Philadelphia halts removal of parkway encampment while negotiations proceed

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UPDATED: 7:02 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia officials have decided to postpone the removal of a homeless encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway that was organized as a protest of the city's lack of affordable housing. 

The city had previously committed to closing the camp by 9 a.m. Friday, having issued formal written notice to camp residents, saying they must vacate the area no later than that date because the encampment presented public health and safety concerns that affect residents and the surrounding community.

Camp organizers and residents resolutely refuse to go. They have said often that they would not leave without force.

In an emailed statement, Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney said that using police officers to move the camp would be a last resort, which he hopes to avoid. While negotiations continue between city officials and protest organizers, Kenney has postponed the closure in hopes of reaching a resolution.

Instead, the mayor said he plans to meet with the organizers.

"A mutual resolution has always been our preferred outcome. We appreciate their willingness to engage in productive dialogue, and I’m hopeful that we will reach a peaceful resolution soon," Kenney said.

Kenney said he will be meeting personally with protest organizers next week.

"We respect and understand their concerns but I want to express to them, personally, that this is not a long-term sustainable situation. There are hygiene issues, there are issues of violence — people have been stabbed there — there are unknown issues of COVID and it just cannot be sustained," he said. 

The organizers have declared the encampment a “no-police zone.”

The city had hoped to coax the residents of the camp out by providing indoor beds and resources, including COVID-19 prevention beds in a Center City hotel for those eligible, and drug treatment for those who need it. The postponement allows additional time to try to connect with people at the encampment.

Outreach teams and service providers, including Merakey, Northeast Treatment Centers, veterans’ services, and the city's Department of Human Services, Office of Homeless Services and Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services have been trying to offer housing and social services to camp residents. 

However, organizers have barred outreach workers from entering the camp, so all social work has been done outside of the camp's boundaries to honor the requests of organizers.

Still, just from the perimeter, city officials say they have managed to place 17 people, including two couples in safer shelter situations. The exact number of homeless people in the camp is not known, but it's thought to be 100 or even more. 

City officials say more of this work will be contingent on outreach personnel being able to enter the camp and getting access to the people there. 

The encampment went up June 7 on an athletic field that is normally used for youth sports. The site started out as a protest of the lack of services for homeless people and the lack of affordable housing in the city in general.

It was started by activists, not the people experiencing homelessness who live there now. The organizers invited people into the camp to join the protest, though they themselves go home at night to sleep and come back in the morning. 

The organizers say they won't go without immediate affordable housing, an outcome that would require much more than the city acting unilaterally.