On this past Easter Sunday a group of at least 8 activists liberated a vacant house in San Francisco’s Mission District. The occupation of the building served as a protest to draw attention to SF’s vacant and abandoned buildings as well as the immense homeless population. The day’s action started with a rally and march from a nearby subway station to the occupied house with placards that read “House keys not handcuffs.” The action was organized by the 18-year-old SF group Homes Not Jails. The occupation lasted from the very early hours of Sunday morning into Monday afternoon. It ended when the SF Police attempted to batter down the door, the occupiers complied and let the police in. They were cited with misdemeanor trespassing and walked out of the house without ever being placed in cuffs.
HNJ formed in 1992 by squatters, homeless people and their supporters to advocate the use of vacant and abandoned buildings for people who are homeless. HNJ promotes the idea that people need a home in order to escape from the spiral of poverty and to get them back on their feet, something that typical homeless shelters cannot adequately provide. The group uses public actions, education and covert squatting to convey their message.
Pointing at the current economic recession and the collapse of the housing market, squatting has the decisive opportunity to demonstrate how to build from the ashes of the old by creating positive spaces away from the traditional norms of housing consumption.
“Space and property is used by people in an unjust unethical way to manipulate others,” said Sasha, a HNJ volunteer. “People play the game, work their job, pay their rent and one fucked-up thing happens and they’re on the streets.”
The weakness of the system is the ideal contrast to showcase our alternatives to capitalism through squatting such as — mutual aid, autonomy and consensus. Circumnavigating the status quo allows opportunities for transformation — teaching people to support themselves and each other outside of the hierarchical landlord-tenant relationship.
“People have this weird idea that a squat is not a home and that paying rent gives you more rights and we would like to get rid of that myth. If you live in a place and you close the door, you cook your food, you sleep there then that’s your home. Its just as much of a home as if you were paying rent,” said Sasha.
“The stigma of the word squat is kinda fucked up, we don’t like to use the word squat because of that. For us a squat is a home,” added Sasha.
Squatting, for the most part, has been absent from the minds of most Americans and mainstream media even though there is an estimated 1 billion squatters worldwide, according to Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World.
Tim, another HNJ volunteer said, “The need that HNJ serves is the direct gap between vacant buildings and homeless people. Government will tend to talk all day long about how they have an interest in seeing how buildings aren’t vacant and that they want people to have homes, and yet you have a vacant building and a homeless person sleeping on the street in front of it. In the legal-realty-money-world, when its all said and done, you still have a vacant building and someone sleeping on the streets. What HNJ does is covertly put people into these buildings. Even though the legal system may not see the validity and value in this change we nonetheless do it. And the public actions serve as a reminder to people that this is going on.”
The involuntariness of squatting for so many people worldwide is an important distinction that we must recognize from politically motivated squatting, but HNJ unites the two skillfully.
When asked how they thought the action went, Sasha said, “It was the best possible thing that could have happened. We did what we wanted to do. The cops never bothered us. We had the full support of the neighbors and no one was arrested. We had coverage on BBC, Indymedia, Fox News and even in Jakarta and Australia. It was great for a media trick. We got worldwide coverage.”
“I think the action went well, but unfortunately the building is still vacant and the elderly gentleman who was kicked out of this building is still fighting to get back into his home. It drew attention to this sad story and the fact that egregious injustices like this happen everyday,” said Tim.
So you want to start squatting? Its great to have an organization like HNJ behind you but it is not necessary. There are numerous online resources that can give you the technical knowledge of how to turn on electricity and water, to the appropriate tools and attire for entering a building. They also help you get an idea of what you need and what to expect, good and bad.
For more info: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.homesnotjailssf.org www.squat.net, www.squattheplanet.com