Last summer, amid Black Lives Matter protests and conflict between civilians and police, a fever for social justice erupted in Philadelphia.
Alongside calls for racial justice, unhoused Philadelphians created encampments along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, calling for more comprehensive solutions for those experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia.
Activists rallied support in order to supply food, sleeping bags and tents in order to meet the needs of residents of the encampments, but were met throughout the summer with pushback from the city in the form of police sweeps and eviction notices.
Encampments were a fixture along the Parkway until, after months of negotiations, the City of Philadelphia agreed on Sept. 26, 2020, to place nearly 60 houses in a community land trust.
Now, activists who volunteered at the encampments are figuring out how to move people into these houses.
“I don’t think anyone expected the City to hand over any houses,” Dominique Mcquade, an organizer with Philadelphia Housing Action, the organization that has control over the trust, said.
Mcquade spent the summer volunteering at Camp Teddy, a homeless encampment located on Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street prior to its disbandment.
“[Philadelphia Housing Authority] wanted the lot that Camp Teddy was on to build a parking lot,” she said. “They were going to lose $20 million if they didn’t build this parking garage by some day in October.”
When Mcquade began organizing alongside Philadelphia Housing Action this past summer, the organization was a loose amalgamation of organizers and volunteers who were showing up to the encampments to supply resources and defend residents from police intervention. Now, she and other volunteers are taking that same energy and figuring out how to get people into the homes the City has promised them.
The land trust’s 60 homes do not fix Philadelphia’s homelessness problem, but they have ensured certain residents of Camp Teddy now have a roof over their heads, Mcquade said. Getting to this point did not happen without much contention between the City and organizers, as well individuals just taking the housing problem into their own hands.
Although the City did not formally transfer houses into the land trust until September, Philadelphia Housing Action, had been moving previously unhoused people into homes since last March by occupying squats.
Founder of Philadelphia Housing Action, Jennifer Bennetch, moved unhoused people into abandoned homes at the risk of police intervention. While helping people occupy squats, there were three times Bennetch had to intervene when police entered squats with the help of a locksmith and attempted to remove the people occupying the homes.
“We sneakily moved people in [to squats], so that by the time police showed up, they were like, ‘I have mail being sent here, I have utilities in my name, I have furniture so I have residence here,’” Bennetch said.
In order for police to lawfully remove squatters from homes they’re living in, a property owner must file an ejection order with the Court of Common Pleas. Ejecting squatters is often a more lengthy process than evicting tenants and includes a hearing with a judge and gives individuals occupying a property an opportunity to argue their rights to stay.
Such moves put the issue of homeless on the City’s radar, Bennetch said, and get people moving to solve the problem, much like the encampment did.
Negotiating with the City and each other
As the Parkway encampment stretched into summer and early fall, activists and organizers also fought over whether to keep camp open or take the City’s final offer of nearly 60 homes.
“Some people [volunteers and organizers] just became way too attached to the space,” Bennetch said. “Which I get, in a sense, because I was really sad when it ended. Especially Camp Teddy, because I was there all the time.”
Access to housing has offered tangible benefits to the unhoused individuals who were staying in the encampments, more than what volunteers and activists could offer in Camp Teddy, Bennetch said.
“You can’t be so attached to a space that you don’t care about the people who are in that space,” she said.
Mcquade’s own commitment to Philadelphia Housing Action was solidified during the final negotiations with the City. Volunteers split into factions between those who wanted to keep the encampments open and continue supplying resources to the residents, and those who wanted to close the deal and leave with the houses.
“I didn’t really know the orgs so I kind of had to choose what side I was on,” she said. “Which is weird to say because we should have all just been all trying to help the residents. There was definitely a large split between the organizers who wanted to keep camp open and those who wanted to take the houses. And that’s who I’m working with now.”
Working with the City
Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, worked closely with Bennetch and Philadelphia Housing Action during negotiations. She continues collaborative efforts with the organization today and said that all things considered, keeping a sanctioned encampment open would prove to be very difficult.
“At one point, I was scouting locations for a sanctioned encampment,” she said. “The big issue is, where? You have to find a place that has attributes that people want, like access to transit and commerce. It has to be a place that is big enough, and that the community will accept. And we just never found a place that met all of those standards.”
Beyond that, Hersh believes everyone has a right to housing as opposed to what a sanctioned encampment could provide. She saw her initial search for a location for an encampment as a means of harm reduction to people living on the streets rather than a permanent solution.
“I think that people ought to live with dignity and safety, and they shouldn’t be stigmatized or segregated,” Hersh said. “Everybody should just simply have a place to live. Moving forward, we’re trying shared housing options.”
From activist to administrator
While Bennetch was spearheading negotiations with the City during the Parkway encampment, she managed to get City officials to agree to opening 50 homes after an initial offer of 15. Since those negotiations ended, Philadelphia Housing Action has filed paperwork to officially declare themselves a nonprofit so the City can legally transfer the homes into the organization’s possession.
The process has been tedious, Bennetch said. She and her team of three have been navigating the effort themselves, without legal assistance.
