There’s a new sheriff in town—or there could be soon. Cheri Honkala, a single mom, sometimes homeless, who launched one of the country’s biggest multi-racial movements led by the poor and homeless, is running for sheriff of Philadelphia.
Her platform? No evictions. No throwing people out on the street because of a financial crisis that they didn’t create. Her slogan: “Keeping families in their homes and protecting the 'hood.”
Cheri knows a few things about evictions. As a homeless mom, she faced a stark choice when the shelters filled up: a night on the frigid Minneapolis streets with her young son, or breaking and entering a vacant HUD-owned house, where the heat was left on to prevent the pipes from freezing. Cheri chose the latter.
Thus began a series of home occupations, evictions, and arrests. Eventually, Honkala joined with others to form the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, whose members work together to defend their basic right to health care, housing, education, and living wage jobs.
If elected, Cheri will bring more experience from the other side of the bars than most law enforcement officials.
I caught up with her after her keynote speech to the Democracy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, in late August.
Sarah van Gelder: Why are you running for Sheriff?
Cheri Honkala: For 25 years I’ve been trying to change things in the halls of Congress—trying to find a politician with a backbone to say that we have to have a moratorium on foreclosures. The banks are continuing to do whatever they want with the bailout money; they’re not modifying loans or finding ways to help people stay in their houses.
As Sheriff, I will use what's known as "selective enforcement"—I will refuse to rip down families’ doors and refuse to have my deputies throw them out. Instead, the Sheriff’s office will work with families that are in trouble: help them access resources; help them figure out how they can pay their mortgages.
Sarah van Gelder: Are there other aspects of your platform, besides not enforcing foreclosures?
Cheri Honkala: We’re working hard at developing community land trusts where neighbors will be in charge of determining what will happen to abandoned properties or vacant land in their neighborhoods. The idea is to produce long-term affordable housing, and to make sure that a Walmart or something like that can't just come in and say "I'm here! Live with it."
In the meantime, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights campaign is turning a long field—about the size of a football field—into a farm. We don't like being the second hungriest city in the country. Nobody has granted us permission to have that field, but we believe that if you have land just sitting there abandoned—in Philadelphia, that’s about 40,000 properties—you might as well put it to good use.
Sarah van Gelder: That kind of action—taking over abandoned land or buildings for the benefit of the homeless—is a big part of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign’s work, right? Could you tell me more about how that works?
Cheri Honkala: We do two different kinds of actions. One is a “housing takeover;” that’s what we call it when public housing—properties owned by the people—are just sitting there vacant and we use them until our country gets its act together and provides affordable public housing.
The other kind is “foreclosure defense”—helping families that are in foreclosure stay in their homes.
We encourage people across the country: if the bank sends you papers and says you have to leave, don't go! Stay in your home. The banks, most of the time, don't even know who owns the property anymore because there are so many owners involved [due to the securitization and trading of mortgages]. With the bailout, banks were supposed to modify families’ loans. I've been doing this work a very long time and I only know a handful of people who have gotten their mortgages modified.
Sarah van Gelder: You’ve been doing home occupations for years, in fact. How is it different today?
Cheri Honkala: Nowadays we're very clandestine. Back in the day, we would hold press conferences and publicize it—try to spread the word about the economic injustice that was happening. Now we wouldn't dare do that because people need to stay in these properties for as long as possible; they don’t have the luxury of getting kicked out to make a point. There is so little affordable housing left. There are no open slots for victims of domestic violence. Families who are dying of AIDS remain on waiting lists for housing. The situation is just really bad. So now we teach people to stay the hell away from the media.
Sarah van Gelder: There's a lot of shame associated with being poor in this country. Middle class people who might have looked down on poor people before are now finding themselves poor; is that causing a shift in perspective?
Cheri Honkala: Definitely. People who have invested their entire lives in their homes are losing them. It's a really common experience. Every 13 seconds a family is going into foreclosure—it’s not just “other people” anymore.
During the Great Depression there was this sense that we have a responsibility to each other; all over the country families got together and took on the Sheriff’s department and moved property back into the homes. That same kind of fight is happening again, maybe even more so now.
In my sister's neighborhood in Minneapolis, seven women—white, Native American, African American—who were facing foreclosure ended up coming together to support each other. If this movement hadn't been consciously putting them into a relationship with each other, they would have just participated in short sales in the middle of the night, returned their keys, and never told their neighbors that they were being forced out.
Sarah van Gelder: You have succeeded in doing multi-racial organizing, which is often a stumbling block for movements. How have you been able to make that work?
Cheri Honkala: I think we've been successful because we've tried to take up where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left off: uniting people around things that they have in common. Even if people may not like each other or hold backward ideas, when it comes to trying to get health care for a mother who is dying of cancer…or to help a woman losing her home after spending 30 years helping everybody in the neighborhood…we step up. We find our humanity and transcend our differences.
I think the majority of people in this country are really good people; if they knew that all of us had the opportunity to stop—not rhetorically but for real—home foreclosures in a part of the country right now, I think that they would get on the bandwagon and make it happen.
Find out more about Cheri Honkala’s campaign for sheriff!
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