The Future of Homeless Organizing Lives on the Prettiest Street in Philadelphia

Hamilton NolanJuly 8, 2020

A homeless encampment is nestled in a park at 22nd Street and The Benjamin Franklin Park Way. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the begin­ning, they called it Camp Maroon,” harken­ing back to the run­away slaves who built their own free com­mu­ni­ties in the Amer­i­c­as. Then it was called James Tal­ib Dean camp, named after one of its orga­niz­ers, who passed away in June. Then it was called Lakay Nou, mean­ing our home.” To many in Philadel­phia, it’s sim­ply known as the encamp­ment on 22nd Street and Ben­jamin Franklin Park­way, stretch­ing a full block down the hand­some, leafy avenue lead­ing up the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art. But you could also call it an inspiration.

It began on June 10, with just five tents. In just days it became 50 tents, and then 100. After two weeks there were well over 100, host­ing what orga­niz­ers say is more than 200 res­i­dents. There are now hand­wash­ing sta­tions, fed by a skin­ny blue hose plugged into a near­by water foun­tain and then strung over­head through the trees. There are show­ers. There is a med­ical tent. There is free Covid-19 test­ing every Mon­day. There is a kitchen. There is a charg­ing sta­tion, accom­pa­nied by the con­stant hum of sev­er­al gen­er­a­tors. There is an ad hoc secu­ri­ty force, made up of res­i­dents. There are free sup­plies, for bed­ding and clean­ing and per­son­al hygiene and per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE). There is a dona­tion tent, a gar­den and, on the fence of an adja­cent base­ball field, there is a big white can­vas hung up upon which films are pro­ject­ed for reg­u­lar movie nights. Where there was once just emp­ty grass, there is now some­thing approach­ing a community.

Beyond the imme­di­ate impact of this enor­mous encamp­ment — the shel­ter and safe­ty and resources that it pro­vides to vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple at a vul­ner­a­ble time — one of its most notable qual­i­ties is that it was con­jured up com­plete­ly out­side of what crit­ics call the non­prof­it indus­tri­al com­plex,” a sys­tem that is held in con­tempt by the cam­p’s organizers.

You’ve got peo­ple say­ing they’ve been work­ing in home­less­ness’ for 20 years,” says Alex Stew­art, deri­sive­ly. He is sit­ting on a long bench in the midst of the camp that he helped cre­ate on a hot day in late June. That only ben­e­fits them. Because home­less­ness is a prob­lem that shouldn’t exist for 20 years.” 

Stew­art, one of the lead orga­niz­ers, is a founder of the group Work­ers Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Col­lec­tive. (James Tal­ib-Dean Camp­bell, who died after the camp was built, was anoth­er.) Stew­art has worked for non­prof­its him­self, but grew dis­gust­ed with what he saw as their self-serv­ing nature, as employ­ees took home healthy salaries while the peo­ple they were sup­posed to be help­ing remained in cri­sis. The encamp­ment is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the just do it” approach to orga­niz­ing: See a prob­lem, do some­thing about it, cut out all the middlemen.

Still, the encamp­ment did not spring up from noth­ing. Its suc­cess is a prod­uct of months of work on the under­ly­ing issues by many of the peo­ple who put it togeth­er. We’ve all been doing this work sep­a­rate­ly. We real­ly have val­ues in line with each oth­er,” says Ster­ling John­son, a Philadel­phia activist who helped orga­nize the camp. The people’s econ­o­my, being anti-racist, want­i­ng to cen­ter the peo­ple who have been through some things. Every­body in these groups have been through some trauma.”

The major­i­ty of the res­i­dents and the orga­niz­ers of the camp are Black peo­ple, act­ing with a sense of strate­gic des­per­a­tion dur­ing a time of cri­sis. Ear­li­er this year, Alex Stew­art and oth­ers began feed­ing home­less peo­ple in the city sev­er­al times a week, just to build rela­tion­ships. The same group of activists also helped home­less peo­ple qui­et­ly move into vacant, city-owned hous­es. (Stew­art says they have housed 50 peo­ple this year, and that he has scout­ed 500 vacant homes.) That work gave them both the cred­i­bil­i­ty and the con­tacts to pull off the auda­cious encamp­ment that has now risen along the city’s most promi­nent thoroughfare.

All of the orga­niz­ers stress that the res­i­dents are the ones who came up with the idea of the camp, and who are lead­ing it. Vol­un­teers help run the med­ical tent, and dona­tions pour in from the com­mu­ni­ty at large, but there is no out­side insti­tu­tion sup­port­ing this thing. The home­less are orga­niz­ers,” says Tara Tay­lor, who her­self is both an orga­niz­er and res­i­dent of the camp. They know their com­mu­ni­ties. It’s their word of mouth and their com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions that allowed the camp to grow.”

And grow it has. Every­one I spoke to at the camp said that they heard about it with­in the first few days of its exis­tence, by word of mouth. George, a 47-year-old man, who had been stay­ing in a tent on Park­way for two weeks, said that life on the streets of Philadel­phia got notice­ably hard­er after the coro­n­avirus struck: Stores and oth­er busi­ness­es shut down, down­town emp­tied out, and and the cen­ter of the city was left with home­less res­i­dents and lit­tle else. You don’t have that many oppor­tu­ni­ties. Every place is locked down. You don’t have much to work with. Plus you’re more sus­cep­ti­ble to catch­ing [Covid-19] than any­body.” He said that the encamp­ment was, at least, prefer­able to life before it exist­ed. But asked if he would be sat­is­fied to be left alone there, he scoffed. Hell no! I don’t want to stay out in a tent. Nooooo.”

