Unwelcome in America

With a backyard full of Republicans, Philadelphia poverty activist Cheri Honkala prepares for the fight of her life.

Published July 31, 2000 9:00PM (EDT)

Two cops and two City Hall employees shuffle, almost timidly, into the Kensington Welfare Rights Union; by now, it's a familiar drill. The KWRU, as it's called, is headquartered in a row house not far from a North Philadelphia neighborhood infamously dubbed "The Badlands," which serves as a dependable junket stop for Ted Koppel and his "Nightline" crew whenever they want to report on the city's thriving heroin trade. The KWRU house would be indistinguishable from adjacent structures -- their tilting roofs and defaced facades forming a tawdry necklace against the city's skyline -- were it not for the large "UNWELCOME IN AMERICA" sign plastered across the front door.

It might be a familiar drill, but the cops and the City Hall reps are on Cheri Honkala's turf, and goddamn if she's going to let them forget it. Honkala, the 37-year-old director of KWRU, a woman whose diminutive frame and girly manicure belie her propensity for battle, gestures the cops to join her and a couple of KWRU volunteers at their conference table.

It's less than a week before the Republicans descend on this overwhelmingly Democratic city, and there is serious protest planning to do. Honkala's group -- easily the most high-profile and organized in Philadelphia -- has no shortage of civil disobedience in the works. Out-of-town media have already heard about Honkala's widely touted "reality tours," which bypass the Liberty Bell and other Apple Pie relics and focus instead on the city's sweatshops, unemployment offices and entire neighborhoods that are literally sinking into the ground.

There will also be a tent city, where homeless families will protest welfare reform and hold "poverty workshops." And on the first day of the Republican National Convention, Honkala is planning to march from City Hall to the First Union center, where the convention-sanctioned events will be in full effect. She expects 5,000 protesters to join her.

That the city denied her a permit for this last activity, which she's named the "March for Economic Human Rights," has only made Honkala all the more determined to pull it off -- and pull it off big. Protesters are coming in from all corners of the country, including celebrities such as former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten. (Honkala has no problem attracting celebrity support: Bonnie Raitt, Danny Glover, Steve Earle and Jackson Brown have all worked with her.) The whole thing, truth be told, has the Philadelphia police in a bit of a frenzy; the department's still smarting from the recent videotape that caught cops pummeling a suspected carjacker.

So the police have been summoned to Honkala's place as a sort of precautionary measure, an attempt to figure out the logistics of what will likely be their biggest headache during the convention. They don't like being there -- their discomfort is almost palpable -- but they will like it a hell of a lot less if there is a melee and mass arrest on Broad Street. But melees and mass arrests, for Honkala, are all part of a day's work.

The cops sit down and Honkala watches them from across the table. She drums her fingers; her long lilac nails make a staccato beat against the wood. The noise stops abruptly when she notices the two City Hall reps pulling out chairs and making to join her and the police.

"I believe," she says, "that we agreed to meet with two of you."

"What?" asks one of the cops, clearly irked. "The two ladies can't stay?"

"Noooooo," Honkala says. Her native Minnesota drawl curls the word so that it sounds almost like a question. "You can go now," she says, shooing them toward the door. "Go -- and have a good day."

The two City Hall reps leave, heads down.

"The city wants the poor and powerless to be invisible," Honkala says, her tone stentorian. "And we're not gonna be invisible."

The cops don't dare say a word.

What would be the use? Words don't mean much, not to a woman who's been kicked, punched, spat upon, mauled, arrested 70 times (once for slugging a cop during last year's World Trade Organization protests in Seattle), barred from being anywhere near the Liberty Bell, dragged out of abandoned houses, kicked out of the Pennsylvania governor's mansion and seen the skin peel from her feet after marching across five states. But all of it -- every slight, slap and blister -- has been a mere prelude to Honkala's convention protest fandango.

"It's been crazy for a solid month," Honkala tells me after the cops leave. "I feel like my whole life has been building up to this. The entire world is going to know that poverty does exist in the belly of the beast."

If the whole world is not exactly interested in debating poverty, it has at least shown an increasing fixation on Cheri Honkala. The broadcast networks have called, as have CNN and MSNBC. Messages from the wire services, the Washington Post and the New York Times are buried, unanswered, in a pile on her desk. There was a recent write-up in Mother Jones, and a lengthy, fawning profile in the current issue of George magazine.

Honkala has no illusions that a good part of the media attention isn't because her son, Mark Webber is a movie star. In 1997, the moppy-haired, formerly homeless 20-year-old landed a Foot Locker commercial, and he's been box office booty ever since. Last year, Webber starred in the teeny-bopper flick "Drive Me Crazy," with Melissa Joan Heart and Adrian Grenier. This year, you might've caught "Snow Day," with Chevy Chase and Pam Grier.

