Homes Not Jails: Squatting Movement to House the Homeless
Excerpt from: NO TRESPASSING! by Anders Corr
C H A P T E R 1
Homes Not Jails
The Secret Success of a Squatting Movement to House the Homeless
Two strangers arrived early at the Homes Not Jails meeting. One had been beaten by his spouse and was looking for a place to stay. The police had found and destroyed the other's campsite in Golden Gate Park on several occasions recently, and he was exploring alternative living arrangements. They needed housing and asked Homes Not Jails to help them squat.
Benjamin volunteered to open a vacant building on Shotwell and 22nd Street, and said I could follow. He had squatted it before, but the landlord had discovered and evicted him. Now Benjamin rented a sleazy downtown motel room, but he still had a sentimental attachment to the Shotwell place. About a week before, we had cased the building and found it still in relatively good shape: it had several sunny bedrooms, a kitchen, running water, and electricity. The building was dirty, trash-filled, and had a pink-and-white tiled dining room with matching pink walls, but a little elbow grease and paint would make it more than livable.
After a bus ride across town, we walked up to the alley door. Just as Benjamin produced his crowbar, a very large guy (smaller than Benjamin but much bigger than me) walked up to his own door just a few feet away. Benjamin thought quickly and pretended legitimacy by knocking. "Whatcha knockin for?" the neighbor asked. His eyes narrowed. "Nobody lives there."
Benjamin has broken into hundreds of buildings with Homes Not Jails and knew when to lead a tactical retreat. But he nevertheless circled the building and easily lifted his seven-foot frame over a fence and into the backyard. From my cowardly vantage point, I could see a weak flashlight beam flickering at us from a window in the second story of the flat next door. Was it the neighbor who confronted us? Did he have a gun? Undaunted, Benjamin climbed the back stairs, jimmied the door, walked out the alley, and welcomed the two homeless men into his former home. He promised to help change the lock if they stayed for a week.
Thus the vacant building on Shotwell became the most recent of half-adozen houses already occupied by squatters affiliated with Homes Not Jails. The building was no palace, but it served as a more safe and quiet alternative to the police harassment in Golden Gate Park and the uncomfortable, regimented conditions of the city's overburdened shelters.
Homelessness and the Growth of U.S. Squatting
Homes Not Jails began with the wave of other homeless activist groups that sprouted nationwide following the economic recession of the ' 80s. As a result of soaring rents, small-business failures, and massive corporate layoffs, landlords evicted thousands onto the streets. These new homeless, who were sometimes well-educated, drug- and alcohol-free, mentally stable, and, until recently, middleclass, joined the traditional homeless who more often suffered from addiction or mental problems. While the new homeless were more likely to get off the streets quickly, their proximity to homelessness (just one paycheck away, they reminded themselves) encouraged them to lend support to the homeless left behind.1 In addition to traditional homeless advocacy, hundreds of homeless organizations that used squatting as a tactic sprouted across the nation. These included Community on the Move Homesteaders Association in the Bronx, Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia, Mad Housers in Atlanta and Chicago, Drop-in Center in Cincinnati, Homes Not Jails in San Francisco, and similar groups in almost every major U.S. urban area. Groups in New York, Philadelphia, and Oakland successfully acquired titles to several squatted properties. In 1988, Operation Homestead in Seattle began occupying buildings and negotiating their sale to nonprofit lowincome housing organizations. By 1993, it had successfully reclaimed 300 units.2
Like its counterparts, Homes Not Jails has enjoyed substantial victories. From its first public takeover of the building at 250 Taylor Street on Thanksgiving 1992 until the present, Homes Not Jails has fought City Hall and won, through extensive media coverage in support of affordable housing, through covertly housing homeless people in vacant buildings, and through the protection of buildings slated for demolition. This chapter details the history of Homes Not Jails (HNJ) in San Francisco and its fledgling offshoots in Santa Cruz and Boston. It asks what ethical, tactical, and visionary elements have made HNJ a success.
By opening vacant buildings like the one on Shotwell, Homes Not Jails hopes to provide at least some shelter for the growing number of San Francisco homeless. Between 1992 and 1998, available housing in San Francisco fell from a high of 6,500 vacant buildings (enough to house the city's entire homeless population) to less than 1% of the total housing stock. In 1994, estimates of San Francisco's homeless population were as high as 14,000; through 1996, the number grew by 300 per month. One hundred and fifty homeless people died on the streets of San Francisco that year. Between the last quarter of 1996 and the first quarter of 1997, the number of San Francisco homeless families doubled.3
Boston, where Homes Not Jails is also active, has thousands of vacant buildings that could solve the city's homeless problem. In December 1995, less than three weeks after the first HNJ Boston action, the Boston Emergency Shelter Commission counted 4,896 homeless people.4 Many homeless advocates placed the number much higher. According to HNJ Boston, there are "thousands of residential units - largely derelict or foreclosed - which lie vacant and could be used for low-income housing or homesteading."5
The Power and Ethics of Media-Savvy Squatters Homes Not Jails describes itself as an all-volunteer organization committed to housing homeless people through direct action. "It is clear to me that it is possible to house everybody in San Francisco," said Miguel Wooding, a member of HNJ and volunteer tenant counselor at the San Francisco Tenants Union. "It is clear that by pressing on the issues of abandoned, vacant, tax-default buildings, we can make housing a right to which everyone has access."6
With the power that public takeovers provide HNJ's media spokespeople, HNJ drives its message home to the general public. "Which Do You Believe?" questions one Homes Not Jails flyer:
1) People Who Are Homeless Should Fix Up & Live in Vacant Buildings.
2) Leave Buildings Boarded Up & Vacant; People Can Sleep Outside.
HNJ's tongue-in-cheek rhetorical question sums up its philosophy: common sense demands that vacant homes should house the homeless.
But common sense is not so common, wrote some big-name philosophers.7 Even many homeless people, not to mention police, landlords, government figures, and members of the general public, consider squatting ethically or morally questionable. "People are scared to go open houses," said Connie Morgenstern, a 21-year-old who ran away from home in Israel at age 14 and started squatting with a gang of other Israeli kids. "Squatting is a violation of everyone's basic idea of society. Property is sacred. When you open a building, you are violating someone's property."
