Meet Riley, an autistic, transgender former student living in Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Pkwy encampment

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Riley, an autistic, transgender 26-yr-old w/ a heart full of empathy & a head full of big ideas, has lived at the newly populated tent encampment on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Pkwy since June. They, (Riley’s pronoun) are 1 of about 150. On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit the BFP camp, which formed in part as a reaction to Coronavirus. Recently, the community has gotten a lot of attention, thanks to the standoff between the residents/local activists & the mayor, following a judge’s decision to allow the camp to be forcibly cleared. Philadelphia maintains a poverty rate of 25.5 percent, far higher than either LA or New York. The city’s rates of *unsheltered* homeless, however, are a fraction of the other two cities. This divide is possible thanks to temporary housing solutions in Philadelphia. But permanent housing is another issue altogether; one largely absent from public discussion thanks to its lack of visibility on the streets. The Philadelphia Housing Authority currently manages a permanent housing waitlist of 47,000 families. And it hasn’t accepted a new applicant since *2013.* The Benjamin Franklin Parkway encampment emerged as part housing solution, amidst more tumbling into homelessness and more leaving homeless shelters because of unpopularity and risks relating to Covid, and part protest against the lack of affordable housing. Before they arrived at the encampment, Riley was a social engineering student at Drexel U. working to find solutions to poverty & hunger. “How people eat, how they get water, that’s network engineering,” Riley said, getting emotional. “We’re not focusing on the right things.” Riley fell into homelessness, they said, due to Coronavirus’ push to move things online — a relative impossibility considering their inability to process learning or working from across a screen. Still, they’re not wasting this moment. They wants to use this large tent to create a “camp counseling center,” a safe space where people can zone out or talk ab what they’re dealing w/ physically & emotionally. “Everything that comes out of (this encampment) is so negative,” they said. “But there is so much beauty here, too.”

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