[Hpn] *Very Long*: They Know Squat: Idealistic Rebels Of Homes Not Jails ...
Morgan W. Brown
Sun, 29 Jul 2001 16:39:53 -0400
Below is a forward of a very long interesting and informative article which
may be of interest to you and others whom you know.
Morgan W. Brown
Sunday, July 29, 2001
Washington Post <http://www.washingtonpost.com>
[Washington, D.C., USA]
They Know Squat
The Idealistic Rebels Of Homes Not Jails Seek to Shelter the Homeless by
Seizing Abandoned Building
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2001; Page F01
THE CITY FIREHOUSE FALLS to the rebels without resistance. Now it is being
held by Stinky, L-Dog, Ziggy, Lorax and Crowbar. They wear bandannas for
masks and take themselves very seriously.
The red brick building on Massachusetts Avenue NW near Union Station
has not housed a D.C. engine company for a long time, but it's in good
shape. The occupiers lay in enough spring water, granola, Crazy
Richard's Natural Chunky Peanut Butter, carrots and Cheez-Its for an
extended siege. They barricade the downstairs doors with steel beams and
chains. The only way in is to climb to a second-story window on a chain
ladder that you pull up behind you.
As reinforcements come in through the window, they are instructed to
adopt "action names" to protect their identities. Bob Marley is singing
songs of revolution on the boombox. Crowbar gets a call on a cell phone from
a bike shop where he recently applied for a job. He says he can't talk now,
Red -- a George Washington University professor -- and Ziggy -- a
Connecticut College student -- suggest slogans for the banner Crowbar is
designing. The canvas is too small for a lot of words. "I paid for this with
my own money and this is all I could afford," says Crowbar, a 20-year-old
taking a year off from the University of Maryland.
The space feels at once like a commune and a tree fort. With high
ceilings and tall arched windows overlooking the avenue, it could also
make fabulous $2,000-a-month loft apartments.
That is roughly what city officials have in mind. At first they
started renovating the building to make better quarters for homeless
women who have been stacked in battered triple-bunk trailers several
blocks away. Then officials realized that developers Douglas Jemal and
Greg Fazackerly might want to use the firehouse as part of a luxury
housing development. Let's see . . . homeless shelter or expensive
apartments? It took city officials about 30 seconds to decide.
Enter this band of masked men and women called Homes Not Jails. On the
same overbooked day in mid-June when they invade the firehouse, members of
the group also are lodging homeless people in a house they don't own on H
Street NE, squatting at a secret illegal residence near North Capitol
Street, and going on trial in Superior Court for unlawful entry on K Street
Outside the firehouse is a swirling circus of activists serving fruit
juice and waving signs; homeless people with bags of belongings;
reporters. The masked ones are visible in second-story windows, pumping
their fists above dangling spray-painted banners: "Housing for People Not
Profit." "Fill Homes Not Developers' Wallets."
The only thing missing for a great theatrical confrontation on the
evening news is any opposition at all. For days, the mayor, the
developers, the police ignore the fact that a piece of city property has
been seized. It is a brilliant rope-a-dope. The activists sidle up to
reporters to see if maybe they would mention to the police or someone that
this insurrection is underway.
Everyone is relieved one afternoon when a deputy mayor and the director of
housing and community development drop by. The suits look up at the people
with masks. The officials produce a letter, which is hoisted up in a milk
crate. The letter contains a promise to improve the trailers and let the
homeless women advise the city on opening a new shelter in two or three
years. It's not good enough for the activists, and four are finally arrested
-- but it prompts L-Dog to declare a victory of sorts:
"We take over a building, and suddenly the city is making promises."
Forgotten in the Renewal
Listen to the mayor, the media, demographers, developers and the
pooh-bahs on the Federal City Council. After a decade of economic
struggle, Washington is rebounding, revitalizing, rebirthing all over
But Stinky and the gang are not with the program in brave new
Washington. They detect a capitalist apocalypse in double-digit rent
increases, construction cranes cramming luxury condos and chain
restaurants behind row house facades, yuppies and buppies swarming
neighborhoods formerly known as "transitional" and "dangerous."
