KWRU Tent City Article from Philadelphia Weekly FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 21 Jul 1999 17:55:36 -0700 (PDT)


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FWD

Reply -To: Kensington Welfare Rights Union <kwru@libertynet.org>
Subject:   kwru-announce Tent City Article from Philadelphia Weekly

Article from the Philadelphia Weekly, July 21, 1999
See http://www.phillyweekly.com/weekly98/news/blotter_feat.tmpl#4 for
story with picture

Lot in Life:  Looking for answers inside Philadelphia's newest tent
city.

BY EILS LOTOZO

Lashed to scraps of wood and an old ladder, the sagging black and white
banner proclaims this vacant lot at the corner of 10th and Green
"Clintonville." Taped to a stop sign or stuck into the ground, a flock
of tiny American flags flutter in the unseasonably cool evening breeze.
A poster board bearing a Spanish version of the International
Declaration of Human Rights lies faceup in the dirt.

On the lot -- its waist-high weeds cut down with machetes by members of
the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) -- sits a large dome tent and
three rickety wood-frame shacks with blue tarp for roofs and walls.
Outside the largest of the makeshift structures sit a baby's crib, an
inflatable wading pool and a pink upholstered wing chair next to a murky
puddle. Inside another of the shacks, two mattresses are neatly made up
on the carpeted floor. Children's backpacks hang from hooks, and clothes
are folded on a set of shelves.

In the center of this unlikely urban campground there's a big gas grill
and a metal folding table with a sign reading "kitchen" taped to its
front. A plastic revolving spice rack adds an incongruously homey touch.
Nearby, wooden pallets are stacked high with donated food, including a
sack of potatoes and a plastic trash bag full of pastries from
Starbucks.

Two men speaking Spanish hammer together another shack in the dimming
light. A half-dozen children play on a stack of donated carpet rolls. A
young KWRU supporter carries tiny Gabrielle -- a frail toddler whose
neck is bandaged from a recent tracheotomy -- caring for her while her
mother is off running an errand. Another supporter totes Gabrielle's
twin brother, Haden, around the camp. A woman from Glenside has already
departed after showing up to cook dinner for the group.

Meanwhile, eight earnest college students sit in a circle getting a
lesson on welfare reform -- complete with photocopied handouts -- from
two KWRU staffers.

This is the third night members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union
will sleep outside under the streetlights, without running water or
toilets. And they say they will remain here until the mayor delivers
emergency housing vouchers for five homeless KWRU families.

Of course, this is a group that's used to roughing it to make a point.
KWRU's charismatic leader, Cheri Honkala, the subject of a documentary
called Poverty Outlaw, has made civil disobedience her own art form.

In 1995 she led the takeover of an abandoned Catholic church in North
Philadelphia. In 1996, to protest welfare reform, the KWRU marched to
Harrisburg and set up "Ridgeville" in the Capital Rotunda, where they
stayed for more than a week. The KWRU has, at various times, camped out
at Fifth and Lehigh, Independence Mall and the sidewalk in front of
Eviction Court.

They've also taken over abandoned HUD houses all over the city. KWRU's
latest protest effort began in June, when nine members were arrested
after they occupied a HUD house in Olney. More arrests followed at
Independence Mall, where the group protested the lack of affordable
housing.

But this night, at 10th and Green, Honkala, who also had a starring role
in Inquirer reporter David Zucchino's book The Myth of the Welfare
Queen, is nowhere to be found. She's out trying to raise money to
sustain the hand-to-mouth KWRU for another day, says Galen Tyler, a
burly man in a soiled white T-shirt who has taken on the role of
designated spokesman.

Tyler, who alternates between pounding nails into another shack meant to
house the kitchen and answering a constantly ringing cell phone,
describes himself as homeless. "I have a place to stay, but I don't have
a place of my own," he says.

Estimating the encampment's population at about 60, Tyler wonders why
there seems to be so much money for stadiums, the Convention Center and
the Performing Arts Center, but so little available for housing for the
poor. "We've seen the numbers of people coming to our office go up since
September," he says. "And they're not just looking for help with
housing, but with health care and food and welfare. They say only eight
people have been sanctioned off welfare, but we get that many people
every day who have had their benefits cut off."

Tyler calls over Erica Morrison, who hopes to get one of the emergency
housing vouchers for herself and her three children. A welfare recipient
doing her required 20 weekly hours of work at KWRU, Morrison says that
when she came here from Virginia two years ago, she stayed with an aunt
who had more than 20 people living in a four-bedroom house.

Morrison says she tried every outlet to get housing. "I went to Section
8 and they weren't accepting any more applications. I filled out forms
for public housing. I called the Office of Emergency Shelters and
Services, and they said, 'We don't have any shelter beds.'" After
joining KWRU two years ago, Morrison found a place for her family in one
of the organization's "human rights houses." She shares the
three-bedroom home with two other families.

"When I came into the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, all I was
thinking about was getting housing. Friends told me about it. They said,
"All you have to do is a little protesting." But then I learned I have
rights and I can fight for my rights."

"We're not just fighting for us, here," says Morrison. "We're trying to
build a movement to end poverty altogether. Maybe it won't happen in our
lifetime. But we'll keep fighting."

As evening gives way to night, a police cruiser rolls by slowly and the
officer gives a friendly wave. A man walks his dog down Green Street.
The college students studying welfare reform resort to flashlights as
they take turns reading aloud above the hammering going on around them.
One little girl chases another around a tent and little Gabrielle wails
when someone tries to wash her face.

Oblivious to the noise, 13-year-old Lisa, whose mom is among the women
seeking housing vouchers, is also reading with the aid of a flashlight.
She holds up the book: The Myth of theWelfare Queen. "It's my assignment
from Cheri," she says, smiling shyly.

If it weren't for the abandoned buildings, the weed-choked lots and the
hulking factory lighting up the sky behind this village of tents and
shacks, Lisa -- who has a boom box playing softly beside her -- could be
any American teenage girl dreaming in her room.

Sitting in an overstuffed chair in a pool of light, her legs curled
under her, she looks like she's almost home.

---
CONTACT INFO:

Kensington Welfare Rights Union
NUHHCE, ASFCME, AFL-CIO
PO Box 50678
Philadelphia, PA 19132-9720
Phone: 215/203-1945
Fax:   215/203-1950
email: kwru@libertynet.org
web:   http://www.libertynet.org/kwru

---
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