So far, he's donated most of his earnings -- about $100,000 -- to mom's cause, and he's vowed to do so as long as the roles keep coming. And in a case of bizarre timing, Webber begins shooting a new, as-yet-unnamed Todd Solondz film this week (costarring James Van Der Beek), just as his mother's group will be collectively flipping the bird at all things capitalistic.

"The Hollywood stuff is not me," says Honkala, who still lives in a squalid one-bedroom apartment not far from her office. "I was at the premiere of "Snow Day," and I was a movie star's mom. It was incredibly exciting." She pauses. "But also incredibly painful."

We've already established that pain is nothing new to Honkala, but now for some details. Deadbeat father; abusive, alcoholic stepfather; brother who committed suicide; various and sundry stints in reform schools; brief career as a teenage prostitute. Got pregnant on purpose to collect welfare; left Mark's heroin-addicted father; lived out of a car; danced topless on bars; somehow got through high school and three years of the University of Minnesota before being kicked out for misappropriating her student grants. Came to Philadelphia in 1989 for a convention, married a union organizer and divorced him. Settled in Kensington, the city's most destitute, end-of-the-earth enclave, and hasn't left since.

In Philly, ironically, Honkala is sometimes a better-known actor than her son; her homeless encampments and subsequent, theatrical arrests are common fare. Former Mayor Ed Rendell called her a "constant pebble in my shoe." Don't be fooled, either, by Honkala's impish countenance; she is a sophisticated, savvy self-promoter. She has a volunteer staff of about 40 who alert the press to every protest fiasco and permit denial. During her cross-country treks, Honkala dispatched frequent updates via cell phone, detailing every police misstep and civic injustice along the way.

Honkala often garners criticism -- locally, at least -- that she is hurting the very people she is trying to help. City officials wonder why she moves her members into abandoned properties -- only to be arrested -- instead of directing them to organizations with established track records on housing the homeless. They also wonder why Honkala doesn't get a "real" job herself, which might allow her to be more proactive. She's had no shortage of offers: Social work, overseeing housing programs, a position with the Women's Cooperative.

"I say 'no,'" Honkala says sincerely, "because the No. 1 thing I need to be doing is using my skills to build a movement ... a massive movement to end poverty in this country."

And then, of course, there is the Joey Merlino factor. "Skinny Joey" -- an aptly named, scrawny fellow, reputed to be a Philly mob boss. Skinny Joey, who has survived numerous attempts on his life (including a bullet that missed its mark and implanted firmly in his buttocks), called Honkala one cold winter day a few years ago.

"He made me an offer," Honkala deadpans, "that I couldn't refuse."

The offer was this: Let Merlino and his gang join her cause. They could give out turkeys for Thanksgiving, and even have a catered Christmas dinner for the 60 or so people in her group. Toys for the kids, the whole nine yards. Good news for everyone, eh? Honkala apparently agreed. She said publicly that she didn't care about Merlino's underworld occupation; if he was helping to feed the hungry, she was in.

And so began a tradition that has lasted through this year, even with Merlino currently in jail awaiting trial on federal drug charges. Last Christmas, burly guys named "Ralphie Head" and "Mousie" put down their Cuban cigars and highballs, sat kids on their laps and asked, "Yo, so whaddaya youse want for Christmas?" During last November's fete, Merlino called an associate's cell phone and expressed holiday greetings and cheer to everyone. The cameras, predictably, are always there for the catered Christmas affairs, and Honkala tries to finesse questions about her alliance with such an unseemly character.

But the turkey handouts are another story, and are more heavily monitored by black-suited G-men than by news crews. I remember one in particular, on a cold November day back in 1997, when Merlino and about a dozen men parked trucks in a lot across from North Philadelphia's Richard Allen Homes, one of the city's poorest public housing projects.

Silently, methodically, they began hauling turkeys from the flat beds and handing them to a line of residents. Honkala stood by, keeping close and careful watch, expressionless, uncharacteristically silent. She was not yet a national figure, not even close. It was almost three years before the Republican National Convention; she could not yet even know that it would be her life's great, climactic moment.

There wasn't a camera in sight; in fact, I believe I was the only reporter around, and there was little of the gust and bravado that typically characterizes a Honkala event. Just as the supply was drying up, a limping, elderly lady appeared at the head of the line, took a turkey from Skinny Joey's hands and looked directly at Honkala. "God bless you," she said, nearly in tears. She turned and waddled away, and only then did Honkala allow an absent smile.

By Karen Abbott

Karen Abbott is a senior writer at Philadelphia Weekly.

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