When I asked Jeremy Graham, who quit his office job to become a full-time homeless activist and squatter, how he would react to landlords calling him a thief, he flung the epithet right back. "For them to say that we steal their unused property, while they speculate on the rental market, is criminal. They steal when they charge us rent, as opposed to us stealing when we squat. We should not ask whether it is a crime to `steal' a piece of property, but whether it is a crime to charge rent."
With or without government and landlord acquiescence, HNJ has three principles: nonviolence, no drugs, and consensus decision-making. These principles apply to both types of HNJ occupation: covert squats, like the one on Shotwell and 22nd; and public takeovers of symbolic buildings, when HNJ notifies the media and advocates for permanent homeless housing. This dual covert and public strategy allows HNJ to immediately provide housing for homeless people, while at the same time using the media to educate the public and pressure politicians. In its first seven years of existence, HNJ has used covert squatting to house hundreds of homeless persons on a short-term basis in hundreds of vacant buildings, with some of the squats lasting for years at a time. "By opening squats every week, HNJ actively pursues the possibility of solving San Francisco's housing crisis," said Mara Raider, a member of Homes Not Jails who works with homeless people on a daily basis at the Coalition on Homelessness. "We are demonstrating that housing the homeless can be done cheaply, effectively, and in a more empowering manner than waiting in line at various government agencies."
While covert squatting affords HNJ members actual long-term housing, their public takeovers have come within a hair's breadth of convincing government officials to transfer legal title. Even though HNJ has thus far failed to gain title to any property, it has laid the groundwork. At every one of the 26 public takeovers that HNJ organized since 1992, members spoke to the media on homelessness, landlord neglect of vacant buildings, and the failure of government agencies to comply with laws that mandate the use of vacant government buildings as homeless shelters. This media coverage shaped public debate and gave HNJ tremendous political weight with local politicians relative to its small numbers. "We've been able to negotiate with the city in ways that other small groups can't approach," said Morgenstern. "Media coverage is good because it translates into political pull with city government. A group of ten people can make [Mayor] Willie Brown quake in his shoes."
HNJ used one of its occupations in 1995 as a media springboard for an antiabandonment ordinance it had drafted and submitted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "After the first couple of takeovers, we realized that we were not doing too well at articulating exactly what we wanted," said Ted Gullickson, who helped found HNJ and has worked with tenant groups around the country since 1973. "So we drafted the anti-abandonment ordinance as an example of what we wanted the city to do." That made HNJ one of the few groups, joked Gullickson, to write laws in the daytime and break them at night. Modeled on similar legislation in Seattle and Cleveland, the proposal would prohibit landlords from leaving buildings vacant and would allow the city to acquire vacant buildings owned by private landlords to house the homeless. The proposed law has 24 sections and covers everything from acquisition of buildings to the maximum amount of rent. Any landlord who failed to comply would face civil penalties.
Neighbors have varying attitudes towards HNJ. Some call the police when they see punks and obviously poor people move into a long-abandoned building. But others welcome squatters. At a public takeover on Labor Day in 1995, one neighbor told a reporter, "I'm glad Homes Not Jails came out. Something will be done now. The place is an eyesore. If they can clean it up and use it to house the homeless, okay. It's a hazard and it draws raccoons."8
Unlike most drug addicts, criminals, government agencies, and raccoons, HNJ enters a neighborhood with a sense of humility and respect. "Homes Not Jails is not some bureaucracy coming in and saying, x number of homeless people will live next door to you," said Graham, whose extensive covert squatting with HNJ afforded plenty of opportunities to talk with neighbors. "It's somebody coming up and saying, `Hi. This is my name, this is me, I'm homeless, and I'm living here now. I'm putting my work and energy into this building and neighborhood. I want to be a good neighbor. I want your support.'"
The city and landlords oppose HNJ, even though it has actually improved San Francisco's housing stock. Homes Not Jails maintains a strict adherence to its policy of "sweat equity." In lieu of rent, HNJ expects all squatters to clean, paint, and even make structural improvements to their squats, both covert and public. The history of sweat equity stretches back to 19th century homesteaders, and more recently sweat equity has been advocated by groups such as Habitat for Humanity. Through sweat equity, homeless people live more comfortably, improve housing values, exchange construction skills, and emphasize the responsibilities attendant to any right to housing. Sweat equity works well for the many homeless people who are skilled workers but are unemployed, unfairly evicted, or victim to some other structural inequity. For the significant proportion of homeless people who struggle with substance abuse or mental illness, sweat equity offers additional benefits. "Sweat equity gives people the opportunity to participate in a common project and create an extended family in which homeless people have a place to heal," said HIVJ member Whirlwind Dreamer. "That is what these people are really missing, a network of responsible friends they can count on."
HNJ is currently trying to interest a government housing agency in sponsoring a sweat equity project. "The sweat equity model," said Gullickson, "is formulated to address the problem that most affordable housing is unaffordable for people with no income or people on General Assistance [GA], Supplemental Security Income [SSI], or Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC]. You need an alternative model for people who are destitute and need to do labor instead of pay rent." Sweat equity provides affordable housing not only for cashstrapped residents, but for cash-strapped governments, as well. The use of sweat equity decreases the amount of government funding needed to make affordable units available. For more complex building skills, like architectural or engineering work, HNJ has usually found volunteers. "The sweat equity idea," said Wooding, "is that you don't need to run nonprofit housing in as pricy a way as it is generally run. You can have people do the work on their own housing and cut costs significantly."
