Project HOME founder Sister Mary Scullion, 1199C President Henry Nicholas, and AFSCME District Council 47 President Tom Cronin

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In the spring of 1988, a group of people experiencing homelessness entered a string of long-vacant properties in Northeast Philadelphia, set up camp, and hung cardboard signs in the windows that read “Homeless, not helpless.”

It was one in a series of public property takeovers organized by the late Chris Sprowal, a Black activist from Philly who went on to lead the National Union of the Homeless. At the time, the modern homelessness crisis was erupting across the country, even as thousands of urban properties sat vacant in the aftermath of white flight and post-industrial decline.

Decades before the Ben Franklin Parkway protest encampment, Sprowal was helping organize similar public land takeovers — in Philly and other major cities — as a way to get the government’s attention while homeless shelters burst at the seams.

The demand was simple.

“We want affordable, permanent housing for human beings,” Sprowal was known to say, “so they have some control over their life.”

In Philadelphia, the gambit worked.

The ’88 housing takeover enraged nearby residents, who demanded immediate remedy from both City Hall and the federal government. Officials quickly vowed to break up the occupation, but police never stormed in.

Two days later, the group left peacefully, with a promise from the city to negotiate a deal with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Similar takeovers followed, and within weeks, Sprowal’s group helped secure hundreds of units of publicly owned housing to be transferred to the unhoused in the late ’80s.

The Philly settlement was radical even by today’s standards, said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, who has advised numerous mayors and presidential cabinets on homelessness policy. Not only did the officials swiftly hand over the dormant properties in response to the protests — they contracted with people experiencing homeless to do the rehab, and ultimately gave the keys to a homeless-led organization, Dignity Housing, which lives on today.

This reporting is supported by a grant from the Tuttleman Foundation

“It was probably the single most successful grassroots homeless activism effort ever undertaken in this country,” Culhane said.

Almost note for note, the events echo what happened in Philly last summer: a takeover of public property; a demand to hand over unused housing; and eventually, an agreement to put those properties into a homeless-led community trust.

While hailed as “unprecedented,” the Parkway agreement was really just another familiar compromise in the city’s 40-year battle against homelessness.

With an ever-vanishing supply of affordable housing, is Philadelphia caught in a doomed cycle?

Like other cities, Philly’s response to the twin housing crises has evolved over the decades. In the 1980s, there was a scramble to set up an emergency shelter system. The 90s brought a wave of criminalization that targeted behavior people experiencing homeless often use to survive, like panhandling and living in communal groups.

So-called “tent cities” like those on the Parkway and Ridge Avenue during the summer of 2020 have been a constant for every mayor since Wilson Goode. And they’re increasingly prevalent. The National Center on Homelessness and Poverty found a 1,342% increase in U.S. encampments — from 19 in 2007 to a record-high of 274 in 2016. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has dismantled more than half a dozen camps to date.

Amid this revolving door of crackdowns, the city has made significant strides to expand housing options with lower barriers to get people into permanent and temporary homes, even as it continues to combat visible homelessness.

To veteran advocates, one-off agreements with the city and the region’s federal housing authority like the Parkway settlement only serve to temporarily staunch the wound.

“It’s not as simple as that,” said Sister Mary Scullion, who in 1989 founded Project HOME, and remains the city’s most prominent housing advocate. “We need the city, state, federal government and private sector to be rowing in the same direction. When three of four are out of sync, it’s a real problem.”

Activist Chris Sprowal in Philadelphia, 1990 Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

The ’80s shelter boom

Prior to the 1980s, people experiencing homelessness were a rare sight in major U.S. cities — often relegated to blighted skid row districts. At the dawn of the crisis, Scullion recalls Philly’s unhoused population was a fraction of what it is today.

“It was just 100 people on the street, which is laughable now,” Scullion said. Philadelphia is home to more than 6,000 people considered homeless, more than 950 of whom are currently unhoused, per the city’s tally last year.

The Nixon and Reagan eras brought a brutal confluence of factors to a head. Amid a global recession, deindustrialization and shuttered factories spiked poverty in blue-collar cities like Philly. In the backdrop, the nation’s affordable housing supply was shrinking fast. So-called “urban renewal” programs leveled buildings in a number of struggling residential neighborhoods. Gasoline on the fire: a policy change that stripped federal housing subsidies, severing a social welfare safety net for millions of Americans.

As a result, people flooded the streets of major cities like never before.

