Maryann Styles and Delores Liggins spotted the first tent while responding to a call from Project HOME's Outreach Coordination Center in June. As the two outreach workers from Pennsylvania Hospital's Hall-Mercer Community Mental Health Center engaged its occupant in conversation, they learned he was an organizer who intended to gather all of the city's homeless individuals into a large, autonomous camp, and he shared a list of demands. He was initially dismissive of Styles and Liggins' offers to support him but ultimately agreed that they could help by supplying food and water. This was the in that opened up the opportunity for their team to help those in need during a historic movement.
"In a couple of days, it went from one tent to 10 tents to 40 tents. A lot of homeless clients that we'd been engaging for a while moved down to the Parkway, and we knew it was getting serious," Styles said.
Inspired by Black Lives Matter protests, activists and unsheltered people came together on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. For five months, more than 200 homeless individuals transformed areas of the city's iconic boulevard into sprawling tent villages. As indicated by banners emblazoned with messages like, "Housing now! Where else do we go?" the encampment was both a form of collective shelter and a protest calling for accessible, affordable, and permanent housing for the city's poorest and most vulnerable residents. The dual pandemics that defined 2020 — COVID-19 and systemic racism — and their disproportionate impact on communities of color threw into relief other inequities like housing, fomenting long-standing frustrations in a city with a homeless population of more than 5,500 and tens of thousands on public housing waiting lists.
As it grew, the encampment was soon embroiled in controversy, but outreach workers from Hall-Mercer were focused on ensuring that everyone residing there had access to vital necessities during their protest and community resources when they were ready to leave. Alongside community organizations from across the city, Hall-Mercer's team played an integral role in clearing the encampment by October and connecting its homeless occupants to temporary shelter options before temperatures dropped.
"I think there were many people who saw that encampment as an eyesore, as a place for unwanted people, and a place that they just wanted to disappear. But Hall-Mercer showed up, regardless of all of the barriers," said Patty Inacker, DSW, MBA, administrator of PAH's Behavioral Health Service Line. "From day one, their tenacity, commitment, and ability to see the bigger picture made such an impact."
Joan Vieldhouse, Delores Liggins, and Maryann Styles spent much of the summer and fall creating connections with homeless individuals on the Parkway and linking them with housing resources.
Building Relationships and Community Bridges
"In order for us to get in, we had to maintain the rapport with people we knew and befriend people we didn't so they'd warm up to us," Styles said. "We sat down with them and reinforced that whether they were at the encampment or not, whether they were with these organizers or not, we were still going to advocate for them."
Their warmth and determination paid off. Soon enough, Styles and Liggins weren't met with much resistance as they entered the encampment to distribute backpacks, food, and water. They were even invited to cookouts and enthusiastically greeted as "the Muslim girl and the girl with the bun" as they walked through counting tents, assessing situations, and striking up conversations.
For months, Styles, Liggins, and their fellow orange-clad Hall-Mercer staff — Quinton Askew, Crystal Delmonico, Wes Lilly, Joan Vieldhouse, and Tamika Willis — made the Parkway part of their routine. Rather than coming with a set agenda, the outreach workers explained what types of services were available and how they could help each person, such as substance use support, placement in a COVID-19 prevention space for those at high risk for contracting the virus, or bus tickets to get back to their home city. Over time, they built trust and camaraderie. "It didn't matter if they were homeless for 30 days or 30 years — we advocated for them," Styles said. "We needed to show them that we were allies, not enemies."
COVID, Cynicism, and Other Challenges
Many encampment occupants expressed that the camp was comfortable, collaborative, and peaceful. However, violence did occasionally break out. Further safety issues were posed by severe storms, drug use, individuals struggling with mental illnesses, improper waste disposal, and the ongoing pandemic. Though masks were generally ubiquitous, as more tents were staked and more protestors joined the cause, social distancing became a concern. Plus, one of the core difficulties was the suspicion and hostility aimed towards all outsiders, including police, clergy, reporters, city officials, and even people walking down the street. Liggins and Styles were unfazed, though; it was all part of a day's work.
"We weren't afraid of the encampment, largely because we'd already established relationships previously with many of the people who came down there. We could walk in and just say, ‘Hey Greg, how are you?' ‘What's up, Roger, how's everything?' and move along," Liggins said. "Even with COVID, we just made sure that we were masked, shielded, and gloved up, and we carried bags of masks and hand sanitizers with us. Sure, it was scary sometimes, but who else was going to help?"
Still, the camp's ever-growing size coupled with the lack of centralized leadership meant that sometimes they were caught up in conflict. Liggins recalled one situation in which she had Styles had successfully persuaded a man to leave with them and go to a shelter, but they were almost thwarted by an organizer.
"As soon as we got this guy to our van to go pick up his things [from another area], an organizer stopped us and pulled him to the side and tried to talk him out of going," she said. Recognizing that the organizer's distrust of the shelter system could cause the man to miss a good opportunity, she stood her ground, which — after hours of debate — led to a breakthrough.
"His argument made sense in its own way, but I emphasized that we weren't there to harm the cause; we come in peace. I explained that this organizer might be able to go home every night, but this man didn't have that option. What if the protest ended tomorrow, but this man already gave up his spot? We were professional but bold. When we didn't back down, and the man agreed to come with us, the organizer actually said he really respected that we would not leave without him."
Credit: Michael Stokes (Flickr)
Securing Shelter as Solutions Unfold
Three eviction notices were issued to the encampment, but residents and protestors refused to leave until permanent housing was provided — an increasingly urgent need amid the nationwide COVID eviction crisis. Fortunately, city officials were committed to resolving the protest without force. The city and the Philadelphia Housing Authority agreed to turn over 50 vacant properties to a community land trust; by the spring, these houses will be owned and rehabilitated by a nonprofit established by encampment organizers and occupants and will be maintained as low-income housing. The city has also promised to create two tiny-house villages by June 30.
This settlement was lauded by local and national advocates as an unprecedented success — though it's important to remember that these solutions will take time, and they will not fully resolve the city's housing and homelessness crises. That's where the outreach work comes in again. As officials and organizers met at the negotiation table, Styles, Liggins, and their colleagues diligently engaged with each person at the camp, offering daily support until people finally felt ready to seek help.
"There was a table outside of the encampment where staff from the Department of Behavioral Health [DBH] were stationed to share information about outreach services and shelters. Depending on each case, our team would bring interested people over to that table, or they'd just send a text to DBH to claim an available bed," said Program Manager Maryanne Bourbeau, MS. "Usually, there'd be some wait time to approve placements, but with the encampment, it was instantaneous because the goal was to connect everyone with entry-level housing as quickly as possible."
By the time the last tent had been cleared, DBH reported that the combined efforts of the city's outreach teams led to 205 relocations into shelters, safe havens, COVID-19 prevention spaces, and other housing and treatment programs.
"Hall-Mercer was there from the first tent to the last tent. Every day, we were out there securing beds, packing people up, and dropping them off at shelters. It was all about having compassion for people who have been held back from resources that could help," Liggins said. Styles echoed this sentiment, adding, "No matter who they were or how they got to that encampment, we were there to make sure they got what they needed."