Reclaiming Life and Housing in an Era of Collapse

Under fascism, mass displacement often means mass death. With a catastrophic eviction crisis looming, Kelly Hayes talks with longtime activist Cheri Honkala about housing reclamation and the solidarity we will need to navigate an era of collapse.

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. Today’s guest is my friend Cheri Honkala. Cheri’s work around housing issues, including housing reclamation, is nothing short of historic. She is the National Coordinator of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and she’s also one of the fiercest people I know. Cheri Honkala, welcome to the show.

Cheri Honkala: Thank you, Kelly. It’s always great to be here, especially on your show, cause you talk about real issues.

KH: Well, you are someone I don’t get to catch up with nearly enough, so I am really glad to be in conversation with you today. I just want to mention to our listeners that when I hit you up about this interview, you replied, “We are taking over the Saint Edwards Church right now.” So we had to plan to chat the next day, depending on whether or not you got arrested — which you did, when the police showed up hours later, looking to arrest you specifically. Can you tell our listeners what that action was all about?

CH: 25 years ago we took over a big, empty, abandoned Catholic church and we housed a bunch of homeless families. And 25 years later, the situation is worse, so we decided we needed to take it over again.

KH: And when they came for you that night, that was a targeted arrest, where they came for you personally. For those of us who are familiar with your work, that actually makes perfect sense — from the unjust perspective of the police. But for folks who are less familiar, can you say a bit about how that played out and why you think they came for you specifically.

CH: Yeah, I think that especially now, while we’re doing housing takeovers, you know, they do things like what happened to me the other day, which is, you know, they just came from me in the middle of the night at 12:30 at night, didn’t arrest anybody else, and locked me up and charged me with burglary. And now that we’re literally having to move people [and] families into take over houses not just to house them, but to keep them from dying from COVID, because you know, the men’s shelter here, you know 50% of the people tested positive for COVID. So we don’t want, you know, women and children to be cramming into a shelter and getting sick and potentially dying.

So you know, we’ve just been super, super busy with anybody that comes and asks. And it’s also been very difficult because it’s hard to sleep because I know at any given moment they can, you know, roll up on one of those houses. And we had taken over the St. Edward’s Church in hopes that we could move all the homeless families into that abandoned church if they decided to move on, you know, several of our takeover houses right now. And, you know, that’s not an option right now, so we’re working on plan B, on what to do if they were to move on, you know, 30 properties at one time.

KH: Well, I am grateful that you all are out there throwing down, and I’m glad you’re safe, for now, because, while I know you can take care of yourself, I have been extra worried about my friends who are risking arrest during the pandemic. The police were already dangerous enough, but of course now, we know that people are being caged in the path of COVID-19. Which means that people who are risking arrest are risking their lives on a whole new level. But I know you have never been dissuaded by risk, and I remember in the early days of the pandemic, when a lot of us were scrambling to figure out how to adapt our work, you were just out there, delivering food and doing whatever had to be done. And when I would see pictures of you, out in the world, getting those things done, I was heartened, because I knew people were being helped who would not otherwise be helped, and also afraid, because I didn’t want anything to happen to you. And when you got COVID, and you were hospitalized, it shook me, because I didn’t want to imagine the world without you. But I also know that you are a part of the Poor People’s Army, and a soldier for the people, and that you take risks. And I really respect and appreciate that, and I hope everyone listening does as well.

CH: Thank you, Kelly. Yeah, getting COVID is very real and many of us have lost many people that we love dearly and care about and probably will continue to. I’m definitely no Mother Teresa. I think my life has placed different things before me and doesn’t make me braver than anybody else. Like you said, I’m a soldier. And when I see, you know, kids laying on a railroad track, I do what anyone else would do, which is move them off the railroad track. So, it has definitely been difficult and I’m glad that we’re talking about that because it’s very real. Because, you know, I have a family and they have a lot of opinions, you know, and we have different people that are out there in the world that won’t step forward and give solutions, and yet are very judgmental about, you know, if you’re out there trying to feed people or house people. So I appreciate you acknowledging the fact that feeding people and how people are, you know, essential soldiers and workers right now, for this period in history.

KH: You all are absolutely essential and we desperately need this work to be happening now more than ever. Could you tell our listeners a bit about how you got into this work?

CH: I am a formerly homeless mother, actually I have been homeless on a couple occasions throughout the years. But the one that had the most profound impact on me was when my older son, Mark, was nine years old and we were homeless in Minneapolis and could have frozen to death. And so I started taking over abandoned houses and I’ve been doing it, you know, for well over 30 some years.

