Neighbors helping neighbors—to break into vacant houses


Poverty rights activists broke into at least a dozen vacant Minneapolis buildings this week and helped homeless families move in.

“This is the modern underground railroad,” said Cheri Honkala, National Organizer for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, the group organizing the “takeovers.”

This week’s actions are part of a growing national movement to illegally open up thousands of vacant, foreclosed homes to provide housing for the growing number of homeless people. Over 3,000 Minneapolis homes went into foreclosure in 2008. Advocates estimate that over 7,000 Minnesotans are homeless. Most Twin Cities’ homeless shelters have been filled to capacity for months.

On a recent afternoon, organizers planned their next takeover while eating cabbage, rice, sausage, and corn bread prepared by Rosemary, a 59-year-old African American woman facing eviction from her home. Rosemary, who asked that her last name not be used, plans to remain in her house illegally after the March 31 eviction date. In the meantime, she spends her time organizing for tenant’s rights.

“Welcome to the revolution,” Rosemary said, greeting a homeless couple looking for housing.

Lonnetta and Dwayne took a seat on Rosemary’s couch. Dwayne, 52, walking on crutches from a series of recent foot surgeries, explained that he lost his janitorial job in June when he broke his foot. The married couple asked that their last name not be used.

Forced to survive on Lonnetta’s $637 a month Social Security check, the couple soon became homeless. Social service providers told them to stay at Harbor Light, a homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis, where the couple would be housed on different floors. Lonnetta, 48, feared being separated from her sick husband who she said needs frequent reminders to take his medication. Instead, the couple started living out of their truck.

A relative put Lonnetta and Dwayne in contact with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a national anti-poverty organization based in Minneapolis.

Rosemary Williams and Cheri Honkala

Honkala, the group’s National Organizer, became an activist in her teenage years when she and her young son lived in her car after becoming homeless. When a drunk driver hit the car one night, Honkala said she got fed up, and moved into a vacant Minneapolis HUD property for several months.

After years of anti-poverty work, Honkala rose to national prominence in the 1990s by founding the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood. The activist group helped move homeless families into vacant properties, and used the publicity from those occupations to force the city to issue housing vouchers.

Honkala moved back to Minneapolis two years ago and started matching homeless families with vacant buildings. She estimates that about forty families have been housed since her return, including twelve this week.

Honkala met Dwayne and Lonnetta last week. She offered to find them housing in a vacant home. The couple readily agreed.

The plan turned out to be more difficult than the couple anticipated. Activists first attempted to house the couple in a vacant South Minneapolis home. A city inspector and the police soon arrived and demanded they leave. The police issued trespassing citations to Lonnetta, Dwayne, Honkala, and Manuel Levinsholden, a 19-year-old organizer. Honkala said that a pro bono attorney will provide legal assistance.

Activists then led the couple to Rosemary’s house, where they hoped to house the couple in one of the block’s five vacant homes. While chatting in Rosemary’s living room, Honkala received a phone call. “Well, that’s not going to work,” she said. “Burglar alarms.”

However, with no shortage of properties to choose from, it only took a few phone calls to find a new location several blocks away. Within a few minutes, Honkala, Levinsholden, Lonnetta, and Dwayne were inside a large, empty yellow duplex.

Dining room in vacant house

Dwayne cautiously walked around broken glass on the kitchen floor and made his way into the dining room, surveying the hardwood floors and large windows. “I want it,” he said.

“Look at that bathroom,” said Lonnetta, turning on what appeared to be a brand new light fixture. “That’s pretty.” She then made her way into the living room, painted blue, but marked with dozens of white splotches to cover up graffiti.

When asked how the activists will get the heat and hot water turned on, Honkala grinned and said, “God turns on the utilities.”

Rosemary, who came by to inspect the couple’s new home, stumbled while walking up the steep staircase to the second floor. After dusting herself off, she looked around the upstairs kitchen: a row of old wooden cabinets and an empty space where a dishwasher might have been. “Not bad,” she said.

