Stephanie Sena, a poverty expert at Villanova University, prepares to sue Philadelphia in federal court over a city map to evacuate the homeless in Kensington.
But the city says it no longer has such a plan, despite signs being posted across the neighborhood over the past month declaring that people must “… remove property and leave this place by June 16 …”
Sena said she will file the lawsuit anyway.
That confusion underscores the difficulty of tackling homelessness in Kensington, a troubled neighborhood caught between two nagging economic engines: gentrification, which makes housing more expensive, and the ubiquitous drug trafficking, which experts say promotes homelessness when addicts stay and stay in bed down on the street.
Sena, an anti-poverty fellow at the Charles Widger School of Law in Villanova, is suing the City of Philadelphia, the Office of Homeless Services, and Mayor Jim Kenney. Last summer she unsuccessfully sued the city in federal court to prevent the homeless camp on Benjamin Franklin Parkway from being cleared.
Sena disclosed much of the content of the lawsuit to the Inquirer. It includes calls for far-reaching changes in how homelessness is dealt with across the city.
When asked about Sena’s lawsuit, a city spokesman said the June 16 eviction was not currently on the table because several homeless people had followed orders to demolish tents and buildings.
“Camp closures will only take place if tents and structures are in place,” the spokesman said, adding that “tents and structures were in place at the time the signs were put up. It doesn’t exist now, so no warehouse closures are currently planned. “
But some tents and structures remain on the streets of Kensington, as demonstrated by visits to the area. And the reference to the orange metal signs that the city put up in May to announce the eviction does not limit the order to evacuate people only in tents and buildings. It states, “You are not authorized … to pitch tents or other buildings, or to camp or stay in that location in any other way.”
It was not clear whether Sena’s threatened lawsuit changed the city’s planning. The city did not comment on the pending lawsuits, the spokesman said.
“The city is utterly insincere, deceptive, and confusing,” said Sena, founder and executive director of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP), a nonprofit homeless shelter that has been operating for People Who Sleep on the Sidewalks since 2011. “
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The neighborhood social service director, who asked not to be identified, said city officials “informed all Kensington civic organizations that there would be an eviction of the homeless on June 16, no difference. We have been told that they are undressing people and we are all preparing for it. “
Eric Tars, legal director of the Washington-based National Homelessness Law Center, had a similar opinion.
“My understanding of the signs was to tell anyone experiencing homelessness to get out,” said Tars, who lives in Mount Airy. “And I haven’t heard the city remove the signs. So the people in Kensington have no idea whether they will be swept away or not. “
The uncertainty is palpable.
“We live under a threat every day,” said Becky, 32, a woman originally from Frankford who now lives homeless on Kensington Avenue. “We are harassed by the police who are throwing our things away. We were chased into that little area of the sidewalk. We don’t know when they will leave us. “
It is also unclear how many people affected by homelessness live in Kensington, said Sena, who addresses the census as a point of contention with the city.
The city’s point-in-time census, carried out on the night of January 27 through the morning of January 28 of this year, found 245 people were homeless in Kensington.
Sena believes the number was closer to 500 and was deliberately counted too low for the city to say it fell from 700 in 2019 and therefore could have a bigger hit and secure increased federal funding.
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The city denies the allegations, saying it has no financial incentive to count too little.
Michael Hinson, president and COO of SELF Inc., Philadelphia’s largest provider of emergency shelter for single adults, said that during the warm days nearly six months after the official census, “even the statement that 500 are homeless seems small. Their number is overwhelming. We meet with the city to examine long-term answers. “
Throughout the year, Philadelphia police said they would do their own counts of people on the streets of Kensington at 2:30 a.m., up 12% from the June 4, 2020 count.
“Police numbers are more accurate,” said the social services provider, although it is possible that some of the people counted by the police are not homeless.
However, the counting is imprecise.
According to social services company Kensington and other homeless experts, the city recently changed its methodology. Currently, people are considered homeless on the point-in-time night if they lie down where they spend the night and are not involved in any criminal activity by 11 p.m., the provider said.
To ensure the safety of the counters, they are also advised not to enter parks, vacant buildings or dark alleys.
“They are literally being told not to go to places where the homeless are,” said Tars of the Homeless Rights Center, who took part in censuses. “If you pretend this is right, you are at best insincere.”
»READ MORE: Philly executives should support the homeless in Kensington as much as they do in Center City | opinion
In addition to demanding that the eviction of Kensington cease, Sena’s lawsuit also seeks to:
Stop evictions from camps and homeless shelters across the city.
Form a supervisory board of residents and others to oversee health and safety and replace its current leadership
Reopen COVID-19 hotels, apply for a federal reimbursement, and invest the money in creating accessible, city-run property.
Sena also presents the testimony of a “whistleblower” describing alleged wrongdoing at a COVID-19 location for the homeless.
Homelessness in Kensington is a nuanced and complex problem that has long had no solution. City officials have said they understand the grievances made by local advocates like Charito Morales, a registered nurse who feeds and treats the homeless but criticizes the area’s diminished welfare.
“Do you think it’s nice that our children who go to school or summer camp have to walk through feces, see open sex and drug use?” She asked. “It’s traumatic and not fair.”
She accuses the city of helping an ultimately declined injection site in Kensington but failing to find shelter for those who need it.
In response, the city spokesman said: “There is no doubt that Kensington has been hit very hard by both the opioid crisis and homelessness.”
“The city works closely with the local citizens’ associations and community development associations to improve safety and quality of life in the neighborhood.”
“Our teams work hard to connect people to services and visit them several times a day to offer alternatives to staying on the road.”