How Housing Activists Took on Philadelphia and Won

How Housing Activists Took on Philadelphia and Won

In late June, in a video on the news site Unicorn Riot, the activist Jennifer Bennetch was standing around, waiting to announce an occupation. The vid

G Herbo Talks ‘PTSD’ Deluxe, Going Gold With Juice WRLD, Brooklyn’s Drill Scene, More
Little girl with severe spina bifida defies doctors by learning to walk
Tired Of Corporate Politics Limiting Your Career? Here’s How To Rise Above (and Transform Your Company Too)

In late June, in a video on the news site Unicorn Riot,
the activist Jennifer
Bennetch was standing around,
waiting to announce an occupation. The video showed her in front of the headquarters for the Philadelphia
Housing Authority, wearing a fanny pack and a colorful print hijab, bouncing
anxiously on her heels, then glancing over her shoulder as if to make sure the
coast was clear. Yet once she began, she spoke calmly
and deliberately, proceeding almost without pause. The housing authority, she explained, owns hundreds of row
houses in North Philadelphia. Over the past decade, some of the houses
had been boarded up and some sold off to developers. She had a list. A number of the boarded-up houses, she revealed, weren’t
empty: Families had been living in them since

The video caused a sensation. News
outlets called Bennetch and asked, dumbfounded, how she’d done it. The
Philadelphia Housing Authority sent her a cease and desist letter. Over the
ensuing months, a raft of stories were written about the occupied homes,
and by the end of the fall, in a surprising victory, the city agreed to turn
over 50 houses to a community land trust that Bennetch would help run.
“Everyone tells me I’m a planner,” Bennetch said to me about her organizing
strategy. “I’m not a planner. I just do shit.”

Such self-effacement, I came to
find, is typical for her. She is known as a passionate, outspoken activist, but
when not behind a bullhorn she avoids drawing attention to herself, holding her
shoulders in the relaxed, slightly slumped posture of a tall person.

Bennetch’s self-description
undersells her vision and know-how, but it isn’t wrong, exactly: She moves fast
and trusts her instincts. The canny publicity strategy of the videos had been
cooked up only the day before, at a separate yet equally dramatic front in
Philadelphia’s pandemic-induced housing crisis: a two-week-old encampment of
more than a hundred people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The encampment was
located in a tony neighborhood within spitting distance of the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, and a Whole Foods. Until that June day,
Bennetch hadn’t drawn a direct connection between the Parkway and the empty
houses owned by the housing authority. She merely saw them as two situations
she was involved in.

The city was trying to negotiate
with Bennetch and other activists in order to shut the camp down. The problem
with this, she and the others knew, was that there was nowhere else for the
people in them to go. Since the lockdown in late March, shelters had become a
coronavirus risk. Philadelphia, like other cities, began putting those without
housing in hotels, but there simply weren’t enough
hotel rooms for everyone. At least three different camps appeared over the
course of the ensuing months. When in short order the city evicted those camps,
Bennetch watched housing groups load people into vans, only to see the same
people at the next encampment.

The houses, Bennetch realized,
offered an immediate solution to an immediate problem. She could use the
cyclical, intractable nature of the housing crisis in Philadelphia—and the
fact that the city had few solutions for it—as leverage. In exchange for
clearing the encampment, organizers could demand that the occupied homes be
turned over to a community land trust and converted into permanent low-income
housing. Bennetch saw that people were paying attention to the issues of
homelessness, poverty, and racial justice as never before. If the activists
could roll these issues together, they might make some progress. But they
couldn’t make progress if the public wasn’t aware that the families were in the

Other people she worked with weren’t
as certain that the occupation should go public. Some of her fellow organizers,
including Wiley Cunningham, who worked primarily to help the families get the
homes in livable condition and deliver supplies, thought it might be too soon.
Others thought she could get arrested. And there was a greater risk: The
PHA has its own police force; if they found the
families, they might toss them out on the street. But Bennetch was confident
that she could protect them. She was used to hearing that her ideas were
insane, improbable, or ridiculous. Usually, people admitted later that she’d
been right. “I know when I have to do something,” she told me. She neglects to mention that her instincts have been honed
by dealing with city agencies like PHA long enough to know how they work; she
knows from experience what’s risky and what isn’t.