Kitchen in vacant home

Meanwhile, Honkala grabbed several documents left on the downstairs kitchen counter, including paperwork stating that HUD owns the house. One document indicated that the home was last inspected on February 3rd.

“This is just a waste,” she said. “It’s a waste to have thousands of empty homes like this and people with no place to live.” Organizers plan to provide furniture and help the families with basic renovations.

Honkala said that the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign will continue to house the homeless in vacant buildings until the government can provide a safe, affordable alternative. More takeovers are planned for this weekend.

Meanwhile, Rosemary faces eviction in a few weeks, but has no plans to leave. “We’ll pack my house with people,” she said. “It’ll be a showdown.”

“Wait,” Dwayne said, looking surprised. “You’re going to lose your home, too?” He shook his head. “No man, we ain’t gonna let them do that, no way. We’re neighbors.”

Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist, specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.

23 thoughts on “Neighbors helping neighbors—to break into vacant houses

  1. I read a while back in one of the Mayor’s e-mailings that Hennepin County saw over 700 foreclosures in July 2008 alone. 3,000 therefore seems super low.

  2. Ms. Cheri Honkala’s been around for years. As Manager of the Multifamily Division at the old MCDA (now CPED) in Minneapolis back in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, I worked with her and her group at the time (“Up And Out Of Poverty Now”) when they took over the old vacated mills (now condos, of course) in the Mill District in Downtown Minneapolis. The effort was a valid one, I thought, to demonstrate against homelessness. She and I even appeared together on an “Almanac” show on the subject. They then took over some vacant and boarded houses in North Minneapolis (yes, they had those back then, too!) and later did the same in St. Paul. Working with them back then, my basic recollection is that they were strong on protesting, but very poorly organized to go any further and there was a lot of division even within their own group that prevented that. She was a dynamic person and, I’d heard, connected to groups in Philadelphia that were connected to the American Communist Party, but I’d never confirmed that – not that it would make a big difference now or did then, either. It wouldn’t have surprised me, though. I did end up traveling to Philadelphia then to see what was going on with various efforts on homelessness in that City since, I think, the “Up And Out Of Poverty Now” group got it’s start there.

  3. More power to you Cheri Honkala!!

    I’ve just recently learned about you in a documentary clip, but I had no idea you lived in Minneapolis. I’m definitely going to want to get involved soon. It will be an honor to meet you all.

  4. Yesterday, I attended a meeting with several higher level police officers, including an Inspector. Each of the police officers agreed that having those houses occupied is far better than a string of vacant units resulting from foreclosures. I was hoping to hear a positive response, and I got it! I would suggest that the organizers find an effective way to communicate their actions to the police after moving into a house. If I were living next door or down the street from one or more vacant houses, the first thing I’d like to know is who is moving in. If an organization can vouch for the people moving in, it will help keep relations smooth with neighbors and the police, who have a justifiable concern with what is going on down the street.

    We have learned in Ventura Village of the Phillips Community in South Minneapolis, that with a high level of cooperation and shared intel between neighbors and police, we have all helped drastically decrease our crime levels, which enables us to be much more supportive of efforts of activists to address the terrible mess of vacant houses. Keep up the good work!

  5. Ghandi cival disobedience
    When they come to evict some one shoul have a sit in.
    A hundred peolple having coffee-would have to go to jail.

    Why not offer free coffee-bring own cup- plug up system.

    Now tell the bank it would be a good idea, to rent at a low
    rate, the property, This would conserve the property.

    The bank holds it as a ” non proforming asset” and puts it
    the market.

    The ” tennent ” Has “right of first refusal ” can get property
    a new market value. With perhaps consideration for paid to date.

    Might be a better way to go.