Since its crude beginnings, HNJ has refined the idea of sweat equity. HNJ held a number of all-day meetings on the issue when it almost gained legal title to a squat at 3250 17th Street from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After drafting income and expense projections, HNJ members decided that every resident would pay 30% of her or his income as cash rent in addition to volunteering hours of labor on repair, maintenance, or other tasks. Projected residents were two families who received AFDC, two recipients of SSI, and four recipients of GA. A nonprofit land trust would actually own the land, and a limited equity co-op would own the house; individual residents would have membership within the co-op. Residents would accrue equity in an HNJ building at roughly 1% of the building's value for each year of occupancy. Residents would generally remain for one to three years as they gained job skills or completed drug or alcohol programs that would enable them to become independent. When a resident moved, the land trust would buy her or his share, and the next resident would begin the process anew. This would produce nest eggs for homeless people to move into their own rental housing on the open market.
First Squat: Serendipity on Golden Gate Avenue
Homes Not Jails emerged from two of San Francisco's most prominent activist organizations: Food Not Bombs and the San Francisco Tenants Union. Food Not Bombs cut its teeth serving free food to the homeless in front of San Francisco's City Hall. It has no permanent facilities and serves almost all its food on the street; it is, nevertheless, the city's fourth-largest soup kitchen. Since 1980, good Not Bombs has sustained abuse by riot police and suffered over a thousand arrests for refusal to obtain food-service permits. The national media reported extensively on the arrests, and the group now has active chapters in over 40 cities across the United States. Established in 1971 and a bit more staid in its approach, !he San Francisco Tenants Union organizes legislative campaigns to win stronger tent control laws and counsels tenants on their legal rights from an almost mansion-like Victorian home in the Mission District.
Both groups started squatting movements prior to HNJ, but both efforts failed. It took the catalyst of a Philadelphia homeless group, which called for nationwide takeovers on Thanksgiving 1992, to get the two San Francisco groups together and a long-lasting squatting movement established. Food Not Bombs had street smarts, extensive experience with local jails, and the courage needed for blazing new trails of civil disobedience through a thicket of real estate laws. The Tenants Union had an office, a database on vacant buildings, and lawyers who knew how to defend residents from the city's harshest landlords.
Foresight on the part of a participant visited success on the group at its very first meeting. A total stranger produced a key to a vacant building nearby in the Tenderloin district. He had posed as a potential purchaser and fooled the real estate agents into lending him the key long enough to make a copy. So, while everyone else at the meeting watched a video about squatting in Philadelphia, Ted Gullickson from the Tenants Union and Keith McHenry from Food Not Bombs walked a few blocks and let themselves into the building at 90 Golden Gate. They hadn't planned on squatting that night, but the surprise seemed auspicious and the building appropriate: it had two floors, showers, and was previously a homeless shelter.
After fetching the group, Gullickson and McHenry reconvened the meeting in the vacant building. They had just opened the first of hundreds of HNJ housing occupations. The 20 HNJ members who spent the first night soon grew to 30. Residents represented the diverse population of San Francisco, including Southeast Asian immigrants, gays and lesbians, three families, African Americans, and Vietnam War veterans. After moving in, the formerly homeless squatters pooled their food stamps, organized communal cooking, and worked long hours repairing the neglected building.
More than the building improved. "What most inspired me was the massive transformations in people," said Gullickson. "They got jobs by being able to finally stabilize their lives. People who moved in with shopping carts full of stuff, who had to get in line for shelter and scrounge around for food and General Assistance, finally found a place where they could take a shower, cook their own meal, leave their belongings, and go out and apply for jobs." The relatively long-term nature of the squat created a supportive atmosphere in which several members quit their substance abuse. A reporter from SF Weekly observed a scene in which E.T. Thomas, one of the squatters, announced that it had been five months since he last stuck a needle in his arm. "The room exploded in applause."9
The first HNJ squat at 90 Golden Gate lasted longer than expected - about two months. But when the landlord heard of the squatters he took immediate action. Police evicted seventeen adults and two children on January 1, 1993. The building remains vacant to this day.
Bolt Cutters and Bicycles: The Art of Covert Squatting
Beginning with 90 Golden Gate, HNJ's covert squatting campaign has provided the group with the majority of its buildings. Armed with bolt cutters and a list of addresses supplied by sympathizers, HNJ search teams break into vacant buildings on a weekly basis. They use bolt cutters on padlocks, tear plywood from windows with credit cards.
Surprisingly, members of HNJ search teams rarely see police officers, and only three members, including Gullickson and Benjamin, have ever been arrested. But other dangers lurk. "We got jumped by a bunch of thugs in the Tenderloin," said one member who asked to remain anonymous. "We were trying to open the second floor of a building with an X-rated video parlor on the first floor. Our neighbors downstairs didn't like that too much, an actually grabbed one of us and pinned him against the wall. It freaked me out pretty bad."
For most, the positive aspects far outweigh the dangers of squatting. Eric, who at the time of his interview was expecting eviction from his run-down apartment any day, described his most satisfying search team. On a cold winter night, homeless people were sleeping in front of a boarded and padlocked building on South Van Ness and 18th Street. "We opened the building and housed three individuals instantaneously. It really touched me."
San Francisco has a small squatting movement compared with cities such as New York, Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. But, given its hostile housing situation, San Francisco squatters can make a claim to being some of the most dedicated. Unlike other cities that have large blocks of vacant houses due to depopulation or redlining, high-rent units surround most of San Francisco's meager supply of single vacant buildings. This makes nervous neighbors and remodeling landlords much more common.
HNJ has organized at least one search team almost every week since 1992. On any given search, HNJ opens from one to a half-dozen buildings. Wooding estimates that in the past five years, over 250 search teams have opened between 700 and 800 buildings. If the building looks "squattable," as some HNJ members say, they replace the landlord's snapped padlock with their own or leave a window open, ready for any homeless person who might attend their next public meeting. From the weekly meeting, HNJ regulars then accompany the homeless person to the new squat, let them in, and provide repair, maintenance, and legal support during the months ahead.
HNJ has occupied hundreds of covert squats, most for under a month. But dozens have lasted between one month and a year; several have lasted over two years. From the beginning, the number of squatters in HNJ squats has never ,gypped below a half-dozen, and at times has reached almost 50, according to Gultickson. This is in addition to the five covert squats and a farm occupied by the Santa Cruz chapter in 1993.
