[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Neighbors Helping Neighbors - to Break into Vacant Houses

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
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.

Dan Clore

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