In the Unicorn Riot videos (there are three), Bennetch
pointed out that some of the boarded-up PHA houses the families
had moved into were still exceedingly livable. Often the utilities still worked; some, Bennetch told me, were in better
condition than her own house. One video shows Bennetch flipping on the faucet
to demonstrate that the water runs, clicking the stove to demonstrate that the
gas works. A woman named Natasha lives with her children in that house. In the
interview, Natasha discusses how important it has been to her family. One of
her children is immunocompromised and wasn’t safe staying in a shared space,
and Natasha was only allowed to bring three of her kids to shelters. Her 18-
and 19-year-old son and daughter, still in high school, had been forced to go
to separate men’s and women’s shelters. But the kids didn’t want to stay there,
and ended up sleeping on friends’ couches and spending time on the streets.
Squatting in a PHA house would allow Natasha to keep her family together.

It can be difficult for families to stay
together in Philadelphia. The city has the highest rate of family
separation in the country, and homelessness is the second-most common reason for
separations. Something Bennetch didn’t mention in the video was that
getting into these PHA-owned homes legally is almost impossible. Today, the
waiting list is 47,000 families long, with a typical wait time of 13 years.
The list has been closed entirely since 2013. Natasha’s
best option was to apply for housing in Pittsburgh, seven hours away by bus.
The idea was especially maddening given the glut of vacant buildings in
Philadelphia. “There are so many empty houses just sitting there,” Natasha
said. “And you’ve got all these families who need housing.”

As the months rolled by, some said that
occupations such as the one in North Philadelphia were the future of housing
activism. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor at Princeton and a
scholar of racial inequality in public policy, told Democracy Now!, “This is a
model, a strategic model, and a tactic that should be generalized by housing
groups across the country.” But was it really replicable elsewhere? Unlike
other cities, Philadelphia doesn’t have a housing shortage; it has high
homeownership and an abundance of vacant homes. Yet nearly 400,000 people in
the city live in poverty, and among those making
less than $30,000 a year, 88 percent
spent at least a third of their income on rent. Was this the future of housing
activism, or was it something else? 

Bennetch’s interest in the PHA began in 2016 with a knock
at her door. At the time, she wasn’t an activist. She was studying mass media
at the Community College of Philadelphia and living with her two children in a
house she owned with her husband, Gerald Williams-Bey. One night, during
a disagreement she and her husband were having with their neighbors, two police officers showed up at her house. Over the
course of months, as the dispute continued, Bennetch’s family regularly dealt
with these officers. A lawsuit later filed by Williams-Bey describes the
neighbors’ behavior as “non-stop hate-based harassment.” Instead of
deescalating the situation, Bennetch felt, the police
made it worse. When Bennetch went down to the
22nd Precinct to file a complaint, they told her they had no logs of
Philadelphia Police officers responding to a call at her house. So who were the
two officers with badges, guns, and a squad car? When she saw the vehicle
again, she noticed the numbering was off: Instead of a 22 for the 22nd precinct, it said 96. After some digging, she found out that the car belonged
to the PHA’s police department, which is tasked
with enforcing laws and investigating crimes within the PHA system. Bennetch was shocked to discover that PHA had its own
police force. (Nationally, it is relatively uncommon. Housing authorities in
other cities, like the New York City Housing Authority, once had police forces
but have since disbanded them.)

Bennetch knew that while her
immediate neighbors’ row houses looked like hers, they were owned by the
PHA, a New Deal–era organization established in 1937
(one of 3,300 such housing authorities in the country) whose job is to maintain
the city’s public housing stock. Typically, the housing authority built and
managed large high-rise apartments as public housing, but beginning in the 1970s, it—like housing authorities in many other
cities—began acquiring
“scattered site” properties in addition to its more traditional public housing
projects. Scattered site properties had
the advantage of destigmatizing public housing because, unlike a housing
project, no one could tell who they belonged to. In
Philadelphia, the majority of these properties are in the largely poor area of
the city known as North Philadelphia.

When Bennetch went to elected officials to
figure out why PHA had its own police force, why they looked exactly like the
Philadelphia Police Department, and why they were bothering her, everyone
pointed the finger at someone else. City officials, she told me, said that PHA
was run by the state. The state said the federal government ran the agency. And
then she’d call a federal legislator, who’d say the feds fund PHA but it’s
overseen by the city. “It was a wild goose chase,” she shrugged. (Her
family eventually sued PHA during their investigation; the case
is pending.)