  6. This is the best thing I’ve heard in ages! This story made my day. Cheri Honkala has just made my personal hero list. :-)

    I’d also like to get in touch with Ms. Honkala and the others mentioned in this story. I’m a writer on issues of social justice (esp. poverty and homelessness), and am currently writing an article about how homeless youth aged 12 and over are being turned away by the Los Angeles family shelter system for SCENARIO Magazine. In addition, I’m also organizing a website (soon to become a non-profit), that will have listings of all emergency services available to anyone who is either homeless or in danger of becoming homeless, and will also serve as a community forum for communication between people who are homeless/at risk, and those who want to help them out of a desperate situation in as effective and direct a way as possible. The site will initially be for NY only, but I plan to expand it to the rest of the country eventually–to have it be a sort of ‘Craigslist’ for anyone in trouble, where you can simply select your state or city and find out everything that’s available to you locally. I would love to involve Ms. Honkala & her fellow activists/ in the website, and I would also love to write up a profile piece on the People’s Human Rights Campaign for the magazine.

    Bravo, Cheri. Bravo.

  7. The socialist left is about the abolition of private property so that they in government can do whatever suits their whims, and provide citizens with an equality of misery.

    This “homesteading”, occupying other people’s property, has no moral basis at all, because the logical conclusion of such a basic assault on property rights absolves ANYONE of recognizing anyone else’s rights to any property, up to an including their life or liberty.

    Basically, this leads to a jungle where whoever has the most force gets whatever they want to take from anyone weaker than they are. Children, the elderly and the poor are the losers, not the winners. Look at Zimbabwe.

    You can either have a society of law which, even if you don’t like it, you observe it, or you have a jungle. I don’t include here observing laws that require you to put people with yellow stars on their coats on trains for the camping trip of a lifetime, because that horror came from a jungle of perverted law, just as this “homesteading” is excused as being a “moral” if illegal act.

    The idiot left seems to think they should be allowed to burn SUV’s, “homestead” or similar irrationality, depending on the emotional need of the moment. The farce at NYU this week is an excellent example of deep thinking by leftists.

    Since we are barely able to define “is” anymore, I don’t think we should step into the abyss of trying to parse “moral”. It is a cinch no true leftist could really come upon the same definition from week to week, because they “feel” so much. Some people are so busy emoting they can’t think about what they do, what precedents they establish.

    Start now, “feelers”. Think just a little before you go off on your next photo op.

  8. Poverty rights?

    Hey, how about property rights? If that property doesn’t belong to you, you have no business there!

    Talk about a sense of entitlement. Not that I don’t feel sorry for people down on their luck…but that doesn’t give people the right to trespass or steal!

  9. What these people are doing is Breaking & Entering and a Felony. This is NOT their property and they have NO right to be in these homes or apartments. Last i checked Housing is NOT a right. Read the Constitution morons.

  10. While I understand the desperate need for housing in this city, this plan does have flaws. For one thing, these home are owned by someone- most likely a bank who will want to SELL that home. They pay Realtors and mgmt companies to keep the homes empty, functional, and clean. As someone who works in foreclosed real estate i see this only as a way to get people arrested or hurt. these are not great areas to have families with children living without locks, without running water, etc. If there is running water, electricity and heat- don’t be fooled people, someone is paying those bills and will be very upset to find the utilities in use. Also, when they have paid a company to remove all of the trash from the home, imagine the anger when they home is re-filled and people have to be kicked out. When the homes are for sale, people will come in unannounced, and the homes will not sell if people see squatters there. What these groups should be doing is raising money and working with the City and the banks to purchase empty and cheap homes and make them minimally livable, or to work with the bank for possible donation of property. This does happen regularly. This will only serve to make these neighborhoods less desirable to the investors we desperately need. There are legal means- it would just take work!

  11. The crazy thing in both Mpls and SP is that they tear houses down while people are homeless, instead of getting people into them. There should be an ordinance that if they can’t find the owner (because of the multiple layers of ownership and the owner wanting to hide from the consequences of owning a vacant property in the city) within 45 days, the city takes over. If ever there was a reason for eminent domain, this is it! Too bad Citibank!

