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

Hamilton Nolan August 4, 2020

In the begin­ning, they called it Camp Maroon,” hark­ing back to remote com­mu­ni­ties built by for­mer­ly enslaved peo­ple who ran away from their cap­tors. 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” in Hait­ian Cre­ole. 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 to the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art. You could also call it an inspiration.

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.

Lakay Nou began June 10 with just five tents. In days, it became 50, then 100. After two weeks, there were well over 100 tents, 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 strung over­head through 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. There is a dona­tion tent, a gar­den and — on the fence of an adja­cent base­ball field — a big white can­vas hung as a screen for reg­u­lar movie nights. Where there was once just emp­ty grass, there is now some­thing approach­ing 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 held in con­tempt by the camp’s organizers.

You’ve got peo­ple say­ing they’ve been work­ing in home­less­ness’ for 20 years,” Alex Stew­art says deri­sive­ly. He is sit­ting on a long bench one hot day in June, in the midst of the camp he helped cre­ate. 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 by what he saw as their self-serv­ing nature, as employ­ees took home healthy salaries while the peo­ple they were sup­pos­ed­ly help­ing remained in cri­sis. The encamp­ment is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the just do it” approach to orga­niz­ing: See a prob­lem, do some­thing, cut out 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,” says Ster­ling John­son, a Philadel­phia activist who helped orga­nize the camp. We real­ly have val­ues in line with each oth­er. 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, Stew­art and oth­ers began offer­ing meals to home­less peo­ple in the city sev­er­al times a week, just to build rela­tion­ships. The same group of activists 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.

Orga­niz­ers stress that camp res­i­dents are lead­ing its devel­op­ment, many of whom are sym­pa­thet­ic with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment (Cory Clark/​NurPhoto via Get­ty Images)

All of the orga­niz­ers stress that the res­i­dents are the ones who came up with the idea of the camp — and 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 the encamp­ment. The home­less are orga­niz­ers,” says Tara Tay­lor, 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 with at the camp says they heard about it with­in its first few days, by word of mouth. George, a 47-year-old man who had been stay­ing in a tent on Park­way for two weeks, says life on the streets of Philadel­phia got notice­ably hard­er because of the coro­n­avirus: Stores and oth­er busi­ness­es shut down, down­town emp­tied out and the cen­ter of the city was left with home­less res­i­dents and lit­tle else. 

You don’t have that many oppor­tu­ni­ties,” George says. 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 says the encamp­ment is prefer­able to life before, but when asked whether he would be sat­is­fied to be left alone there, he scoffs, Hell, no! I don’t want to stay out in a tent.”

Although he receives a month­ly dis­abil­i­ty check, he says he has been told 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 shut down the camp (as of the end of July), it is clear that may soon change, demands notwith­stand­ing. Mike Dunn, a spokesper­son for the city, said July 7, 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 added, 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.” In fact, orga­niz­ers ral­lied sup­port­ers and pub­lic­i­ty to resist a rumored July 17 move by the city to clear them out. The day came and went, and the camp remained.

Still, the res­i­dents of the Park­way encamp­ment are in a ten­u­ous posi­tion, con­sid­er­ing the fact that one of the camp’s defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics from the begin­ning has been its self-reliance — premised on its rejec­tion of both assis­tance and med­dling from the city or from estab­lished non­prof­its. Alex Stew­art says, for the first two days, the camp allowed out­reach work­ers to come in. 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.”

The right to exist with­out harass­ment from police and the right to per­ma­nent hous­ing are among the demands of camp res­i­dents. (Cory Clark/​NurPhoto via Get­ty Images)

To be fair, the scale of home­less­ness in major U.S. cities exceeds the abil­i­ty of most city gov­ern­ments to do much about it with­out sig­nif­i­cant fed­er­al help. It is a prob­lem that affects not just those already liv­ing on the streets, but a much larg­er group of low-income work­ers who have seen the afford­abil­i­ty of cities decline dras­ti­cal­ly over the past two decades and who now find them­selves per­pet­u­al­ly just one unlucky month away from los­ing their hous­ing. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Low Income Hous­ing Coali­tion, there are only 29 afford­able hous­ing units for every 100 very low-income house­holds in the Philadel­phia area, and three-quar­ters of very low-income house­holds are clas­si­fied as severe­ly” cost-bur­dened, mean­ing they spend more than half their income on hous­ing. Until afford­able hous­ing con­struc­tion mea­sures units in the tens of thou­sands, the city will con­tin­ue to play host to a large pool of res­i­dents who know they could real­is­ti­cal­ly wind up home­less with few options for rescue. 

Amer­i­ca is in the midst of 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 fed­er­al unem­ploy­ment pay­ments that have kept count­less peo­ple afloat expired in late July, with Con­gress still debat­ing their renew­al. We are at the precipice of a nation­wide evic­tion cri­sis with 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 rem­e­dy for home­less­ness, but it is an exam­ple of what a hand­ful of ded­i­cat­ed, rad­i­cal peo­ple can do in the midst of what feels like allen­com­pass­ing decay of our social safe­ty net. As much as we are liv­ing through chaos, we are also liv­ing in a time of oppor­tu­ni­ty for activists everywhere.

Adam Got­tlieb, an activist and an orga­niz­er around home­less­ness 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 agrees 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 with how osten­si­bly help­ful insti­tu­tions often treat the homeless. 

They end up relat­ing to peo­ple as pow­er­less vic­tims who can’t do any­thing for them­selves,” he says. It becomes a destruc­tive spiral.”

The activists in Philadel­phia say they are deter­mined to avoid that trap. But the city’s patience with their exper­i­ment is run­ning short. For now, the com­mu­ni­ty sur­vives. And the peo­ple in it, who are not usu­al­ly giv­en con­trol of 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 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,” he says, and coro­n­avirus is the bowl. And God puts you in the bowl. Now, how are you gonna feel? 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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