The rise of encampments and other public space occupations didn’t happen overnight. Amid the national reckoning around a new crisis, lawmakers sought to pour funding into emergency shelters — a necessary move, advocates felt, even if it was only a band-aid.

Philadelphia in the late 1970s had barely any shelters open seven days a week. Former Mayor Wilson Goode cited dire financial straits to avoid expanding the city’s emergency housing network. It would take a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union to force his hand. In 1985, a court settlement guaranteed that “no one will be turned away from shelters on the ground that the city has no money to pay.”

The shelter system ballooned. By 1991, the city boasted 5,400 beds in the system — far more than the 3,400 available today. But deplorable conditions inside the facilities back then galvanized some activists to seek a more permanent solution: actual housing.

It was while living in Philadelphia shelter in the early ’80s that Sprowal began to recruit. The group he started became the Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless, which would help secure housing and advance policies to help the homeless in City Hall.

Sprowal recruited his fellow shelter residents with a firesome message for government leaders: “We’re going to organize, and we’re going to come back and kick your ass.”

Allies grew by the day. Community leaders, union workers, city and state lawmakers and civil rights attorneys pushed back against the city’s inaction and controversial city policies, like forcing shelter residents with money to pay for part of their stay. Every death on the streets renewed outrage, yet local leaders continued to deflect blame.

“I refuse to take full responsibility for solving all of the social problems facing our cities, and we have to put the burden where it belongs,” Mayor Goode said in 1989, after a woman experiencing homeless died of exposure. “It belongs, yes, at City Hall, but it belongs in Washington and Harrisburg as well.”

The next year, Sprowal and a large band of activists, including Scullion, set up camp outside the State Office Building at Broad and Spring Garden. The month-long occupation successfully unlocked nearly $1 million in state aid for the city to add 500 shelter beds.

Encampment protests once again delivered the goods. But the turn of the narrative from stop-gap measures to sustainable housing was still years away.

And the crisis had only just begun.

Downtown revitalization, encampment surge

In the ’80s and ’90s, encampments prevailed in Philadelphia both as a form of protest and a logistical necessity for the growing homeless population.

Under former Mayor Ed Rendell’s administration, the city cleared a number of sprawling encampments — most notably, one with more than 300 people from the Market Street subway concourse in 1993. Two years later, the administration evicted more than 100 people who camped out on the steps of the Family Court building at Logan Circle. In 1997, yet another camp got the boot from JFK Plaza at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

As with the Parkway encampment last year, these occupations often lasted months and provoked anger from residents and businesses toward City Hall.

Officials focused on public health concerns. “It’s not good to have large encampments of the homeless anywhere in the city,” David L. Cohen, the chief of staff to Rendell who is now a senior advisor with Comcast, said at the time.

In 1995, a group of activists staked out a shuttered North Philadelphia church and housed families experiencing homelessness there for over six months. The action ended with the government agreeing to turn over another handful of vacant houses.

Meanwhile, battling a financial crisis, Rendell began to close some of the city shelters — even as demand surged to a four-year high. Advocates, many of whom had worked with the administration to help dissolve disruptive encampments, stormed City Hall to demand more beds. They contrasted the plight with the downtown renaissance Rendell was helping bring to life.

“We cannot sleep in trees, and we cannot eat bricks,” said Leona Smith of the National Union of the Homeless, in 1996. “The mayor of Philadelphia can’t tell us there’s no money … All we have to do is look around us and we know there is plenty of money in the city of Philadelphia.”

Through these years, many cities leaned into law and order policies to quell the crowds. Anti-homelessness ordinances gained wide popularity during this time. One 1994 report found 49 U.S. cities had passed anti-homeless ordinances, cleared out camps or targeted panhandlers.

Advocates in Philly fought back, filing lawsuits to curb arrests of people who panhandled or slept in public spaces. Government leaders, meanwhile, touted removing the eyesore of homelessness as a victory.

Seeking a police budget increase in 1997, former Police Commissioner Richard Neal noted his force had become adept at dismantling encampments. “We did it,” Neal testified proudly to City Council. “Homeless camps have been swept out of the subway concourse, the airport, and at 1801 Vine.”

The wave of criminalization would not fade overnight. In 2012, then-Mayor Michael Nutter banned giving out free food in the city’s parks — a prohibition that lasted until Mayor Jim Kenney took office in 2016.

Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME and other activists in the Suburban Station concourse, where Mayor Rendell’s administration shut down a sprawling encampment in 1993. Credit: Harvey Finkle

‘We can solve every person’s homelessness’

In many ways, Philadelphia’s current mayor inherited the same problems as his predecessors, albeit with different surrounding circumstances.