The impact that HNJ has had on San Francisco squatting is much more significant than the numbers of current HNJ members would indicate. Many previously involved with HNJ met other squatters, formed support networks, and left !he organization to squat on their own. "We teach people how to use a crowbar to pop open a door, how to get in different kinds of windows, how to use a bread knife to flip the lock latch on a window, how to re-key locks. The number of people who have learned the skills has to be in the hundreds, if not over a thousand people," said Jeremy Graham.
The overall number of San Francisco squatters at present, both affiliated and unaffiliated with HNJ, is impossible to know. By the nature of their endeavor, squatters attempt to remain hidden. But, if pushed, some squatters will venture a guess. Cristian, a 19-year-old punk who has squatted in Ohio, Southern California, Vancouver, and New Orleans, estimates 200 young punks were squatters in buildings in San Francisco in the summer of 1997, in addition to 200 non-punk squatters. Even more squatters reside in Oakland than San Francisco, he says, because of Oakland's higher vacancy rate. Connie Morgenstern estimates there are about 20 to 30 "crash pads," or short-term squats, in San Francisco that squatters rotate through on a regular basis, plus a few stable squats.
With the few exceptions of vacant buildings completely ignored by their landlords, frequent eviction is de rigueur for San Francisco squatting. "My experience in squatting was a lot of bouncing around, sometimes every few days," said Graham, who now lives in a cramped apartment with other homeless advocates. "You would come home and find that security guards had kicked your bedding around and pawed through all your stuff. You had to wonder whether it would be there the next day." More than once, guards busted in on Graham with guns drawn. "You don't want to think about that every time you go home, but you would go back because it was a great squat."
Although HNJ enjoys age and gender diversity, it is currently a largely white organization. In addition to HNJ squatters who appeared white, I met only one Native American, one African American, and one Argentinean during my seven weeks observing HNJ. Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans sometimes squat with HNJ, but, according to HNJ members, homeless people of color usually prefer shelters or the outdoors, rather than squats. "African Americans have reluctance because of the police," said Whirlwind, a Native American squatter. "They have the experience that cops beat them and ask questions later."
Homes Not Jails has also had difficulty attracting non-white participants to public takeovers, where the risk of arrest is high and the immediate material benefits usually nonexistent. HNJ and other squatters have tried to form coalitions with non-white groups; but in most cases, non-white groups were generally uninterested in short-term rough squatting, with its risk of weekly eviction. This reflects the larger experience of urban squatting in the United States. Usually, longer-term poor people become interested when chances of success increase, when individual squats last long periods, as in New York City and Philadelphia, or when large movements gain permanent and legal rights to a building for a homeless shelter, as in Oakland. Otherwise, these groups have better options and no punk ascetic idealism that sees squatting as an esthetic in and of itself.
Homes Not Jails has had more success attracting non-white participants to its more stable squats. In its most long-standing squat, every resident was African American. HNJ squatted that building in the early '90s, when neighborhood cops had a more relaxed attitude toward covert squats. According to Graham, the message from particular cops on the beat was, "We won't act unless we get complaints from the property owners. We're not really going to try and prosecute people for trying to house themselves." This positive attitude from the police became clearest at HNJ's fourth covert squat at 850 Hayes in 1993. An eyesore in the neighborhood, the landlord had long abandoned it to drug addicts and the deterioration of San Francisco's saltwater fog and constant drizzle.
When HNJ squatted 850 Hayes, it held its first big workday, an urban barnraising with over a dozen volunteers. They fixed the stove, installed window frames donated by a local free medical clinic that had just remodeled, and painted both the interior and exterior. During this very public process, many of the neighbors met the HNJ members. "Some realized we were squatters, and some didn't," said Graham. "All of them were really happy that this vacant, ugly building was being repainted and would have windows instead of plywood."
When the police finally arrived several weeks later, the squatters gave a tour of the house. The police remembered the former crack house and expressed shock to see people cooking dinner, watching television, and living a "normal life." The pair of cops remarked on what a positive transformation the squatters had engineered.
Because the landlord had not yet complained, the police took a soft approach. According to Graham, they told him and the other squatters, "We have to see somebody leave. Then we don't care what happens. If we get another call later on, we are not necessarily going to come back." Two of the squatters took a few things and walked around the block. When they returned, the police were gone.
Eventually, the landlord discovered and confronted the HNJ squatters. He wanted to demolish the building to build condominiums. When he came for the eviction, Tenants Union lawyers met him in front of the house. They informed the landlord that the squatters had lived at 850 Hayes long enough to obtain tenant status. It was now a civil, not a criminal, matter; the police could not legally evict without a proper eviction proceeding in civil court. To create further obstacles for the out-maneuvered landlord, squatters filed complaints at the Planning Department, which ruled against a demolition. Stymied at every turn, the landlord left town.
When the landlord returned a year and a half later, however, somebody lit the building on fire. Luckily, the squatters put the fire out in time, and nobody was hurt. They suspected the landlord had committed arson, but had no proof. Then, late another night, a second fire was set while everyone slept. The squatters escaped unhurt again, but, by the time firefighters extinguished the flames, 850 Hayes was gutted beyond repair.
The squat at 850 Hayes provided over a dozen homeless people with free housing for about two years. It lasted because the police originally turned a blind eye. But as HNJ continued both its covert and public campaigns, the police administration developed a much clearer policy of intolerance. The police began immediately and forcibly to evict squatters and re-evict if the squatters returned. Shortly after the evictions of 90 Golden Gate and two other covert HNJ squats, Mayor Frank Jordan, a former police chief who sailed into office on a law-and-order platform, addressed HNJ for the first time:
We just cannot allow people to walk into any vacant building and just take it over as a homeless encampment. These are private buildings ... and if the [owners] ask us to remove people, we try to do so. There are health hazards involved here. There are public safety issues if someone comes into a building and starts a fire.
