Down and out and on the move

Leading a feisty army of homeless people, fiery activist Cheri Honkala is about to descend on the Republican Convention.


Michelle Goldberg
August 5, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

On Aug. 30, the first day of the Republican National Convention in New York, Cheri Honkala is going to march from the United Nations to Madison Square Garden with or without a protest permit. Behind her will be homeless women and their children, men furloughed from rehab centers, public housing tenants, wheelchair-bound people without healthcare and poor people hanging on to life by their fingernails. Arrayed against them will be walls of police in riot gear, armed with the latest in high-tech crowd-control devices and ready for mass arrests. For the past two weeks, Honkala and her followers have been marching across New Jersey, and undercover police have been videotaping and photographing them. Fearing violence, Honkala has put out a call for international human rights observers to watch over her group during the RNC.

Most of Honkala's group can't afford legal trouble or physical confrontations. Yesenia Cruz, a 24-year-old mother of five, is more than eight months pregnant. Elizabeth Ortiz, a fiery, stick-thin mother of three, has a weak heart -- she had a triple bypass before she turned 40. Craig Tann is a drug addict and former dealer who once served three years in prison and doesn't want to go back. But they're going to march anyway, partly out of determination and partly out of dedication to Honkala. She's helped some off the streets. She's helped others find jobs or get disability payments. She's given all of them the dignity of belonging to a cause larger than themselves. Many of them seem like they would follow her anywhere.

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This is the germ of the movement that many activists have long dreamed of building. Endless words have been spilled bemoaning the lack of diversity on the left, the devolution of protest into a subculture for the disaffected children of the middle class. Attend any organizing meeting for protests against the Republican National Convention and you're bound to hear someone remark, wryly or sadly, on the crowd's whiteness. Honkala, though, has managed to organize and radicalize people who never before contemplated any kind of political action, people who regard McDonald's as a delicious treat rather than a corporate abomination. They are people who've already suffered a lot and are choosing to suffer a little more in the service of her vision.

The movement, as everyone who marches with Honkala calls it, is built around the conviction that homelessness is a societal failing, not a personal one. When most people think of homelessness, they imagine the ragged, disoriented people who sleep on the streets of most cities. Many of those people need treatment for drug problems or mental illness, and when such people come to Honkala, she refers them to rehab programs. But as she emphasizes, there's another side to homelessness, one that's invisible to most Americans. It's made up of people who've slipped off the last rung of the economic ladder and can't get a leg back up. Many of them are single mothers with children. People like her.

According to a 2003 survey of 25 American cities commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, families make up 40 percent of the homeless population -- a number that's increased since the previous year. Worse, that figure may understate the problem. A national study by the Urban Institute found that children alone make up 39 percent of the homeless population.

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These people frequently try to maintain the façade of normality, sleeping on friends' floors for as long as their kindness holds out, then in shelters or cars. But funding for the social programs and the subsidized housing that such families need to escape homelessness has dried up under the Bush administration, meaning that parents and children are remaining homeless for longer, making it ever harder to hold on to ordinary life. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a decade ago the average length of time that New York families stayed in shelters before finding permanent housing was five months. Now it's almost a year.

Honkala sees the fallout from this backlog. "There have been massive cutbacks across the country in Section 8," she says, referring to the federal subsidized-housing program. "Right now, you can go all across the country and the shelters are full. The battered women's shelters are full. There isn't any affordable housing and there's no plans for it. People have been gentrified off the face of the earth."

The march through New Jersey and to Madison Square Garden is intended to force these people into view. "The media is not talking about the real stories happening to people every day in this country," she says. "We're going to fight to reach someone. Why? Because we have to. With 1,400 reporters coming into the city, it's a real opportunity. We've got one shot to talk about the hidden war in this country."

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Honkala's passion is personal. A striking woman with long black hair, high cheekbones and a manner that alternates between goofy weariness and fiery intensity, she's spent much of her life on welfare and parts of it homeless. She grew up poor, with a stepfather who sexually abused her. Her first husband was a heroin addict, and the marriage lasted a month -- long enough for her to get pregnant with her eldest son. When she gave birth to Mark Webber, now an up-and-coming indie film actor, she was 17 and living in her car.

