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.
By Michelle Goldberg
Aug. 5, 2004 | 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.
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
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."
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.
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 flyers 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 choose 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.
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
"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
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."
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
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.
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 on
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."
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
"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
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
"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."