Billy Penn

Inside Philly’s 40-year war on homeless encampments

In the spring of 1988, a group of people experiencing homelessness entered a string of long-vacant properties in Northeast Philadelphia, set up camp, and hung cardboard signs in the windows that read “Homeless, not helpless.”

The Philly settlement was radical even by today’s standards, said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, who has advised numerous mayors and presidential cabinets on homelessness policy. Not only did the officials swiftly hand over the dormant properties in response to the protests — they contracted with people experiencing homeless to do the rehab, and ultimately gave the keys to a homeless-led organization, Dignity Housing, which lives on today.

“It was probably the single most successful grassroots homeless activism effort ever undertaken in this country,” Culhane said