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Nation & World

Philadelphia Agrees To Provide About 60 Vacant Houses To Unsheltered Residents

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The economic downturn during this pandemic has far-reaching implications, including a pending housing crisis. Renters are struggling to pay bills as cities across the country are bracing for more unsheltered residents. In Philadelphia, homeless residents and activists forced the city to agree to a novel solution. Susan Phillips from member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports.

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: This summer, a group of housing activists and unsheltered residents in Philadelphia pitched tents on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the crown jewel of the city's cultural attractions. Sitting outside a tent beside an empty ball field within sight of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, resident Jose Alicea pointed to the Whole Foods cattycorner to the park and the brand-new condos rising across the street.

JOSE ALICEA: Just think about it. Look; people in condominiums - you think they want to look out the window after paying over half a million dollars to see this? No. They're going to figure one way or the other to get rid of us.

PHILLIPS: Alicia had lived in encampments before, each one of them broken up by city officials and police. But this one was different. It was highly visible. At its height, it housed about 200 people. They had a central demand - give all the encampment residents permanent housing or they'd stay put.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Housing now. Housing now.

PHILLIPS: As the on-again, off-again negotiations with the city faltered, some of the residents moved into empty, abandoned houses owned by the federal government.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

PHILLIPS: About three miles north of the encampment on a narrow street lined with red brick row houses, 26-year-old Patrice moved into an empty house with her 7-year-old daughter. We're using her middle name since she broke the law by moving in. She didn't have much to do to clean it up. Even the electricity was still on.

PATRICE: They paying for rodents to live in these houses. They paying for animals to live in these houses, mices (ph) and rats. That's what's living in these properties.

PHILLIPS: Patrice had been homeless for four years. Seven-year-old Viola, who until now has lived with her godmother, plays on the sidewalk outside.

VIOLA: So when I first came into this house, the look on my face was pretty, like, a surprised face like this.

PHILLIPS: The family has spent six years on a waiting list for subsidized federal housing, a list that includes an astounding 47,000 people. Recently, the city made a deal. In exchange for dismantling the camp, a newly established nonprofit will get about 60 vacant houses. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney says until those houses are ready, some residents will move into temporary shelters.

JIM KENNEY: We are on track to conclude what we promised we would do, and that is eliminate the camp without any force or violence, which is what has been our goal from Day 1.

PHILLIPS: Squatters like Patrice and her daughter get to stay in their new homes. She says she's overjoyed and credits the organizers and volunteers at the camp.

PATRICE: I never saw so much unity in life. Like, you know what I mean? I'm 26 years old, and I'm just - it didn't matter what color skin you had. It didn't matter, like, what's going on with you. You know what I mean? They didn't just look at us like we was homeless. People out there, they look at us like we was humans. You know what I mean? So I respected that.

PHILLIPS: Camp organizers now have to raise money to fix up and manage the houses, which will remain low-income housing forever. For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF RONE'S "NAKT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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