Taking Over Houses To Bring Home A Point

Posted: July 15, 1988

About 30 abandoned houses in Philadelphia and the region were claimed by the homeless yesterday as part of a nationwide housing takeover that called for affordable housing and pressed for passage of major housing legislation.

In the region, the homeless and their advocates broke into abandoned houses, demonstrated and set up tent cities, and some were arrested or dared arrest as part of the national squatting campaign to "take off the boards"

from abandoned buildings.

The actions, in a total of 61 cities, were part of Homeless Action Day to spur passage of the Affordable Housing Act currently proposed in Congress. The legislation calls for $15 billion a year to create affordable housing and would also release funds to renovate existing homes. The chief sponsor of yesterday's protests was the Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington.

The script to convert homeless people into squatters was followed in Phildelphia, Camden and Chester.

About two dozen protesters took over nine Veterans Administration properties in Philadelphia, said Leona Smith of the National Union for the Homeless. At one house in the Olney section, three people were taken into custody by police for questioning, but were later released.

In Chester, 10 were arrested and charged with trespassing, conspiracy and resisting arrest after breaking into a house owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They were later released on their own recognizance.

In Camden, two homes were broken into and an additional 15 to 20 were quietly claimed by squatters.

Most of those involved in the takeover lay or sat down in the middle of State Street in North Camden, stopping traffic for 15 minutes when demands to meet with officials went unanswered.

In another form of protest, the Newark (N.J.) Coalition for Low-Income Housing sued the Newark Housing Authority for planning to demolish old public housing projects without establishing plans for alternative or replacement housing.

In Washington, about 140 people, singing "This Land is Your Land," briefly blocked the south entrance to the U.S. Capitol grounds. Police arrested 44 people.

Many wore blue T-shirts with the names of children who live at Washington's Capital City Inn, a run-down motel where numerous families live on government assistance.

In Philadelphia, the takeover was relatively tame.

There were no arrests, but Leona Smith said three people who entered a house at 20 Rockland St. in the Olney section were taken into custody by police and later released. Protesters promised to return by 5 p.m. to retake the house, but only plainclothes police sitting in an unmarked car returned.

The protesters used crowbars to break into some of the properties, Smith said.

She said the protesters who occupied the houses planned to stay in them indefinitely. "In some of them, there is no piping, no electricity, et

cetera. But it beats being out on the street."

In Camden, police and protesters engaged in a day-long standoff as a crew of about 15 people crashed into two homes and demanded to meet with city officials to lobby for more programs for the homeless.

Dust coated the squatters as they snapped off plywood nailed up by the Concerned Citizens of North Camden to preserve unprotected abandoned houses.

Shouting "Take off the boards!" they entered two homes in the 500 and 600 blocks of State Street and claimed them for the homeless.

Police arrived, looking confounded, as the protesters shouted: "Homes, not shelter."

At noon, the Leaven House soup kitchen from North Camden served food in front of one of the houses in the 500 block of State Street as police looked on.

At 3:45 p.m. about 10 protesters sat down on the middle of the street, one lying down, to coerce city officials to meet with them. Meanwhile, residents directed traffic that had been diverted from one of Camden's busiest drug corners.

Police eventually convinced the protesters to stay off the street and in the house.

"There are some of us that want some sort of life," said Ullysees Mitchell, 41, who became homeless four years ago. "I don't want to be a street person. I don't want to live in a shelter."

Although elsewhere, some residents said they agreed with the housing takeover, in Chester, residents did not lend support.

They called the police when 16 protesters broke into a house in the 300 block of East 20th Street in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in the northeast part of the city, where there is little abandoned housing.

"I think they all need to go out and get a job and work to buy a house, and not break into houses," said Ayn Powell, who lives across the street from the house.

"The neighborhood is already going down as it is," she said.

But protesters saw it differently. "By coming into a nice neighborhood in Chester, we dramatize that housing is not just a problem in the ghettos, but a problem everywhere," said Terry Rumsey, a community activist. "If we don't do something, these nice neighborhoods are going to be ghettos, too."

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