[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Neighbors Helping Neighbors - to Break into Vacant
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Wed Feb 18 13:03:28 EST 2009
Neighbors Helping Neighbors -- to Break Into Vacant Houses
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Twin Cities Daily Planet
(Minneapolis - St. Paul, Minnesota)
by Madeleine Baran
Poverty rights activists broke into at least a dozen vacant Minneapolis
buildings this week and helped homeless families move in.
"This is the modern underground railroad," said Cheri Honkala, National
Organizer for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, the
group organizing the "takeovers."
This week's actions are part of a growing national movement to illegally
open up thousands of vacant, foreclosed homes to provide housing for the
growing number of homeless people. Over 3,000 Minneapolis homes went
into foreclosure in 2008. Advocates estimate that over 7,000 Minnesotans
are homeless. Most Twin Cities' homeless shelters have been filled to
capacity for months.
On a recent afternoon, organizers planned their next takeover while
eating cabbage, rice, sausage, and corn bread prepared by Rosemary, a
59-year-old African American woman facing eviction from her home.
Rosemary, who asked that her last name not be used, plans to remain in
her house illegally after the March 31 eviction date. In the meantime,
she spends her time organizing for tenant's rights.
"Welcome to the revolution," Rosemary said, greeting a homeless couple
looking for housing.
Lonnetta and Dwayne took a seat on Rosemary's couch. Dwayne, 52, walking
on crutches from a series of recent foot surgeries, explained that he
lost his janitorial job in June when he broke his foot. The married
couple asked that their last name not be used.
"Welcome to the Revolution!"
Forced to survive on Lonnetta's $637 a month Social Security check, the
couple soon became homeless. Social service providers told them to stay
at Harbor Light, a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis, where the
couple would be housed on different floors. Lonnetta, 48, feared being
separated from her sick husband who she said needs frequent reminders to
take his medication. Instead, the couple started living out of their truck.
A relative put Lonnetta and Dwayne in contact with the Poor People's
Economic Human Rights Campaign, a national anti-poverty organization
based in Minneapolis.
Honkala, the group's National Organizer, became an activist in her
teenage years when she and her young son lived in her car after becoming
homeless. When a drunk driver hit the car one night, Honkala said she
got fed up, and moved into a vacant Minneapolis HUD property for several
After years of anti-poverty work, Honkala rose to national prominence in
the 1990s by founding the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in an
impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood. The activist group helped move
homeless families into vacant properties, and used the publicity from
those occupations to force the city to issue housing vouchers.
Honkala moved back to Minneapolis two years ago and started matching
homeless families with vacant buildings. She estimates that about forty
families have been housed since her return, including twelve this week.
Honkala met Dwayne and Lonnetta last week. She offered to find them
housing in a vacant home. The couple readily agreed.
The plan turned out to be more difficult than the couple anticipated.
Activists first attempted to house the couple in a vacant South
Minneapolis home. A city inspector and the police soon arrived and
demanded they leave. The police issued trespassing citations to
Lonnetta, Dwayne, Honkala, and Manuel Levinsholden, a 19-year-old
organizer. Honkala said that a pro bono attorney will provide legal
Activists then led the couple to Rosemary's house, where they hoped to
house the couple in one of the block's five vacant homes. While chatting
in Rosemary's living room, Honkala received a phone call. "Well, that's
not going to work," she said. "Burglar alarms."
However, with no shortage of properties to choose from, it only took a
few phone calls to find a new location several blocks away. Within a few
minutes, Honkala, Levinsholden, Lonnetta, and Dwayne were inside a
large, empty yellow duplex.
Dwayne cautiously walked around broken glass on the kitchen floor and
made his way into the dining room, surveying the hardwood floors and
large windows. "I want it," he said.
"Look at that bathroom," said Lonnetta, turning on what appeared to be a
brand new light fixture. "That's pretty." She then made her way into the
living room, painted blue, but marked with dozens of white splotches to
cover up graffiti.
When asked how the activists will get the heat and hot water turned on,
Honkala grinned and said, "God turns on the utilities."
Rosemary, who came by to inspect the couple's new home, stumbled while
walking up the steep staircase to the second floor. After dusting
herself off, she looked around the upstairs kitchen: a row of old wooden
cabinets and an empty space where a dishwasher might have been. "Not
bad," she said.
Meanwhile, Honkala grabbed several documents left on the downstairs
kitchen counter, including paperwork stating that HUD owns the house.
One document indicated that the home was last inspected on February 3rd.
"This is just a waste," she said. "It's a waste to have thousands of
empty homes like this and people with no place to live." Organizers plan
to provide furniture and help the families with basic renovations.
Honkala said that the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign will
continue to house the homeless in vacant buildings until the government
can provide a safe, affordable alternative. More takeovers are planned
for this weekend.
Meanwhile, Rosemary faces eviction in a few weeks, but has no plans to
leave. "We'll pack my house with people," she said. "It'll be a showdown."
"Wait," Dwayne said, looking surprised. "You're going to lose your home,
too?" He shook his head. "No man, we ain't gonna let them do that, no
way. We're neighbors."
Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and
poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News,
Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.
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