Bennetch got so frustrated by her failure to
make any headway that she switched her major in school to paralegal studies, a
course of study that gave her access to the research tools Westlaw and LexisNexis and to the Jenkins Law
Library. Bit by bit, she uncovered a byzantine structure of power. PHA, she
discovered, was federally funded, as she’d been told; it had state police
powers; and it was overseen by the mayor, who had the most power, she
determined, because he or she appoints the Board of Commissioners, who
appoints the CEO. The mayor could remove the board at any time. It was all
complicated enough to give each agency plausible deniability, or at least
complicated enough that few really understood how it worked. Dr. Susan Popkin, an Institute fellow at the
Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center, explained
that PHA, like all housing authorities, is an independent municipal
corporation. While housing authorities can and often do work with local
governments, they are designed to operate independently.

In Philadelphia, the housing authority is largely
disconnected from city government. According to one person who is familiar with
both PHA and other municipal development agencies in Philadelphia, PHA has its
own executive director and senior staff, as well as its own budgets,
procurement policies, and labor union relationships that, for the most part,
are separate from their counterparts in municipal government. It operates according to its own prerogatives.

At one of the public meetings of
the Board of Commissioners, which Bennetch began attending (in roughly five
years, she’s never missed one), she learned that PHA was auctioning off many of
its scattered site houses. She also noticed, separately, that the houses that
college students in her neighborhood were now living in used to be owned by

Beginning in 2011, the PHA began selling off thousands of “nonviable” properties in auctions in
order to raise money. The first year, PHA sold 341 properties for $6.4 million.
In part, this was due to the fact that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development had suspended millions in funding and, in 2011, after allegations
of corruption and sexual harassment, placed PHA in receivership. The former
executive director, Carl Greene, alone cost the agency at least $500,000 to
settle sexual harassment lawsuits; his $17,000 “diversity awareness” training
famously featured belly dancers and yodelers. In 2013, the Board of Commissioners
appointed the housing authority’s current president and CEO, Kelvin Jeremiah, a
move that brought the agency back under local control. The auctions continued.

Housing authorities nationwide are suffering from decades of
budgetary shortfalls, but auctioning off homes to raise money is an unusual
tactic. Popkin, the Metropolitan Housing Center fellow, told me she was
surprised to hear of it. (Many housing authorities are, in fact, using new
funds to acquire properties.) The auctions were primarily happening in North
Philadelphia, the neighborhood where Bennetch has lived since she moved in with
her husband in 2010. There, three-story nineteenth-century brick row houses line narrow streets, frequently interrupted by
grassy lots where buildings used to be. Vacant houses are common. Near where
Bennetch lives sits a fenced-off church with a collapsed roof.  “It wasn’t gentrified yet when I came,”
she said, “and I was really one of the only white people around.” Yet when she
moved in, she felt accepted by her neighbors. She recalled more corner stores
at the time, more Black-owned businesses.

Bennetch eventually began to sense that the community she
valued was slipping away. Attending the PHA board meetings, she noticed a
connection between the changes in her neighborhood and the actions of the
housing authority. Longtime residents were leaving
their homes; sometimes the houses were
boarded up. Why was a perfectly good structure being condemned? Bennetch and
her husband recycle scrap metal for a living,
so she spends days riding around North Philadelphia. Every time she saw a
boarded-up house in her neighborhood, she noted it and looked up the property
record. If it was PHA, she added it to her list. The task got easier when she
noticed that PHA row houses were all painted the same shade of dreary,
institutional brown. One afternoon, she
found 60 houses. In selling off decent properties, Bennetch observed, PHA was
not only changing the character of the area; it was eliminating low-income
housing. Properties were largely inhabited by students or
vacant. She noticed the full effect of
the change in 2018, around Christmas. The Eagles had just won a playoff game,
and when she went out for her nightly walk, the streets were eerily quiet; the
Temple students were all home on winter break. She could have been snatched off
the street, she told me, and no one would have noticed.

It wasn’t always like this, Ruth
Birchett told me. Birchett is a longtime resident of North Philadelphia and a
community organizer with Heritage CDC. “My family has been in this neighborhood 70
years. Same house, same phone number.” When she was a child, she said, “we
didn’t have vacant lots, we didn’t have abandoned buildings, we didn’t have any
of that.” That is the legacy of divestment in the community; the auctions and
new development a sign of gentrification. Birchett said it was happening fast.