Ironically, in the same January 4, 1993, speech, Jordan also apologized for not fulfilling his campaign promises to the homeless.10
Luckily, Jordan and the landlords could not keep track of all the vacant buildings. In the case of one building squatted by HNJ, neither the police nor the landlord discovered the squatters until five years after it had been taken over. HNJ had fiercely protected the anonymity of the building on Page Street because the length and continuity of the squat created the possibility of an adverse possession claim under California law (most states have a similar law). To get title, the squatters must "openly and notoriously" use and improve the property without consent of the landlord for five continuous years and must pay the property taxes left unpaid by the owner for those years. If the squatters meet all these conditions, they can file a deed on the property and own it free and clear.
After the November 1998 eviction of the squatters, Homes Not Jails filed as a nonprofit business and paid the $6,000 in property taxes owed to the city. On January 1, 1999, HNJ held a press conference claiming ownership of the building based on adverse possession and presented evidence of continuous occupation for over five years. Included in this evidence was a San Francisco Examiner article on one of the formerly homeless residents. Unaware that the Page Street building was a squat, the reporter portrayed a man who pulled himself out of poverty and off the streets to live in "legitimate" housing. Shortly after the January 1 press conference, San Francisco police arrested the Homes Not Jails spokespeople for felony conspiracy to trespass. Whether the squatters will actually gain title in their battle with the city and negligent owners is dependent on the vagaries of the legal system.
First Public Takeover: Sleazy Slumlord at 250 Taylor
For the first few months of its existence, HNJ squatted covertly. The group planned its first public takeover for Thanksgiving 1992. A 40-unit apartment building at 250 Taylor seemed perfect. The landlord, Robert Imhoff of Landmark Realty, owned San Francisco properties valued at $20 million. He had escaped prosecution for illegally evicting mostly low-income Filipino tenants from 250 Taylor in 1987 during a wave of gentrification. Many of the former tenants became homeless, and Imhoff then rented out all the units for high rates as luxury apartments. The evicted tenants won a case and settlements in civil court, but Imhoff declared bankruptcy, and the judge allowed him to keep and continue renting his properties.
In addition to the building's caricature of a despicable landlord, HNJ chose 250 Taylor because the media would already be at the location. Every Thanksgiving, Glide Memorial Church serves thousands of homeless people a turkey dinner across the street from 250 Taylor. The bedraggled homeless form a line that stretches for blocks, and every year television cameras record interviews during the meal.
HNJ members expressed distaste for what they consider the media's contrived image of homeless people on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Jeremy Graham explained HNJ's perspective:
By having actions on Thanksgiving and Christmas, we hope to change the way people view the homeless. The image of homeless people one sees in the media on almost every other day is of people who deserve what they get, people who have only themselves to blame, people who are dirty, don't take care of themselves, and use drugs. You can't give them money because they'll just waste it all. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, you see families and the deserving poor, pathetic, helpless, passive, and grateful for their bowl of soup or toys for the kids.
HNJ wanted to depict an alternate picture of homelessness that bridged the dichotomy. "What we've tried to project is an image of people denied the resources needed to take care of themselves," said Graham, "people who are angry, competent, capable, and, if necessary, people willing to take extreme actions and be arrested and go to jail to get those resources."
HNJ's plan for 250 Taylor became its standard model for public takeovers. Members would secretly occupy the building the night before; then, on the advertised day of action, they would hold a public rally within walking distance of the squat. HNJ protesters would then march to the building and join the original occupiers inside. Banners would unfurl from the windows, and spokespeople would make statements to the media. Police would learn the site of the occupation only by following the march to its destination, at which point they would be too late to easily remove the barricaded occupiers.
On the night before Thanksgiving, HNJ activists converged on the Tenderloin according to plans. But reality rarely adheres to an ideal. "We were such amateurs, we overdid it," said Ted Gullickson. "We brought about 20 people to break in, but it only took one person to peel the loose plywood off by hand." HNJ positioned lookouts, connected by bike messengers two blocks away in every direction. Once inside the building, one of the HNJ members started to build a barricade. He did so much pounding with a hammer that somebody alerted the police. An officer bypassed the impressive barricade by simply entering through a side door and evicted everyone two hours before the rally.
Like HNJ, the police were new to housing takeovers: they left the building unprotected. So, the occupiers joined the 11 a.m. rally at City Hall and marched to the building with the whole group of protesters, which then numbered 75 people. In front of television cameras and hundreds of homeless people waiting in line for a free meal, the HNJ crowd once again tore plywood from windows and reoccupied 250 Taylor.
Cameras rolled, police chased the squatters up and down stairs, and HNJ spokespeople, leaning from windows bedecked by banners, used bullhorns to make demands to a mass audience for the first time. They wanted the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to take the building by eminent domain and transfer it to a nonprofit, affordable housing developer. It took only an hour for the police to find and re-evict everyone and make a couple of arrests. But that evening and the next day, several national television stations, including ABC, brought the event to millions of living rooms.
Public Takeovers: The Politics of Homeless Action
Since that first Thanksgiving in 1992, HNJ in San Francisco has organized 27 public takeovers, with a total of 242 arrests. The Boston chapter has organized four public takeovers in the two years since its beginning on Thanksgiving 1995, with 25 arrests. Each of these public takeovers costs municipal authorities large sums of money. On Thanksgiving 1993, a small group of about 60 people gathered in front of San Francisco City Hall, then peacefully marched to 250 Taylor. Two police vans, seven motorcycles, nine squad cars, and 53 visible police officers followed and made only four arrests. Over the next few years, the District Attorney spent nearly $100,000 on a failed attempt to prosecute the arrestees. The cost of controlling, jailing, and prosecuting HNJ members may seem a ridiculous waste of money on the part of authorities, who could have bought dozens of affordable housing units for the same price and possibly appeased HNJ activists in the process. However, if authorities overtly reward those who organize public takeovers, they may very well encourage more illegal action by others. Thus a classic government strategy in coopting movements is to make seemingly unrelated concessions to groups with the same base of support as the action group. These concealed concessions partially ameliorate the complaints causing the action, but provide less of an incentive for further protests. This point is further illustrated in this chapter and by many other cases in this book.