So it’s been a very difficult process because, you know, back in the early days, we used to get a lot of media attention and now we’re taking over, you know, 10 times more properties than we ever had in our life and giving trainings to people and teaching people how to do it all over the entire country, and it’s even more dangerous right now. And so, both with COVID and with, you know, the fascism that all of us are living under, and the media blackout that we’re experiencing. So we appreciate programs like this.

KH: So given how severe our situation is, with a catastrophic housing crisis and mass displacement looming for so many people, why do you think these struggles aren’t getting more attention? Because it is clearly going to be one of the great struggles of our time, and we really don’t have much time to plan for that fight, so why do you think this subject isn’t getting the traction that it obviously should right now?

CH: I just think housing in many of our urban cities across the country are very, housing itself and land, are very tied into the patronage system. And there’s so much, you know, dirty business going on with stolen property and, you know, hoarded wealth, that it’s very — they want to stay away from anybody having to make a line in the sand and decide which side they’re on. And especially in most of our major cities where we’re seeing speculators and developers and all of that, you know, just put an end to any, you know, decent, accessible, affordable housing across the country. I think that they don’t want to lift up this idea that there aren’t places for people to live. People can’t afford to rent. We’re on the verge of this huge flood of evictions and foreclosures. And so, you know, they don’t want people to be discussing it. They don’t want people to be thinking about it, so it’s best to keep it out of the press. Also really interesting because, you know, they recently did this article, a front page article of me in the Philadelphia Inquirer, where they talked about me recently buying a home in the middle of the pandemic, and there was like no references to the fact that I’m currently and have been engaged in housing takeovers, like right now. They referred to it like a past thing.

KH: Wow, that’s incredible to me. Just astounding. The level of erasure is mind blowing given the scale of what you all have been doing, and in terms of what’s ahead. I think you are absolutely right that the powerful do not want people talking or thinking about this, they don’t really care how unprepared we are, they just want us docile and cooperative right now, in the service of their own objectives. We have seen unrest already this year and people are afraid of that and how it will be perceived, and in many cases, more worried about that than they are about people who simply cannot withstand the conditions they are living in any longer, and they shouldn’t be expected to keep calm and carry on, just because the powerful haven’t figured out how to make their well being a priority, or cared enough to do so. They simply accept, narratively, that everyone just needs to keep their heads down and play by the rules, like that has ever delivered anyone from anything. And right now, with full blown fascism tightening its grip, I mean we have people arguing, with straight faces, that respectability will save us, and cherry-picking various historical examples, and telling people to just shut up until failed institutions and failed leadership deliver us from all of this, and it’s just such a scam. And it’s a scam that has led a lot of otherwise moral people to shut their mouths about injustice and turn away from struggle, and that’s not just morally wrong, it’s also strategically disastrous. Like, if the establishment knew how to stop Donald Trump, they would have stopped Donald Trump. And what we are looking at right now is fascism, and I am glad the mainstream is catching up with that, because, as you know, I have been begging people to understand that for years, but now that they are naming it, people are being told to stay within the lines, like the lines are our friends. And people need to understand, mass displacement under fascism is part of a path toward mass disposal, and containment, which is another form of disposal. We are living in a time of collapse and holding our ground, which includes holding onto homes and land, is going to be so important, even if Biden wins. But that takes organization. So the denial is thick and people aren’t ready, so how do we prepare?

CH: You know, how do you deal with, you know, feeding and clothing and housing people and providing political education, simultaneously while you’re erased from the press, and while we might be moving into a situation where we have a coup in our country? So we’re doing a lot of planning and, you know, really fighting for unity on all levels and realizing that, you know, little stuff that mattered to us before doesn’t matter anymore, because this thing is really a numbers game and we have to figure out, how do we begin to really work together in very large numbers? And, you know, it’s not enough for us to just talk about these issues, but how do we, you know, sustain the movement, keep our soldiers alive, not take the dirty money, and you know, just deal with the horrible violence on so many different levels that is happening right now, whether it’s, you know, the violence of hunger or having to live in fear if they’re gonna roll up on you at any given moment, or, you know, just the increase in, I know in Chicago but also here in Philadelphia, you know, just the amount of young people that are being shot on a daily basis because they don’t have any other kind of options but to be, you know, engaged in the drug war here.

KH: I also saw recently that you were organizing a rapid response hotline for evictions. Can you tell us a bit about that?

CH: So we’re having people sign up so that they can be alerted if the city or the feds decide to move on any of our houses at any given point, so that they can, you know, lift it up through their social media. People that are here locally can immediately go to the address that’s in danger and pull out their cameras and stand there and be a witness, or they can also sign up to participate in mass nonviolent civil disobedience to try and hold the properties. Because these properties are owned by the federal government and we are our government and our government doesn’t have a plan on how to keep people from dying from COVID. And so, you know, warehousing them in shelters and having them die is not an option for us. And so they can build luxury housing overnight, or they have the social capital to utilize abandoned churches or do whatever they want to do, but they’re not doing any of those things. So, you know, we have a moral responsibility to make sure these people don’t die. And so that’s why we’re having to, you know, break the law and move them into abandoned HUD properties in order to keep people alive.

