On March 31st, the City of Philadelphia carried out a “Service Day” in an attempt to clean the areas of the subway corridor underneath Locust Street where more than 30 tents are housing roughly 50 people. “Service days” have long been demonized by the unhoused and activists as an excuse to throw away the tents and belongings of the unhoused, displacing them further; the City and Philadelphia Police dispute these claims.
In a previous correspondence with a City spokesperson, they said “Service days are simply clean-ups around people who are living on the street… the City provides 72 hours notice. People are welcome to keep their belongings and participate in the cleanup.” Yesterday’s service day did not result in displacement, trashing of tents, or sweeping arrests. However the overall mood was tense underground as more than 40 activists showed up to bear witness to the Service Day, which seemed to surprise and frustrate Philadelphia Police.
The Plain Dealer will orchestrate a SWOT Analysis of the March 31st, 2021 service day in an attempt to point out their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats it provides. SWOT Analyses are often conducted by consultants, college students, and interns to aid critical thinking and highlight the fortitude of an idea or action.
SITUATION: Underground Locust Street from 16th Street to about 13th Street, homeless people have set up tents to protect themselves from the elements. The City has been unable to remedy this situation for several months as the Plain Dealer reported on this encampment back in January. The unhoused are sleeping on City property, specifically avoiding SEPTA property such as the Broad & Locust Street corridor which is manned by transit police.
No arrests and no violence. The service day was largely peaceful, with the exception of interpersonal spats between the unhoused community and minor altercations between activists and City employees.
The subway station was successfully cleaned. As far as achieving a cleaner subway concourse, the service day was successful. However, the cleaning crew only washed the areas of the corridor where homeless people live, the rest of the dirty subway station is still just as dirty.
Community. Activists and members of the community showed up underground to ensure that the unhoused were treated with respect. Mutual aid groups and housing advocates were on sight using tactics reminiscent of the Summer at the JTD Camp. A couple from St. Marks Church just above the encampment explained that they “bring food underground every Saturday” and that they’ve developed relationships with the encampment residents.
No 72 hour notice. Yesterday one of the two workers from homeless services was David Holloman, the Chief of Staff for Philadelphia Homeless Services, who said “we give 72 hours notice before service days.” In an email from the City, I was told that the unhoused were given 72 hours before service days. The people underneath Locust St. were given no more than 59 hours notice, as the papers were dated 3/29 for a 3/31 service day at 11am.
No immediate help. Everyone who was homeless when they woke up under Locust Street on March 31st remained homeless on April 1st. Not one person was taken to a shelter. The slow process of providing temporary housing and shelter has shaken trust in the system.
Ms. Chase, a 60+ year old woman and Juan, a 66 year old man both living in tents under Locust Street sought help from the City but were told that they will be added to a “list.” One woman decried “I’m on every fucking list, ya’ll just want my social security number for your list.” It is popularly believed by the unhoused that homeless services are “collecting social security numbers” to claim they are aiding people to get more funding.
Poor interdepartmental communication. Communication was abysmal in a myriad of ways. Interdepartmental communication between the Department of Public Property, the Office of Homeless Services, the Philadelphia Police, and Transit Police was non-existent.
At 10:30am I asked police about the specifics of the service day that began at 11am, in frustrated tones they explained that they were only there to ensure peoples safety and that Homeless Services was in charge. Homeless services arrived late, sending just two workers. The two reps from Homeless Services left the subway station around 1pm, long before the cleaning was done, which prompted mass logistical confusion upon departure. Members of the Department of Public Property and Police stood and watched as a private company cleaned the subway.
Poor outreach communication. Juan, the 66 year old homeless man living underneath Locust Street only speaks Spanish. Around 12:30pm, nearly an hour and a half into the service day, I attempted to talk to him, only to realize I couldn’t. In an attempt to communicate with Juan I asked every police officer and City employee if they could speak Spanish, not a single one could.
Finally, an activist translated a conversation between myself and Juan, which we allowed Homeless Services to hear. Similarly, the procedure for cleaning the subway station was unclear. The unhoused were all told to move their belongings to one side of the subway station, so the cleaning crew could clean the other side. This system became chaotic as new police and city officials entered the station unaware of the procedure, chiding the unhoused to move stuff that had already been moved.
Bad Attitudes. Police officers were noticeably resentful of the work they were doing. Tom, a police officer I spoke to at length explained to me that he found the activists to be disingenuous, voicing displeasure at the idea that police needed to be observed. “Not all police officers are monsters,” he said “the homeless trust us more than homeless services.” Police conducted themselves as if they were in danger, despite there being no threat posed to them at any time, they rarely communicated with the unhoused.
Service days temporarily drive away criminal behavior. Many of the heavy drug users who live under Locust Street left the subway corridor before the service day. Thinking logically, people with quantifiable amounts of drugs or people who are wanted for crimes left their tents before the police came. This means that the people who stuck around for the service day were likely not dangerous, harboring weapons, or wanted for crimes.
Philly contracted a private company to clean subway stations. If the City has already contracted a private company to clean one subway corridor, why not ask them to clean more of the City’s subway stations where homeless people aren’t sleeping? Although, I do not understand why the department of sanitation was not asked to clean this area. This could also be an opportunity to terminate a private contract to save the City money.
Where there are weaknesses, there are opportunities. The many evident issues with service day procedures provide points to grow from.
Cooperation. The March 31st service day proved that the unhoused will cooperate with the City. Nearly every homeless person I spoke to mentioned that they needed money and wanted a place to stay. Many of the homeless residents helped mop, clean, and sweep their areas; some even expressed gratitude.
No one from the City did any work. Police officers patrolled (aka stood around), the Office of Homeless Services sent two representatives who left early, and the department of Public Property patrolled (stood around) as well. The only people assisting in cleaning or moving the unhoused belongings were activists, the unhoused, and a privately contracted company. Police and City employees mostly lorded over the unhoused and the cleaners as they worked. Why were any of them there if they weren’t helping? The process would have been smoother and simpler if the police or city workers had done any physical work beyond chatting with one another.
No immediate help fractures trust. Yesterday the City sent dozens of employees underground to a homeless encampment, not to house the unhoused; but to clean. This will make it much harder to house these people in the future. Everyone witnessed the City come and go without providing shelter to a single human being, meaning the unhoused have no reason to believe that the City will help them next time around.
Overall, the March 31st service day was an improvement on homeless relations from this past Summer when Police and the City attempted to evict a homeless encampment with brute force three separate times unsuccessfully. However, the failure of Philadelphia Police and the City of Philadelphia to recognize the unhoused as human beings is palpable. The service day was successful in that it cleaned a previously dirty area, however the entire Locust Street corridor was dirty, yet the only places they attempted to wash were the spaces where human beings lived.