Story and photos by Carol Harvey
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Sunday, October 10, in coordination with the first World Homeless Day, a spontaneously organized group called Creative Housing Liberation came together to kick off a rally with speakers and music at San Francisco’s Civic Center, in the shadow of City Hall.
James Keys and Anna Glendon Conda Hyde, contenders for District 6 supervisor, spoke of the urgent need to provide services and homes for unhoused San Francisco residents.
Union activist Gabriel Haaland and James Keys stirred the crowd with their own homeless stories. Both denounced Mayor Gavin Newsom’s November ballot initiative, Proposition L, which would make sitting or lying on city sidewalks subject to arrest and imprisonment.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, activist and entertainer extraordinaire, led the group in singing his song, “Yuppie, Yuppie Stole My Pad,” which, he said, he wrote “for all the folks who were being displaced during the dot-com boom.”
Speakers at the rally noted that San Francisco has over 30,000 vacant housing units, more than enough to house all the city’s homeless population. At the rally’s conclusion, the emcee declared: “We’re going to march to the occupation site and take over just one small part of the 30,000 vacancies” in San Francisco.
The group of 200 then marched north on Larkin to the Leslie Hotel on Eddy Street, a five-story building which had stood vacant for two years. When the marchers arrived at the hotel, homeless people already had taken over this lovely 68-unit building, and were hanging banners from its windows.
The demonstration continued in front of the building with music, poetry and chanting. People were spontaneously invited to stay and take housing tours of the premises. The Leslie Hotel is owned by Soma Development Company, a San Francisco-based real estate company.
Orlando Ryel, one of the supporters and marchers, ushered me on a tour of the beautifully appointed manager’s office.
“This is better than my SRO,” Ryel said. “I don’t even have a closet like this.”
Tiles in primary colors decorated the bathroom and kitchen, and intact fixtures looked down from the ceilings onto clean beige carpets below. I was present inside when leaders of the “hotel liberation” hung banners from the upstairs windows.
Within an hour of the marchers’ arrival, the San Francisco Police Department showed up to “intervene between the crowd and the occupiers,” as one participant put it. “This pretty much cancelled the housing tour,” he said,” and people decided whether to stay or leave.”
Demonstrators remained talking and singing outside while several police officers entered and exited the hotel. A thin blue line of police vehicles and officers cordoned off the street to traffic, apparently awaiting “reinforcements.”
On the Channel 7 ABC news at 11:00 p.m., Aaron Buchbinder, an observer keeping watch outside the hotel, spoke to the press. “We had the building open to the public,” he said. “Anybody who needed a place to sleep tonight could get in.”
The Leslie Hotel is just one vacant building in a city that has hundreds of abandoned buildings on the streets where thousands of abandoned human beings languish without housing or shelter. While the Leslie Hotel has 60 vacant units that could provide housing to homeless people, the 2009 Census Bureau statistics show that San Francisco has an estimated 36,000 vacant housing units. With 6,000 to 15,000 homeless people on the streets of San Francisco, that seems unfair.
Buchbinder said, “It’s a disgrace to see many times as many empty units of housing in the City as there are people sleeping on the streets. Something really needs to be done. So, since today is World Homeless Day, we’re acting in solidarity with 50 other countries across the world and dozens of cities in the U.S, organizing with the community to create our own solutions to end homelessness.”
The police allowed the squatters to remain inside until the owner could be reached. Roughly 15 to 20 squatters had a “good night’s sleep.” Then, rather than be arrested, they “silently disappeared.”
During the hotel takeover, the manager remained incommunicado. False rumors swirled that police would start evicting the squatters, possibly using tear gas. Instead, the SFPD sent in a SWAT team and found no one on the premises.
Earlier this year, Homes Not Jails, a group different from the organizers of the Leslie Hotel action, conducted a successful Easter Squat.
In his column on April 12, 2010, Phil Bronstein, editor-at-large of the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted the City’s paper of record: “Last week in San Francisco’s Mission District, a group of homeless and tenants’ advocates occupied an empty duplex, ‘to promote the use of San Francisco’s vacant buildings as shelters for the needy.’” Bronstein reported that the building owner filed a complaint, and four squatters were cited for misdemeanor trespassing and released.
Bronstein rudely treated the homeless activists with classist condescension. “Do you give a squat if homeless people live in your house while you’re away?” Bronstein asked. “I’m not keen on the idea myself and am thinking of having a friend come and hang out at my place should I decide to hike the Appalachian Trail.”
Buchbinder said he believes the SFPD should undergo an audit of police department expenses for “quality of life enforcement, (looking at) how much it clogs up the court system.” He said it is important to take a look at how many taxpayer dollars go into “unnecessary police repression for buildings that are vacant with nobody in them, let alone how much tax dollars and manpower they spend prosecuting people for sleeping on the streets.”
He said, “Every time they hand a homeless person a ticket, who clearly can’t afford it, for an offense that is basically a human right, it ends up costing the city millions and millions of dollars a year, and the root of the problem is never addressed.” The “quality of life” offense of sitting on the sidewalk, Buchbinder observed, “is already a crime under (existing) laws, and now they are trying to pass a new law.”
He said that city officials could use that money for housing to help mitigate homelessness. To give homeless people protection from dangerous shelters, dark streets, and winter cold, in the future, various groups could conduct more flashmob-type takeovers.
“People squat out of necessity all the time,” said Buchbinder. Additionally, building takeovers are increasingly being used as an overtly political act. For instance, the Easter Sunday public duplex squat was organized to support renter Jose Morales, who for years has worked with the Tenants Union to protest his illegal eviction from that building.
About a month ago, the Sierra Hotel on Mission and 20th Street in San Francisco was “liberated.” In December 2009, San Francisco State students occupied their campus, and a student occupation on Berkeley’s campus occurred this past month. The commonality between these events, said Buchbinder, is “the occupation of public space for economic justice.
“Students represent the high end of the working class,” he said. “Homeless folks come from the bottom end. With students, teachers, nurses, unions, and landless peoples’ movements working globally in solidarity, even as our reality appears to grow more and more dismal, the prospects for the future are looking brighter.”
Yuppie Stole My Pad
by Tommi Avicolli Mecca
I was living in a pad so fine
14 years it was mine
speculator came along one day
he said son, you gotta move away
Chorus: Yuppie yuppie stole my pad
yuppie yuppie bad bad bad (2x)
bad old yuppie, bad old yuppie
I said landlord I ain’t a going
not till the sheriff’s a-showing
even then I’m gonna hold my ground
until the law, it comes around
Chorus: Yuppie yuppie stole my pad…
real estate is the theft of land
you really got to understand
makes no difference what you think
let them steal it, we’re gonna sink
he sold my place to an upscale dude
full of himself and oh so rude
I fought so hard but couldn’t win
greed is our national sin
Chorus: Yuppie yuppie stole my pad…
It’s gonna change wait and see
someday the land’s for you and me
poor folks like us we’re gonna rise
better heed our call if you’re wise
Chorus: Yuppie yuppie stole my pad…