An Inside View of a Housing Occupation

On a high-flying journey from the streets to the rooftops, activists in San Francisco carried out their latest direct action campaign by taking over the vacant Sierra Hotel, demanding it be used to house homeless people. VIEW A VIDEO OF THE HOUSING TAKEOVER WITHIN THIS STORY.

by Carol Harvey

On July 4, Homes Not Jails took direct action by occupying the long-empty Sierra Hotel in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The housing group entered the Sierra Hotel shortly before 5:00 p.m. on July 4 and the occupation lasted until nearly 10:00 a.m. the next morning. The overnight occupation was the latest housing takeover by San Francisco activists. The vacant hotel, located at 20th and Mission, formerly housed a now-empty T-Mobile store below and an SRO hotel above.

Homes Not Jails has occupied several vacant buildings in San Francisco, most recently on July 4 when they squatted an abandoned hotel. Carol Harvey photo

Last year, on July 22, 2010, Stop The Cuts Bay Area, loosely affiliated with Homes Not Jails, coordinated an occupation at the same 20th and Mission site. From inside the building, squatters hailed through the windows a large group that remained in the street below.

This year, the takeover lasted longer and the public was invited inside the vacant hotel. Inspired by their previous occupation on April 11, 2011, of a vacant building in San Francisco owned by Kaiser-Permanente, Homes Not Jails led the public through the Sierra Hotel’s rooms and halls and up to the roof.

Homes Not Jails

Homes Not Jails (HNJ) is a collective taking direct action against forced homelessness by regularly locating unpublicized squats for unhoused people. The group, however, is known more widely for engaging in public takeovers of empty properties, thus focusing attention on the masses of San Franciscans evicted for profit and forced to live outside.

“It’s obscene and unacceptable,” said Matt Crain, HNJ member and unapologetic squatter. “In San Francisco currently, there are more than three times as many vacant housing units as there are folks experiencing homelessness.”

The city’s homeless population has been estimated at 7,000 to 10,000 people. Yet San Francisco landlords left 32,000 housing units vacant, mostly to profit from tax credits.

By 2005 estimates, one billion people worldwide lived in squatted homes and shantytowns. For years, squats have been legal in Europe — notably England and the Netherlands — but they are outlawed in the United States, and in San Francisco.

International solidarity

The rally and march on July 4 was connected to “An International Celebration of Autonomy and Integrity,” with simultaneous actions planned for Amsterdam, Budapest, Vienna, and Malanga, Spain.

Believing that housing is a human right, HNJ urged San Franciscans to participate in this and future displays of respect for individual freedom and autonomy from the State. They called on citizens to “embrace the need for collective empowerment, equitable communities, and mutual aid.”

Beginning with a rally in Dolores Park, the July 4 festivities included live music, a free dinner lovingly provided by Food Not Bombs, and spoken word/poetry.

Then, the Brass Liberation Orchestra led a spirited march to the Sierra Hotel at 20th and Mission where Homes Not Jails conducted tours. About 250 visitors were guided or walked through the building.

Time to get involved

An ever-worsening economy has been plundered by unchecked corporate greed, Wall Street bailouts, the manipulations of the big banks, historic increases in the military budget, and unparalleled tax cuts for the richest.

The icon of San Francisco's Homes Not Jails.

All this has been coupled with devastating attacks on the nation’s safety net. As a result, more people than ever are subjected to foreclosures, evictions, homelessness and poverty.

That is why Homes Not Jails openly encourages people to take part in housing occupations. When asked who should take part in these takeovers, activists have a multitude of answers:

If you feel yourself tipping into despair about your life and the current state of poverty and injustice in the world.

If you work two or three jobs to maintain a low-level lifestyle.

If people you know have lost their homes.

If you got yourself educated and are now up to your eyeballs in debt you can’t ever repay.

If your public schools are so bad you’ve decided to home school your kids.

If you are frustrated by corporate media’s contrived distractions which increasingly force you to web-surf for actual news.

If you think Democrats and Republicans are equally corrupt.

If it’s hard to pin down your biggest Obama disappointment.

If you’re outraged that mass-murdering “evildoers,” Bush and Cheney, roam free while poor people can receive life sentences for drugs.

If you feel sold out by a president who caves in to Republicans and corporate criminals.

If, like many San Francisco progressives, you wish someone would shut down the Pentagon and stop hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars into arrogant wars.

If you wonder when things will get so bad that you don’t receive your disability or Social Security checks because renegade Republicans have shut down the government.

Or if you think power-brokers want us so desperate, poor and hemmed in with laws, computers and camera surveillance that they’ll have all the power and own all the wealth, and we’ll have no recourse.

Then, take back the vacant buildings as a sign of justice and liberation.

A Worldwide Movement

Unlike Republicans, the Sixties generation didn’t concoct a vicious 40-year plan to suck dry America’s wealth. On the downside, though, today’s activists observe that loving, loud hippie protests lacked assertive political thrust into power where real change lies.