They have little use for notions like property rights, but they do
understand supply and demand. The supply is 4,000 empty buildings:
"abandominiums." The demand is 7,000 homeless people, 8,000 poor people
without housing vouchers, 16,000 on the waiting list for public housing.
Something must be done. "Property is almost a god in our culture," says
Stinky, a k a Jennifer Kirby, 23, a thin, soft-spoken founding member of
Homes Not Jails. "Squatting really messes with that. Human needs come before
property rights. I've never seen people more inspired than when they are
physically creating the reality they want. And that's what I find most
powerful about squatting."
It has been more than a decade since anyone bothered with group arrests and
outrageous public displays of idealism on behalf of people without money and
shelter in Washington.
All that pretty much ended when Mitch Snyder committed suicide in 1990. In
its militant prime in the 1970s and 1980s, Snyder's Community for Creative
Non-Violence pulled stunts like six weeks of daily arrests in front of the
White House, marathon hunger strikes, building takeovers, church invasions,
erecting tent cities called Reaganville and Congress Village.
It got results. The city adopted a right-to-shelter law. Hundreds of
shelter beds were opened. CCNV alone brought 500 people in from the cold in
a single winter. The city was forced to spend millions on affordable
Then the radicalism drained out of the movement. The right-to-shelter
law was repealed. CCNV became a mainstream shelter provider. Everybody
got a government contract and stopped breaking the law.
"There was an awful lot of compromise, people being afraid, indeed
threatened, when they spoke out," says Mary Ann Luby, outreach
coordinator for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "There was a
lot less looking at the big picture and more looking at 'my program.'"
Now two things are happening. Skeptics of Washington-on-the-rebound
recite a selected list of recent events -- the displacement of tenants
in Columbia Heights, the eviction of homeless people to make way for a
new convention center, the closing of the city's public hospital for the
poor, the deaths of six homeless people on the streets this past winter --
and feel a rising sense of doom and revulsion.
And the new critics of global capitalism are searching for local evils
to fix. It was no coincidence that the first housing takeover by a
precursor to Homes Not Jails came the day before the World Bank protests in
April 2000. Homes Not Jails plans to host a "People's Repo" squatter's
summit in the week before this fall's protests against the bank. The name of
the group reflects its members' view that government money used to support
the dramatic expansion of the nation's prison system should be spent to
A modest squatter movement is active across the country. Ted
Gullicksen, a co-founder of the original Homes Not Jails, established in
1992 in San Francisco, claims that group has opened hundreds of squats in
abandoned buildings and temporarily housed thousands of people.
Homes Not Jails in the District has yet to show a fraction of the
organization and effectiveness of CCNV or the San Francisco Homes Not
Jails, though the new group is barely a year old.
"I'm glad there are people out there on that radical edge of this issue
again," says Carol Fennelly, Snyder's partner at CCNV who now advocates for
But she adds: "Sometimes they seem arrogant. People said that about us, too.
Maybe I'm becoming more conservative in my middle age. Surviving for the
long haul requires a long-term strategy or goal -- something other than
adequate housing for the world, which is very broad and big and will never
Franklin Square on a Sunday afternoon is like a school for subversives.
Sitting on the grass over here is a subcommittee of the Mobilization
for Global Justice, planning to protest the World Bank annual meeting in the
fall. Over there is the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, anarchists who are
plotting an even more bracing welcome for the global trade
And gathered in a circle by the fountain is Homes Not Jails. The group
has several dozen members, no money, a Web site
<http://www.homesnotjails.org> and office space donated by the National
Coalition for the Homeless on 14th Street NW.
Most of the members are white and many are under 30. They call
themselves "privileged activists," even the ones who have been poor or
homeless. They recognize that getting arrested for a cause is a luxury
-- "such a middle-class white thing to do," says Erin Ralston, 25.
