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.”


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