Although Bennetch never planned to run her own nonprofit, she’s happy to be a part of what she believes to be the solution to Philadelphia’s homelessness crisis. This, after being homeless for a time herself.
“I do feel like I was meant to do it, even though it’s never what I planned,” she said. “It’s not a win that solves everything, but it is what I wanted all along: for PHA to not sell houses to developers and for low income people to live in these houses. So if this is the way it has to happen, that’s fine with me.”
During the years prior to Bennetch’s involvement with housing takeovers and the encampments, the activist faced homelessness herself. She and her husband collected and sold scrap metal to afford to move into a place of their own.
Once situated in her North Philadelphia home, she faced personal conflicts with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, with security from the organization often seen surveilling her home, she said. In order to assess the legality of this surveillance, she changed her major from mass media studies at community college to paralegal studies in 2016.
“We were being harassed by PHA police and at the time they had cars that looked just like Philly police,” she said. “So early on I would be at the police station trying to figure out why these cops were harassing me at my house and I found out they were housing cops.”
Bennetch and her family ultimately filed suit against PHA and the Philadelphia Police Department. In discovery for the lawsuit, she learned that every day, for nine months, PHA police were surveilling her house for about half the day.
“It was a big unlawful investigation where documents of covert undercover investigation were found,” Bennetch said. “Into what, I don’t know. But they were never supposed to be here [at my home].”
Bennetch’s experience with PHA has colored her activism ever since.
”It was nine months of being harassed by PHA, for at least three times a week,” she said.
Bennetch’s paralegal studies courses helped her set up Philadelphia Housing Action as a nonprofit organization. She helped write Philadelphia Housing Action’s bylaws, filed other legal paperwork for the organization, and has learned how to fill quarterly earnings reports.
Bennetch never expected her housing activism would lead to administrative responsibilities for housing 60 other families.
“It’s just weird for me because I’ve only ever been an activist,” she said. “So to transition, and still get really mad at things PHA is doing, ending up at their door with a bunch of signs and acting crazy again, is kind of weird for me. It’s just not where I ever expected to be.”
The hard work of moving people in
Despite the fact Bennetch and her team have been given the autonomy to tour homes for placement into the community trust and help place past residents of the encampment in their future homes, residents of the Parkway encampment also played a role during the process all along, from negotiations last summer to deciding who should live where and with whom now.
Last summer, the encampments operated under a community decision making model. This meant that every move during negotiations with the City were decided upon with a vote among encampment residents and organizers.
Now that it is time to decide who will live in which home from the community trust, the process has been the same.
“We went around and asked who everyone would feel comfortable living with and what area,” Mcquade said.
Most of the homes hand-picked by Bennetch and her team are located in North and West Philadelphia. Residents are also encouraged to choose roommates from the encampment and have been involved in rehabbing the properties.
Mcquade and Bennetch are hopeful for the future. They’ve seen how secure housing can help people.
Rehabbing homes in the trust has also given former encampment residents an opportunity to gain construction training. A union has been created for those who want to continue to use their training to work on other houses in the trust that need refurbishing.
“A lot of people have gotten jobs and people are just able to connect with their kids and family members,” Bennetch said. “[They] are finally able to be and go out and do the things that were once really hard to do when they were outside and tired and not clean all the time.”
Having a home provides stability, something previously unhoused people weren’t able to maintain when they were without housing, Bennetch said.
“A lot of moms were separated from their kids,” she said. “Either because they were in foster care because they didn’t have a home, or they were staying with different family members. So, these families are finally able to reunite.”
Ultimately, with the donations from the City, Philadelphia Housing Actionis able to house people based solely on necessity. According to Bennetch, policies, regulations, and the expectation to consistently meet certain requirements can be an obstacle for some seeking housing.
“Even when the City does step up, there’s so many rules and requirements,” she said. “You can’t get [PHA] housing if you’re a felon or on probation.”
As a nonprofit, Philadelphia Housing Action can offer housing outside of PHA’s strict requirements, Bennetch said.
“If you’re going through a community group, or a nonprofit, you don’t have to satisfy those requirements,” she said. “You can just move people into houses when they need them, no matter what your situation is.”
Despite activists’ conflict with the City, Hersh commends those who are willing to push back in order to catalyze progress. She admits she’s had to make compromises in order to comply with state and federal demands, especially since state and federal agencies fund 40% of the Homeless Services’ budget.
“There are compromises that at this point in my life, and my career, I’m willing to make,” she said. “Other people don’t want to make those compromises. They want to push the envelope for that kind of change. I really see it as a continuum where we need people on all different places on the continuum in order to drive it forward.”
For Bennetch, waiting, compromise, and reluctance can be the enemy of grassroots organizing and effective progress.
“You could talk about something all day and people will say, ‘Yeah that could be cool,’” she said. “But once you’re just doing it, that’s when it all comes together. That’s kind of where we always mess up in these movements — people are always waiting for the right moment and the right amount of people, but it’s like, just do it.”
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