Philadelphia Housing Activist Jennifer Bennetch, Founder of Occupy PHA Movement, Dies At 36

Philadelphia, PA – It was April 24, 2021 at the Mobilization for Mumia rally in Philadelphia, PA, where people came from all over to celebrate Mumia Abu-Jamal’s 67th birthday, and to call for his freedom after 40 years of unjust incarceration. Rapper Immortal Technique had just finished speaking on the steps of City Hall. It took a few moments to rally everyone together to start marching northwest on the Parkway towards the steps of the Art Museum, where more speeches were planned from speakers who traveled from far and wide.

About halfway towards its destination, the march reached the intersection of 20th Sst and the Ben Franklin Parkway. Only a few blocks from this site is where Jennifer Bennetch was able to effectively initiate and organize the OccupyPHA encampment of 2020. Adjacent to where the march were standing, on the northwest corner of the block, was the site where a second encampment, the James Talib-Dean protest camp, held space that summer. These protest encampments harnessed the collective power of houseless people and their allies to ultimately win a historic land trust deal with the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).

The march stopped as Bennetch delivered an impassioned speech with facts about housing inequality, police violence, and the role of the PHA in the city’s housing crisis. One or two comments were mumbled in the crowd while most were in full support of what she had to say. Then, as soon as she got off the megaphone, she yelled, “who’s talking shit?” This was typical of what many have come to expect of Jennifer over the years as a community organizer in Philadelphia -Impassioned, fearless, no nonsense, and always with the facts. A force to be reckoned with.

Jennifer Bennetch, also known as Nadera Hood, passed away on Thursday, February 17th, due to complications resulting from COVID-19. She was 36 and leaves behind three children.

Bennetch also leaves behind a legacy of speaking truth to power with her unwavering commitment to fighting PHA and securing housing for some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable. As a founder of OccupyPHA, she was able to help win an unprecedented agreement with the city and PHA. 

A press release from the city of Philadelphia on October 13, 2020 states, “Under terms of the agreement, the City and PHA will transfer a total of 50 properties to a land trust established by the encampment residents.” The city’s press release announcing the groundbreaking deal quoted Bennetch as saying,

“OccupyPHA, along with the leaders and residents of the Parkway Encampment (known as Camp JTD), came together with a protest to pressure PHA and the City to come to the table to discuss real changes to the housing crisis in Philadelphia. I am very proud that we were able to reach an agreement with the City and PHA to create a Community Land Trust for permanent low income housing with long term vacant City and PHA properties. We appreciate the opportunity to move from protest to partner and look forward to implementing lasting change for the houseless community.” 

Jennifer Bennetch

Bennetch’s activism didn’t start and end with negotiations with the city. Remarkably, she also was unwavering in rehabilitating viable, publicly owned, vacant houses in North Philly to be occupied by houseless Philadelphians, in a fearless and open form of direct action that some would call ‘squatting.’ Always wearing a hijab, often with a stroller and sometimes with her children walking by her side, she was not the stereotyped, subcultured image of who some might imagine to be at the forefront of a squatters’ movement in Philadelphia. 

In June 2020, Unicorn Riot followed as she explained her work in a 17 minute video walk through of the Sharswood neighborhood, just blocks from PHA’s new, multi-million dollar headquarters. She said, “I think this says what we’ve been saying all along, that the housing authority is intentionally blighting our neighborhood so that they can justify the removal of people [from their homes] by imminent domain.” She explained the retaliation she faced from the city for allegedly doing this work, including DHS being sent after her children. The full video can be seen here.

Bennetch showed Unicorn Riot one of the rehabilitated, previously empty city-owned homes housing a formerly homeless family during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the negotiations with the city were marked as a win, over a year later it seemed that the city had fallen short on its promise. Throughout the pandemic, health ailments, and personal hardship, Jenn continued to struggle for fair housing in her city. In a GoFundMe created by Jennifer Bennetch on December 1, 2021, she wrote, 

“So while there have been a lot of rumors I have been quietly dealing with the bureaucracy behind the scenes while [my] own life is also falling apart. We are set to close on the first two rehabbed units Friday and the rest as they are completed. Insurance for the units is between [$1,700 and $2,000] (this will decrease substantially when we have at least 10.) We can not close nor move people in without insurance and must also insure the so called squatter occupied properties as we close on them. Folks have been in units over a year now and repairs etc. are coming up so we also need funds to keep these units safe. I was deathly ill over the summer and am still healing so was not doing as much as much as should have been etc. Please help us house individuals who don’t qualify for typical housing programs live in a non restrictive private home until we get started as I am much better and will be able to apply for grants and figure out other means of keeping enough cash to maintain units and insurance.” 

Jennifer Bennetch

She updated the page on December 21, less than two months before her death. “The city is lying. they have not delivered and stopped communicating in February after taking us to a bunch of houses they did not even own.”

Family, friends and comrades shared memories, condolences, and tributes online upon the shocking news. Some commented on if poverty or lack of insurance played a role, and if she did not receive the proper medical care she needed as a result. Most simply reflected on how they were inspired by her. Referring to Jenn as a “warrior”, “meticulous researcher”, “a fighter for justice and equality”, and a “direct action empress”

One comrade of Jenn’s, Aine Fox of Philly’s Up Against the Law legal collective, reflected on her death and the role she played in life:

“I first met Jen when she started ‘Occupy PHA’ – she was a fierce, determined activist. So astute as to how ‘power’ operates to keep poor people down. Jen ALWAYS challenged power with truth – PHA police, PHA, PPD, the City of Philadelphia. No one was going to go unchallenged. 

An entire movement for housing justice was born from this woman’s grit – she was a natural leader who inspired many people to act. A dedicated mother and friend to many. Her children by her side always – I can’t imagine what this loss will mean for them. I hope the community she helped establish will continue to thrive and hold space and love for her loved ones left behind. Codladh sámh á comrádaí.”

Aine Fox

Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture, Organizer with the The Philadelphia Tenants Union and The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, described Bennetch as a “dear friend, sister and comrade”:

“Jenn was a powerful, fearless woman who organized and fought for housing justice for all. Though she was a powerful leader, she worked collectively with others. Her persistence in taking on the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the city of Philadelphia from 2019 to the present will go down as shining examples of how to focus and get things done.

Jenn did not allow anything to get in her way; even when someone made an anonymous bogus child endangerment call to Child and Family Services seeking to get her children taken away to dampen her efforts, she didn’t stop, she just found a different way to get things done.

Jenn has now joined the Ancestors, she is gone from our arms, but never from our hearts. We will reinvigorate our efforts in her honor… we will share and donate to the GoFundMe to help her children… and we will miss her forever.”

Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture

Nkrumah-Ture dedicated a recent eviction defense action in West Philly in Jenn’s memory.

A GoFundMe page has been set up by Jennifer’s eldest son, Cole Bennetch, to help support his 9-year-old brother and their 7-year-old sister after their family’s loss.

See Jennifer Bennetch’s speech at the April 24, 2021 Free Mumia rally:

Title Image Credit: Photograph taken by Joe Piette on April 24, 2021 [source]

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