A substitute teacher in the District, Ralston grew up in Rockford,
Ill., and after her father left, the family occasionally slipped below
the poverty line and sometimes the utilities were shut off.
"We live in a culture where people live in fear," she says. "People are
dying in the streets and this is the richest country in the world.
There's no reason for it. There should be full access to housing, full
access to food."
The youngest members found their way to the issue through volunteering
in soup kitchens to fulfill their high school community service
requirements; listening to politics-sodden punk and reggae; reading.
They cherish well-thumbed volumes of retired Boston University professor
Howard Zinn's 1980 book, "A People's History of the United States," a
675-page survey of oppression and resistance.
"Once I realized how socially and economically segregated D.C. is, it
was an eye-opener for me. You can't help being political," says Thomas
Frampton, 17 -- Lorax -- who just graduated from Sidwell Friends School and
is thinking about deferring his admission to Yale to work as a community
Angela Hewett, 39 -- Red -- is an assistant professor of English at
George Washington University. She recently taught a class called
"Homelessness and Home" and another called "Chocolate City" about
planning and social issues in D.C. "I was frustrated by being a member
of a lot of progressive groups that didn't seem to be doing anything,"
she says, so she joined Homes Not Jails. "This is going to sound really
corny, but I feel like it gives people hope. . . . People believe the line
that development is the only way for Washington to get out of its problems,
that this is progress. People wonder, how do you fight that? We show there
Jamie Loughner, 36, was a housewife, a volunteer for H. Ross Perot and
an organizer of Renaissance festivals when she lived in tiny Hurricane,
W.Va. Five years ago, her husband was convicted of raping their 5-year-old
daughter. There was conflicting testimony and no physical evidence,
according to trial transcripts, but he was sent to prison for 50 years.
Their three children were taken from Loughner -- whose belief in his
innocence was viewed as evidence that she was an unfit parent.
Loughner came to Washington and became a full-time activist and
anarchist, exchanging work in a soup kitchen for a place to stay.
"Helping others the best I can is the only way I have found to deal
with the pain in my heart," she says. "I've had everything taken away
from me by the state. Nothing is going to be more painful than what has
already happened to me. It's liberating. I can withstand the pressure of my
Black and White Issues
There's an ugly moment at the firehouse. A black man wants to climb up
and check out the space. The white faces peeking over their bandannas
won't send the ladder down.
David Gatling turns away tense and scowling. "Any time you have a white
hierarchy and a black person comes along, then there seems to be a
superior-inferior relationship set up," he says. "I've been doing this since
'94. There isn't anything these kids can tell me about it."
It's all a misunderstanding, the Homes Not Jails people say. The
entrance policy to the firehouse was tightened for security reasons, but
Gatling, 49, an ally who used to be homeless, should have been let up right
away. The ladder comes down, and there are handshakes and hugs all around.
But it's an echo of Homes Not Jails' awkward debut a year ago. The
group discovered that good intentions alone won't smooth the way for
white activists working in black neighborhoods.
On that day last July, the group marched to an abandoned row house at
2809 Sherman Ave. NW in Columbia Heights, where members tore off the
boards sealing the door and began fixing up the place for a family that
needed housing. They thought the righteousness of the cause was
But they hadn't introduced themselves ahead of time to the
neighborhood. The reaction of some was hostile: "We're not South Africa on
the Potomac," M.A. Doll Fitzgerald, an advisory neighborhood
commissioner, said at the time. "Through police, through our
representatives and with patience, government works."
The group didn't make the same mistake again. Subsequent takeovers --
1959 H St. NE on Thanksgiving Day and 304 K St. NE in February -- were
preceded with neighborhood outreach.
Still, the activists are discovering that their message is not easy for many
residents to grasp.
One afternoon Frampton and Ralston visit Girard Street NW in Columbia
Heights with surveys and a clipboard and meet Nicholas Godette, who is
washing his car. Godette tells them that when he heard about the
takeover on Sherman Avenue, he thought Homes Not Jails was a front for
"all the people from Virginia and Maryland moving back to the city. I
thought they probably were trying to control the block."
Frampton is stunned. "What Homes Not Jails is about is the opposite,"
The takeover "was a good gesture -- if it was sincere," Godette
In interviews when Homes Not Jails people aren't around, residents tend to
say the activists are a little nutty -- but they have a point.
Emanuel Chatman is eating fried fish on a front porch on Sherman
Avenue. He nods at a blighted row house where three activists were
arrested last July.
"Look across the street -- it speaks for itself," he says. "A year
later it's still vacant and people are still homeless. Rather than come and
evict them, [the city] should have developed a strategy to work with them to
make a better community."
He says it's not fair to dismiss the group as white outsiders. "They
were not traditional white people because they were identifying with the
community and its struggle," he says.
Complaints still come from advisory neighborhood commissioners, the
professional watchdogs who feel bypassed by Homes Not Jails.
"I have a problem with them coming into a predominantly black
community," says Daniel Pernell, the commissioner in a Northeast
neighborhood where Homes Not Jails seized a house. "These homes need to be
occupied, but it has to be done the right way. . . . They didn't take my
advice on that; they went on and did their own little thing."
The Homestead Project
Every Saturday is "construction day" at the three-bedroom, two-story
residence with brick front and vinyl siding at 1959 H St. NE. A handful of
Homes Not Jails members show up to work, aware that refurbishing this
property is one measure of their effectiveness.
The house in the Kingman Park neighborhood is owned by the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development, which foreclosed on the
previous owner. It has been empty for years. Homes Not Jails thought it
might be able to obtain the title from HUD. No dice. Now HUD plans to sell
the house at a discount to a church group. The squatters will be evicted but
a HUD spokesman says they'll get some kind of housing
Loughner gives a tour. There's a new door. The inside has new drywall
and paint. The roof has been patched, and an especially bad hole over
the upstairs bathroom has been replaced with a skylight.
But the to-do list is substantial: The house needs electricity,
plumbing and windows. On the kitchen table is a book called "All About
A homeless family recently declined to live here until the place got
"It is moving a lot slower than I've wanted," Kirby says.
After eight months of occupation, Homes Not Jails has yet to prove it
is capable of completing a restoration.
"I don't know if they even had a game plan to go from Stage One to
completion," says Bernard Richardson, an advisory neighborhood
commissioner. "I think they were just surprised they didn't get put out yet.
Just snatching a house, and being happy you're not put out yet, is not
The group did expect to be thrown out by now, since it was a public
takeover designed to get attention. Members say the pace of work was
slowed by uncertainty over the future of the house. Figuring that taking
over houses in secret is a more practical way to hold on to abandoned
properties, they regularly go out at night to scout potential "covert"
squats. The group has set up one of those in a building near North Capitol
And yet, the neighbors on H Street aren't displeased. The home sits at
the end of a neat block with obsessively tended lawns and elaborate
gardens with fountains and statues. Homes Not Jails planted grass and
flowers. Neighbors say the house is looking better than it has in years. And
some have made friends with the activists.
"There's only positive things I could say," says Joseph Brown, an
accountant who lives across the street. "It certainly enhanced the
eyesore that house was."
Homes Not Jails also points out that several homeless men have been
living at the house since winter, so the amount of shelter in the city has
been marginally increased. The men don't object to using a bucket of water
from a pipe in the basement to flush the toilet.
Of course, some government programs have shown little more success than
Homes Not Jails. A coalition of community development corporations received
permission four years ago to take over 78 abandoned homes. Since then only
seven have been repaired and occupied, according to a city audit.
And the District recently suspended a program in which people could
purchase an abandoned house for $250 in return for a promise to
rehabilitate it. The problem was, most of the rehabs were incomplete
almost two years later -- much longer than Homes Not Jails has had on H
If Homes Not Jails hasn't succeeded in rehabilitating any properties,
the group has embarrassed the housing bureaucracy into quickly helping a few
people who joined its takeovers as potential tenants.
