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Philadelphia Homeless Residents’ Unprecedented Grassroots Housing Victory

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In a breakthrough grassroots victory, months of protests in 2020 by homeless residents over the lack of affordable housing in Philadelphia led the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to agree to cede 50 vacant homes to a public land trust.

A homeless camp December 2020. (50693543996).jpg
April M. Short is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor. She is also a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, across the United States, there was an increase in people experiencing homelessness. People experiencing homelessness were among the most heavily impacted by the virus. Philadelphia was no exception, and crowding in shelters, often following encampment evictions, has led to a spread of the virus among homeless people. In May 2020, after the PHA broke up and evicted an encampment outside of the Convention Center, a man who had been evicted from the encampment died from COVID after catching it in a shelter where there was an outbreak of the disease that infected more than three dozen people. This was one of the sparks that ignited protests, which led to an unprecedented housing victory for people experiencing homelessness in the U.S.

An Unprecedented Housing Agreement

In a breakthrough grassroots victory, months of protests in 2020 by people experiencing homeless over the lack of affordable housing in Philadelphia led the city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) to agree to cede 50 vacant homes to a public land trust managed by Philadelphia Housing Action (a nonprofit formed by homeless encampment organizers). The agreement is unprecedented and marks the first time a transfer of power and property ownership rights of this scope—from the city and PHA to protesters occupying an encampment—has taken place in the United States.

The new land trust designates 50 “properties for use as low-income housing, defined as $25,000 and below, and they would be controlled [and managed] by local committees,” PhillyVoice reported.

Philadelphia is dotted with empty, abandoned houses that have sat vacant for years, and in some cases decades. Meanwhile, at least 5,700 Philadelphia residents are homeless. Many of the city’s homeless residents are working families with children who find themselves unable to afford the city’s increasing rents. The city and PHA have been breaking up homeless encampments that have been called “untenable” by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other leaders in the city.

Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homeless Law Center in Washington, D.C., which has held consultations with encampment organizers, explains the significance of this agreement in a Philadelphia Inquirer article by Alfred Lubrano and Oona Goodin-Smith. “We haven’t seen a protest encampment like this one that’s led to this kind of result,” Tars says in the article. “I’m going to tell advocates and other city mayors about how this is a different way, a better way, to deal with people experiencing homelessness.”

The protest effort in Philadelphia led by homeless residents successfully transformed itself into a nonprofit organization and a public land trust, and won an unparalleled housing agreement with the city that puts ownership and management into the hands of encampment residents.

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