Homeless taking over foreclosed houses for Valentine’s Day


While delivering a where’s-the-love message on Valentine’s Day may seem like a gimmick, an action by homeless advocates to be announced this weekend is anything but a stunt, according to its organizer. On Saturday, Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign will reveal to members of the media its long-running project to find housing for homeless people in some of the many foreclosed and vacant homes on Minneapolis’ North Side and South Side.

I reached Honkala by phone this afternoon, minutes after Poor People’s Campaign members were removed from a house and given a citation by Minneapolis police. She says that currently 12 families are using abandoned or vacant homes as their own right now. And she’s welcoming more. Families in need can go to PPEHRC’s office in South Minneapolis’ Sabbathani Center, she says, and some sort of accommodations will be found. What happens from there?

“First, we will try to utilize city services – generally, that’ll take five minutes because they don’t really exist,” she says. Then, they may be housed temporarily at the homes of PPEHRC members. “From there, they’ll go to a takeover house. As far as we’re concerned, there are thousands of empty houses. Not all of them are in that bad of shape and we’ll just borrow them until the city can tell us where these families will live.”

The group’s goals are many: They want to find housing for families now living in cars, shelters or on the street; they want to raise awareness about the problems of affordable housing and homelessness, and, more tangibly, they’re seeking a city moratorium on foreclosures, short-sales and evictions. And they’re willing to get arrested if it brings them closer to achieving their goals. The Thursday before the Republican National Convention (RNC) in St. Paul, Honkala was arrested at a sit-in strike at the local Housing and Urban Development office. A few days later, she was again arrested for the illegal encampment on Harriet Island known as “Bushville” (charges were dropped late last month).

The Valentine’s Day timing is symbolic, but this project has been going on for quite some time.

“The real truth is I’ve been doing this since I was homeless when my oldest son was nine,” she says. “Me and my older son lived in an abandoned HUD house on 38th Street. But, this last year I’ve had, personally, 23 homeless people and children living with me at one point. I’m quite tired and pissed off.”

But the symbolism also matches an ugly reality: Homelessness is particularly difficult on couples and families, since many shelters separate people by gender or age, and often teenage boys are housed at places like The Bridge, away from their parents.

An elderly couple Honkala’s working with faced that reality. Staff at a local shelter determined that their health problems meant they needed to be in a nursing home, and they arranged to have them sent to Harbor Lights, a home Honkala says is troubled by “drugs and sex going on in the hallways.” The woman in the couple was afraid to go because she’d be separated from her husband, who needs constant monitoring to ensure he gets his medicine on time.

“When you have a couple that has serious health care issues, you want to be together,” she says. “They called the Harbor Lights ‘the penitentiary.’ And when you’re sick, you don’t want to be in the penitentiary.”

But even for healthy couples, she says, “It’s hard enough to be homeless” without being separated from someone you love, too.

A study by the Wilder Foundation shows a steady rise of homeless shelter usage by families in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. For all of 2007, a monthly average of 211 families — including 400 children — used county-funded shelters. In the first ten months of 2008 alone, that number had jumped to a monthly average of 286 families, which includes around 540 children. Another Wilder study [pdf], published today, shows that the average duration of stays at Ramsey County shelters increased from 2006 to 2007 — to 30 days per stint.

Plus, Wilder consulting scientist Craig Helmstetter tells the Minnesota Independent that anecdotal evidence of trends since then isn’t very heartening.

“Both Ramsey County and Hennepin are still over capacity for family shelters now — during the dead of winter, when the shelter census is more typically down,” he said in an e-mail. “They are having to turn away families in Ramsey, and they have had to voucher people into the Drake, a low-cost hotel, within the past week in Hennepin.”

PPEHRC is looking for donations to help these people: beds, couches, chairs, “anything for people who have nothing.”

Starting this weekend, Honkala will be inviting religious leaders and political figures into some of the homes as a way of engaging the community more deeply with the issue facing homeless people. With more and more people a paycheck or two away from losing their own homes, she’s hopeful that the message will be received with a different spirit.

“What’s refreshing about it right now is that people who normally think this is just a problem facing irresponsible people — now they know there are larger issues,” she says.

Perhaps in trying economic times, more people will take notice. Asked what’s behind her dogged advocacy for the homeless, Honkala offers a biographical reason, but then concludes with a bigger message — one she hopes everyone takes to heart this Valentine’s Day.

“I have strong spiritual beliefs, but it’s also because at one point in my life I could’ve just died — could’ve frozen to death with my son,” she says. “Other people put themselves on the line and were politcally involved and did something to help me with my situation. I think we all need to have that kind of responsibility for each other.

“In the end, all we really have is each other.”