Honkala and her son were on public assistance for much of his childhood. She managed to complete three years at the University of Minnesota, where she was studying to be a teacher, but during her time there, money problems rendered them homeless again. It was nine months before they had a permanent place to live, thanks to a marriage that brought her to Philadelphia. That marriage ended, too, but Honkala stayed in Philadelphia, where in 1991 she founded the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. Today she lives in a small house in Philadelphia with her 2-year-old son Guillermo.

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Based in the poorest section of the city, KWRU is at once radical and practical, built around the conviction that since people have a right to a home, they have a right to seize housing if the government can't or won't provide it. To that end, Honkala has built tent cities and moved homeless families into abandoned buildings. KWRU operates four "Human Rights Houses," where homeless people who've enlisted in her movement can stay while they search for permanent places to live. The group posts fliers at welfare offices and other places where poor people gather. Honkala claims that KWRU has helped over 500 people find housing since its inception. The group gets no public funding, relying on volunteer work and private donations. At one point, she danced topless to finance it.

In his 1997 book "Myth of the Welfare Queen," journalist David Zucchino followed Honkala and another welfare mother for a year. He begins her story at a vacant lot where a factory called Quaker Lace had burned down and where Honkala had created an encampment housing dozens of people. "Cheri, a young welfare mother herself, was a woman who loved to create dramatic and politically charged spectacles," he wrote. "That summer she was at war with society over its treatment of the poor. She sought to dramatize the city, state and federal policies that had set destitute people adrift. The lot Quaker Lace was to be Cheri's boldest tableau yet. She envisioned a small city of the poor rising from the fire's ashes, populated by struggling welfare mothers like Mariluz and Elba, whose meager lives would be on public display."

In addition to the tent cities, Honkala has staged innumerable marches and sit-ins throughout the country, getting arrested more than 80 times in the process. In 2000, she led several thousand people on an un-permitted march against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. With mothers pushing strollers and people in wheelchairs at the front of the demonstration, the police chose not to beat it back. She's hoping the same thing happens this year in New York, but post-9/11, the police are in a less accommodating mood.

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In addition to KWRU, Honkala heads the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, a coalition of anti-poverty groups across the continent. She was recently invited to Quito, Ecuador, for the Americas Social Forum, an international progressive conference where organizers had her speak in front of a giant banner reading "Fuck You Bush." Despite the travel, activism for her is devoid of glamour. It's grinding work in the ugliest parts of America, done with the conviction that the day will come when such work will no longer be necessary.

"We're focused on the basic necessities of life -- who took them away and how to get them back," says Honkala. "Someday we'll live in a world where we won't have to go to marches. We can play with our kids, we can decorate our homes, because we'll have homes."

Right now, she and a dozen or so of her followers are embarked on a six-week-long pilgrimage called March For Our Lives through New Jersey. Initially, they were going to erect tent cities -- they call them "Bushvilles," a reference to the Hoovervilles of the Depression -- on the outskirts of New York, where they could both house and mobilize the area's poorest people in preparation for the Republican Convention.

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This year, though, police foiled her plan by destroying the Bushvilles as soon as the group could set them up. So Honkala, who's no stranger to long marches, decided to take the campaign on the road, creating a mobile Bushville that would camp out in a different town every night. Most days her group, wearing matching white T-shirts, walks 20 miles through the grimmer precincts of New Jersey. Each night they show up on the doorsteps of churches, asking for a place to sleep. Sometimes they camp outside. Once in a while they'll rent two rooms at a seedy motel, one for men and one for women. They pool their food stamps to buy sliced bread and cold cuts and subsist on a diet of sandwiches and soda.

The march began on July 19 on Grand Street in Jersey City, N.J., on the sidewalk near the abandoned, overgrown lot where weeks before Honkala had tried to build a tent city.

