Shannon Farrell-Pakstis has been fighting to clean up a vacant lot in her Harrowgate neighborhood since 2015.
Owned by people who don’t live in the Kensington area, the lot had fallen into a state of disrepair — to the point where people experiencing homelessness began to live there and make it their regular home.
For years Farrell-Pakstis attempted to resolve the issue by reporting it to the city. She flagged it on Philly 311, described the problems to the police and talked with her City Councilperson. She did see crews clean up the lot from time to time, but they never implemented a permanent solution, she said, and the camps kept popping up.
Three years later, there’s finally progress, and the lot no longer hosts a homeless encampment. How’d Farrell-Pakstis get it done? She shamed the owners on Facebook.
Resorting to ‘public humiliation’
It was two weeks ago that Farrell-Pakstis decided to take the step of posting on the Facebook page of the Harrowgate Civic Association, of which she is president.
In a public post, she alleged that the owners of the lot on Willard Street near Jasper had refused maintain the space since buying it. There was a broken fence that allowed the constant pile up of trash and formation of encampments, she said.
Notably, in her complaint Farrell-Pakstis didn’t just name the owners — Brigit Brust and wife Jamie Gordon. She also mentioned their business: the couple owns Center City real estate firm Space & Company.
“I will resort to public humiliation to protect the residents of Harrowgate,” Farrell-Pakstis told Billy Penn. “This is not how I like to go about business, but we needed this done quickly before it escalated to another encampment issue set right in a residential area.”
To their credit, the owners responded right away after the FB post. They told Farrell-Pakstis that they had never before received any direct complaints — although they had paid numerous fines from the city to clean up garbage on the lot. They assured her they’d take care of the problem.
And take care of the problem they did.
On Monday afternoon, Farrell-Pakstis discovered a brand new fence around the lot. She was so impressed with their response that she deleted her original callout post.
“The first day, they came and hauled out a bunch of truckloads of trash,” she said. “They did it very quickly.”
A defense of ignorance
Why was the lot’s condition allowed to get so bad? Brust and Gordon first bought the lot in January 2015. Less than a mile from their Northern Liberties home, they thought it would make a good personal investment while they started their family.
“We thought it might be good to try our hand in it,” Brust said. “So far, it’s not as fun as I thought.”
Before she saw the Facebook post, Brust said, she had no idea an encampment had formed on her property. She typically drives by the lot once a month to check on it, she told Billy Penn, but hadn’t made it there for a few months since the birth of her second child.
“At some point between July and now, a portion of the fence was down,” Brust said. And when she drove by after the FB post, she “was slightly horrified,” she said. “I should’ve been more proactive, to be honest.”
Absent property owners
Farrell-Pakstis is grateful that they addressed the problem. Still, the owners’ failure to maintain it is emblematic of a larger problem.
In Kensington and its surrounding neighborhoods — those most obviously impacted by Philadelphia’s drug addiction epidemic — there are innumerable vacant lots and abandoned homes. When developers don’t pay attention, they can quickly turn into encampments for people who are experiencing homelessness.
It’s common, Farrell-Pakstis said, for developers from other parts of the city to buy property in her neighborhood and then fail to maintain it.
“They’re just letting it sit there,” she said. “Most developers are just waiting for property values to go up. Meanwhile, we suffer and have to put up with this type of activity.”
It’s a problem that has been made worse by a series of unsuccessful encampment evictions. In July 2017, the city shut down a massive encampment on the Conrail tracks at Gurney Street, displacing hundreds of people who lived there. Since then, smaller ones have popped up on neighboring streets.
Philly officials are about to vacate the encampments on Frankford Avenue and Emerald Street — which could direct more people to encampments on private lots, like the one on Willard Street.
“This is one of the ongoing issues that the residents are facing here,” Farrell-Pakstis said. “It’s so hard for us. Our children are in danger because of neglect like this.”