UPDATE: A Philly Nomad's Land

Activists take a vacant, government-owned home for the homeless. The city takes it back.

By Dan Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted May. 4, 2010

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UPDATE:

This morning, police secured the abandoned house at 305 West Somerset St. that activists moved a homeless family into on Monday, according to Kensington Welfare Rights Union Director Galen Tyler. The family was out running errands at the time, and returned to find the house secured and surrounded by police, who are reportedly still at the scene.

Tyler says that this won't stop their work, and that KWRU now has a better sense of how the Nutter administration will respond to takeovers. Plus, Tyler says that he plans to hold the city to its promise to find housing for any homeless person who requests it, citing Wednesday's article in PW (see below). But he's not holding his breath.

"Some they try to make them 'housing ready' instead of giving them a house. It's the usual process, you sign up for the program and it's indefinite."

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When we walk into 305 West Somerset St. in Kensington, the house seems to be in pretty good shape. Tinsel and a plastic tree lie in the corner of the living room, but the place has been otherwise vacant since December.

“That’s a shame,” says Tara Colon, a longtime activist with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, as she walks in the door. “They got kicked out on Christmas.”

It’s May 3, and Colon has arrived to claim the four-bedroom rowhouse as a refuge for homeless families.

Colon doesn’t know for sure how the house was opened. In a movement like this, the means of entry seem to be a trade secret. But she often finds clues about evicted former residents, though they remain nameless.

“It’s almost like archeologists, you get a sense of what was here before,” says Colon.

As PW reported in February, KWRU has long been organizing the poor and irritating officials from City Hall and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA). Cheri Honkala and other activists founded KWRU in 1991 to protest for the rights of welfare recipients.

In the ’90s, they took over properties across the city, set up sprawling tent cities to highlight the plight of the homeless, and founded the national Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.

In recent years, however, KWRU has fallen off the radar. But they want Philadelphia and the rest of the country to know that they’re ready to make noise again.

This May, welfare-rights organizations across the country are gearing up for housing takeovers and helping homeowners resist foreclosure as part of “Take Back the Land” month.

Here, Colon and her fellow activists are making 305 West Somerset livable for a mother on public assistance and her 4-year-old child. The home will eventually shelter three more families. The living arrangement would seem cramped by most standards, but a home of any kind is a big step up when you’re a nomad.

“A lot of the families we get were sleeping on a couch with their kids,” says Colon.

Elsewhere, in Minneapolis, five women facing foreclosure are refusing to leave their home.

“I might be flying out there on Saturday to go to jail,” says Honkala, a veteran protester who is no stranger to incarceration.

Honkala says other actions are planned for Philly later this month, but she’s not ready to give away all the surprises yet.

While KWRU prides itself on circumventing the law, it takes neighbors’ concerns seriously. They spend weeks talking with neighbors because they want to be seen as allies rather than interlopers. Residents, after all, don’t like having abandoned houses on their block.

“We try to woo the neighbors,” says KWRU Director Galen Tyler, adding that the organization also helps the neighbors access food and social services.

The ultimate goal for residents at a KWRU takeover house is to become regular neighborhood residents. Once they receive mail at the house, they can ask for the water and gas to be turned on in their name—just like any renter or homeowner.

“The banks let them sit here till they rot,” says Tyler.

Although police have managed to evict some families from takeover homes, others have been able to win ownership, according to Colon.

“The City does not condone this action,” says Dainette Mintz of the Office of Supportive Housing. “In the past KWRU has demanded that the City immediately place homeless families in affordable housing and provide them with permanent rental assistance. Currently, the City with its partnership with PHA and the Recovery Rapid Rehousing Program has the resources to assist homeless individuals and families who seek our assistance and are capable of living independently.”

For KWRU, the problems of rebuilding neighborhoods and giving homeless people shelter are one in the same. Kensington is dotted with abandoned houses and empty lots, where dwellings or factories once stood.

This scene came into view as we walked from Fairhill Square, a park at Fourth and Lehigh streets, to the Somerset rowhome. On the way over, Tyler pointed out other potential takeover houses, including two owned by PHA on the 2500 block of Fourth Street.

“How can we have a country that has more empty houses than homeless people?” asks Colon.

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1. Aja Beech said... on May 7, 2010 at 06:00AM

“Mr. Denvir- Please stop encouraging KWRU. I read this article yesterday and my first thought was- Why has KWRU released the address of this 'safe house' ? What purpose could that serve except to garner more press and attention?

As I see from your update- I am correct. Mr. Denvir- this organization jeopardizes families when they are in need. They are negligent. How is a homeless family to feel safe when their illegal address is in the paper- released by the same people claiming to help them? The family is lucky they were not home- if they had been the mother could have been arrested and the children sent to DHS and once these situations occur KWRU will no longer help those people. I know- because I saw them do this- as well as paying thousands of dollars a month for multiple houses for Honkala all over the country but continuing to house 'the homeless' in abandoned buildings or with slum landlords. KWRU is interested only in their own fame.”

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2. Lisa B. said... on Mar 23, 2011 at 10:38PM

“Great to see so much national coverage of the housing crisis in this country. Kudos to Philadelphia Weekly for keeping me informed on what is going on in this city & the activist groups helping families survive by any means necessary. I know that I would personally rather have help trying to survive in an abandoned home that is in danger of being burned to the ground or used as a drug house than separating my family into different shelters. We all make choices, and Im glad groups like the KWRU are out there to help shed a light on what is happening in Philly & offering solutions. Debating is fine, but it doesnt feed, clothe or shelter families. The status quo is obviously not solving for the serious trajedy of homelessness in Philadelphia or anywhere else in the country. It chills my heart.
“How can we have a country that has more empty houses than homeless people?” asks Colon. <--- good question!

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