The arrests of the HNJ activists led to a court appearance. When brought to court, HNJ attempts a variety of legal defenses. The defense of necessity, for example, is intended to protect from burglary charges the defendant who breaks into a burning building to save a baby. Homeless activists have occasionally been allowed to use the defense of necessity in squatting trials by pointing to the number of homeless deaths. To save the lives of homeless people, one must value the necessity of breaking into a building to squat over the technical understanding of property law. In San Francisco, HNJ attorneys have prepared extensively for the necessity defense, including expert witnesses to testify to San Francisco's acute affordable housing shortage, the health and safety dangers that accompany homelessness, and the inadequate public provision of homeless services. The defense of necessity has worked best in San Francisco when utilized by actual homeless people, not housed homeless activists.
Other legal defenses apply to specific types of owners, like federal or state governments. In addition to vacant properties owned by negligent or rent-racking private landlords, HNJ targets vacant government property. In the case of stateowned property, HNJ can sometimes legally defend itself with California state law SB-120. This law makes any vacant property owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) subject to purchase for $1 by cities and municipalities who will use the property to benefit the homeless. HNJ has repeatedly occupied a vacant Caltrans building at 66 Berry Street to demand that the sale take place. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors subsequently passed a resolution urging the mayor to purchase the building. But Caltrans claims a legal technicality exempts the property, and successive mayors have failed to take even the first required step of requesting the purchase.
In the case of vacant federal building takeovers, Homes Not Jails cites the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (1987). Title V of this littleknown law stipulates that all "surplus, excess, under-utilized, and unutilized" federal property be used to "assist the homeless." The law says homeless use must take precedence over any other use. It specifies that vacant housing and other buildings can be provided to homeless people and nonprofit organizations through deeds or leases. To accommodate transfers, the law stipulates that each federal "landholding agency" must report to HUD any properties not being used. After a government agency makes notification, HUD determines the "suitability" of the building for homeless use and publishes available properties in the federal register. Homeless people or groups can then apply for deeds, leases, or "interim use permits."
Federal agencies, however, have adopted a self-serving and narrow interpretation of the McKinney Act. Those few that bother to report to HUD tend to do so incompletely. If they report anything, they typically report some remote vacant lot or unusable property. HUD lists only two available properties in all of San Francisco, one a remote "toxic waste" site at Hunters Point and the other designated a "landslide area."
Within the first year of the McKinney Act, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sued the federal government. One year later, in 1988, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the government was violating McKinney and issued a nationwide injunction to begin its implementation. The government failed to do so, and other federal courts made similar rulings in 1989, twice in 1991, and in 1993.
Starting on President's Day in 1993, HNJ repeatedly squatted one unreported vacant building owned by the federal government at 1211 Polk Street. The government had seized it in a case that involved charges of tax fraud, racketeering, methamphetamine production, and the filming of child pornography. After its seizure, the building stood vacant for four years.
HNJ members occupied the building and barricaded doors and windows on June 13, 1993. Homeless street youth who frequently camped in front of the building joined the occupation. While the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) waited for reinforcements, HNJ arranged an impromptu meeting with the federal marshal who had responsibility for the building. The activists proposed to the marshal that homeless people use sweat equity to create affordable housing at the building.
To the surprise of both squatters and the SFPD, the marshal agreed to stall any eviction while he forwarded the proposal to his superiors. He told the SFPD that the building was federal property under federal jurisdiction, and that the SFPD would have to leave the squatters alone. The thoughtful marshal gave his card to the squatters and asked that HNJ call him if the SFPD returned. Twice during the takeover the SFPD surrounded and tried to storm the building. Twice HNJ kept them at bay with hastily reinforced barricades long enough to alert the marshal.
Midway through the takeover, HNJ realized that many of the homeless kids survived by prostitution. Sarah Menafee, a member of HNJ, told the San Francisco Bay Guardian that it would be divine justice if a building once used for child pornography could be transformed into a home for teenagers who have been "doing what they had to do" to survive on the street. The children's stories and pictures were published in the media and increased public attention and sympathy. Practically every day, at least one member of the media arrived to snap photos or write stories.
Meanwhile the federal government and the mayor's Office of Housing took an open attitude toward the occupation. Federal attorneys jetted in from Nevada and negotiated directly with a Homes Not Jails team composed of homeless people and political activists. After much discussion, the federal government and activists came to an agreement. The government offered to sell the building to the city for far less than market value. It asked only $77,000, the amount equal to various liens on the building. It would then require about $210,000 worth of repairs to bring it into use as a homeless shelter. Ted Dienstfry, the director of the Mayor's Office of Housing, personally inspected the inside of the building, certified its habitability, and verified that purchase of the property would be a "prudent use of public funds."11 Everybody anticipated that the city would agree to buy the place; Mayor Jordan had only to write a letter of intent.
Earlier in the process, Mayor Jordan had stopped by the building in his chauffeured town car. In what may have been a tragic misstep of hubris, young squatters leaned out the windows and heckled this key player in the negotiations. Whether or not this had an effect, it illustrates the uneasy relationship between HNJ and the mayor. Contrary to the inclination of both the federal government and his own Office of Housing, on July 4, Mayor Jordan refused to purchase the building and the deal fell apart. Federal officials refused to lend the building directly to a nonprofit homeless advocacy group because, according to them, the McKinney Act did not apply in the case of 1211 Polk. It was a seized asset, rather than a property formerly used for federal purposes. At 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 11, the 27th day of the takeover, 36 federal marshals and San Francisco police evicted 12 residents and arrested two. The government eventually dropped all charges, probably to avoid facing the McKinney Act in court.
Over the next two years, HNJ attempted to retake the building seven times, but on each occasion the SFPD made quick arrests. Without benefit of an auction or open sale process, the federal government sold the property for $300,000 to a real estate developer in 1995. The developer flipped the investment on the same day and sold it for $340,000.