  12. Recently the Johnny Northside blog has mentioned “house takeovers” and attributed them to the local branch of ACORN. I want to clear up some misunderstandings that many people, including some Hawthorne residents and the police have had about such a link.

    It is true that some chapters of ACORN across the country have engaged in taking over houses. However, much of that has been done when a family lost their home to foreclosure and the redemption period ended, leaving them with nowhere to go. In these cases, the family has simply remained in the house beyond when the law states they should have left. Minnesota ACORN has not engaged in simply placing homeless people in vacant houses, a la Cheri Honkala and her Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.

    The misperception comes because the PPEHRC (that doesn’t even make a good acronym, and bad acronyms really bother me…can’t we come up with a better one, like the Campaign Regarding All Poor People’s Individual Economic Rights, perhaps? I like that better.) supports ACORN’s protests at Hennepin County calling for a stop to foreclosures, evictions, sheriff sales, etc. So once they got lumped together on that support, rumors spread that ACORN was also endorsing the CRAPPIER campaign as well.

    I can certainly relate. Before I knew anything about CRAPPIER, I was asked to speak at a community forum on the foreclosure crisis in south Minneapolis. I went and spoke, and then afterwards, CRAPPIER people asked me to attend a protest against US Bank because US Bank was getting federal bailout money. I declined based on the fact that CRAPPIER had no realistic set of demands and had made no attempt to sit down with US Bank representatives anyway. Even so, my presence and some quotes were mentioned in a local southside newspaper that was reporting on the protest. An old colleague at US Bank called me up and wanted to know why I was doing this protest stuff when I know I can call him up anytime and US Bank is willing to talk about community issues. Like Lucy to Ricardo, I had some ‘splainin’ to do. Lesson learned – associate with CRAPPIER at your own risk.

    So just to be clear, CRAPPIER supports ACORN, and not necessarily the other way around.

    While I’ve got the floor, I want to say one more thing about the CRAPPIER idea of putting homeless people in vacant homes, and the idea that “God will turn on the utilities.” You can rig stuff so that water illegally comes to the property; the “devil” did that before we foreclosed on 3024 6th in Hawthorne. But that’s putting the bill on the rest of Minneapolis residents who have to pick up the tab. Same goes for splicing power lines, and anyone with enough know-how, and big muscles and the right wrench can turn on the gas. Everyone else pays for it when CRAPPIER people leech off the rest of us. What’s worse, though is that the latter two, splicing electric lines and turning on the gas put people’s lives at risk. Listen, because if they keep on doing this, I want it said that it was said here first by Jeff Skrenes: If you keep on this path, people will die. If you roll the dice enough times, you’re bound to get snake eyes after a while. The more this is done, the more likely that somebody’s going to electrocute themselves, or hook up electricity to a place with shoddy wiring and start a fire, or hook up gas to a place with just ONE (or more) copper pipe missing that nobody caught, and then the family inside will get poisoned or the house or block will blow up. We are not just talking about something that Hawthorne residents don’t want. We are not just talking about something that is going to be bad for home sales. We are talking about blatant disregard for human life. And if/when that does happen, you can bet they won’t accept responsibility. They’ll try and lay the blame on a bank, or Pawlenty, or the city of Minneapolis, or capitalism, or people who was their hair–anybody except themselves. That is what makes the simplistic match of homeless people and vacant houses a truly CRAPPIER idea.

  13. I’m a 53 year old female who will soon lose her home because I have been trying to find a job for 2 years. I found a seasonal job for the summer only and have been applying for what little is out their ever since. I will not and would not break the law and move into a vacant home or stay at this home after I have lost it. It is not mine anymore and to steal water, electric etc. and make other pay for it is not right. It may also put someone else over the edge, as it does not take much these days.

