Welfare Activist Gets Probation For Independence Mall Camp Cheri Honkala Led The Housing Protest, Then Wouldn't Leave. She Saw The Action As Peaceful And Urgent.

Posted: November 10, 1995

Cheri Honkala, executive director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, was sentenced to six months of probation yesterday for refusing to leave the homeless camp her organization set up in Independence Mall in September.

After a short trial before U.S Magistrate Judge Arnold C. Rapoport, Honkala was found guilty of "residing in a park area." Rapoport also ordered her to pay a $250 fine.

Honkala, 32, pleaded not guilty to the charge. She admitted she set up the camp in the park, but argued that she and her homeless followers were seeking refuge and exercising their rights to free speech, and had not harmed the park during their day-and-a-half-long occupation.

Members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) - known for using unorthodox tactics in their fight for housing and other benefits for the poor - pitched tents near the Liberty Bell on Sept. 7, saying they feared that the city was preparing to evict them from their previous site, a lot at Fourth Street and Lehigh Avenue in West Kensington.

After spending one night next to the Liberty Bell, the campers agreed to take down their tents and, at the request of park officials, leave Independence National Historical Park. Only Honkala remained, allowing herself to be arrested in protest.

The homeless protesters returned to the West Kensington lot after that, but moved Sept. 17 into St. Edward the Confessor, an abandoned Catholic church in North Philadelphia, where - about 40 strong - they remain.

Jeffrey M. Lindy, Honkala's attorney, said the protesters moved to Independence Mall out of necessity. "They were about to be kicked off the lot in West Kensington by the city. They were seeking solace and refuge with the federal government, because the city certainly was turning a deaf ear to them," Lindy said after the trial.

Lindy said the offense is a Class B misdemeanor, the punishment for which could have been as much as six months in prison and a $500 fine.

Under the sentence, Honkala will be required to report weekly to a probation officer. The probation would be lifted if Honkala found employment, the judge said.

Honkala, who has a 14-year-old son, had her welfare benefits suspended last month. She said she was told that they would be reinstated when she supplied her welfare office with needed documents, such as birth certificates and Social Security numbers.

Honkala said the sentence - the most serious she has received in more than 40 arrests while demonstrating - was not fair. "All we were doing was seeking refuge and calling attention to the fact that we had homeless families with no place to go and the shelters were full," she said.

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