By Quinn McGarrigle
Featured Image by Maddie Rose
Author’s Note: The complete version of this article was originally published on the blog of some friends of mine in the second week of June, immediately following my visit to the newly established camp, which was then unnamed but has come to be called Camp James Talib-Dean (JTD). That full version can be found under the name “Philadelphia Homeless Build Their Own Hope” at the blog material community//industrial polity. This shortened version provided to the Partisan has been edited down from the original to allow a quicker read while hopefully still containing the most essential points.
In the past week in Philadelphia, a group of homeless people have begun building homes for themselves. They are determined to defend their new homes, and more than that, they are ready to take the fight to the city to make sure everyone has decent housing. An encampment of mostly tents and tarps has been constructed around the baseball cage in the Southeast edge of Von Colln Memorial Field, on the corner of 22nd Street and Ben Franklin Parkway. This encampment has grown rapidly, with around 50 tents and tarp structures housing both residents and supplies, all in the shade of the beech trees along the Parkway, one of Philadelphia’s central thoroughfares. Based on the information provided to me by the organizer Alex and volunteer Teddy, the plan to construct the camp went into motion on Monday, June 8th. The camp was established and taking in residents by Wednesday, June 10th. My main intention for writing an account of the camp and its direction is to preemptively avoid both the genuine confusion and the targeted misinformation to which these kinds of space-taking projects are seemingly vulnerable.
Late Thursday the 11th and early Friday the 12th, I was in the encampment for the first time, due to a call for people to provide a night watch to deter a potential police raid (or other interference or attacks) in the late night and early morning when most residents would be asleep and many of the supporters filling auxiliary roles would have gone home. Though at that point the camp was quiet, it was clearly well organized. Three primary supply tents were set up as a buffer between 22nd Street and the area where homeless residents had their tents. A medical tent, food tent, and miscellaneous supply tent were operated by volunteers throughout the night. I spoke with the volunteers operating these tents and there were clearly defined lists of their existing stock, as well as what they needed to get as soon as possible, what they would need long term, etc. The supplies kept in stock were determined by very practical considerations regarding what medicine or medical supplies are needed and how they might be acquired. For example, as with food, any opened or partially used medical supplies need to be turned away for safety and hygiene reasons, which is necessary but complicates the issue of acquiring prescription medications. The attention to practical challenges and calmly taking on the responsibility of dealing with them in a rapidly shifting situation seemed to be an immediate strength. When I left the camp early Thursday morning around 3:00 AM, there were roughly 30 tents occupied by homeless residents, with some other residents in sleeping bags on the ground.
By Thursday afternoon, the camp had already grown, now with at least 40 tents. During the day the camp was bustling with people working on various projects. Welcoming new residents, helping pitch their tents, taking donations, organizing the donations, and updating stock, distributing food and supplies where needed, speaking to interested passersby and potential volunteers: these were the primary activities carried out on site. Away from the site itself, those with the means to do so were picking up supplies and delivering them both to the Parkway Encampment itself and to other homeless people around the city, both as a way to supply direct aid and spread the word about the project and its goals.
The encampment and the organizational methods developing for its operation include those with ideological-political motivations who assisted with the organization of the camp and the homeless population making up the residents, groups that often overlap. Residents and non-residents may sometimes play different roles and are approaching the management and expansion of the encampment from different positions, but are almost indistinguishable without asking around about details, as they are engaged in largely the same day-to-day activities and come from similar backgrounds. This provides a crucial unity of purpose and perspective that distinguishes these ideological organizers from “professional activists.” WRC and OccupyPHA’s experience with political organizing and legal strategies function within the camp as unique skills that complement the abilities of others working to build and maintain the camp. Their de facto roles as leaders has come out of their demonstrated ability to organize, as opposed to “professional activists” who decide first that they are organizers and then seek out people to organize (you have likely seen some of them leading marches with megaphones, speaking vaguely about justice before encouraging protestors to kneel with the cops). I refrain from calling them “organizers”, as the homeless residents themselves are just as involved in the organization of the encampment as the explicitly ideological members of WRC and OccupyPHA. “Organizer” often implies that there is a directionless mass of people who require outside intervention to give them purpose, knowledge, and organization. The members of WRC and OccupyPHA present in the encampment are themselves from backgrounds similar to the resident: many have been homeless, and all have at the least struggled with housing and the various other gauntlets of poverty. They are distinguishable from the presently homeless residents of the camp in that they are members of coordinated groups operating on political grounds, but they are mobilizing the communities they belong to from within, not seeking a mandate to organize people from the outside.
Two distinct Philadelphia organizations make up some of the ideological-political members of the camp, the Workers Revolutionary Collective (WRC) and OccupyPHA (Occupy Philadelphia Housing Authority). Miscellaneous socialist volunteers, some with specialized experience (such as medics and nurses) are also included. The other volunteers serve what might be called auxiliary roles in the sense that they use their experience with direct action, and/or their particular skill sets, to facilitate the camp’s survival in the form of managing, sorting, and distributing donations, as well as assisting with whatever other work might need to be done around camp.
Workers Revolutionary Collective is a revolutionary socialist organization — they outline their beliefs, goals, and methods in a well-presented and accessible way on their website.
OccupyPHA is an organization formed in opposition to the abuses of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, especially their role in gentrification, aggressive eviction of people from their homes, and total failure to address the issues of homelessness in the city. Though they do not express any explicit ideological allegiances outside of the issues their organization addresses, the politics of OccupyPHA can be understood as revolutionary and anti-capitalist in their uncompromising prioritizing of people’s immediate existential needs over any compromise with the representatives of property or the capitalist state.
