"We're looking for a permanent solution." Parkway protestors are here to stay

By Rory Mcdonald

On Wednesday, June 10th, just over 50 Philadelphians experiencing homelessness gathered with support and donations from multiple organizations across Philadelphia- primarily the Workers Revolutionary Collective, the Black and Brown Workers Collective, and Occupy PHA, all of which are groups with long histories of involvement with the homeless community- and began the James Talib-Dean Camp in Von Colin Park in Center City Philadelphia, named after the WRC co-founder who passed away just this month. Since then this protest encampment has continued to grow rapidly. When I approached the “Donation Station” at the center of the camp, I was greeted by two friendly volunteers who, when asked what their role in the camp was, simply responded, “we do shit that needs doing.” They made it clear that the encampment prioritized the autonomy of its residents saying, “there’s no real hierarchy,” but insisting that the camp is still very structured. The residents attend meetings every night where they discuss “customs” (for example photographs of residents are prohibited without express permission) and make decisions as a group. The residents' needs are addressed through labeled tents for food, clothing, bedding, medicine, and “security”, which serves as a catch-all of sorts for other communal issues.  

One of the many miniature demands signs that have popped up around camp since their large display sign was stolen by a white supremacist who impersonated a resident to gain entry.

One volunteer, Will, a young black man who has been working at the encampment since he lost his job due to the pandemic said, “I started out same as most of these guys, I just walked by, saw this and started helping out. After a couple of days, they wanted me on staff.” Now, Will says, “I’m on all the teams; cooking, security, supply, I’m not on the med team but I’m working on it, I’m getting my training.” Will’s enthusiasm, and drive to achieve their collective goals seem to match the general attitude around the encampment. He continued to boast, “We even got everybody here a COVID test last week, and we didn’t have a single sick person on site.” 

However it’s not just a shelter alternative for pandemic times or a resource for struggling people experiencing homelessness, it’s a protest camp with serious demands which include permanent low-income housing, halting of all Philadelphia Housing Authority’s(PHA) auctions of public developments to private owners, public accountability for city workers’ abuse and harassment, a repeal of city-wide camping ordinances, sanctioning the parkway encampment as a local autonomous zone, an end to city terror tactics against the homeless (Sweeps, Service Days, Encampment Clearings etc.) and the complete disbandment of the Philadelphia Police Department and other private policing companies. Another volunteer named Sylvia moved here from North Carolina after reading about the encampment online. When asked what she thought of the encampment’s demands she said, “I pray for it, cause these people need it.” Will expressed his agreement saying, “We’ll occupy until our demands are met.”

While interviewing a group of residents at the encampment I found one man, named Gerald, stood out for his passionate account of the homeless experience in Philadelphia, “See a lot of our homeless are just kids who age out of foster care, you know you turn eighteen and they drop you off on Market St. with a list of shelters. That’s it.” He continued to show me a video from Unicorn Riot, a non-profit media collective, where Jennifer Bennet, a leader at the encampment, stands outside the PHA headquarters in North Philadelphia, poignantly explaining that it is built entirely on land seized through eminent domain. She continues to tell her audience that since 2011 the PHA has auctioned over 1,000 public housing developments to private developers, seized 1,335 properties through eminent domain, and that the PHA is still “processing” housing applications from 2010. Bennet insists that the Housing Authority has been the primary catalyst for the gentrification of poor neighborhoods. Another resident, who wished to remain anonymous spoke up, adding, “A lot of people are getting fed up. A lot of people are here cause of mental health, or they’re here cause of alcohol or drugs, but mostly it’s because of housing.” In a highly emotional moment, he concluded, “They’d rather lock us up, than give us housing.” 

Despite the many problems that are facing the homeless population of Philadelphia, the residents generally agree that the encampment is a huge success. When asked about quality of life one resident said, “The workers take care of us, everybody’s got what they need here.” They’ve also received a letter of support from City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, and a Delaware activist named Brianté, or @fashion.snob on Instagram is organizing a rally for donations on July 4th outside the Art Museum. Workers at the encampment are always looking for new volunteers and contributors, and are in constant need of supplies as the encampment grows. One volunteer disclosed to me that while food, clothing, and bedding are all necessities, they crucially need tents. At the moment more than two dozen homeless people are waiting for tents so that they can officially move into the encampment. He continued saying, “Everything your eyes can see here is donated.” So to the people of Philadelphia, I am urging you to attend the donation rally, donate or volunteer on your own time, but ultimately, to give back to the people who have been unjustly stepped on and silenced for the sake of our city’s economic development. Take the advice of your councilperson, “Silencing and displacing these residents will only cause further harm… listen to the demands that the residents of the James Talib-Dean Camp are making, work to better understand the motivations behind the protest encampment, and ask the residents what they need to stay safe and healthy.”