel came down in favor of eviction, this time from U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo C. Robreno, who ruled that Philadelphia officials could disband the three protest camps on 72 hours’ notice. Mayor Kenney was quick to respond. “In light of today’s ruling in the city’s favor, we are currently evaluating our next steps. We are still deeply concerned about the health and safety of all involved, including the surrounding community. 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.”
Michael Huff, a pro bono lawyer for Camp Teddy, reiterated that the city would provide shelter space only for camp residents, and that homeless shelters are rife with theft and assaults. “The housing provided by the city is unsafe,” Huff said. “People would prefer to live in a tent and control their own lives.”
It didn’t take the mayor long to evaluate the city’s next steps. He announced that by September 9, the residents of all three camps would be relocated. But residents in the Von Colln camp had already constructed barricades in anticipation of a possible conflict. As one Von Colln resident told WHYY-PBS, “We want to be in view of the media and the community. We’re there knocking on their door until we get permanent housing.”
It’s Mayor Kenney’s move.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images