Future of 2 Philadelphia homeless encampments could be decided at hearing

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Thursday, August 20, 2020
Federal judge could decide fate of Philly encampments
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The protesters set up camp along the Ben Franklin Parkway more than two months ago.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A federal judge could decide the future of the two homeless encampments in Philadelphia on Thursday during an emergency hearing.

Philadelphia city officials postponed the closing of the encampments, one on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, after camp residents sued the city in federal court asking for an injunction to stop their removal.

City workers had posted a notice at the encampments Monday saying they would be closed at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday afternoon that the city had paused its plans both for the court petition and to give two city council members one last chance to negotiate with camp organizers about their demands.

"It's not tenable, and it's not sustainable," Kenney, a Democrat, said at a video press conference Tuesday, noting there had been increasing reports of violence, drugs and issues with sanitation.

The tent encampment on the Parkway was erected on a baseball field June 10 and grew to an estimated 100 to 150 people. That camp was originally slated to close a month later, but city officials postponed the action in hopes of reaching a resolution with the organizers.

RELATED: Evictions at homeless camps paused after court petition

Another encampment sprung up later at the Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters, and some camp residents from the Parkway moved to the Azalea Gardens near the Philadelphia Art Museum when the first closure was slated.

Organizers have said the camps are tied to the Black Lives Matter movement and are demanding equal access to fair, safe and affordable housing. Philadelphia Housing Action - the coalition of groups that organized the encampment - said it was conceived as a form of political protest over city policies toward the homeless and the lack of low-income housing in the city.

The petition for the restraining order says the city would be violating the residents' First Amendment right to protest and also putting residents in danger of contracting COVID-19 if they were forced into shelters.

Kenney said Tuesday that the city had agreed to more than 20 demands from the organizers, but could not meet the primary demand for immediate permanent housing at vacant housing authority or city-owned properties. Some of those properties have no running water or utilities making them not immediately inhabitable, he said, adding that moving into others would require input from federal and other partners.

When asked about the US Centers for Disease Control's recommendation that homeless encampments not be broken up unless there was a quarantine space for residents or private housing available, City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said city officials had weighed other growing health concerns against the possibility of spreading the virus when deciding to close the camps.

The emergency hearing where members of the encampment will testify is set for Thursday morning.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.