Last month, dozens of activists stopped the sweep of a homeless encampment in Dallas. Police clear encampments by destroying the few belongings of those living there, deepening the instability and precarity of the lives of our neighbors sleeping outside. Some of the activists who intervened in Dallas were armed, leading the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board to opine against what they called an “intolerable” “scare tactic.” The paper called for the arrest of activists because “this kind of intimidation” is not “how we make our voices heard” (Dallas Morning News).
Unilaterally introducing firearms into an encampment sweep would indeed be an unjustifiable provocation. But every sweep already involves a band of armed men: the police. The only difference in Dallas is that some of the armed individuals were on the side of the unhoused. Last year, we spoke with Jamaal from ACT UP Philadelphia about the violence of encampment sweeps and the importance of empowering unhoused people as leaders and decision-makers in the struggle for housing justice.
• Donate to Say It With Your Chest and the Dallas Liberation Movement to support unhoused people in Dallas.
• Donate to ACT UP Philly and sign this petition demanding that the City of Philadelphia provide immediate housing to those living on the streets.
• Support a local organization of unhoused or formerly unhoused people working for justice like ACT UP Philly, Right 2 Survive, or the Coalition on Homelessness. If an encampment is scheduled to be swept in your community, go with friends and take direct action to support residents.
How did ACT UP Philly get involved in organizing against encampment evictions?
When the pandemic first started in early April of last year, the CDC had released guidance saying that homeless encampments should not be broken down; those people shouldn’t be forced into a shelter because, at this point, that space that they were in was probably safer. The city ignored that guidance and broke down an encampment around the convention center.
They put people into different shelters. As a result of that, there was a COVID outbreak at Our Brother’s Place that killed one of the shelter residents. This is when ACT UP got involved, because it was mirroring the beginning of the HIV epidemic: the people who had the least were bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
How is housing connected to HIV treatment?
ACT UP had been organizing to get people better [HIV] medication. However, we realized we couldn’t just tackle the medications. We have to tackle the social determinants, right? Because homeless people are more likely to contract HIV because they’re having to make choices that will put them at risk. You can’t fix anything else — not food insecurity, not medication adherence, the challenges of trying to cut down HIV infection rates — unless you’re addressing housing.
What is ACT UP Philly fighting for?
Our target is Liz Hersh, the Director of the Office of Homeless Services. When it comes to policies that are in place — as far as non-congregate housing, as far as people being COVID tested while they’re in shelters, as far as how to shelter street people, ending evictions from shelters for opioid use and possession — all of that stuff is in her purview to control, and she chooses not to. But instead of getting rid of Liz Herst and replacing her with somebody else, we also have demands where they need to establish a paid oversight board made up of folks who are homeless. They can be trained and be an effective oversight to make sure that the city is actually doing what they claim, which is providing trauma-informed housing-first services, because nothing they do right now is trauma-informed or housing first.
Who knows better what unhoused people need than unhoused people?
You have people who are housed, who have never been unhoused, who are setting policies for what unhoused people have to do to qualify for housing. There’s a problem there.
Is there a housing crisis in Philadelphia? What’s the connection between houselessness and gentrification?
Truthfully, there isn’t a housing crisis. Philadelphia has enough vacant houses to house every homeless person next year and still have houses left over. But you need to create housing for people who make zero to $25,000 a year, which is the high side of what poor people make in this city.
Every place they have swept an encampment out of Kensington has been gentrified. If you go to where an encampment was, they’re building a bunch of high-rise condos. They convinced the residents of Kensington that they need to get rid of the homeless people to have higher property values, but I promise you: as soon as they clear all the homeless people off the streets of Kensington, what you’re going to see is a bunch of new developments being built at a price you can’t afford.
What are some myths about unhoused people?
The city says unhoused people are “shelter-resistant.”
But as housed individuals, we can get up when we want to, and we can go to sleep when we want. Not everyone’s job is nine to five. If you work an overnight shift, or if you don’t get off until 11 p.m., you won’t make curfew, and they’ll give your shelter bed to someone else. If you’re someone who has a drug addiction and you don’t get them, you’ll get physically ill, throw up, and have diarrhea. Most people who are out here on opioids aren’t trying to get high anymore; they’re trying to keep themselves from being physically ill — they can’t go to a shelter.
You have millions of people across this country right now who are facing homelessness. But you hear people say, “Oh they choose to be homeless,” or “If they stopped doing drugs, they wouldn’t be homeless.” But nobody actually wants to be homeless, live in a shelter, or have the problems they have. It’s our social and economic system that creates this problem. Philly says all the time, “We can’t afford to house people, the housing is too expensive,” but every time we turn around, they increase funding to the police.
• Unhoused people are dying of COVID in shelters after local governments break up unhoused encampments.
• These encampment sweeps help property developers gentrify neighborhoods at the expense of people living on the streets.
• Housing policy that affects unhoused people needs to be led and overseen by people themselves in that situation.
*This piece was originally published on 11/5/21. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 8/12/22.