Today, groups led by under-fortyish activists worldwide are tired of helplessness. They’re taking everything back they can. The poor are so desperate in the Middle East — Egypt, Yemen, Syria — they are willing to die. They covet the bit of democracy we in America still appear to possess.

Housing activists are growing more forceful and adamant. A red-and-black sign leaning against a wall under a window in the vacant Sierra Hotel ordered, “Make affordable housing, or we will!”

Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, told the crowd at the Sierra Hotel squat, “They want us killing ourselves.” The powers that be want us isolated, separated, at odds. Because our sense of community dissolves their attempt to “divide and conquer,” collective action is their enemy.

“We ain’t killing each other,” Boden said. “We are uniting. We are fighting back, and that’s the only way we will win.”

According to Matt Crain, a takeover is intended “to allow as many people as possible to share in a collective experience.”

Antidote to helplessness

Activists believe that connecting is the powerful antidote to the Republican message: “Stay alone in your homes. Hunker down. Be afraid. Don’t get together. Everything for yourself. Every man for himself. Just put your head down and try to survive.”

Getting involved is an effective antidote to depression and helplessness. Start anywhere. Do something. Get active.

Though Americans nationwide seem to have lost ground in terms of building social-change movements, in San Francisco, direct action remains relatively alive and well. For those who feel paralyzed, hopeless, or alone, participating in a takeover is powerful.

Buildings are occupied by groups working in concert to create a “sea change” in the country. Banding together — however temporarily — people reclaim stolen property. Jeremy Miller called the Sierra Hotel, “our new home,” where, for a night, we restored rightful ownership.

Squats are old as San Francisco. There are experts who do it safely. Organizers research. Over time, they learn to locate empty buildings, get inside, and stay.

In a takeover, cell phones are on constant alert to conditions inside and outside the building. “We try to communicate and stay in touch, and pay attention to anything that’s going on,” said Crain.

If activists occupy buildings overnight, police will sometimes enter and evict them, especially if the landlord provided papers before the opening of business at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. But many occupations are conducted on evenings or weekends, while owners are off the clock. Most times, occupiers leave safely when warned of imminent police arrival.

Everyone can take part in occupations, at their own chosen level of involvement. Participants can work at various safety levels. Crain said, “Every time there is a direct action, there are roles to play for everyone. Whatever your risk level is, whatever you’re able, there’s always room for everyone to be involved.”

Crowd size matters, so people are urged to come and flesh it out. Stand around, kibitz, watch and sing. Speak on the open mike. Be a part of it. It’s fun.

On July 4, the entertainment was great. The Brass Liberation Orchestra, Tommi Mecca, The Homeless People, and the rap artist at the Sierra Hotel takeover were excellent performers. Poets Dee Allen and Lisa Tiny Gray-Garcia have heart and fire. The speakers are interesting. You’ll learn things you didn’t know. They’ll make you think and feel. They will inspire you.

Another important role nearly anyone can play is to be an eyewitness. Bring your cell phone or camera. Crain encouraged a woman from the Haight when she told him she wanted to take sideline photographs as an official witness.

Cameras are invaluable. At the Sierra Hotel doorway, at least six on-scene photojournalists and videographers documented an unprovoked SFPD assault by a male officer on a young man. The victim, who simply asked the police a question, was cited for obstruction of an officer and resisting arrest. The SFPD then released him. He is seeking legal counsel.

Such clashes at takeover sites are rare. Crain observed that in a peaceful “open house” that lasted 17 hours, this was a short 20-minute disturbance. Immediately after the incident, the officer in charge directed all police cars to vacate the area.

The occupiers remained in the hotel 14 more hours. They were awakened at 9:45 a.m. on July 5 by the SFPD station commander who ordered them out. Though he did not present the requisite papers signed by the owners, they chose to comply. Food Not Bombs then fed the activists a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and strawberries.

Organizers recognize the limited risk of police harassment and arrest. Depending on the individual and the situation, arrest can be a badge of honor, a minor hassle, or a danger. Tickets clog the system and are often dropped.

Meticulous planning is carried out to help protect the squatters. Advance researchers investigate the building’s entrances, exits, windows, escape routes. Sometimes, areas are barricaded.

The idea is to stay in the building as long as you can. I feel safe walking around and through occupation sites. I avoid potential problems by standing away from police. As a journalist, I have a right to video, film, and ask questions. I do this several feet back, projecting my voice. I keep my camera ready.

Because the police don’t have the legal right to kick occupiers out until they get a notice from the owner, it’s safe to stay inside, have fun and talk. Visitors even skateboarded and biked through Sierra Hotel halls and on the roof.

Occupiers continue to work on plans to undermine the mechanism of arrest.

According to the founding fathers’ blueprint in the U.S. Constitution, we are connected to a safety net that “provides for the general welfare.”

If Americans would begin to put humanity before property, the homeless people we pass on the street every day could have lives and futures in these currently vacant buildings.

Every level of shared participation helps redress this injustice by restoring this country, this democracy, this world.

Help make a strong statement: “We will take this back.” Join with others who are fed up having it all taken away.

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