Single Mothers and Their Children Are Taking Over Abandoned Public Buildings

Mindy Isser

A homeless encampment nestled in a park at 22nd Street and The Benjamen Franklin Park Way brings to light the need for housing, healthcare, food security, and community, connecting them to the defund the police and Black Lives Matter movements in Philadelphia, Penn., on July 5, 2020. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In Philadel­phia, sin­gle moth­ers and their chil­dren have moved into aban­doned, pub­licly owned build­ings, in the most sig­nif­i­cant hous­ing take over in the coun­try — at a time when mil­lions have lost their jobs and the coun­try is on the brink of anoth­er hous­ing cri­sis. Jen­nifer Ben­netch has helped place unhoused peo­ple into vacant homes owned by the Philadel­phia Hous­ing Author­i­ty (PHA), as the founder of Occu­py PHA and a mem­ber of the Philadel­phia Hous­ing Action coali­tion. She’s doing what she says is the government’s job to make sure peo­ple who need it have hous­ing.” So far, Ben­netch and oth­er orga­niz­ers have housed over 40 peo­ple by occu­py­ing 11 homes, all owned by the author­i­ty whose respon­si­bil­i­ty it is to match peo­ple with pub­lic hous­ing. Ben­netch says that the fam­i­lies have no inten­tion of leav­ing, and orga­niz­ers are cur­rent­ly nego­ti­at­ing with the city to come to a res­o­lu­tion. Else­where in the city, unhoused peo­ple have esca­lat­ed their demands for the right to hous­ing by cre­at­ing two protest encamp­ments, one in front of PHA head­quar­ters and the oth­er in the mid­dle of Cen­ter City.

Eeg Strem­ist, a moth­er of eight, was born and raised in North Philadel­phia, where she’s now liv­ing in a pre­vi­ous­ly-vacant home owned by PHA. A friend told her that she could get her into pub­lic hous­ing, but Strem­ist thought she meant that she would be expe­dit­ed off the wait­ing list. When she real­ized that her friend actu­al­ly meant she could help her move into an emp­ty home, Strem­ist hes­i­tat­ed, but decid­ed to move for­ward. After all, a house would mean that she could final­ly live with all of her chil­dren, some of whom she had been sep­a­rat­ed from dur­ing the last three years. The house was dirty and dusty — Strem­ist and her kids spent the first day clean­ing one room, where they all slept. The next day, they tack­led anoth­er, and then anoth­er. Although Strem­ist isn’t pay­ing rent, she’s pur­chased paint, tiles and clean­ing sup­plies to fix up the house, and spent hours mak­ing it feel like a home. The house I’m in was marked as unvi­able,” Strem­ist said, but it doesn’t look like it to me.”

Strem­ist had spent the last three years mov­ing from shel­ter to shel­ter. Even when she had enough mon­ey to rent a place, she was con­sis­tent­ly reject­ed, either because her cred­it was bad, or because she was told she had too many kids. Now, as the Covid pan­dem­ic and its con­se­quences — unem­ploy­ment, loss of health insur­ance, poten­tial evic­tion — have con­tin­ued to wreak hav­oc on work­ing peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those who were already strug­gling to stay afloat before the virus stunt­ed the econ­o­my, peo­ple with inse­cure hous­ing are not will­ing to wait around. Unhoused peo­ple — who may live in shel­ters or on the street, or bounce from couch to couch — are some of the most vul­ner­a­ble to Covid. After all, you can’t quar­an­tine with­out a home. As the weath­er gets hot­ter and work­ers’ unem­ploy­ment checks run out, more and more peo­ple will be at risk of evic­tion or fore­clo­sure once states’ and cities’ mora­to­ri­ums end. And with­out enough pub­lic hous­ing to act as a safe­ty net for those who need it, more and more peo­ple will either join encamp­ments or find their own hous­ing by squat­ting in emp­ty buildings.

Although it’s PHA’s sole job to pro­vide hous­ing for those who need it, the author­i­ty has been under fire by activists in recent years for being inef­fec­tive. While it is the biggest land­lord in the state (and has 80,000 ten­ants in the city), there are still more than 40,000 peo­ple on the hous­ing wait­list, accord­ing to Ben­netch, and it has been closed to new appli­cants since 2013. Many of those on the wait­ing list have to wait up to 13 years to get housing.

In recent years, the hous­ing authority’s projects have includ­ed more mar­ket-rate hous­ing, which is unaf­ford­able for those eli­gi­ble for pub­lic hous­ing, and poten­tial­ly takes hous­ing from those who real­ly need it. And while thou­sands of Philadel­phi­ans lan­guish for years on the wait­list, PHA sells lots and struc­tures to pri­vate devel­op­ers who build mar­ket-rate hous­ing, and let oth­er hous­es sit emp­ty and decay. Strem­ist doesn’t know why there are so many vacant hous­es, and told In These Times that it’s a bureau­cra­cy thing, or else I can’t explain it.” Activists have been orga­niz­ing to change PHA, cit­ing its role in gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, as well as its use of emi­nent domain and aggres­sive pri­vate police. The hous­ing author­i­ty has denounced the squat­ters, and called their occu­pa­tion a health and safe­ty risk.” But so is liv­ing in a shel­ter or on the streets dur­ing a pan­dem­ic. The author­i­ty built a new $45 mil­lion head­quar­ters last year, and Kelvin Jere­mi­ah, the CEO, made near­ly $300,000 in 2018.

