Shortly after the Occupy Philly movement was evicted from outside City Hall, a small homeless encampment arose last week under I-95 in Port Richmond.
Yet, on Monday morning, little remained of the camp.
After a second eviction — this one from PennDOT rather than the city — just one red tent remained before the mandatory evacuation time of 11 a.m. as volunteers and homeless that had been part of the short-lived encampment swept and cleared trash from the area.
“It’s a shame, this was really working for them,” said Mike Pierce, a volunteer with Occupy Philly who helped dismantle the camp on Monday. “It could have been great. It could have worked.”
But make no mistake; although these “occupiers” had been part of the original Center City protest, one of several across the nation to emphasize hard times for Americans these days, they were not trying to start a new “Occupy Port Richmond” movement — though some had called the encampment “Camp Liberty.”
Instead, it arose after some — who are homeless and had been part of Occupy Philly — moved to an open stretch of pavement under I-95 at Cumberland and Richmond streets ahead of last week’s city eviction order that cleared most of the demonstrators from their encampment near City Hall.
On the chilly afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 30, a number of people camped at the Cumberland and Richmond intersection — on the stretch of land owned by PennDOT — spoke with the Star about their intentions, the separation from the “Occupy” movement and the hope that area homeless people could live in a visible place like that plot under I-95.
“We are human beings, you know? But most people don’t treat you like one,” said Jerry Stanton, 61, who has been homeless since the summer.
As he and Thomas Papineau, 47 — who said he’d been living on the streets of Philadelphia for at least a decade — offered a tour of the small camp, the men explained how it differed from the “Occupy” protest downtown.
“We aren’t protesting anything … this is totally different,” said Papineau. “We’re just homeless.”
On Sunday, Nov. 27, the roughly 30 homeless members of the camp had climbed aboard buses at City Hall. Police evicted the Occupy Philly campers in Dilworth Plaza in the early-morning hours of Wednesday, Nov. 30, and Papineau’s group left ahead of the eviction, he said.
At first they set up camp in the Conrail fields across the street — a place where homeless people have long gathered to avoid scrutiny — but the campers were told to leave.
The camp had been under I-95 since Tuesday, Nov. 29.
PennDOT delivered its eviction notice last Saturday morning, informing the homeless contingent that they had to be out by 11 on Monday morning.
Eugene Blaum, a PennDOT spokesman, said the agency also alerted Project H.O.M.E., a non-profit organization that helps the city’s homeless, to the impending evacuation.
Blaum said the campers had to move because of PennDOT’s concerns about health and safety issues posed by the settlement.
“We have very serious concerns about unauthorized activity under I-95,” he said.
Although the homeless people no longer were part of the “Occupy” movement, volunteers from Occupy Philly were in Port Richmond to help out and make sure everyone had food.
“Occupy is never going away and the homeless situation is never going to go away,” said Fran Sheldon, a Drexel Hill resident who volunteered to help support the original Occupy Philly encampment at City Hall.
“I came out here looking to help people. When I first got here, no one had eaten all day,” she said.
Earlier that day, Nov. 30, the St. Francis Inn Ministries, at 2441 Kensington Ave., had donated food for the camp, she said.
“I think sometimes that these people are so fragile, we need to help them any way we can,” she added.
Occupy Philly volunteer Pierce said that neighbors near the I-95 camp had been bringing hot soup and cookies to the volunteers and homeless camp members before they had to move on because of the PennDOT order.
Had the camp survived, Harvey Lockridge, 48 — who said he was in the Navy and ended up on the streets five months ago — believed it could have been more than simply a place to stay.
Although it was a loosely organized group, he suggested that the campers could have aided the neighborhood with such projects as creating a community garden or serving as a local Town Watch.
“We aren’t out here yelling or screaming,” he said. “We are out here because we are homeless. But we understand and we don’t want people’s property values to go down … so, maybe we could make a community garden? We aren’t radicals or riffraff. We just want to get our lives back together.”
In the neighborhood, reactions to the camp varied broadly. Some locals staunchly opposed it, yet others had empathy for the homeless folks.
A simple comment forum on the Star’s Facebook page generated a great response and conflicting viewpoints, from “They are adding filth to our neighborhood” to “‘Homeless’ and ‘Occupy Philly’ are not synonyms, but symptoms … I welcome them!”
Julio Nieves, 51, whose home on the 2500 block of Salmon St. is just feet from the campsite, supported efforts of the homeless people to become visible contributors to the community.
“They aren’t the ninety-nine percent; they aren’t the one percent. They are the zero percent, and I feel bad because nobody knows about them,” he said.
In fact, Nieves said the camp was an improvement over drug-dealing and prostitution that he has seen in the past.
“I’d rather see them back there than vans rocking back and forth at night,” he said.
On Monday morning, as volunteers and homeless people cleaned up the campsite, Pierce worried that the future for the campers was unknown.
“This was really working for them … it was all about people working together,” he said.
He hoped that leaders of Occupy Philly could help find housing options for the displaced campers. But some of the homeless people, including Stanton and Papineau, weren’t interested in shelters, citing problems with similar facilities in the past. ••
Star Managing Editor Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org