As tens of thousands of politicians, party delegates and protesters swept through the City of Brotherly Love this week for the Democratic National Convention, dozens of homeless Philadelphians and out-of-towners pitched tents on a grassy lot.
They were part of a protest over the four days of the convention organized by Cheri Honkala, a Philadelphia-based activist with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.
She put together a similar demonstration during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia last year, calling it “The Church of the Poor.” This time, Honkala set up camp in Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood that was once a manufacturing hub, and named the tent city “Clintonville,” harkening back to the “Hooverville” camps of the Great Depression during President Herbert Hoover’s administration.
There’s currently no Clinton in the White House, but Honkala said the camp’s name was a critique of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and of President Bill Clinton’s bid to “end welfare as we have come to know it” by signing a reform law that put in place work requirements and limits on cash assistance.
The goal of this protest, she explained, was to draw more attention to families who are living below the poverty line and struggling to survive. Volunteers created temporary homes in an open space with used furniture left in dumpsters and other castaways from Philadelphia’s more well-to-do areas.
“Just a mile away, you can find people throwing away nice couches and chairs,” said Honkala, who ran as the Green Party’s vice presidential candidate in 2012.
For Philadelphia resident Dee Snyder, Clintonville was less about activism than shelter.
After she and her two adult children were evicted from their apartment, Snyder spent days scrambling to escape the hot and stormy weather and to find a place to sleep. Homeless shelters, she said, were out of the question.
“They don’t take dogs,” explained Snyder, 62, who owns two. “I don’t want to get rid of them. We’ve had them for ten years. You don’t just give them away.”
Her son eventually found the tent city set up in a vacant lot about seven miles north of the convention arena. They slept on tattered mattresses under a blue tarp held up by makeshift wooden frames.
“We were told we could stay through the storm,” she said. “So we have to ride out the storm until things get figured out.”
During the day, many of the Clintonville demonstrators took their activism to the streets, marching and participating in other protests, including a “fart-in” organized by Honkala.
Others with young children or unable to walk in the heat stayed behind, trying to cool off in the shade next to piles of canned food. Sandra Rivera, a protest organizer working with Honkala, pushed her one-year-old daughter around the camp in a stroller. She questioned whether the $60 million a local fundraising committee was expected to raise to host the DNC was being put to good use.
“I want to see those millions that they promised for schools,” she said.
Other local residents who walked by the tent city also said they wanted to see more resources invested into low-income neighborhoods like Kensington, which had one of the city’s largest numbers of violent crimes last year, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Mario Morales, 56, said he supported the protesters but was skeptical of how much convention attendees would pay attention.
“Will they take time out to come here and see the sadness and the hopelessness and the pain and the broken dreams, man?” he wondered aloud. “Or would they rather go look at the nice markets and the nice cheesesteaks?”
If any convention delegates did venture to Kensington, they would have found a neighborhood that Stephanie Torres said she’s not proud to call home.
“You wouldn’t want to be raised or grow up around here,” said the 22-year-old bartender who has “Ambition” tattooed above her left eyebrow. “You just got to stay alive. Day by day, it’s just surviving.”
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