by Carol Harvey
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n November 26, Black Friday, Creative Housing Liberation held a “Housing Harvest” rally at 16th and Mission in San Francisco, with songs and speeches followed by a tour of four vacant neighborhood properties.
The event was preceded on Thursday by a housing takeover intended to showcase some of the 36,000 housing units currently wasting away vacant in San Francisco and to publicize the quiet savagery of 36,000 unused spaces in a city where, officially, more than 6,000 city dwellers sleep on cold concrete, with an estimated count of 15,000 homeless.
Paul Boden, organizing director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, reminded the crowd of “allies in Portland, Seattle, Santa Cruz, L.A., Oakland, and Berkeley,” poor Chicagoans, public housing residents losing homes through bad mortgages — all “resisting, and fighting back.” Millions across the country and this world are being dehumanized by the commodification of housing, he said.
In a Wednesday night promotion for the Black Friday occupation, housing occupier Jeremy Miller told JR of KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio that housing occupations are being conducted worldwide, including Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela.
Kiilu Nyasha told the crowd that homelessness kills. “They don’t want you to know how many people are literally dying on the streets of this very rich city,” Kiilu said. “People of the city, of the world, we have to unite. We have to embrace each other’s differences and come together based on our common human rights. We have a right to a home.”
After S’Bu Zikode showed a film Wednesday in San Francisco about the South African shack dwellers movement, he told Kiilu, “The young people are saying, ‘No land. No house. No job. No bread. No vote.’”
“The next time these horrible politicians come banging on your door,” Kiilu said, “you just tell them, ‘My vote is a vote of no confidence.’”
James Chionsini, an MC and organizer, explained how he clarified for his four-year-old daughter Helen that the deprived rich don’t understand that people enjoy sharing things like cookies and housing. He felt the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM IV should classify greed as a treatable emotional disorder.
Lydia Heather Blumberg asked the 100-strong crowd, “Aren’t you guys glad we had something more fun to do than go shopping today?”
A Loose-Knit Coalition
Creative Housing Liberation is not a formal organization. It is the organizing name for one or more events conducted by a loosely knit network of like-minded citizens distressed by San Francisco’s housing crisis. Participants agree that civil disobedience and direct action are necessary to defend the right to housing for working-class people. In the spring of 2010, they utilized their First Amendment rights and right of dissent, participating in at least six “open occupations” of vacant residential San Francisco buildings.
At Easter, Homes Not Jails, another housing activist group, occupied the San Jose Avenue home of Jose Morales, 78, evicted after 42 years through an Ellis Act takeover by a landlord acting in bad faith.
After 18 years of disuse, on May Day, 2010, the Phoenix School at 15th and Mission was squatted. One occupier said, “The State used a sickening display of force — two SFPD battalions.” Eighty riot cops, “disappointed they didn’t get to discharge their weapons,” overwhelmed “eight people who were voluntarily arrested.”
In response to the closing of the homeless shelter at 150 Otis, a sit-in was held at 170 Otis, the Health and Human Services Administration Building, organized by “Direct Action To Stop The Cuts” with help from Food Not Bombs and leaders in the homeless and housing rights movement in San Francisco.
On July 18, 2010, Direct Action To Stop The Cuts successfully, and with much publicity, occupied the Sierra Hotel at Mission and 20th. According to City records, the multi-unit property had been vacant almost 20 years. This action protested slashes in the City budget to housing and homeless services that are expected to result in an increased number of homeless deaths this year.
On October 10, 2010, the first World Homeless Day, Creative Housing Liberation led an occupation of the Leslie Hotel on Eddy. After a Civic Center rally, activists led the public on tours through a beautifully appointed, 68-room apartment building left vacant two years by a landlord living in Europe. Unhoused folks regularly sleep on the vestibule and surrounding Tenderloin sidewalks.