Bennetch hoped she could use the list she was
making for a lawsuit that might help halt or slow the transformation. If she
sued PHA for neglecting the neighborhood and encouraging blight, perhaps the
list of properties could prove that the structures weren’t “nonviable” as PHA said they were. But she couldn’t find anyone to take the case. In lieu of
direct legal recourse, Bennetch took action. In April 2019, she set up camp at PHA’s new $45
million office in North Philadelphia, and for five months slept in a tent and
protested in front of the complex. Friends and community members stopped
by to offer support and help protest. Bennetch wanted
not only to bring light to the dispossessions but to demand changes to the PHA
police force. She called her project Occupy PHA. To some degree, the pressure
she applied was successful: PHA agreed to differentiate the uniforms of its
police officers and the appearance of its cars from those of the city’s police
department. It didn’t, however, agree to a moratorium on selling houses.

Occupy PHA made Bennetch a known and respected
figure in her community. People messaged her Facebook page when they had
problems. The following winter, she began considering the idea of squatting. She
was aware of the Moms 4 Housing protest in Oakland, California, and thought that the best
way to show that PHA was ridding itself of perfectly good housing would be to
move people into the empty homes.

Philadelphia, it should be said, has a long
history of squatting. In the 1960s, the loss of manufacturing combined with
white flight to the suburbs depopulated the urban core, and vacant properties
proliferated. In the 1980s, church
leaders and the future mayor, John Street, noticed the abandoned, neglected houses and encouraged residents to
squat. For a major city, Philadelphia
has fairly permissive “squatter’s rights,” which often entitle someone who has
stayed in a house for more than two weeks due process eviction through the
courts instead of forcible eviction by police for trespassing. In many
cities, squatters need to stay for more than 30 days for such rights to
kick in. More than 12,000 vacant units exist in
Philadelphia. Only Baltimore and Detroit have more.

Nonetheless, before the pandemic
struck in 2020, Bennetch couldn’t find anyone to move into the houses. For most
people, the risk seemed too great, a caution Bennetch understood well. She knew
the PHA police had ejected people for trespassing in the past. She sympathized, too, because for seven years, until 2010, Bennetch herself had been homeless. She had grown up in foster care, and, like
many other young people aging out of the system, she ended up living
outside and in shelters. During this time, she found the city’s social services
unable to help her break the cycle. “They were all useless,” she told me. “We
were sleeping at City Hall, and people were walking past us to get awards for
housing advocacy.” She got out only by moving in with her husband, to the house
he owned. She had experienced firsthand, in other words, an extraordinarily
simple solution to homelessness that is also the one many experts consider the
best: getting out of a temporary shelter and into a home where you can stay

In March 2020, moms started
messaging Bennetch through the Occupy PHA page on Facebook, asking what they
should do. The shelters had become unsafe, and there was nowhere else for their
families to go. They had grown desperate enough to take the risk. On March 23,
the same day the city evicted an encampment under the
convention center and a day after it issued stay-at-home orders,
Bennetch helped one of the families move into the first house. She went to protest the encampment clearance, then
quietly left to go help with the move.

Over the next four months, Bennetch moved eight more
families into viable houses.

On May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek
Chauvin killed George Floyd, and Philadelphia—with its own long history of violent, racist
policing—erupted in protests. These protests, as in other cities, quickly
converged with the housing crisis. In Philadelphia, the racial aspect of the
housing crisis was particularly clear. The majority of the 900 people who live
outside and the 5,600 who live in temporary shelters are Black and brown.

On June 7, in Bennetch’s side yard, three activists
she had come to know over the past couple
years met to discuss what they could do. Alex Stewart, of the Workers
Revolutionary Collective, suggested they start a protest camp, so the city
couldn’t evict it without violating the inhabitants’ First Amendment rights.
The group needed to find a conspicuous location, and proposed a baseball field
in the wealthy neighborhood of Logan Square. It seemed like a long shot, but
they agreed it might be the only option. The next Wednesday, Alex and a few
others set up camp on the ball field. The police arrived and ordered them to
leave but, for whatever reason, did not chase them away. By the weekend, more
than a hundred people had camped out on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “I don’t
think they thought it would grow that big that fast,” Bennetch reflected.

Within days, the city turned to Bennetch and her
fellow organizers to negotiate an end to the camp. In their first negotiation
with Eva Gladstein, the deputy managing director of Health and Human Services for
the City of Philadelphia, the city appeared amenable to their demands, agreeing
to sanction the encampment and perhaps pilot the creation of a tiny-house
village. But the city didn’t exercise any authority over PHA,
and PHA wasn’t participating in the talks. Bennetch
realized that if they were going to force PHA to the table, they needed to go
public. She also established a second camp, on a plot of vacant land owned by PHA, closer to her house. In July, PHA
showed up to the table.