Wrestling the Big Boys and Winning: Homes Not Jails and Religious Witness vs. the U.S. Army
In 1989, the United States Congress passed the federal Base Conversion Act, which closed the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco and other military bases across the country. On the Presidio is Wherry Housing, originally 524 units of modern family housing used for enlisted personnel. Most of the units have hardwood floors and a "million dollar view of the Golden Gate Bridge," according to one columnist. An independent inspector valued the housing alone, not including the land, at $80 million.12
Homes Not Jails wanted to turn the Wherry complex into affordable housing for homeless people. HNJ members allied themselves with a group called Religious Witness with Homeless People. Led by Sister Bernice Galvin, a Catholic nun, Religious Witness includes leaders in its organizing structure from the Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, pagan, and Muslim communities.
But despite many people's desire to see the Wherry complex turned into affordable housing, President Bill Clinton appointed a board to decide the details without sufficient public input. Called the Presidio Trust, the board was filled with corporate luminaries who quickly slated the 524 units for demolition. In support of demolition were neighbors and developers who saw the proposed affordable housing as a potential source of crime. Likewise in support of demolition, the National Park Service considered affordable housing as being inconsistent with its mission to protect nature, conserve historic buildings, and provide large open parks for the public. Demolishing the Wherry complex would increase green space, they said. Yet the Park Service saw no contradiction in renting 900 units of officer housing on the base at market rates, from $1,500 to $4,000 monthly. Not only would the demolition of Wherry lose potential rental revenue for the Park Service, it would cost taxpayers $16 million. According to the National Park Service's own estimates, it would cost only $2 to $3 million to make the $80 million complex habitable.
According to Ted Gullickson, the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service violated the McKinney Act by failing to register the vacant Wherry complex with HUD. When military base closures began in 1989, amendments to the McKinney Act clarified that the law applies to base closures. Early in 1995, some of the Presidio housing was listed as available under McKinney, but the government quickly retracted it, calling the listing a "mistake."13
Once the National Park Service and Presidio Trust took control of the land, they demolished 58 of the 524 units. To protest the demolition, Religious Witness and Homes Not Jails occupied vacant buildings at the Presidio 11 times, with a total of 352 arrests. These actions put a media spotlight on the demolition plans and, after several years of repeated occupation, rallied the San Francisco public. Several environmental groups spoke in support of using the Wherry complex as affordable housing, and, by 1997, 250 organizations and 2,000 individuals had endorsed the Religious Witness campaign, including prominent local, national, and international religious figures. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution to preserve Wherry Housing, and Mayor Brown drafted several affordable housing plans for the Wherry complex.
With rising public pressure facilitated by Religious Witness and Homes Not Jails, the campaign to save Wherry Housing succeeded. Religious Witness set the keystone to success when it proposed a ballot measure to keep Wherry Housing and develop affordable housing at the Presidio. If the Presidio failed to follow the ballot measure, it would lose all city services, including trash collection, water, and street cleaning. The Presidio Trust finally relented in May 1998, when it became evident that the proposition to save Wherry Housing would pass, as indeed it did by 10,000 votes. The Presidio Trust promised to incorporate affordable housing into its master plan, repair Wherry Housing, rent it at market rates, and forego demolition for at least 30 years.
The Presidio Trust decision set a precedent as the first time that affordable housing would be included within the confines of a U.S. national park. In a city with as low a vacancy rate as San Francisco, saving 466 units from demolition was a significant success for Homes Not Jails, Religious Witness, and affordable housing advocates nationwide.
Quiet Victories: The Secret Success of Homes Not Jails
Since the late '80s, squatting groups across the United States have achieved spectacular victories. Dignity Housing West in Oakland staged public takeovers and gained funding to turn a vacant federal building into a homeless service center. Operation Homestead in Seattle used public takeovers to turn 400 vacant units into affordable housing. ACT-UP Philadelphia squatted and gained title to a vacant hospital, which it turned into an AIDS hospice. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in New York gained title to several buildings through squatting.
With the exception of Wherry Housing, HNJ has claimed quieter victories. The group has not yet won title to any of its squatted housing. After almost 20 public takeovers and an equal number of public evictions in five years, the members continue a seemingly Sisyphean task of takeover, eviction, takeover, eviction. But Sisyphus has our sympathies, and HNJ our attention. In a masterful adaptation of Gandhian strategy, HNJ manages to squeeze moral success from each tactical defeat. Media venues regularly bring the ugly evictions of HNJ into the chic living rooms of otherwise comfortable voters, and politicians like Mayor Brown have begun to recognize the need for more affordable housing. On a purely cultural level, HNJ has succeeded through hundreds of television and newspaper stories in establishing a more empowering and accurate perception of the homeless.
Factors particular to San Francisco have frustrated the concrete success of acquiring a title deed by these squatters, among the most dedicated and active in the United States. Much higher vacancy rates in Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, and Oakland make it politically and economically easier for local and federal governments to acquiesce to activist demands for a title deed. The Bay Area's low vacancy rate and high cost of real estate make it more difficult both for covert squatting and for local and federal government donations of housing following a public takeover. During occupations of the HUD house and the Presidio in San Francisco, the federal government made this explicitly clear.
Housing activists in areas with tight housing markets, like San Francisco, face a more daunting task than in other places, but that greater difficulty makes their mandate particularly critical for homeless politics nationally. "The fact that you can squat in San Francisco at all," says Wooding, "means that squatting can be a remarkably powerful tool in most other places." If HNJ San Francisco can convince the federal government to change its rules, whether against the use of national parks for affordable housing or against a cap on HUD spending for a single affordable housing unit, that can set a precedent for the nation.
Even though HNJ has not yet won the war, it has won quite a few battles. Although the city government of San Francisco reneged on its promise to fund an HNJ pilot project, it has devoted more funding to homeless and housing services than it would have if HNJ had not raised public awareness and outrage by maintaining the intensity and frequency of its demonstrations and gaining national media attention.14 Proposition A, a $100 million city bond measure for affordable housing, passed in 1996 with guidance from a coalition of affordable housing providers. But without five years of agitation by Homes Not Jails and other lowerprofile housing groups, the sense of crisis that propelled Proposition A to passage would not have existed.