Matt Crain noted that 14 out of the 18 occupiers were committed to taking a voluntary arrest if they had collectively chosen to do so. However, the residents made a decision to vacate the premises before eviction, demonstrating that housing occupations need not end with arrest if the occupiers choose otherwise.
“The fact is, these folks care about a lot of issues; housing is very personal to them,” Crain said, adding that 16 of the 18 folks who occupied on World Homeless Day were formerly homeless or currently without housing.
Crain said, “Many are squatters who choose to occupy and take direct action every day — not just Housing Demo Day — by living in abandoned buildings and not going through the system.”
Now that San Francisco voters and merchants have passed Proposition L, the sit/lie law, even sitting or sleeping in public while poor has become a crime. Resting, in itself, has become an act of civil disobedience.
On the Thursday before the Black Friday rally, in an act of “creative audacity,” participants “pre-occupied” a vacant residential property. They moved in, took a quick look around, and shared a quiet “Thanks-Taking” dinner. “Thanks-Taking” was an alternative to a day when so many celebrate an illusion, said one occupier: “That our country was founded by brave settlers who created a nation of peace, prosperity and abundance, when not only did we steal the land, but we annihilated an entire race of our fellow man.”
Before the more public demonstration on Friday, Thursday’s action was to be a private occupation by people taking care of themselves, learning from each other, sharing the space, a meal, and one day together. Then they tried to sleep.
Creative Housing Liberation would like to invite “all kinds of folks, including families,” to be involved in future housing occupations. Families are the largest new homeless group, a number that is skyrocketing since the housing foreclosure scandals and the economic crisis began.
Families and immigrants are the most invisible segments of the population experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. The network is reaching out to all people experiencing homelessness for their voices to be heard, and their stories to be told.
Creative Housing Liberation organizers, Crain said, “look forward to engaging with, and giving voice to, all members of our community who are experiencing homelessness, most especially families and those who are undocumented.”
The best way for people to find out about their next action is by intermittently checking the Indy bay calendar “where our events are always listed.”
The occupation was interrupted when a property manager did a random check at about 6:30 a.m. Friday morning. All occupiers were able to collect their resources and vacate, avoiding interaction with the manager or police.
“In lieu of the open occupation,” Crain said, “we did a tour around the 16th and Mission neighborhood to draw attention back to the Phoenix School, then to 80 Julian Street owned by a nonprofit, vacant and squatted for many years, then to 180 Dolores, a beautiful but fortified condo, then a few doors away to 200 Dolores.”
Kim Rohrbach, a volunteer tenant’s counselor at the S.F. Tenant’s Union, explained how landlords use various legal constructions, like the Ellis Act, to appear to get out of the housing market, but instead empty a building so it’s more attractive to wealthier prospective buyers.
They’re not actually getting out of the housing market, Rohrbach said, merely “using a legal construction to evict people so they can turn over the property with more ease to landlords who can then jack up the rent seeing that the previous rent-controlled tenants have been removed from the property.”
One organizer summarized the occupation: “We successfully occupied for 27 hours. We shared Thanks-Taking Day together. We were unfortunately unable to proceed with the entire demonstration which would have included an open occupation.” But he looks to future actions.
“We have these resources,” he said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be sharing them equitably throughout all elements of society.”
And, he added, “No one is illegal.”
Ronnie Goodman: The Color of Hope
Linocuts, Drawings, & Paintings from San Quentin and Folsom State Prisons
December 4 – 30, 2010
Reception: Saturday, Dec. 4, 7:00 – 11:00 pm
Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center
2981 24th Street, San Francisco
Ronnie Goodman created a large body of artwork while doing time at San Quentin and Folsom State Prisons. It has only been a month since his release.
For most artists in prison the tendency is to create work about life on the outside. But Ronnie Goodman is an exception to this. His work is about life in prison. Sometimes his work is about the beauty that an artistic eye can find in the day to day. Sometimes his work is about the struggles of life in a cage.