By August, the camps had turned into a
flashpoint, but the negotiations were fizzling. The mayor publicly said he
thought the conversations were “fruitless” and threatened to
clear the camps. The announcement spooked the residents, but nothing happened.
The encampment dragged on into September.

People familiar with housing issues, such as the
legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, Eric Tars, told me at
the time that the Parkway encampment was unprecedented: a tent city with a list
of housing demands. Of course, protest camps themselves are not new. They date
all the way back to the post–World War I era, when veterans camped on the lawn
of the White House and demanded their pensions.
But it seemed Philadelphia was demonstrating a new way forward for housing
activism. Unlike the residents of autonomous zones in Seattle or the sanctuary
camps in Minneapolis, these people had a much more specific goal in mind and a
list of demands. What most couldn’t see, of
course, was that this goal derived much of its clarity from Bennetch’s
years-long obsession with the PHA.

During the summer, Bennetch discovered
information that offered more key leverage: The PHA was on a deadline. At the
second camp, which was on land where the housing authority planned to build a
multi-use parking garage, grocery store, and apartment complex, Bennetch helped
file an injunction to stop any eviction.
In response, the housing authority said it would lose funding in new market tax
credits if it didn’t deliver the land to developers by October 6. For PHA, the
clock was ticking.

On September 24, the encampment organizers
were set to meet with PHA in the evening to discuss a solution. They were in
the midst of their third and final eviction. That morning, Bennetch got an
unexpected call from the CEO of PHA, Kelvin Jeremiah. He wanted to talk
privately with her—could she grab a pen and paper? PHA was prepared to offer
her nine houses on one block in North Philadelphia, fully rehabbed and paid for
by the agency. While the houses were getting fixed up, they would provide a
training program for encampment residents so they could qualify for union jobs
in the trades. Jeremiah also agreed to reform the PHA’s police force, put a
moratorium on sales for profit for a year, protect the squatters, pilot a study
of the impact of land sales on the community, and continue to negotiate in good
faith. In return, Bennetch would not be allowed to tell anyone about the
agreement and would have to have the second camp cleared by Monday, less than
four days away. (The agency confirmed that Jeremiah spoke with Bennetch prior to the announcement of any agreements.)

It was a dizzying turn of events. At the public
negotiation later that day, Bennetch was subdued. Her fellow negotiator,
a former attorney named Sterling Johnson who had
previously worked for institutional housing agencies in the city, wondered
why he was doing most of the talking. Wiley Cunningham, who was listening on a
speaker at the camp, was surprised Bennetch wasn’t being more combative. “It
just kinda felt like everyone wanted to get it over with,” he said.

Bennetch told the others that she just needed
time to process, though she wouldn’t say about what. She was in shock. “It all
got weird. We suddenly went from being arch enemies to having these check-ins
about our deals.” The turn of events was more or less a surprise. “Up until the
day I got that phone call, we had no hope we would get anything,” she
explained. “For the last four years I’ve been doing this, we’ve been ignored by
everybody.” The other organizers I talked with echoed this sentiment.

That weekend, she moved the people who remained
at the second camp into squats and secured the deal. PHA posted a press release, and got its funding.

A week later, while Bennetch was
walking downtown to go grocery shopping, she got another call from Jeremiah.
Could she find a quiet place to take a conference call with Tumar Alexander,
the managing director of the city? She sat down on the steps of City Hall to
take the call. Bennetch recalls that Alexander told her he had an offer, that
only three people in the city knew about the deal, and that they were all on
the phone call. They would transfer 25 houses from PHA and 15 houses owned by
the city into a community land trust, as well as a number of rapid rehousing
units and a tiny-house village. In exchange, the city needed the massive camp
on Benjamin Franklin Parkway cleared in six days.

Bennetch felt an obligation to take the deals
and help the city clear the camp. The ranks of the people she was working with
had thinned. Frustrated or exhausted, some left temporarily for health
reasons, and some dropped out entirely. Many
activists thought the group should have pushed to get more. This didn’t seem
like an option to Bennetch. “If we don’t do it,” she said, “everybody’s getting
fucked up by the police and getting nothing.”

