Officials work to relocate dozens of homeless people from Philly airport by Friday

Dozens of homeless have taken up residence at Philadelphia International Airport, but a new rule limiting access to passengers and workers effective Friday has officials working to relocate them.
Photo credit Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Martin C. has been living at Philadelphia International Airport for two months, since his mother’s nursing home told him he could no longer sleep in her room in early March, and then the company he worked for shut down and took back the truck he stayed in briefly after that.

“I’m a gentleman that worked all my life,” he said. “I lost everything because of this COVID.”

He is about to lose another shelter option.

“The situation at the airport really is not safe,” said deputy managing director Eva Gladstein. “People are not social distancing, there is not adequate food there, the sanitation facilities are not fully stocked and the terminal is not open so it’s not conducive to sanitation needs. So what we’re doing is offering housing and other services that would provide a safe environment, where they could socially distance, where they could get proper food, where they could get medical care if they need it.”

She says people in high-risk groups are being offered quarantine rooms the city has rented at the Fairfield Suites. There are also shelter and treatment beds. And she says the city will help with travel arrangements for people who got to the airport from other states.

Delaware County Commissioner Dr. Monica Taylor estimates 40-60 of the people sleeping at the airport are from Delaware County and have been offered services, including emergency housing.

“We’re just trying to make sure we’re meeting them so that, as soon as they’re getting out, that they have resources,” she said.

Taylor adds that the county is working with Upper Darby Township and sending outreach teams to 69th Street Station, because they expect to see an influx of people from the airport.

Many of those living at the airport made their way there via a free ride on SEPTA’s 108 bus, intended to get essential workers from the end of Market-Frankford Line to their airport jobs.

“Once SEPTA has made that once again a pay route,” Taylor said, “we assume there’ll be more people at 69th Street starting on Tuesday.”

Martin C. (who declined to give his full last name) was among those who’ve been using the bus when they venture to and from the airport.

“I was actually surprised,” he said, “first time ever SEPTA actually helped people in need.”

He will not, however, avail himself of the services the city is offering, he says.

“They don’t have people that are qualified to help us,” he said. “The people that are working for us feel overwhelmed.”

That is part of a pattern that has become familiar to homeless services officials since they uprooted their first encampment, two years ago, in Kensington.

The residents initially resist leaving a spot where they’ve become comfortable despite its evident drawbacks. As the deadline to vacate nears, more people accept services and by the eviction date few people remain and usually leave without being physically removed.

As recently as March, the eviction of an encampment at the Convention Center resulted in the relocation of just six people after the other residents accepted services in the days leading up to it.

The city was criticized for going through with that eviction, even though the Centers for Disease Control had issued guidance the day before recommending that encampments be left in place “unless individual housing units are available.”

Gladstein says the guidance refers to outdoor encampments, not a situation like the airport, and that the city is providing housing.

“We reviewed the guidance very carefully,” she said, “and we review it with our health department as well and we believe we’re consistent with the guidance.”

Managing director Brian Abernathy says the situation at the airport has become untenable.

“It’s not just an issue about the folks suffering homelessness,” he said. “It’s also about the safety of our airport employees and the people who are using the airport. We’ve had vandalism there, we have to have security escort cleaners to their jobs. That’s not fair to our employees, to the airline employees or the contractors.”

There was also a security breach. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that one of the homeless people managed to board a Southwest Airlines plane bound for Tampa on May 2. He was discovered in an airplane bathroom, according to the report.   

Abernathy says the city is sensitive to the vulnerabilities of the population and are prepared to provide all the necessary resources to relocate them safely.

“We’re trying to be thoughtful in our approach,” he says, “but the status quo at the airport is not appropriate.”