Housing as a Human Right and Lessons in Empathy

by Kerri Hughes
Featured Photo by Maddie Rose depicts the camp in mid-July 2020

Housing insecurity is something many of us do not experience on the same level as the homeless population of Philadelphia. Yes, one must make enough money to have shelter and pay utilities, which may cause some stress. However, true housing insecurity and homelessness is a much larger issue than meets the eye. 

Pryce Smiley-Barnes, a young man living at the camp, shared some educational information about the shelter systems. He himself was a child of the foster system, and the shelter systems in Philadelphia are often run by inmates. If you are released from jail, a condition of parole is often having a place of residence. But what if you don’t have a home when you come out? Especially with COVID-19, shelters are even less likely to have a bed for someone. Many of them are understaffed by underpaid employees, and are dangerous for a variety of reasons, including theft. Community-based encampments like Camp Teddy and Camp JTD will face fewer of these issues, especially since needs are being met. Homeless shelters are often at the mercy of underfunding and underpaid staff, as well as lack of resources for rehabilitation. While these camps consist of volunteers, the energy and understanding that this is about humanity, has created an environment where there is no lack for basic needs. If you aren’t burdened with worrying where your next meal will come from, it becomes less of a struggle to care for your mental and spiritual health. The camp itself gets daily donations of food, clothing, and medical supplies from the organizations Occupy PHA, Black & Brown Workers Co-Op, and Philadelphia Housing Action. The people I talked to spoke of how basic needs were met everyday. Not only did this include food and shelter, but a place to care for hygiene.

Located on the parkway near the Philadelphia Museum of art, Camp JTD is a homeless encampment that was built in early June of 2020. It was an early September day when I visited the site. Despite facing impending evictions as COVID-19 cases are rising again, the spirits of the camp remained high and matter of fact. Housing, shelter, is a human right no matter what your situation. When one speaks to members and organizers of this community, it becomes clear that this kind of encampment can be sustainable and provide the basic needs that we all deserve.

Danielle, a kind woman I spoke with, talked about her experiences as a woman in shelters. She spoke of issues with being able to stay hygienic and have her medical needs met. She is diabetic, and the camp has clean syringes for her insulin. As far as safety goes, she told me how she felt safer at the camp than at any shelter, even with more men occupying the camp space. The general consensus was that the Philadelphia shelter system did not provide the safety and comfort we all deserve. Of course those reasons go into deeper issues of poverty and power corruption in Philadelphia that affects many different communities and services in this city. Issues such as gentrification raising property taxes, inaccessible health care, the opioid crisis, are all factors that can lead to housing insecurity. 

Many of the residents of the camps and activists argue there is enough unused property to create homes for those without. However Mayor Kenney and city officials insist that these spaces are blighted and unusable. The juxtaposition of these supposed unfixable properties as more luxury apartments pop in the city has continued to create an energy of uncertainty for the people of Philadelphia.

The camps as of late have been under continued threats of eviction. Members of the camps and supporters have protested and also spoken with the city on why eviction should not be the step taken. The number of positive COVID-19 tests are increasing in Philadelphia, and CDC recommends not evicting people in a pandemic. This is advice for everyone, but especially for the more vulnerable populations who have even less access to the broken healthcare systems Beast, another resident, simply said, “If they evict us, we will just build this somewhere else” and suggested Mayor Kenney should come by the camps. As of now, Mayor Kenney has been invited to see the camps himself. He has declined. 

Housing is a basic right that should not be seen as so political, but in these times, acts of compassion tend to become politicized and divisive. I had the honor of speaking with Theodore “Teddy” Munson, the man Camp Teddy is named after. During our conversation, the last thing he said to me was, “I love everyone, everyone loves me, and I love you, too.” We would do ourselves a favor in this world to have that kind of thinking.

Update: As of Friday September 25th, Philadelphia Housing Action and the City of Philadelphia reached an agreement over housing. The agreement has transferred 50 vacant and viable homes to homeless activists. This is just the beginning, but is a wonderful example of how direct action can work.

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