"Through educating people about the connection between the housing crisis and homelessness," said Gullickson, "we have definitely added to the overall atmosphere that the city needs to do more for affordable housing." Besides an occasional statistical study or quote from this or that nonprofit affordable housing provider, doubtless lacking in drama to television audiences, HNJ and Religious Witness are the only groups that have successfully created a hook, through arrests and militant demonstrations, on which the mass media can hang the issue of affordable housing. Only with this mass media attention did city voters in 1996 perceive a $100 million need for more affordable housing and, in 1998, vote to save Wherry Housing.
Although HNJ has not yet gained legal title to any property, it has still managed to provide a significant amount of long-term affordable housing to people who usually choose between the cold streets and impersonal, regimented homeless shelters. Since 1992, covert squats organized by HNJ have successfully housed thousands of homeless people in hundreds of buildings. Drugs, violence, and undemocratic decision-making have checkered some of these successes, but HNJ serves an important function by acting as arbitrator and by modeling the principles of nonviolence, sobriety, and the consensus process in the homeless community. HNJ also does a service to the broader community by creating a fair structure of dispute resolution to which homeless communities living on the streets, in parks, or in non-HNJ squats would otherwise have no access.
In retaining contact with drug-addicted squatters, HNJ provides compassion to a population that carries one of the worst of social stigmas. Said Chance Martin, a former HNJ squatter, "Substance abuse makes for some hairy times, but I finally got to the point where I had to say, if somebody sticks a needle in their arm, does that mean they have to live on the streets?" HNJ has attempted to create self-managed communities by entrusting homeless people with responsibility under the worst conditions. That trust has helped teach the responsibility and social skills needed to escape the forest of individual failures for a path of goals, work, and achievement, whether through political organizing or parting from HNJ and beginning a new life. "It takes people with a real commitment and vision to make a cooperative community work under adverse circumstances," said Jeremy Graham, "and HNJ has been very fortunate in the vast majority of our participants."
HNJ Boston has only existed since 1995, with a six-month hiatus due to a hurricane warning that sunk one occupation, but the group has weathered the storm and has a sunny optimism for future action. If it continues its rapid rate of public takeovers, which have increased community and media connections, it can expect its political power in Boston to grow in much the same way as in San Francisco. With a smaller vacancy rate, HNJ Boston can expect covert successes to match or exceed San Francisco's early covert squats; with lower real estate values, it could even gain legal title to a building sooner than its West Coast parent.
Homes Not Jails aims to set precedents, and it continues to attempt this at a courtroom level. Unfortunately, after Homes Not Jails and Religious Witness endured 483 arrests in Boston, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz, only one charge has gone to court. Caltrans and federal prosecutors have steadfastly declined to prosecute squatter defendants to avoid the embarrassing attention a trial would draw to SB-120 and the McKinney Act, or to the necessity defense, if it were allowed by an activist judge. The failure of the District Attorneys to prosecute raises questions as to the legality of the 483 arrests. Clearly much electoral and lobbying work needs to be done to strengthen enforcement of the McKinney Act and similar legislation.
Many tasks lay ahead. Rome was not built in a day, and neither will the legal victories and public opinion needed for practical answers to the problem of homelessness. "We had this naive attitude that people would just be supportive of what we were doing," said Graham. "If people were supportive, the politicians would have to endorse it, and that would put enough pressure on the building owners to negotiate a deal." Housing the homeless proved not so simple. But if public opinion flags and government funding thins at times, worse would befall society at a more rapid rate without groups like Homes Not Jails. Homes Not Jails has expanded media coverage of the need for affordable housing, provided tens of thousands of nights of squatted housing for homeless people, and helped save 466 units of beautiful housing at the Presidio. Like other squatter groups in the United States, Homes Not Jails provides a model of community action that works.
Chapter 1: Homes Not Jails
1. Freemantle, Tony. "Hoping to Be Home Free: Urban Guerrillas `Liberate' Abandoned Housing for Use by The Homeless." Houston Chronicle, 4/4/93, p. 22A.
3. Graham, Jeremy. Interview with the author. San Francisco. 4/9/97.
4. Boston Emergency Shelter Commission. City of Boston Homeless Census 1996 1997.
5. Homes Not Jails, Boston. press release, 5/10/97, p. 2.
6. All quotes from HNJ members in this chapter are from interviews the author con ducted in San Francisco on the following dates:
Whirlwind Dreamer: 4/21/97 Eric: 4/14/97
Jeremy Graham: 4/9/97
Ted Gullickson: 4/14/97 and 7/21/97 Chance Martin: 4/9/97
Connie Morganstern: 4/11/97 Mara Raider: 4/22/97
Miguel Wooding: 7/27/97
7. Voltaire, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, and Tryon Edwards. Cited in Adams, Franklin Pierce, ed. FPA Book of Quotations. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1952, p. 171.
8. Spence, Jan. "Homes Not Jails Takes Over a Long-Neglected House." Street Spirit, Oct. 1995, p. 2.
9. Cothran, George. "Homes Not Jails: Squatters' Group Gets Off Ground." SF Weekly, 1212/92, p. 6.
10. Dietz, David. "S.F. Mayor Says the Homeless Can't Occupy Empty Buildings." San Francisco Chronicle (East Bay Edition), 1/5/93, p. A14.
11. "Squatter Takeover of Ben Hur Building Prompts City to Consider Use of Site for Housing." Polk Street Express, Jul. 1993, p. 1.
12. Galvin, Sister Bernie, Congregation of Divine Providence. "Position Paper on the Presidio Wherry Housing: Correspondence to Members of the Presidio Trust." San Francisco: Religious Witness with Homeless People, 7/25/97.
13. Hinkle, Warren. Independent (San Francisco). 1996.
14. In addition to the national media attention already mentioned, HNJ has gotten coverage in the New York Times, 11/28/97, p. A18.
Posted Feb 1 2010 - 9:09pm by LongIslandFNB