ACT UP Philadelphia calls for revamp of city’s housing services

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An ACT UP protester holding a sign reading “Encampment Evictions Kill.”

To mark the end of Pride month and the ongoing fight for adequate housing, members of the Philadelphia chapter of the HIV/AIDS activism organization ACT UP held a protest outside of Mayor Jim Kenney’s condo in Old City. Around 40 ACT UP members and activists gathered to demand more plentiful permanent housing for Philadelphians facing homelessness, many of whom are Black and Brown and LGBTQ+. They also called for an overhaul of the leadership of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services (OHS).   

Organizers showed the duality of Pride by holding a dance party in the street after making their demands known, with musical support from DJ Dot zerozerozero and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret.  

Speakers included ACT UP organizer Jamaal Henderson, Black and Brown Workers Cooperative (BBWC) co-founder Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, Philadelphia musician and activist Zula Wildheart and Philadelphia Overdose Prevention Network (POPN) organizer Moses Santana. 

“Everybody’s seen homeless people walking down these streets,” Wildheart said at the protest. “They ain’t hiding. They’re right here in your eyes asking for change… How many times are you going to put mamas and babies out on the street?” 

Jamaal Henderson speaking at ACT UP’s protest.

The demands of ACT UP are as follows: place a moratorium on all evictions, including encampment evictions; establish an oversight board comprised of unhoused individuals and those using OHS services who will review OHS policies, practices and personnel; reopen COVID hotels until everyone has access to housing; institute housing-first, trauma-informed programs that swiftly place people in permanent housing; remove OHS Director Liz Hersh and all OHS upper management from office; and “immediately evaluate every contractor that you have that provides services to homeless people in this city to make sure that they are providing true, shelter-informed, housing-first care,” Henderson added at the protest. 

In response to ACT UP demands, a city spokesperson told PGN in an email: “While the City readily acknowledges that any homelessness is too much homelessness, the Office of Homeless Services’ housing-first approach adopted by this administration is saving lives and reducing suffering. OHS aims to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring in Philadelphia amid a national housing crisis.”

The spokesperson cited the City’s Encampment Resolution Program, saying “encampment resolutions, when they occur, are a social services-led process with the primary goal of [connecting] Philadelphians with vital services, especially housing and treatment. Most people accept services.” They said that OHS currently has a board called the Roadmap to Homes, a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), composed of six committees: Lived Experience, Providers, HUD Alignment, Young Adult Leadership, Coordinated Entry and Racial Equity. 

Regarding Roadmap to Homes, ACT UP organizer José de Marco said, “They claim that their Roadmap to Homes Board provides oversight. I was nominated for a seat on the board, and was not allowed on the ballot, with no explanation. The ballot only had one candidate for each position. They’re afraid of real oversight because they know they have done such a bad job, and people have died because of it.”

In terms of COVID-19 safety, the city spokesperson told PGN that the city is running two community-based COVID Prevention Spaces for people 65 and up and those with chronic illnesses. Those spaces provide “safe, non-congregate rooms and services for those most vulnerable to COVID. And participants are prioritized for long-term housing.” Plus, the City implemented three “community-based Single Room Occupancy programs.” 

During the protest, ACT UP organizers played anonymous audio clips of people who previously lived in the PATCO homeless encampment.  

One individual said via the recording, “if somebody’s in a situation, or somebody [needs help], and they can’t really get the help, why evict them or try to put them in a worse position — in a position they can’t get themselves out of?”

Henderson shared a story from a friend who works for the Philadelphia shelter system to illustrate that many shelter staff are not trans-competent, and that the gendered entry process creates a roadblock for trans people who seek access to shelter. Henderson’s friend worked with a trans woman with a speech and hearing disability. 

“[The trans woman] was often read as a masculine or gender-ambiguous person,” Henderson said, quoting their friend. “She was turned away from House of Passage several times, despite writing down that she was a woman and was homeless and in need of a place to stay.” 

A 2020 Williams Institute study revealed that roughly 8% of transgender adults in the U.S. reported having experienced homelessness in the year before participating in the survey; 3% of cisgender and “genderqueer sexual minority adults,” as well as 1% of cishet adults reported having experienced homelessness recently. The study also showed that more Black and Latinx sexual minorities recently experienced homelessness than their white peers.  

“You have to understand that identities are intersectional, so folks who are experiencing houselessness may also be [people] living with HIV,” Naiymah Sanchez, trans justice coordinator for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told PGN at the protest. 

BBWC’s Muhammad spoke about homelessness as an HIV/AIDS issue. 

“As someone who’s lived with the virus, as someone who’s HIV-positive, I’ve worked in AIDS nonprofits in the city and I saw the critical housing needs of folks who would come in to test,” they told the crowd. “We know that you can’t be on your meds properly — we want folks to be on their meds if they don’t have a place to lay their head. This is a health issue, it’s an issue about humanity too.”

In light of World AIDS Day in December, 2020, ACT UP Philadelphia sent recommendations to members of the Biden/Harris HUD review team, calling ample housing an HIV prevention tool. The organization’s statement includes a quote from Dr. David Holtgrave from the Housing and HIV/AIDS Research Summit IV, which reads in part: “Housing status is likely the most important characteristic of each [person living with HIV/AIDS] who seeks services — the most significant determinant of each PLWHA’s health and risk outcomes.” 

The city spokesperson noted that “Philadelphia continues to have the lowest number of street homelessness of any major American city — as of 2020, we have reduced chronic street homelessness by 12%. And we’ve reduced family homelessness in Philadelphia by 25% since 2017.” 

POPN’s Santana told fellow protesters that organizers have been fighting for adequate housing in Philadelphia for at least 40 years, “and this city always delivers the minimum change, if any change at all. In this city there’s about 6,000 homeless citizens and there’s only half the beds to accommodate [them]. The City of Philadelphia needs to know that it’s time for change; City Council needs to know that it’s time for change; Mayor Kenney needs to know that it’s time for change.”

Broke in Philly is a collaborative initiative among 19 local news organizations to provide in-depth, nuanced and solutions-oriented reporting on the issues of poverty and the push for economic justice in Philadelphia.