KH: You know, hearing you say those words just now, about breaking the law, made me feel something, because we’re seeing a lot of valorization of law and order right now because the president who’s a fascist who happens to be quite lawless. So we’re seeing a lot of people sort of fetishizing law and order, and order in general. And I just want to emphasize to people that when you’re saying that we have to follow the letter of the law, and there have to be consequences for breaking the law, you are also saying that work like Cheri’s shouldn’t be happening, and giving cover to the police who snatched her out of St. Edward’s Church in the middle of the night. I know things are scary and people want stability, but the law is not a moral instrument. And it is often in direct opposition to the survival and wellbeing of people, and to the survival and wellbeing of people who are trying to help other human beings. If we want to hold onto our humanity, we cannot allow law and order to be our compass. So I just had to get that out there and say that piece because I have a lot of feelings about it.

CH: I very much appreciate that. I mean, that’s a very difficult thing. It’s amazing how people’s morals and values change based on the circumstances that they’re confronted with. And something that I’m also very worried about right now is, we used to just be able to go online and look up the names of various different speculators and developers and, you know, politicians, and then go demonstrate at their houses because they’re, you know, stealing the land and stealing the future and the opportunity for people. And you know, there’s no — even if we raise the money for some of the families, we only have one landlord right now that has been trying to help us figure out places for people to live, to rent. So it’s not even a question of raising money anymore.

You know, all of the various different cities are going in a direction of San Francisco, where there’s going to be, like, nowhere at all to rent because people can’t afford the, like, the luxury units that are being built here in Kensington. Some of them are asking for a quarter of a million dollars. And so there’s no, you know, people can’t go into the shelters. They can’t move into a luxury unit. So, like, literally there’s no place for them to be. So this whole, you know, just arbitrary changing of policies, laws, regulations, something’s really wrong with that as well. And the city Philadelphia did that because they said it was a security matter, that they needed to protect people like our mayor and other folks, where there’s been recent demonstrations in front of their houses. And my question is, when are low income people and homeless people going to be protected? You know, never even had a right to be in a park, be in a public park, let alone be any place else.

So I think it’s really a time right now in history where we have to decide whose side we’re on and, you know, getting involved in the game because this one can’t be sat out. And if people want to play more of an active role, they can go to economichumanrights.org. They can join the Poor People’s Army. They can set up a bootcamp in their part of the country. We have a socially distancing camp that’s going to be happening on October 17th and 18th in Philadelphia. And the month of October, that entire month, is going to be dedicated towards lifting up things that we normally wouldn’t lift up in the public, because we desperately need people to be talking about the conditions that poor people are having to endure and deal with during this pandemic. So we’re designating the month of October, which is also International Poverty Day on the 17th, the entire month we’re dedicating and calling it Takeover Month.

So, you know, we need to try not to be demoralized, not to give up. Our morale, even right now, is incredibly political and important. And that’s one thing that I love that you do, Kelly, is that, you know, that isn’t a secondary thing. It’s a primary thing. And if we don’t figure out, like, how to lift each other up, take care of each other, help people heal, help people grieve, then we’re going to continue to lose, you know, large numbers of soldiers in this fight, and that’s not what we need. What we need is generals that are going to make this fight for humanity.

KH: Absolutely, and just to circle back to what you were saying about that city property search database for a second, because I don’t think most of our listeners probably understand the severity of that move. Reprogramming the database to prevent organizers from tracking what developers and speculators own particular properties is a huge hindrance to organizing around this issue, and to me, it really brings to mind that Utah Phillips quote, “”The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” Well, in this case, we are not dying, we are being killed, and the people killing us are hiding their addresses for a reason.

CH: That’s right. And not to mention that more and more of our federal and city public offices are being placed in private buildings, so that we don’t really have a right to protest and demonstrate because they’ve hidden themselves in some private commercial owner’s building. And, you know I’ve said it forever, that one of the worst things that can happen right now is for us to be silent and to be told that we can’t say anything about what’s happening to us. The most important thing is for us to not be silent and to lift up our voice right now.

KH: Well, Cheri I am just so grateful for you, and grateful that you made the time to have this conversation. I got a lot out of it and I’m sure our listeners did too.

CH: Thank you, Kelly, I really appreciate being on your show.

KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes:

Poor People’s Army Mutual Aid Sign-Up

To Support Housing Actions in Philadelphia

The Basics of “How to Organize!” with Cheri Honkala

Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign