Kensington Welfare Rights Union occupies abandoned HUD building

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 21 Jul 1999 17:55:07 -0700 (PDT)


http://www.phillynews.com/programs/aprint
FWD  The Philadelphia Daily News, July 14, 1999

     CHERI'S HOMELESS BAND MAKES A LOT OF NOISE

     By Elmer Smith [column]

It was the mayor all right. There's no mistaking that distinctive rasp even
when it's squeezed through a cell phone.

Cheri Honkala, leader of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, was replaying
the taped message, apparently to prove that she has the juice to get the
mayor to jump through a hoop.

"Cheri, it's Ed," said the mayor, sounding more accessible than important.
"You've got to bring the families in. . .all or most of them evidently
qualify.

"I promise you there will be no retaliation. . .You know I always give you
the real dope."

Ed Rendell at his deal-making best.

Coulda been talking to some baron of the business community across a highly
polished blocklong board table. Coulda been turning on that rough charm and
straight-faced sincerity to close a multimillion-dollar deal.

But this time, Rendell was using his personal diplomacy to head off another
round of civil disobedience by the troops who march behind Honkala, one of
the most irascible and determined activists in the city.

Honkala and her homeless band have reduced civil disobedience to a fine
science. Their specialty is disturbing the peace, and they're good at it,
good enough to roust the mayor from his busy schedule.

She's got a group of homeless people holed up in abandoned housing owned by
the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in defiance of a half
dozen laws, rules and conventions. Two weeks ago, HUD responded by evicting
the ad hoc residents of one HUD house in the 4800 block of North 5th Street.

Honkala's homeless band countered by disrupting the Freedom Week
celebration with a demonstration last week. They followed that with a press
conference at the First Union Center, where thousands of delegates will
gather for next year's Republican National Convention.

"I announced that we'd be part of the reception committee when they got
here," Honkala said. "We wanted to know what's first, the convention, the
stadium or finding housing for homeless children.

"The mayor called again on Friday to say, 'Cheri! What are you doing? I
have a message here on my desk saying that you'll get your housing.' "

Honkala said she took her people to sign up for emergency housing vouchers
and "went through their process" last week. But she said the mayor failed
to set up a conference call with the people who could put her people in
housing.

"So we came out here on Sunday and built our own affordable housing," she
said with a sweeping gesture that took in the ragged tent city she and her
troops have built among the waist-high weeds on a vacant lot at 10th and
Green streets.

What would it take to get her to dismantle the instant shantytown and to
move her people out of the HUD-owned properties?

"All we would need is the emergency housing vouchers for these 60 people,"
she said. Rendell "makes deals every day. He could do this."

It's a not-so-subtle form of extortion aimed at embarrassing the city to a
point where it hurts less to pay the ransom than to suffer the loss of
prestige.

Another mayor in another town might just pluck the pest from his arm before
it started to draw blood, or simply turn the problem over to someone who
could swat it without the need for him to lift his honorable hand.

It's not Ed Rendell's style, though. He won't pick up the phone every time
some activist or agitator threatens to moon the city during rush hour. But
he has shaken hands or locked horns with enough of them over the years to
know them on a first-name basis.

And he's not shy about wading into the fray himself, if there is even the
slightest chance that it might help to resolve a dicey situation.

I wouldn't count on it this time, though.

Honkala has decided that her best chance to breach the bureaucracy is to
keep up the pressure and eventually force the city and HUD to come to the
table.

Doesn't matter to her that the 60 people she is representing are only a
tiny fraction of the homeless and displaced people who are languishing on
waiting lists for Section 8 and transitional housing. "That list never goes
in chronological order," she said. "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the
grease."

And even if she succeeds with these people, what happens if another 60
squeaky wheels show up for her special brand of assistance?

She smiled slyly as she rolled that one around in her mind for a moment.
"I'll continue to advocate for homeless people one way or another" was her
official reply. "It's very personal to me. I'm a former homeless person."

It's very personal for the 3,000 people on the waiting list for Section 8
housing, too - many of whom are every bit as homeless and with needs just
as urgent as the people in Honkala's tent city.

She knows that, of course. So does the mayor. To his credit, he didn't
bother to remind her of the obvious in his unsuccessful attempt at personal
diplomacy.

And, even more to his credit, he didn't pick up the phone and order Sally
Fisher, who heads the city's Office of Emergency Services, to contort the
rules to suit Honkala's people.

END FORWARD

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