Before noon, the heat was already oppressive. Galen Tyler, a lumbering, bearded, formerly homeless man who's now director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, dragged a wheeled wooden model of a tent behind him. It was painted to look like an American flag and said "Welcome to Bushville!" Honkala waved an American flag. Cruz pushed her youngest daughter in a stroller and waddled under the weight of her pregnancy. She said she was going to march until she reaches the RNC or goes into labor, whichever comes first. Among the dozen people were a few earnest white college graduates, but most of the marchers were hurled into activism by circumstances, after Honkala gave them a place to sleep and a rudimentary political education.

As marchers gathered on Grand Street, a car pulled up and a girl rolled down the window. "I just want you to know they've been videotaping you," she said, and the car drove away. Sure enough, across the street, partly hidden under a tree in a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot, two plainclothes Jersey City police in a dark Ford Taurus, and two plainclothes New Jersey state police in a Crown Victoria, were videotaping Honkala. When I asked the state police why the marchers were under surveillance, they rolled up their window without answer. The city police confirmed that all four of them were in fact cops, but when I asked what they were looking for, one said, "We're not at liberty to say."

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Near the parking lot, two beefy men in jeans walked casually down the street snapping pictures. At first, they claimed to be supporters of Honkala's group, but eventually admitted they're plainclothes detectives. "Our job is to make sure that public safety is ensured," one of them said. The other asked whether the group had been violent.

Across from the cops, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a Crown Heights preacher with dreadlocks, pinstriped pants and a matching vest, began to lead marchers in prayer. He didn't get far before five cops in uniform and a police captain in a polo shirt pulled up. The captain told Honkala, "You have a First Amendment right, but the minute you start blocking people, we're going to have you move on or take further action."

By the time the captain arrived, there were more cops watching the marchers than there were marchers themselves.

Throughout July, people rotate in and out of the march. Some women march while their kids are at camp, but return on the weekends to care for them. New Jerusalem, a Philadelphia rehab program, lets patients join the march for two days at a time. When they return, others take their place. Webber, Honkala's son, joins them between acting jobs and fundraising in Manhattan.

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Blond and blue-eyed with an open, disarmingly innocent face, Webber has been in a host of indie films, including "Jesus's Son," "Storytelling" and the upcoming "Dear Wendy," which was written by Lars von Trier. As a child taunted by classmates as "shelter boy," he escaped into dreams of Hollywood stardom, but now, on the cusp of fame, he no longer wants to leave his past behind.

Indeed, almost everything he earns as an actor goes into his mother's movement. "My mother is the best gift I've ever gotten in my life," he says. "She's an amazing woman. She's crazy but I love her so much."

Marching through desolate towns in New Jersey in a line of welfare mothers and formerly homeless men, Webber seems perfectly at home. He rushes up to passersby, no matter how indifferent they seem, and presses fliers for the Aug. 30 march in their hands.

This, he says, is the center of his life. "It's not like I'm taking time out when I'm in the city," he says. "When I'm auditioning and trying to get the next role, it's all for the movement."

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Even if the movement succeeds in bringing thousands to Manhattan on Aug. 30, there's no way to know how far the police will let them go. Although Honkala applied for a permit, she says she's going to lead a demonstration whether it is granted or not. New York, meanwhile, has been slow to grant permits, so much so that the City Council held hearings to investigate whether the mayor and the NYPD were deliberately trying to stifle convention protests.

"From the start, we should have never let anybody regulate our voice and take away our First Amendment rights," Honkala says. "Once we let them put up one fence, they put up a million. Poor people, the only thing they have is their voice and it's not going to be taken away."

Once again, there will be mothers with children and disabled people at the head of the march. Honkala will be there with Webber and Guillermo. She's hoping that the presence of TV cameras and human rights observers will dissuade the cops from attacking. But the NYPD has $18 million in new crowd control devices, and they're under enormous pressure to maintain order. It's easy to see how people marching defiantly into a line of cops could get hurt.