Philadel­phi­a’s home­own­er­ship rate is 53%, which is high­er than sim­i­lar­ly sized cities across the coun­try. The city is often laud­ed for its afford­able rent — com­pared to cities like New York, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Boston — but one in 14 renters still has evic­tion notices filed against them. Philadel­phia is the poor­est big city in the coun­try, with a pover­ty rate of 25% and a deep pover­ty rate of 14%, and it’s impos­si­ble to stretch a dol­lar you don’t have. The Covid pan­dem­ic has pushed those already tee­ter­ing on the edge of sta­bil­i­ty into total dis­ar­ray, and house­less peo­ple have had no respite from it. But accord­ing to Ster­ling John­son, an orga­niz­er with The Black and Brown Work­ers Coop­er­a­tive and Philadel­phia Hous­ing Action, house­less­ness was a pub­lic health issue before Covid.”

As sin­gle moms and their kids fix up their new hous­es, oth­ers have camped out in front of PHA head­quar­ters and a boule­vard that runs through Cen­ter City. John­son said that both encamp­ments were cre­at­ed after long-stand­ing encamp­ments else­where in the city were evict­ed. (CDC guide­lines sug­gest that encamp­ments should not be evict­ed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but on March 23 the city evict­ed an encamp­ment out­side the con­ven­tion cen­ter.) Those evic­tions, cou­pled with the urgency of the pan­dem­ic and lack of move­ment from the city, forced unhoused peo­ple to take mat­ters into their own hands by cre­at­ing the encamp­ments and squat­ting in aban­doned build­ings. The new encamp­ments are not just hous­ing, but pur­pose­ful protests against the way unhoused and hous­ing-inse­cure peo­ple are treat­ed in Philadel­phia. The orga­niz­ers’ demands include an emer­gency trans­fer of all city-owned, vacant prop­er­ties into a com­mu­ni­ty land trust, legal recog­ni­tion of the encamp­ments, and an end to both home­less sweeps and the sale of pub­licly-owned prop­er­ties to pri­vate devel­op­ers. They also echo the call heard at many protests around George Floyd’s mur­der to dis­band the Philadel­phia police department.

Accord­ing to Ster­ling, unhoused peo­ple go through many of the same dehu­man­iz­ing expe­ri­ences as Black peo­ple across the coun­try: sur­veil­lance, harass­ment, and being stopped and frisked” and ques­tioned just for their very exis­tence. The pur­pose of the encamp­ments is to house peo­ple, but to also cre­ate a space where they are treat­ed with dig­ni­ty, like they have the right to exist,” says Ster­ling. And because 75% of unhoused peo­ple in Philadel­phia are Black, the rela­tion­ship between the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and the right to hous­ing are inex­tri­ca­bly linked.

Orga­niz­ers met with May­or Jim Ken­ney and PHA CEO Kelvin Jere­mi­ah on July 20. Accord­ing to Ben­netch, the meet­ing went bet­ter than expect­ed, and the May­or seems open to mov­ing for­ward with some of our ideas to deal with the hous­ing cri­sis.” But she said that Jere­mi­ah, on the oth­er hand, is not: Ben­netch says that, dur­ing the meet­ing, Jere­mi­ah sent PHA police to intim­i­date those using PHA hous­es. (The hous­es that were raid­ed were from a sep­a­rate occu­pa­tion.)

Although Ben­netch got a cease and desist” let­ter and was threat­ened to be charged with felony crim­i­nal tres­pass­ing for assist­ing with the occu­pa­tion, she believes that, ulti­mate­ly, the fam­i­lies will be able to stay in the homes. A lawyer has stepped up and offered to rep­re­sent the fam­i­lies, which have also been sup­port­ed by hous­ing and home­less activists across the city. Ben­netch says that PHA is in the spot­light right now and they know bet­ter than drag­ging women and their chil­dren out of their homes.” Strem­ist, on the oth­er hand, isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to stay in her new home, and hasn’t allowed her­self to get too com­fort­able: My life isn’t sta­ble yet, because the house isn’t mine.”

May­or Ken­ney told the Philadel­phia Inquir­er that orga­niz­ers’ motives are sin­cere — they want to see peo­ple housed.” After a dis­as­trous few months for the city — includ­ing the tear-gassing of peace­ful protests — orga­niz­ers won’t accept plat­i­tudes. And the May­or is right: They want to see peo­ple housed. As of 2010, there were over 40,000 vacant lots in the city, 3,000 of which include build­ings — plen­ty of room to start hous­ing the near­ly 6,000 unhoused peo­ple (includ­ing 1,000 who are unshel­tered), accord­ing to orga­niz­ers. The city says that rough­ly 25% of these vacant lots are pub­licly owned, mean­ing that there are around 10,000 lots that could be used for pub­lic hous­ing as soon as pos­si­ble. Ben­netch believes that the vacant prop­er­ties attract crime and con­tribute to blight­ed neigh­bor­hoods, and says that there’s no rea­son that tax­pay­er-fund­ed hous­ing that is sup­posed to be pub­lic hous­ing just sits emp­ty when so many peo­ple need homes.” Dick­er­son, who has been on PHA’s pub­lic hous­ing wait­ing list for five years now, agrees: If you make 700 bucks a month, there’s nowhere you can live in Philadel­phia” with­out help from the city or the state.

While there’s been some tem­po­rary munic­i­pal and state-wide relief for renters, there’s been no leg­is­la­tion that actu­al­ly for­gives rent or mort­gage pay­ments dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Ben­netch believes that the city knows that when courts open back up, there’s going to be a way big­ger prob­lem than what we have now. People’s land­lords are already try­ing to evict them ille­gal­ly now.” With the pan­dem­ic and its eco­nom­ic rever­ber­a­tions ongo­ing, mass evic­tions and fore­clo­sures are like­ly, mean­ing more peo­ple could join encamp­ments like these. As Dick­er­son put it, If I could afford my own place, I couldn’t afford to eat.” 

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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