Kylie McGovern, Editor
Header Image: Philadelphia Inquirer
On Feb. 22, news was released that the day before the city of Philadelphia broke up two homeless encampments in Kensington this past summer. Villanova University professor Stephanie Sena, Villanova law student Delaney Keefe, and ACT-UP Philadelphia activist Jazmyn Henderson put Apple AirTags on belongings of eight of the encampments’ occupants. AirTags are tracking devices designed to act as a key finder to help people find personal objects. Soon after the encampments were broken up, the AirTags showed that four items were in a solid-waste facility in Conshohocken a few miles outside of Philadelphia. Advocates believe that this removal of belongings is a violation of constitutional rights for those experiencing homelessness.
Keefe posted videos she shot on Aug. 18 that shows city workers pulling a couch out of a tent, and then destroying the tent. Greg Ramseyer, the owner of the tent, explained the tent was his property and he explained to police and city workers that the couch was not abandoned. In addition to Ramseyer’s couch, a black trunk, a plastic container of clothes and a backpack with a wallet and identification cards, which are considered extraordinarily difficult for people who are homeless to replace, were tracked in the waste facility in Conshohocken.
The Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services’ website explains, “We will store personal belongings for free for at least 30 days” after a clear-out. A spokesperson for the city claims that any possessions collected at the encampment were stored at Prevention Point, a public health and social services nonprofit in Kensington. So, if something is thrown out, it is because the object was considered to be dangerous, abandoned or debris. “The city takes multiple steps to avoid disposing of anyone’s possessions, and offers storage,” the city’s spokesperson said. “For safety reasons, city staff do not go through individual bags.” The spokesperson added, “Individuals are encouraged to take their possessions with them and the city makes reasonable efforts to ensure that items that are clearly identifiable as personal property/personal belongings are not discarded.” However, the city has not addressed the data the AirTags picked up in Conshohocken.
According to endhomelessness.org, in 2020 13,375 people were homeless in PA averaging about 10.4 homeless people per 10,000. However, the homeless population’s possessions being discarded is a widespread issue throughout urban areas throughout the US, not just Philadelphia. Similar situations have happened on the west coast in Phoenix and Los Angeles. In addition, this is a longstanding issue because, in 2012, a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, 2-1, that the personal possessions the homeless leave for a short time on city sidewalks may be taken only if the possessions pose an immediate threat to public safety or health or constitute criminal evidence. Nonetheless, these rules are up to interpretation–like in Philadelphia which may lead to possessions being discarded.