Federal judge: Philly is ‘permitted, but not required’ to dissolve protest encampments

Homeless encampment on the Ben Franklin Parkway and 22nd Street where community activists called on the City of Philadelphia to focus on helping the poor and homeless instead of trying to displace them (Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — A federal judge has cleared the way for the Kenney administration to dissolve three protest encampments that have persisted for months.

On Tuesday U.S. Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Eduardo C. Robreno denied a temporary restraining order and injunction sought by protesters in a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

In his memorandum, Robreno said the Kenney administration is “permitted, but not required” to terminate the camps.

The administration must provide protesters with at least 72 hours notice to disband the encampments, and provide storage and safekeeping for their belongs, among other things, according to Robreno’s memorandum.

Robreno said in his memorandum that the federal courts could not offer solutions to the city’s homelessness crisis.

“The task of finding if not a solution at least some relief to this crisis rests squarely on the shoulders of the City’s elected officials,” Robreno wrote. “It is an enormous challenge. But further indecision and neglect will only make it worse.”

Rebreno rejected the protesters’ claims to maintain the encampments on First, Fourth and 14th Amendment grounds.

The federal judge recommended the city adopt a written policy governing removing future encampments and storing their belongings.

The lawsuit halted the administration from enforcing an Aug. 18 deadline for protesters to disband the camps. Two of the camps are located in public parks in Center City. A third camp is located on a vacant lot owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) in North Philadelphia.

Approximately 230 people currently reside in the encampments.

The ruling sets up yet another showdown between protesters, who have said they refuse to leave, and the Kenney administration.

In a released statement after the judge’s decision, Kenney said he continues to evaluate his next steps and issued no new timeline for protesters to vacate the camps. He maintained the camps create health and safety issues for the protesters and surrounding community.

“We maintain the position that the camps cannot continue indefinitely, however an updated timeline has not been established,” Kenney said. “I urge those still in the camps to voluntarily decamp and avail themselves of the beneficial services being offered.”

PHA President Kelvin Jeremiah said he was “very pleased” by the judge’s decision and didn’t set a new deadline for protesters to leave the North Philadelphia encampment on PHA property.

“The judge reaffirmed our position, that PHA and the city had a right to remove the encampments because of the public safety threat that it poses,” he said.

 Jeremiah said he hoped protesters would voluntarily leave and declined to say whether PHA would forcibly remove those who do not.

Negotiations continue between protesters and the Kenney administration and PHA, Kenney and Jeremiah said.

Protesters filed the civil rights lawsuit last week to block the Kenney administration from enforcing an order to disband the camps. The plaintiffs, represented by attorney Michael Huff, are seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction against the city, which would allow the camps to remain.

In a released statement, Huff said the plaintiffs were disappointed with the results of the lawsuit but appreciated that the judge recognized the enormity of the dual problems of homelessness and poverty.

“In the Opinion, the Judge correctly indicates that the problems of homelessness fall squarely on the shoulders of the City’s elected officials,” Huff said. “We hope that this lawsuit raises public awareness and motivates our elected officials to offer long term solutions.”

In recent days protesters have shrunk the footprint of the encampment by removing empty tents at the cap on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director for health and human services.

Two hearings were held on the lawsuit in the federal courthouse within the last week, where plaintiffs, Gladstein, and others testified.

The legal action was brought by Irvin Murray, Maurice Scott, Dolores McFadden, Faith Anne Burdick, Edwin Jones. Kenney and the city were named in the lawsuit.

Protesters

Plaintiffs alleged the city’s temporary housing options were unsafe, inadequate and unable to accommodate the protesters in the camps.

They also alleged the city’s shelter system was mismanaged, plagued by violence, drug usage, racism and a lack of health protocols.

The lawsuit seeks to protect the three encampments on First, Fourth and 14th Amendments grounds, among other things.

While protesters have several demands, their primary goal is to have PHA transfer scores of its long-vacant properties to a community land trust in order to create permanent and diverse low-income housing options, rather than sell the properties to private developers.

The James Talib-Dean encampment is located on a baseball field on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street. At least 150 people are living tents at the camp, which began in early June.

A smaller encampment is based on the PHA-owned lot at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue; approximately 20 people are living there.

And a third encampment has popped up at the Azalea Gardens behind the Art Museum of Philadelphia.

City and PHA

During testimony last week, Gladstein said the encampment on the parkway was a health and safety hazard.

She testified that trash and drug usage were issues, and protesters were not practicing social distancing or wearing masks. The encampments also have generated hundreds of complaints from neighborhood residents.

The city had available space to house all protesters, Gladstein testified.

Outreach workers continue to offer innumerable services to encampment protesters. The city has placed more than 100 protesters in housing and provided social services to seven more protesters so far.

In a brief supporting the city, PHA said that allowing the encampment to remain on its property would also send a “chilling effect on investment” in the neighborhood and potentially derail a planned development for the lot, which would include mixed-income housing units and a supermarket.

The Kenney administration and PHA have maintained for months that they were meeting protesters half-way by agreeing to several commitments. They have rejected transferring PHA-owned property to protesters, saying PHA’s housing stock is held in trust for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.