Besides those who became involved with the encampment in accordance with ideological-political convictions, another primary group working in the encampment are the homeless residents who are working to both build themselves a home and get enough leverage to enforce their uncompromising demands for universal housing. I qualify political with “ideological” only because I do not want to strictly distinguish those involved on the basis of having more abstract political convictions, from those (especially among the homeless population) who may not have much familiarity with political ideological abstractions but nonetheless find themselves embodying the politics of a struggle for true liberty and equality, and understand its necessity in an immediate and urgent way. I spoke with several residents making a home in the encampment.
I met first with Teddy, a man who is not himself homeless but was inspired to join on Wednesday the 10th after walking by and “falling in love with it.” He was very friendly and enthusiastically working towards the camp’s efforts, doing whatever was needed of him. He was glad to hear that I wanted to speak to the residents, and directed me first to William. William claimed he didn’t have anything useful to say, but after some prodding from Teddy he opened up and had a lot to say. I hardly had to open with a vague inquiry into what was going on in the camp before he stated unequivocally that they were out there to get housing, nothing less. For clarification, I asked: “The point isn’t to live here permanently then, it’s to get housing?” He affirmed this enthusiastically, saying they were sick of having no permanent place to live and getting no help, and that they were there to demand housing for everyone once and for all. A few times he described this housing as “public housing,” and I asked him if he distinguished this from existing “low-income housing,”, and though he didn’t specify what the difference would be, he said “Any kind of housing, doesn’t matter,” and reiterated that everyone needed homes and that they were ready to fight for them. There was an overwhelming precision of purpose: every homeless person staying in the camp that I spoke to said that they were there to demand housing.
William did, however, have some concerns about the camp residents and their supplies being exploited by those who pretended to be homeless, but took the supplies they received elsewhere and sold them. He said that the people doing this were usually addicts who were not homeless themselves, but poor and dependent on substances, and taking the supplies that were meant for the homeless residents. I asked whether some of these addicts may be homeless themselves and struggling with their addictions, and he conceded that this may be true, but reiterated that it was still wrong and was sabotaging their effort. William went further, saying that nobody should be staying there if they’re not ready to take part in the struggle for housing. We got word that the resident meeting was happening shortly in the baseball field, and someone clarified for me that it was a planning and decision making meeting that only residents could participate in, but I could stay to the side and watch and take notes.
The meeting was held in a large circle of residents and members of WRC and OccupyPHA. That only residents could attend the meeting was not strictly true, seeing as WRC/OccupyPHA were involved as facilitators and mediators, but the rule effectively ensured that discussion and decision making was happening only among those staying in the camp.
The camp residents and WRC/OccupyPHA are both, by a large majority, black and poor Philadelphia residents. There is no immediately striking difference in the dress or language of WRC/PhillyPHA and the other camp residents — there is a wide variety overall, but the variety is common among both the residents and WRC/PhillyPHA. Throughout the meeting, and speaking to some members of WRC/PhillyPHA afterwards, it became clear that WRC/PhillyPHA are distinguished by having theoretical, political, and legal familiarity to varying degrees, but are largely from similar circumstances as those they are helping to organize themselves. Multiple WRC/PhillyPHA members expressed that they had themselves at some point been homeless or lived in crackhouses. All of this is in contrast to a broader contemporary leftist milieu that, both in Philadelphia and the US more broadly, often finds itself composed primarily of students, academics, professional activists, and various middle class backgrounds. Of course, there is no position in society that puts someone above the struggle for a better world (though for some, that struggle might demand uncomfortable changes). The WRC/OccupyPHA understand personally the immediate needs and challenges of homelessness and adjacent impoverished conditions, and they understand theoretically the position that the homeless fill in society. This combined knowledge, and the courage to act on it, seems to me what distinguishes these socialists from many other contemporary leftist groups.
Following WRC/OccupyPHA’s reminder that they were only there to provide advice and guidance and that both the meeting and the encampment in general depended on the collective leadership and decision making of the residents, WRC/OccupyPHA began to take an even lighter role in the discussion than they had before. Residents spoke up and talked among each other expressing various thoughts and ideas. The most pressing points had already been introduced and emphasized by WRC/OccupyPHA, so that further discussion began to take the form of broader statements, personal experiences, denouncement of the injustice of homelessness and poverty and praise of the solidarity they had shown to each other and that had been shown by volunteers and donors.
As the meeting continued, the issue of clarity and time emerged again. In addition to these potential problems, tensions appeared over the confrontational strategy of the camp and the methods through which the demands were being made. These tensions became exacerbated by a few people who spoke for an especially long time and wore down the patience of those in the meeting with meandering anecdotes and provocations. Eventually people began to give up on the meeting and return to camp. A couple of the WRC/OccupyPHA members joined with those residents walking away and listened to their disappointment with the meeting being derailed, and assured the residents that this was okay, they had covered what needed to be covered and it would take a little while for these meetings to develop. Though the meeting tapered off in a way many found unsatisfactory, the energy and focus in the camp remained. Residents went back to building homes for themselves and homes for their new neighbors. Growing pains are a part of growth — they would meet again the next day.
Updated information about what the camp needs in the form of donations or other support can be found through http://www.wrc.life/contact/ or contacting OccupyPHA through the phone number provided through their Facebook page. WRC also provides updates on their Twitter account, @WorkersRevolut2.