Nadine Green says, and a city housing spokesman confirms, that she got
her Section 8 housing voucher extended more promptly than she could have
expected, thanks to publicity generated by Homes Not Jails on H Street.
Another family's voucher came through shortly after it participated in the
Sherman Avenue takeover, and Blanca Aquino received assurances she would not
lose her burned-out apartment after joining the K Street takeover.
Carolyn Graham, the deputy mayor who signed the letter proffered
during the firehouse takeover, says that shortly after that
confrontation, the city began making arrangements to find a downtown
building for the homeless women in the trailers to stay in, while the
city plans a brand-new shelter in two or three years. "It had nothing to do
with that group," she says.
On Whose Authority?
All rise. Today it's the United States of America v. three members of
Homes Not Jails.
The charge is unlawful entry into 304 K St. NE on or about Feb. 24. The
maximum penalty is six months in jail.
The case turns on whether the defendants had a "good-faith belief" that they
had "lawful authority" to go in the house. The two-story green wreck of a
dwelling had been empty for years, piled inside and out with garbage,
syringes and old tires, according to trial testimony.
Mike Madden is the lawyer for Daniel Gordon and Jeremiah Gildea, while
Jamie Loughner, the transplant from West Virginia, is representing
herself. Gordon, 21, and Gildea, 18, are wearing shirts, ties, slacks
and ripped sneakers. Loughner has a black and white dress, and a crutch to
support her ankle, injured in a recent protest over the closing of the
city's public hospital.
Witnesses sketch a familiar scene -- the demonstrators tore off the
plywood, entered the house, barricaded the doors behind them, started
painting and plastering. They cleared all the trash and tires within a
few days, and then police arrested them.
Barricades? Does that sound like work of people who believed they had a
right to be in the house, Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Cortez Masto
asks the jury in her closing argument. Not only that, she says, the
defendants ignored a HUD notice posted on the front that forbade entry until
the property was legally sold.
Masto makes a final point before she sits down: "Just because you have
good intentions to do something does not forgo you from following the
The problem with the government's case, Madden and Loughner say, is
that the system for putting a roof over everyone's head is so broken
that the law is not always clear.
For instance, at one point D.C. police on the scene told the
demonstrators that the property was owned by the city -- not HUD. One
officer gave the activists gloves so they wouldn't injure their hands.
Until their bosses told them differently, the officers reacted to Homes Not
Jails the way many of the neighbors did: What's wrong with fixing a dump
that's an insult to the neighborhood?
No one from HUD took the stand to claim ownership of the house, just a
security guard for a property management firm hired by HUD -- "somebody who
works for somebody who works for somebody," Madden says. Meanwhile, before
the arrests, the demonstrators were making calls to HUD, to see if Homes Not
Jails could take responsibility for the house. All this adds up to a
good-faith belief, Madden says.
He concludes: "When they did it, they were doing it for the most noble
of all purposes."
The jury reaches a verdict in 90 minutes.
"Not guilty," says foreman James Ellison.
A celebratory bicycle horn honks in the courtroom. That's Gordon's
reaction. He quickly apologizes to the judge. Out in the hall, he says, "We
are soooo setting a precedent for Homes Not Jails."
Another juror, who won't give her name, chats and laughs with Loughner
for a long time after the verdict. "I just figured you were doing what
you figured to be right," she says. "For you to volunteer your time like
that, that just says a lot."
Gildea disappears into a courthouse restroom for a minute, sheds his
trial attire, and changes into squatter garb. There's work to be done,
and this is what he always wears when he's working -- black shorts with a
patch that says "No war between nations, no peace between classes," and a
black T-shirt with a quote often attributed to Margaret Mead that is a
central article of faith for groups like this:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
---End of forwarded article---
~~~Related Web site -- FYI:
Homes Not Jails:
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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