Broke in Philly

Encampment residents file for restraining order against Mayor Kenney over eviction

The city backed off its second notice to vacate, as councilmembers work toward a peaceful resolution.

The encampment at Von Colln Field on the Ben Franklin Parkway, seen from above in late July

The encampment at Von Colln Field on the Ben Franklin Parkway, seen from above in late July

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

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Five residents of Philadelphia encampments filed an emergency injunction in federal court seeking to stop the city’s suddenly announced eviction plans.

Mayor Jim Kenney, who is named a defendant, said he’s stalling those plans to allow time for two City Councilmembers time to reach a peaceful solution. “We don’t want a confrontation,” Kenney said Tuesday afternoon. “There’s no requirement for us to end the encampment today.”

Filed Tuesday morning in the U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the plaintiffs claim to represent more than 100 residents across three different camp locations in the city. These include the Ridge Avenue site near Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters, and the swelling encampment on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

City officials on Monday posted a notice that gave the camps less than 24 hours to vacate. In the court filing, residents argue the city has not provided “specific protocol and procedures” for what will happen to their personal property during the relocation process.

In the event of an eviction, the city would hold camp residents’ belongings “in a warehouse for 30 days with their name tag on it,” the mayor said.

“We’re…afraid that the city is going to destroy most of the personal belongings of the individuals residing at the encampment,” said Michael Huff, an attorney who filed the complaint on the residents’ behalf.

Both the encampment at Von Colln Field near 23rd and the Parkway and the PHA encampment began in June as social justice protests swept through the city. There’s a separate smaller site that began more recently in the Azalea Gardens behind the Philadelphia Art Museum. The museum is scheduled to reopen to visitors next week.

In their filing asking for a temporary restraining order, plaintiffs maintain all of these encampments are protests about the lack of affordable housing and long-term options for people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. The city’s shelter system is “completely full and rampant with COVID-19,” the complaint alleges, and officials have failed to provide a temporary or permanent housing solution for encampment residents.

Negotiations have stalled between the Kenney administration and camp representatives.

Kenney first sought to close the camp on July 10, but delayed the eviction in hopes of reaching a new resolution. “I have come to the conclusion that further negotiations would be fruitless,” the mayor said in a statement released Monday.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Kenney said the city placed 90 camp residents in some form of housing. During the course of negotiations, he said officials agreed to 20 different demands from Philadelphia Housing Action, a coalition of advocacy groups representing camp residents.

But the city could not agree to all the demands, he said, noting that state and federal involvement would be needed to resolve some of the larger affordable housing issues.

“There’s going to come a time very shortly where we’re going to run out of words to say to each other,” Kenney said. “I don’t know what people expect.”

The main sticking point is turning over vacant houses in Philadelphia Housing Authority custody, which the federal government has control over. Many of the properties without running water or plumbing.

As other elected officials intercede for a last-minute solution, Kenney said the conditions at the encampment, specifically noting the Parkway, had become untenable. The city received more than 400 residents in both that area and North Philadelphia, near the PHA site, where Kenney says the encampment is holding up construction of a supermarket.

Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley said the city was concerned about balancing risks around COVID-19 with other communicable diseases that could be spread in a setting like the camp. He cited the risk of West Nile Virus spreading among mosquitoes outdoors. The city appears to have not reported a case of the virus since last year.

Huff, the attorney for the residents, said he hoped the injunction would be “enough for them not to go forward with the eviction.” A telephone conference with a federal judge and city attorneys is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

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