On Sunday, October 10, from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., in coordination with World Homeless Day, a spontaneously organized group, “Creative Housing Liberation,” came together to help kick off a rally with speakers and music at San Francisco's Civic Center in the shadow of City Hall, the Mayor's office, and Board of Supervisors' chambers. 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 Franciscans. Union activist, Gabriel Haaland and James Keys stirred the crowd with their own homeless stories. Both denounced the Mayor's November ballot initiative, Prop L, making 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 wrote, “for all the folks who were being displaced during the dot-com boom.”
The group of 300 to 500 then marched North on Larkin a short distance to the Leslie Hotel on Eddy Street. Homeless people had taken over this lovely 68 unit building which had stood vacant for two years.
The demonstration continued in front of the building with music, poetry, and chanting. People were spontaneously invited to stay and taking housing tours of the premises. Orlando Ryel, one of the supporters and marchers, took me on a tour of the beautifully appointed manager's office. “This is better than my SRO,” he 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.
Tommi Avicolli-Mecca. Photo by Carol Harvey.
Within an hour of the marchers' arrival, the SFPD 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. Several officers entered and exited. A short Blue Line of police vehicles and officers cordoned off the street to traffic, apparently awaiting “reinforcements,” against what one demonstrator jokingly called, “dangerous insurgents.”
On the 11:00 p.m. Channel 7 ABC news, Aaron Buchbinder, an observer keeping watch outside, 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."
Census Bureau statistics say this hotel is just one of 36,000 vacant San Francisco housing units, and with 6,000 homeless people on SF streets, that seems unfair.
Aaron continued, "It's a disgrace to see three 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, dozens of cities in the U.S."
The SFPD 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.”
As of 1:00 p.m. Monday, October 11, the manager remained incommunicado. False rumors swirled that police would start evicting the squatters, possibly using tear gas. Instead, SFPD sent in a swat team and found no one on the premises.
Earlier in 2010, Homes Not Jails conducted a successful Easter Squat.
On April 12, 2010, Phil Bronstein, 'SF Chronicle,' editor-at-large quoted his 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.'” He said the owner filed a complaint and four squatters were cited for misdemeanor and released.”
“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.”
Aaron 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 wants us to take a look at how much in taxpayer dollars go into, “unnecessary police repression for buildings that are vacant with nobody in them, let alone how much tax dollars and man-power they spend prosecuting people for sleeping on the streets.
“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 costs the city millions and millions of dollars a year,” said Aaron. The 'quality of life' offense of sitting on the sidewalk, he observed, “is already a crime, and now they are trying to pass a new law.” He emphasized they could use that money for housing to help ease homelessness.
To give homeless people protection from dangerous shelters, dark streets, and winter cold, in future, various groups could conduct more flashmob-type takeovers.
“People squat all the time,” said Aaron. He confirmed that 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 in Berkeley was occupied.
In December 2009, SF students occupied their campus, and a student occupation of Berkeley's campus occurred two days ago. The commonality between these events, said Aaron, 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 together in solidarity,” on a global scale, “it's going to be huge.”