Amid a raging opioid crisis, the heroin-plagued Kensington neighborhood became home to more unhoused people than Center City for the first time since the city began counting in 2005. The Kenney administration cracked down hard on tent encampments there, starting in 2017 with the clearing of the Conrail train tracks. Protesters met the shutdown of those camps with calls for more housing.

But the narrative around affordable housing policy has evolved, advocates and experts say.

“We’ve learned that we can solve every person’s homelessness, without a doubt,” said Culhane, the homelessness expert at UPenn.

Philadelphia in 2005 established its own Housing Trust Fund to earmark funds for affordable housing projects. Lawmakers have pushed inclusionary zoning policies to mandate affordable units in certain types of development projects, and offered perks to any builder who incorporated below market-rate units.

Over the last decade, the city and nonprofit housing agencies have made progress. There is expanded access to permanent housing, rapid re-housing of people in emergency shelters, and safe haven housing projects like those pioneered by Scullion and Project HOME, which has developed over 800 units of affordable and supportive housing for formerly homeless people.

Still, the supply of affordable housing in the Philadelphia region misses the mark by a long shot, with just 29 available units for every 100 extremely poor households. That’s well below the national average, according to data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

During the city’s most recent fiscal year, more than 10,000 people in Philly entered an emergency shelter, safe haven, or transitional or permanent housing project, according to the Office of Homeless Services. Only 25% of that population ended up transitioning into permanent affordable housing.

Culhane believes the situation will continue to be a revolving door unless structural inequalities are better addressed.

“The homeless programs don’t do anything about preventing people from falling into homelessness,” he said.

The encampment at Von Colln Field on the Ben Franklin Parkway, seen from above in late July Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

The Parkway, the pandemic and an eviction crisis

The confluence of the homelessness crisis and the coronavirus shined a spotlight on the federal government’s failures. Once again, the situation crystallized with a massive encampment.

Two protest encampments — one on the Ben Franklin Parkway and one outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority headquarters on Ridge Avenue — roiled the city from June through October. Organizers presented a familiar list of demands for affordable housing. This time, however, a settlement was not quick to come. Negotiations grew acrimonious. Talks stalled for months.

The Kenney administration threatened to evict the groups. But the mayor’s deadlines ticked by without action.

Some left the encampments to move into the city’s “COVID prevention sites” at hotels, where people could stay in isolation if they were at high risk of catching the virus. These guests were promised a transition to permanent housing when the program ended. Yet when the sites shut down, several who took up the offer reported substandard conditions in the rooms or homes they were provided

Eventually, an agreement was reached. On the Parkway, more than 150 people would pack up their tents. In exchange, the city and PHA would transfer 50 properties to a land trust to be run by encampment residents. To leave Ridge Avenue, camp residents were promised nine vacant properties in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

Many celebrated the victory. But as was the case four decades prior, the settlement only put a dent in the larger issue. Housing advocates are now bracing for the prospect of a major spike in homelessness.

A looming eviction crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic could be just months away, advocates warn.

According to a recent report from the local nonprofit Community Legal Services, landlords in Philadelphia filed to evict more than 2,760 tenants between March and December of last year. The federal moratorium on those court proceedings is set to expire at the end of next month.

Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney for housing policy at CLS, noted that residents facing housing insecurity are often at risk of becoming homeless. People in this precarious position have access to few financial resources that might prevent them from ending up without a roof over their heads.

“These populations overlap significantly — and to our disadvantage, we’ve been talking about them as two separate things,” Phillips said.

Using CARES Act funding, Philadelphia rolled out a new rent relief program in three phases last year, and a new version focused on households with lower incomes is set to come online in March. For those approved, it will provide up to 12 months assistance — but mostly in backpay. Rules attached to the new round of federal funding say the program can only cover three months of forward rent.

Progress has been made on two so-called “tiny house villages” that were part of the Parkway encampment deal, one for people in transition and another as permanent homes. Sites have been selected, in West Philly’s Mill Creek neighborhood and on State Road in the Northeast. Together, they’re expected to provide a maximum of 48 new units.

With the city’s unhoused population potentially about to skyrocket, many are skeptical about the impact of one-off housing settlements at the local level without a larger infusion of federal aid. Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, President Biden’s pick to lead HUD, said her first priority would be to advocate for more rent relief and expand housing vouchers.

Said Fudge at a U.S. Senate hearing in January: “These problems are urgent, but they are not beyond our capacity to solve.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...