Honkala's followers know this, but they're ready to take the risk. To understand their zeal -- and their faith in Honkala -- consider the story of Elizabeth Ortiz, who's been a member of KWRU for eight years and has been arrested with the group eight times. A 44-year-old mother of three, in the early '90s Ortiz was a maid at a Philadelphia hotel, where, after five years, she earned $8.50 an hour. When new management took over, she says, much of the higher-paid staff was fired to make way for workers earning minimum wage. Ortiz went to the welfare office, but says she was told that it would be several months before she could get help.

Unable to pay her rent, Ortiz and her kids slept at friends' houses until their generosity ran out, and then moved into a women's and children's shelter, where she says her children's school supplies were stolen. There was an 8 p.m. curfew, and she had to keep her kids by her side at all times -- a difficult thing to do with restless teenagers. At the time, her eldest son was about to turn 18. Once a legal adult, he would have been barred from the shelter.

"They were going to separate this family," she says. Rather than let that happen, she left. They ended up sleeping in her car and in the park.

"No one told me about being homeless," she says. "I would look down on the homeless and think, 'Oh, they just want to be on the streets, they're on drugs.'" Many people in KWRU had similar preconceptions about homelessness until they ended up on the streets themselves.

Ortiz had nowhere else to turn when she called KWRU. Immediately, the union sent someone to pick her family up and take them to a supporter's house for the night. She doesn't remember whose place it was, but she remembers feeling safer there than at a shelter. "Everything's not peaches and cream, but you feel more secure," she says. "You think, 'Wow, a person who's a stranger will treat you better than someone whose job is to treat you right."

KWRU gave Ortiz a place to sleep in one of its Human Rights Houses and helped her find an apartment through Section 8, which she lives in today. Since her heart surgery in 1998, she gets disability payments from the government and works part time as a babysitter. Her oldest son works for UPS while going to college, and her daughter just graduated from high school.

Ortiz is making a statement by walking through New Jersey, but so far it's hard to tell what she's accomplishing. Eleven days after the march began, there's been little news coverage. Walking all day, being hassled by police, begging churches for a place to stay at night and often being turned away, it's all exhausting and humbling. Honkala, though, insists that what they're doing isn't futile.

During the civil rights movement, she says, "When 10 or 15 people were walking in pickets around Woolworth's, people would say, 'That's never going to have an impact.'" Honkala is completely convinced that her movement is akin to the civil rights movement, or even abolition. Any day now, she says, it will burst forth.

"We're sewing together a large social movement for when shit does come down," she says. "I think they know this has the potential to be very big at some point."

By "they," Honkala means the police, who she says have done everything they can to shut her down. This sounds paranoid, but spending time in Honkala's world induces paranoia.

In late July, as the march continued through New Jersey, cops dogged the group. On July 29, as they started marching through Newark, the police stopped them. "They told us, 'You can't march here, if you take another step, we're going to arrest you,'" said 24-year-old Natasha Enler, one of the marchers.

So they retreated, regrouped and tried the same route again on July 30. This time, Honkala warned everyone that there might be some arrests. Before they went, everyone stood in a circle and told the group about one thing they were thankful for. "I'm grateful for breakfast," said one woman. "I'm grateful for my children, that they didn't grow up to be selfish pigs," said Honkala. "I'm grateful for my mother," said Webber, and Honkala, obviously pleased, pretended to be embarrassed.

Then they started singing, a few of the women teaching the song to the others. "During the civil rights movement, they used to use music to unite together in dangerous situations," said Honkala. Their voices rang out:

"Well I went down to the rich man's house
I took back what he stole from me
I took back my dignity
I took back my humanity."

They kept singing and chanting as they marched. This time a documentary filmmaker was with them -- which probably explained why the police, when they arrived, were polite and accommodating. There were no arrests that day. Another small thing to be grateful for.

"Most of us got the worst sob stories; you could cry for five nights," Honkala said. "We have unfolding tragedies and gaping wounds, and we're just walking across New Jersey letting the rest of the world know that things don't have to be like this."


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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