April Hellraiser: Cheri Honkala


NAME: Cheri Honkala

WHAT SHE DOES: Philadelphia activist for welfare rights and the homeless

BIGGEST TURNAROUND: Went from living on the street with her son to training other advocates

FAVORITE TARGET: The Department of Housing and Urban Development; right-wingers

TAKES FLAK FROM: HUD; city and state officials

When Honkala, head of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia, grew frustrated with HUD’s notorious paperwork last year, she quietly moved 17 families into 12 vacant HUD properties. The illegal occupation sheltered the homeless women and their children only temporarily, but within weeks Honkala had leveraged her action into housing vouchers for all the families, cutting through red tape and providing a legal solution without the usual 10-year delay for most Section 8 housing.

Arrested more than 50 times for misdemeanor trespassing violations–squatting or sit-ins–she’s never been convicted. Her defense, that her actions are motivated by a “moral sense of urgency,” sits well with most juries. “There’s something disgusting about women and children with no place to live,” she says.

Honkala, 32, was a young mother in Minneapolis when her welfare check wasn’t enough to cover rent and she and her son became homeless. She joined the Welfare Rights Union, a national advocacy group, and five years ago started a branch in Kensington, one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods.

Honkala, who also works with Up and Out of Poverty Now, a national umbrella organization for advocates of the poor that models its activities after the civil rights movement, is particularly incensed by recently passed Pennsylvania legislation cutting welfare benefits from $250 a month to $250 a year. The number of homeless is expected to soar. “We’re facing a serious crisis in this country,” says Honkala. “You can no longer say the homeless are just lazy alcoholics. But as the welfare debates heat up, they’ll continue to play the politics where they’re talking about poor, inner-city black males, not white families.”

Now that the political mood has shifted further right, other grassroots organizations are asking her to train their activists. “We’re getting calls from people all over the country who want to learn how to fight,” she says. “They’re not allowing things like eating or having a roof over their head to be open to debate.”

Honkala is anticipating tough battles ahead. “We’re going to fight in the legislature. It’s not just an issue of public policy; we’re fighting so people can live. It’s a scary time, but it also presents tremendous opportunities.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.