[Hpn] Fw: Media Get Poverty Tours in Republican Host City of Phildelphia
I CAN! America
Tue, 25 Jul 2000 04:26:17 -0500
Thursday July 20 4:01 PM ET
Media Get Poverty Tours in Republican Host City
By David Morgan
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Cheri Honkala figures there is a simple answer
the daunting social problem that is homelessness in Philadelphia.
``There are 24,000 homeless people in this city and 27,000 abandoned
properties,'' the longtime social activist who heads the Kensington
Rights Union (KWRU) says with a teasing smile. ``You don't need to know
rocket science to figure out a creative way to put people in housing.''
In reality, she knows only too well that life is never that easy. In
can be bitterly hard for her neighbors -- poor people who have been cast
from public assistance by welfare reform only to join the ranks of
So with the Republican National Convention coming to town on July 31,
offering a ``Reality Tour'' to visiting reporters in hopes of drawing
attention to the misery and deprivation that the best economy in U.S.
has managed to pass by.
``This is the other side of Philadelphia. This is what more than
Philadelphians have to live with,'' she said on one recent tour, driving
dilapidated houses, crumbling factories and abandoned churches in the
The tour lasts more than an hour and takes the mostly white,
out-of-towners through a landscape that alternates among neat
homes with gardens, squalid row houses, struggling retail businesses and
Welfare Is No. 1 Source Of Income
``The No. 1 source of income in this neighborhood is welfare. The No. 2
source is drugs,'' Honkala said, standing beneath a mural painted in
of more than 30 children killed by drug violence in an area known to
as the ''Badlands.''
``It's not like people here can afford to go off someplace to visit
a tombstone. So they paint murals,'' she said as children gathered
around, some bright-eyed and smiling, others with hard expressions,
but all eager for a closer look at the visitors.
Two girls, barely 18, posed nearby in a paint-chipped doorway,
their faces sporting the heavy makeup and indolence of prostitution.
Honkala explained later that the same bright-eyed children can just
as easily gather at one of the neighborhood's many overgrown vacant
lots to watch prostitutes ply their trade and drug addicts shoot
up, or to puzzle over a dead body.
``I knew a cop who went through Vietnam, but he couldn't hack it
here because of the violence,'' she said.
Philadelphia is home to large pockets of poverty and blight. The
median taxable income is not quite $3,000 above the official U.S.
poverty line of $16,050 per year.
Kensington, two miles (3.2 km) north of the hotels, bars and
restaurants that will soon be brimming with Republicans, is the
poorest legislative district in Pennsylvania, with a mixed population
of 90,000 whites, blacks and Hispanics.
Once an industrial center where Mother Jones marched against child
labor in 1904, its now-crumbling brick factories began to close
after the Great Depression as textile manufacturing moved first to
the South and then overseas.
Kensington, part of a larger area once known as the city's drug
and murder capital, has been among neighborhoods targeted by a
police crackdown on crime known as ``Operation Sunrise.''
Honkala, a former teen-age prostitute and a single mother who danced
topless to support herself and her son, has become a local celebrity
since moving from Minnesota in 1987. Hard times have stalked her
since infancy when her Chippewa Indian father deserted the family.
Later came life with an abusive stepfather, teen pregnancy and a
failed marriage. But she managed to attend college, and in 1991
she founded KWRU with a handful of other poor women fed up with
ever-diminishing services for poor people.
With its headquarters in the heart of a vibrant Hispanic area,
where gleaming muscle cars pulsate with amplified rhythms of the
inner city, KWRU serves as an advocate for poor people, whether
they are loners in need of a place to stay, addicts looking for
treatment or families newly ejected from welfare.
Support from celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne
and Bonnie Raitt has helped KWRU find permanent housing for more
than 450 families. But the organization main's activity is setting
up tent cities and squatter camps, which tend to last only until
authorities move in and start making arrests.
To some people, Pennsylvania is a model for welfare reform. The
state won an $80 million bonus from the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services last year for ushering welfare recipients into
jobs. In Philadelphia, welfare rolls have fallen from 212,000 people
in 1997 to 100,000 of the city's 1.4 million residents.
But Honkala says reform has only swelled the ranks of the working
poor who cannot earn a living wage and whose existence has been
hidden by the glare of the country's larger prosperity.
Still, she offers no prescription for addressing the inequities of
the U.S. economy. ``Don't get me started,'' she said. ``I just
know that some people live with too much and some people with
nothing. And that's wrong and bad.''
Marching On Gop For Social Justice
Come opening day of the Republican convention, Honkala will take
her place among demonstrators determined to march for social justice
without a permit. ``(The police) have told me I shouldn't take it
as a threat but that I should expect to be in jail for no less than
a week,'' she said.
She says a marker of social injustice is a lack of banks in poor
neighborhoods that leaves people to contend with predatory lending
practices and the high fees of check-cashing services.
``This was the last bank in the neighborhood,'' she said, pointing
to a limestone edifice. ``It survived the Great Depression, but it
couldn't survive the 1990s.''
Despite KWRU's lofty ideals, critics say Honkala spends too much
time getting people arrested by moving one group of poor people
into vacant housing earmarked for others. Sometimes her emotional
rhetoric also seems one-sided.
At one point on the recent tour, Honkala stopped on a glass-strewn
pavement across from a razed city block and spoke in lowered tones
about an adjacent ``drug alley'' where an indolent young Hispanic
man sat on the hood of his car.
``This is where poor kids who want nice jeans and sneakers come to
sell drugs -- and get arrested,'' she said.
As if on cue, a disheveled-looking young woman in a filthy summer
dress, with a lion's head tattoo on an arm blistered with needle
marks, ambled past in the direction of that very place.
But a block away the mood of two black women was upbeat.
``This is my neighborhood and these people are really good people,''
said Tina, a blithe young woman with gold-dyed braids.
Her friend noted that the razed city block nearby would soon be
home to a new school, police station and playground. ``There are
things to look forward to around here,'' the friend said cheerfully.
Honkala is no stranger to big-time media coverage. A segment of
ABC's current affairs program ``20/20'' once pointed out that she
had four homeless people living with her in her studio apartment.
When her landlord heard about it, he evicted her.
But lately there has been more media attention than usual. The BBC
has been by. So have the Voice of America and a team of Swedish
journalists. CNN wanted an interview, she said, but they expected
her to come to the Liberty Bell, which she is barred from visiting
after setting up a homeless encampment nearby on Independence Mall.
``The publicity is a double-edged sword,'' she said of the latest
round of stories. ``Now everybody, their mother, their dog and
their sister come to us for help.''