After the second deal was signed on October 11,
the city announced in its press release that the camp would
close, which set off a panic among residents. From then on, “it was a circus,”
Bennetch says. Anxious residents and activists who didn’t understand what was
going on reacted violently to attempts to clean up the trash. Some volunteers
had imagined the camps would continue indefinitely, but in Bennetch’s mind,
they were always meant to be temporary: They were a disaster
response site for the housing crisis and a base for protest—that is, they were
a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

One day, tired and largely alone, Bennetch
called the City to quit what was a completely unpaid position as camp clearing
liaison, but they begged her—“a nobody,” as she put it—to stay. Reluctantly,
she agreed. On the camp’s last day, October 26,
just two people remained. Bennetch checked Facebook and saw that Philadelphia
police had just killed Walter Wallace. It was just chance, she felt, that
police hadn’t killed anyone at the camps. Sinking into her chair, she felt dazed.

In December, sitting in Bennetch’s kitchen while her kids
ran in and out for snacks, I asked her what it meant
for the neighborhood for these houses to be turned over to a community land
trust on whose board she now serves. “You go around and see the former PHA
houses, and they’ve mostly been demolished to make a four-story house with a
roof deck,” she said. The agreement had given people homes and also stopped
these changes to the character of the neighborhood.

Running the community land trust, she thought,
was going to be a challenge. The position, which she shared with Sterling
Johnson, was unpaid. The trust intended to house families and other people in
the community who need homes but might, say, have a criminal record or use
drugs, so may not be eligible for federal grant money from HUD or other
nonprofits, because that money stipulates that it cannot be used to
house people with criminal records; many nonprofits set similar stipulations.
Bennetch was hoping to reduce costs by inviting
residents to enter programs that would train them to fix the buildings
themselves. Still, some estimates put the rehabilitation
for some buildings in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The
long-term viability of the project was still an open question.

The other looming question is whether what happened in Philadelphia
could be replicated in other cities. On a superficial level, the answer is
murky. When I first went to Philadelphia, many people stressed the uniqueness
of the city. The tremendous number of abandoned homes owned by the government
makes it possible for the city to turn them over to groups that want to do the
work of making them low-income housing. And nothing had changed for the
squatters until their situation converged, through Bennetch’s efforts, with a
highly public encampment. But Bennetch had been working on the problem of
boarded-up houses in her neighborhood for years before she found any success.

However, Philadelphia doesn’t have to be the exception. City
and state governments across the country publicly own land and houses that
could be turned over to community groups. Scattered site housing owned by
housing authorities is common, as well. It’s possible that instead of letting
homes go abandoned, the public could pressure governmental organizations to buy
these properties and turn them into public low-income housing. Of course, that
path would also require citizens to demand that the federal government—through
HUD—provide exponentially more
funding to housing authorities. In Philadelphia, public encampments proved one
effective method of making these demands, but any number of other tactics could
work. Other cities are also rife with vacant private-market units; one report
put the number of such units in Los Angeles at 93,000.

These tactics could also potentially be applicable to
private market housing, as well. In Oakland, Moms 4 Housing occupied a house
owned by a private developer and, through a public protest quite similar to
the one in Philadelphia, forced the developer to turn the house over to them. A
group of renters in Minneapolis fought
their landlord, effectively squatted through a torrent of eviction notices, and
won control over their apartments.

Yet even if the lessons are not directly applicable,
Bennetch hoped that people would look to the success of the project and draw
inspiration. “If we fail,” she said, “that’s gonna be brought up when anyone
else wants to try this elsewhere in Philly or elsewhere in the country.” And
while not everyone has her nose for legal research or her
borderline-photographic memory for statutes, the focused, indefatigable nature
of advocacy is replicable. She is animated by a deep affinity for her community
and fueled by firsthand knowledge of the problem. When she set out to clear the
camp on PHA land, her actions were about housing people she knew and cared about.

Possibly more important, Bennetch
has worked on this one specific issue long enough that she now understands the
system in general. Over five years, she uncovered how power works in one
American city and, to a degree, manipulated it. And instead of making her jaded, the experience has given her
something like righteous clarity. In an email
to the city on July 9, she wrote that the organizers and encampment residents
have lived in the city for decades: “We
know its capabilities. While the city government claims that it does not
possess the resources or powers to provide emergency housing for its thousands
of residents living on the streets and in shelters, we know that this is simply
a lack of political will.” The
following months proved her more than correct.

This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Read More