    It is not right that people have no where to turn to. But blame that where the blame should go and speak loudly to them our government. While everyone I know is cutting back on everything they can our government is spending us, our children and our grandchildren into poverty. How much in taxes is the government going to need to just pay the interest on all of these loans? Think about it, it is truely mind boggling.

    We need ways to help people but I think we can do a better job ourselves. People helping people and neighbors helping neighbors is the way to go. We have laws to protect people and I for one absolutely believe we should follow them.

  14. I have a journal I kept on Honkala, et al. in the 1990s. If you would like a copy of it you may visit my Facebook page or send me an e-mail requesting it.

    Deborah Kelly, J.D.

  15. You know, usually if a person requests for their last name not to be used in an article, it would be smart not to label the picture with their full name.

  16. If someone breaks into your second home and you show up one night to make sure everything is OK can you pull out your gun and hold them while you call 911?  And if they resist and you find yourself being attacked can you shoot them?   

  17. The things to which you have a right are merely available to you, should you choose to procure them. That doesn’t mean that we are entitled to freebies. Do you not have the right to own a pogo stick? I think you do.

    …Still waiting on that government issued pogo stick?

    Of course, a pogo stick can’t keep you alive through a Minnesota winter, so the forclosed- upon will probably want to exercise some other rights at this time. Like the right to call relatives in town, or in Georgia, or wherever, and ask for help. You still have the right to do something for yourself, but you do not have the right, nor are you entitled, to rob people.

    Sure housing is a right! So is health care, parenthood and the freedom to go bowling alone on a Tuesday morning in a tie dye tee and polka dot pants, tasteless and sad though that may be. I do indeed have a right to do or get these things for myself by any and all legal, ethical means. But until I procure the title of ownership of a product or service I am not entitled to a bit of it, regardless of how badly I might need it. Under no circumstances, even in times of great and desperate need, would I be entitled to steal the property of others. Need does not create rights. Nor does it magically entitle the needy to rob from (or otherwise abuse the rights of) anyone. In a free society (and we really do want one of those, don’t we?), need does not entitle a thief to steal.

  18. There are an abnormally high amount of forclosures in July in August in Minnesota. This has to do with individuals being behind on utility bills from the winter and also the additional expenses of childcare in the summer and back to school expenses I know it sounds suprising but people are less likely to be homeless in the winter (which is a good thing in minnesota). So with those things in mind the 3,000 could be accurate.

  19. Something like what Dave is suggesting is also being suggested by Dean Baker at Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. Roughly, the idea is to compel banks to rent homes to people (at market rate) who otherwise would be foreclosed on. He thinks it would, among other things, give banks an incentive to work out mortgage problems, because they won’t want to become landlords. Google the name, and you can find out more about it.

  20. Are you my dad? Because he spouts exactly the same hilarious crap as you.

    Leftists aren’t idiots, and we don’t feel any more than the right, no matter what Rush Limbaugh would have you believe. I sincerely doubt you banged out your little response with no emotional motivation.

    Here are the facts:

    Zimbabwe isn’t socialist. To connect it with the left is laughable.

    What do you define as a jungle? Living in a lawless hellhole, with no protection from the weather, no security of food, and nothing between you and the guy trying to rob you? That’s what being homeless is. To say that these people will live in these conditions if they occupy houses and that they won’t if they do not is illogical, and when you look at it from this angle, it’s obviously false. Try not to let your feelings get in the way, and you might see that things are getting better for these people, not worse. And the owners of these houses aren’t even getting hurt enough to notice.

    You’re aware that in Minnesota, housing isn’t an emotional need, aren’t you? A house is what keeps you from dying. Death is not an emotion.

    You’re claiming this is a case of the strong taking from the weak. Is that so? You seem to advocate capitalism, and most people who do claim that the strong already succeed. So why are they homeless? Isn’t this a meritocracy, where the strongest and fittest get what they deserve? This is a case of the weak taking from the strong. I support it.

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