A Christmas Miracle or Betrayal of Unhoused Philadelphians?

A protester demands permanent, safe, affordable housing during housing encampment protest in Center City, Philadelphia, in July 2020. (Photo By: Cory Clark)

Just days before Christmas and days after the unhoused community memorialized 400 of their kindred who died this past year, the Philadelphia Housing Authority (P.H.A.) turned over the first 7 of a promised 59 houses, plus a strip of land for tiny homes to be built on.

These desperately-needed residences were promised over a year ago, in a closed-door deal the city hastily arranged with activists from two encampments who were fighting eviction and demanding urgent help.

What they got was a drop in the bucket. Seven houses? Really?

Memorial for unhoused Philadelphians who died during the last years, in Philadelphia. (Photo By: Cory Clark)

More than 4,300 Philadelphians are unhoused, including children, seniors, and those with disabilities. These people are literally in a life-threatening situation. Yet the City has 11,910 abandoned properties accumulated over decades of tax collection & eminent domain. These buildings sit vacant, tragically and inexplicably left to crumble when they could be put to use helping neighbors in crisis.

To add insult to injury, since 2000, the City has sold 2,314 of these properties to developers for ONE DOLLAR! According to the Inquirer’s analysis of property transfer data, about 800 of these $1 properties resold for an estimated $54 million in profits! To date, less than half have been developed.

“There are now 10 abandoned properties for every homeless person in Philadelphia,” explained Elsa Noterman, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Advocates and the unhoused have for decades conducted housing takeovers of public land and abandoned properties. In 2020, Occupy PHA activists moved 50 families into vacant PHA properties, as tent cities went up in a ball field by the Art Museum and in North Philly, on property slated for development.

As part of the PHA agreement, both these encampments have been dismantled. In return, the City created a deal with activists that amounted to just enough for all sides to claim victory while changing absolutely nothing systemically. “Sixty houses aren’t enough by a long shot, but we had to take the agreement and just hope the city keeps their word to reproduce it,” said Jennifer Bennetch, one of the activists involved in the deal.

An unhoused resident of Philadelphia breaks down in tears for the friends he lost to the streets during a memorial for unhoused Philadelphians who died, in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo By: Cory Clark)

A year later and P.H.A. is only now starting to make good on its end of the agreement. 50 other houses from the second deal and the two tiny house communities promised, haven’t even broken ground. “This is a betrayal of the unhoused community and does not address their needs,” said Tara Taylor, a camp leader. City leaders have negotiated in bad faith, pitted organizers against each other, promoted misinformation, and even used force against vulnerable populations with literally nowhere to go. Many former camp occupants see squatting as a logical solution that’s also an act of protest.

“The reason for the delay was to afford the encampment leaders an opportunity to establish the land trust and build the capacity of the organization to effectively manage and maintain the affordable units over time,” said P.H.A. President & C.E.O. Kelvin A. Jeremiah.

Philadelphians hold a vigil at City Hall to mourn the lives lost to Mayor Kenney’s budget priorities laying out mock body bags to symbolize those that have lost their lives. They demand that the Mayor and City Council move to defund the police and reallocate those funds into services for the community, including housing for all, food security, and mental health services in Philadelphia, PA, on June 16, 2020.

But people are dying in the meantime – 400 this year alone. “This is the largest number of deaths reported since the event was first carried out,” said Sister Mary Scullion, the executive director of Project HOME. The organization’s outreach teams are seeing widespread pain and suffering. It’s thought that the increase is due to COVID-19 and the Opioid epidemic.

“The pandemic, this manufactured scarcity that the government portrays, has a lot of people feeling hopeless. It contributed to the deaths and violence in this city in recent years,” said Jazmyn Henderson, a long-time organizer with ACT UP. “If we keep dumping more money into police, but not into the programs that will help uplift the people with the least, we’ll continue to see more deaths and more violence.”

“Nearly all of the takeover houses have children in them,” says Cheri Honkala, National Coordinator for Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and Poor People’s Army. “If the City and country won’t house people, then God and us will. If that means taking over abandoned houses, that’s what it means then.”

Officials and mainstream media like to focus on the minority of people exploiting occupant protections to scam homeowners, while ignoring the thousands of publicly-owned abandoned houses, that are a blight in disenfranchised neighborhoods. Despite the official narrative that squatting is “dangerous,” a significant number of families have secured permanent housing over the decades through takeover initiatives that targeted vacant city and federal housing units.

“What’s dangerous is being homeless,” said Jazmyn Henderson, a long-time ACT-UP organizer, “Housing takeovers save lives, because housing saves lives.” The idea that rich people care about squatters seems ridiculous, consider that they’re the ones letting these properties go and expecting our police to defend them from struggling families. Which, by the way, often make improvements by crowdsourcing repairs and upgrades. It’s just wrong.

The National Lawyer Guild agrees. “Homelessness is now and has always been a moral, a human right, and public health crisis,” says Sarah White, Co-Chair of the Housing & Homelessness Committee. Grassroots justice organizations like N.L.G. represent more and more Americans, as the pandemic continues to rage. “Lawyers need to take sides and support poor people organizing themselves to survive against corporations and the rich.”

“This is a betrayal of the unhoused community and doesn’t address their needs,” commented Tara Taylor, a leader at Camp J.T.D.

The tactics employed by City Hall and P.H.A. are from an old playbook long used by the elite classto disrupt and deter a fundamental change in the way Philadelphia deals with homelessness and housing insecurity. We’ve seen this kind of pushback from the Establishment before – I remember it from Occupy Philly, and before that during the mass housing takeovers of the ’80s and ’90s. This shit goes all the way back to the civil rights movement and the original Poor People’s Campaign. You know why? Because most people agree that we need affordable housing. And they know it.

So the only thing they can do is sow division and fight dirty. Too bad for them, many Philadelphians are ready and willing to put ourselves in harm’s way to bring attention to this important issue — and give our police state all the rope it needs to hang itself in full public view. Violence and corruption in government are the best motivators for political activism.

Photo By: Cory Clark

This is why the W.T.O., NONATO protests, and the B.L.M. movement have experienced such exponential growth since 2016 (and a huge boost since 2020). Locally, the threat of police violence rallied activist support across the Left to protect the encampments during the summer, amplifying the hundreds into thousands in a matter of days. Moving forward into 2022, the call is even more urgent to defend democracy and our basic rights as human beings against those who measure our value in hours we’re able to work.

Indeed, the wealthy have all the money in the world to make people comfortable with a corrupt system, to normalize it for their benefit. That’s hardly the same as investing in real solutions. “We’re fixing the problem, we’re ending homelessness, period,” said Pasture Keith Collins, senior pastor at Church of the Overcomer, the Poor People’s Army. “We won’t stop until everyone has a warm safe roof over their head.”

Meanwhile, seven local families are counting their lucky stars. “I am thankful and blessed to have affordable housing after three years, it’s like an early Christmas gift,” said Jannie Mitchell, a former encampment tenant, who moved into one of the reclaimed PHA properties in December. “Not only does this give me hope, but it’s also going to be where me and my children can be reunited,” she added. Which just goes to show you what’s possible when those with power serve the people.

Do you want to join the fight for housing in our community? Interested in poor people’s struggles? Follow the links below!

Poor People’s Army

Poor People’s Campaign

ACT UP

About Cory Clark 37 Articles
Cory Clark is a Photojournalist and writer focused on Human Rights and other social issues. His work can be found in hundreds of media outlets from Philly Magazine to Fortune. He has been a long time freelancer for Getty Images, The Associated Press, and Association French Presse. Cory, his wife, and son are residents of East Germantown.

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