- Sterling Johnsonorganizer with Black and Brown Workers Cooperative in Philadelphia and a spokesperson for Philadelphia Housing Action.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says unhoused people living in encampments should be allowed to remain where they are to help stop the spread of COVID-19, we go to Philadelphia, where the mayor has postponed the eviction of an encampment planned for this morning. “The Philadelphia Housing Authority has about 5,000 vacant properties,” notes Sterling Johnson, an organizer with Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, who joins us from the camp. “We want to use them to create a community land trust. What they want to do is auction them off to private developers.” The move comes as many cities have continued to criminalize their unhoused communities despite the recommendations of public health officials.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As public health officials plead with people to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop the spread of the coronavirus, many cities are going against these recommendations when it comes to working with people who are unhoused. CDC guidelines state, quote, “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” unquote. Despite this, sweeps have been conducted in New York, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Denver and elsewhere.
For more, we go to Philadelphia, where the mayor has postponed the eviction of an encampment of unhoused people that was scheduled for this morning — about right now, in fact. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement Thursday the camp, quote, “casts an important light on the racial inequities in our society that impact homelessness,” and said he’s committed to taking steps to provide affordable housing.
For more, we’re going to go to one of those encampments of unhoused people near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and join Sterling Johnson, an organizer with Black and Brown Workers Cooperative in Philadelphia, spokesperson for Philadelphia Housing Action.
Sterling Johnson, welcome to Democracy Now! Please describe for us where you are and what’s happening at this encampment.
STERLING JOHNSON: So, thank you, Amy, for having us. Right now we are at — right in between the City Hall and Art Museum. It’s called the Von Colln Memorial Field. This is the James Talib-Dean encampment. We have taken this space. We’ve occupied this space. It is right in front of the Park Towne Plaza, where people pay about $5,000 a month to stay in there. It’s a very, very open and clear occupation of land that is not meant for us.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how it is that the encampment of unhoused people managed to get the mayor not to raid and take down this encampment today. What kind of negotiations have been taking place?
STERLING JOHNSON: So, just upon setting up tents, they did contact me specifically about negotiation. We had been in negotiations for a long period of time. We had eight demands. The first demand was to transfer the vacant homes that the city of Philadelphia and the Housing Authority, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, owned into a community land trust. They refused to talk to us about those issues. They raised many other issues that were important, but they refused to talk about this. They then — we decided that we would walk out, that we needed to have one conversation that was about permanent housing. Upon doing that, then they started to escalate and to threaten us and to cut our sanitation contracts. We then engaged them again, and that is where we’re at now. They have decided to come to the table, with the actual mayor and the actual Housing Authority CEO, to have a real conversation about permanent low-income housing.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, one of your fellow housing activists, Jennifer Bennetch, announced they were helping unhoused families occupy multiple homes. In this clip from an interview with Unicorn Riot, she describes who owns the homes.
JENNIFER BENNETCH: So, we’re over here, right across the street from the $45 million Housing Authority headquarters, where we just broke that news. And if you could look over here, these are all vacant public Housing Authority-owned properties. And our Housing Authority, as I said earlier, is processing applications from 2010 and has stopped taking applications in 2013. But there are just vacant properties. This is three right here. There’s two more down there at the end. All of these lots are also owned by the Housing Authority.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jennifer Bennetch. She’s standing in front of all these closed homes, boarded-up homes. Sterling, can you tell us what is the Philadelphia Housing Authority? How many homes does it own? How many are empty?
STERLING JOHNSON: So, the Philadelphia Housing Authority is the largest housing provider in the city of Philadelphia. They have a waitlist where nobody has moved — well, that has been closed since 2013. They are a group that has a history of malfeasance, has a history of corruption, of using money for other — to make market-rate housing. They have a history of blighting properties. They have a history of taking Black and Brown homeowners’ properties and giving them dimes on their — for their properties. They have a history of also putting money into their headquarters, which is $45 million, and not really focusing on the people that are around them.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority has about 5,000 vacant properties right now. We want to use them to create a community land trust. What they want to do is to auction them off to private developers every single year, so they can act as a private rental company, a real estate company. We have decided to occupy those homes. We don’t believe that it’s a crime to place a family with small children into a home so they can sleep safely and soundly. Those aren’t crimes. That’s an act of love. You know, it’s really important to see what the Housing Authority in Philadelphia — and not only Philadelphia, but other housing authorities across the country — have been doing to basically privatize public property. This is public property.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sterling, I want to ask you about the resignation this week of the Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s second-in-command, Managing Director Brian Abernathy, who faced criticism for his handling of homeless services and policing. It’s been reported investigators from a police counterterrorism unit visited the home of a Philadelphia man, Jose de Marco, who sent flower arrangements to Abernathy’s house as part of a demonstration to call attention to the COVID death of a man living in a shelter, and the city’s affordable housing crisis. Talk about the resignation and what this was all about.
STERLING JOHNSON: Yeah. It’s very important to see the response to legitimate protests. Jose de Marco is an organizer for ACT UP Philadelphia. We are, you know, a coalition of groups that talk to the Office of Homeless Services, and talk to him specifically, about all the trouble that people are going to have staying at home due to COVID-19. They continued to increase the budget for the police. They continued to say that they were doing what they could for homeless services. We know that’s not true, when they cut the budget by $12 million. We have a call to defund the police and invest in housing, invest in the people that are here, invest — don’t take federal money that’s supposed to go to people experiencing homelessness, and give it to the police. That’s a very simple — a very simple ask.
AMY GOODMAN: Sterling Johnson, talk about what’s next. The Philadelphia mayor says he plans to meet with the encampment’s organizers directly next week. Will you be there? What do you plan to tell him? You’re standing in front of this tent encampment. It’s not the only encampment, to say the least, in Philadelphia. And will you also be able to meet with Kelvin Jeremiah, CEO of the Housing Authority? And we just have 30 seconds.
STERLING JOHNSON: Yes. They have both said that they will meet. Kenney and Jeremiah have said that they will meet with us. We will tell them that this is not for us. We are not the beneficiaries of this. We have a deep, deep love for everybody that is low- and no-income. We’re not asking for affordable housing. We need housing for no-income people, for disabled people. I am a disabled person. We deserve every right to stay in this city and to live peacefully.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Sterling, how are you keeping safe? I see you’ve got a mask that you’ve pulled down just for this interview. How are folks staying safe, in this last 10 seconds?
STERLING JOHNSON: Yes. We have regular testing. We have PPE. We have hand washing. We have hand sanitizer. We have a medic tent. We care about — everybody in this community cares about each other.
AMY GOODMAN: It might shock people to know the CDC recommendation is that unhoused people not be moved from encampments like yours. Five seconds, Sterling.
STERLING JOHNSON: Of course, yes. And Philadelphia has rejected that, has told us that is one man’s opinion. We have that on video.
AMY GOODMAN: Sterling Johnson, I want to thank you for being with us, organizer with Black and Brown Workers Cooperative in Philadelphia, spokesperson for Philadelphia Housing Action.
That does it for our show. Wear a mask. Stay safe and save lives. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.