Although he receives a month­ly dis­abil­i­ty check, he says that he has been told that the wait for pub­lic hous­ing is sev­en years long.

Per­ma­nent hous­ing is what the peo­ple want. Per­ma­nent hous­ing is what they need. And per­ma­nent hous­ing is at the heart of the demands post­ed at the camp. They ask for a com­mu­ni­ty land trust of vacant prop­er­ties for con­ver­sion to low-income hous­ing; a mora­to­ri­um on the sale of city-owned prop­er­ties to pri­vate devel­op­ers, until every­one in the city is housed; an end to the city’s sweeps (or res­o­lu­tions”) of home­less peo­ple and encamp­ments; more tiny hous­es, paid for with pub­lic funds; and for the Park­way encamp­ment to be allowed to remain as an autonomous zone, with­out intru­sion from police.

Though the city of Philadel­phia has not great­ly harassed the camp thus far, it is clear that that may soon change, demands notwith­stand­ing. Mike Dunn, a spokesper­son for the city, says, We have been nego­ti­at­ing with the lead­ers of the camp for the past sev­er­al weeks to try to arrive at a coop­er­a­tive res­o­lu­tion in which the camp dis­bands vol­un­tar­i­ly by mid-July and every­one there has a plan.” He adds, We have also let the lead­ers of the camp know that it can­not go on indef­i­nite­ly. We are pre­pared to impose a time­line this week if need­ed. We are pre­pared to offer the ser­vices that peo­ple need and want and to use this sit­u­a­tion as a start­ing point for reforms that will take longer to achieve.”

That sounds rather omi­nous, con­sid­er­ing the fact that one of the camp’s defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics from the begin­ning have been its self-reliance and its rejec­tion of both assis­tance and med­dling from the city or from estab­lished non­prof­its. Alex Stew­art says that for the first two days, the camp allowed in out­reach work­ers. The only thing they offered peo­ple was gra­nola bars and water,” he says. We have plen­ty of that. They couldn’t offer shelter.”

Tara Tay­lor echoes that sen­ti­ment. It’s not because we don’t want the ser­vices,” she says. It’s because the ser­vices being offered aren’t suf­fi­cient, they aren’t ren­dered in a way that’s humane, and folks don’t want to be gaslight­ed that this is sup­posed to help them, when it’s not.”

Amer­i­ca is in the midst of both a pan­dem­ic and a glob­al eco­nom­ic cat­a­stro­phe. Mil­lions have become unem­ployed through no fault of their own. The emer­gency evic­tion mora­to­ri­ums that were put in place after the coro­n­avirus struck are already expir­ing, and the emer­gency unem­ploy­ment pay­ments that have kept count­less peo­ple afloat are set to expire at the end of this month. We are at the precipice of a nation­wide evic­tion cri­sis for which there is no real plan. The con­crete achieve­ment in Philadel­phia — the cre­ation and main­te­nance of a camp with tan­gi­ble resources for hun­dreds of a city’s most vul­ner­a­ble and needy peo­ple — is not a full solu­tion to home­less­ness, but it is an exam­ple of what a hand­ful of ded­i­cat­ed, rad­i­cal peo­ple can do in the midst of what feels like the all-encom­pass­ing decay of our social safe­ty net. As much as we are liv­ing through a peri­od of chaos, we are also liv­ing in a time of oppor­tu­ni­ty for activists everywhere.

Adam Got­tlieb, an activist and home­less orga­niz­er in Chica­go, says the pan­dem­ic has made the day-to-day work of home­less out­reach much more dif­fi­cult. It’s real­ly hard to prac­tice any form of pub­lic health safe­ty pro­to­cols under these con­di­tions,” he says. “‘Shel­ter in place,’ by def­i­n­i­tion, requires shel­ter. It’s a non-starter for peo­ple liv­ing on the streets.”

Still, he too believes that the ongo­ing crises have made con­di­tions much more favor­able” to rad­i­cal social jus­tice orga­niz­ing of all stripes. The Black Lives Mat­ter upris­ings have inspired many activists to be bold. Got­tlieb sees the Philadel­phia encampment’s mil­i­tant com­mit­ment to self-suf­fi­cien­cy and its prick­li­ness about out­side con­trol as a reac­tion against uni­ver­sal prob­lems in how osten­si­bly help­ful insti­tu­tions often treat the home­less. They end up relat­ing to peo­ple as pow­er­less vic­tims who can’t do any­thing for them­selves. It becomes a destruc­tive spi­ral,” he says.

The activists in Philadel­phia say they are deter­mined to avoid that trap. But the city’s patience with their exper­i­ment is run­ning short. Activists say they have not heard any hard dead­lines yet, but expect to soon. For now, the com­mu­ni­ty sur­vives. And the peo­ple in it, who are not usu­al­ly giv­en con­trol over their own lives, have at least one more day at Lakay Nou.

Dur­ing the sun­ny mid­day hours in June, a tall, skin­ny young man named Don sits down on a bench on the side of the Park­way, a block away from the encamp­ment, where he has been stay­ing. He says he is look­ing for god, but all the church­es are closed. He wears a dis­pos­able paper mask over anoth­er cloth mask. He sits out here, as time pass­es slowly.

Imag­ine you’re a fish. And coro­n­avirus is the bowl. And God puts you in the bowl. Now, how are you gonna feel?” he asks. Trapped.”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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