Homeless mothers find shelter as protest meets pizza

Yesenia Cruz, 33, a homeless woman who took part in a protest on behalf of women looking for placement in the city's shelter system, slept Thursday morning during a sit in at a city office. Alfred Lubrano/Staff
Yesenia Cruz, 33, a homeless woman who took part in a protest on behalf of women looking for placement in the city's shelter system, slept Thursday morning during a sit in at a city office. Alfred Lubrano/Staff
Posted: August 24, 2013

After sleeping two nights on a Center City sidewalks to protest a lack of shelter beds, a group of homeless women and their children intensified the drama Thursday morning by taking over part of a city office.

Their activist leader expected to be arrested by noon. Instead, the women and children were served pizza, then offered places in shelters by midafternoon.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," Cheri Honkala said triumphantly.

City spokesman Mark McDonald countered, "Her point was to engage in publicity. That is her mode of operation."

Around 20 women and children - including Georgianna Lawton, 33, and her son, Sincere, 19 days old - slept Tuesday and Wednesday nights on the sidewalk outside a building on Juniper Street where women requesting shelter are processed by the city.

As though seeking a metaphor to illustrate their predicament, several of the families were awakened by a rainstorm Wednesday night and took cover beneath the Grumman Greenhouse statue of a crashed plane beside the nearby Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The women said that they were turned away for shelter at the processing office because the city's 1,500 beds in 11 family shelters were filled.

Often during mid- to late August, homeless women look to find places in shelters so their children can have a stable place while they attend school, experts on homelessness say. The surge creates a logjam that is difficult to manage, advocates say.

The city long has been criticized by advocates as not being as vigilant in August to house the homeless as it is during the frigid winter months.

By 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the women had decamped and commandeered chairs in the reception area of the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity on the seventh floor of a city building on Buttonwood Street.

Honkala had chosen the office for her sit-in because it is the site of the newly established Shared Prosperity Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter's effort to combat poverty. Her point was to challenge the city's latest commitment to help the poor, she said.

Expecting police officers to arrest her, Honkala may have underestimated Shared Prosperity's executive director, Eva Gladstein, antipoverty experts later said privately.

Gladstein herself had led sit-ins in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the city as part of the Tenants Action Group to secure decent housing for the poor.

"There is no way Eva would have called the cops," one activist who did not want to be identified said.

Gladstein instead bought pizza, had her staff hand out water, then gave the children crayons, which they used to color their mothers' protest signs.

Gladstein, who declined to be interviewed, then had staff members perform intake paperwork to allow the women placement in shelters.

Honkala said the women had already filled out intake forms during their street protest Tuesday and Wednesday.

McDonald strongly disagreed, saying none had completed the proper forms. Rather, they had used the time to "yell and scream" and "interrupt people's work" in the intake office, he said.

Regardless of who is right, shelter beds that had been unavailable to the women opened up by the afternoon.

Addressing the women, Gladstein said that if they had gone through proper channels, they would have gotten the beds anyway. Her implication was that the protest hadn't pried loose the shelter spots.

Honkala scoffed at that later, saying that by protesting, the women had "sent a message that was heard."

"We don't believe the bed scarcity thing. If the city needs to find extra beds, especially for families, they can," she said.

Joe Willard, vice president of People's Emergency Center, a North Philadelphia shelter that took in six women and 11 children from among the protesters, indicated that the women's actions had an effect.

"If the families weren't sleeping in the street those two nights, we would not have stopped everything we were doing" and found places for the women, Willard said.

He said that on Thursday, the center put some of the women in an empty room that had been set up as a future site for homeless teenagers. Center officials also moved families living in the shelter to a transitional housing program in other locations, freeing up space.

When they learned that they would be placed in shelters, a few of the women started crying and thanking Honkala. After huddling together, the women shouted, "Everybody or nobody," as a cry of solidarity.

No one was certain how long the women would be housed, although two - including Lawton, with her baby and the four other children she has - were given transitional housing, which can last for years, Honkala said.

"It does make my heart happy," Honkala said.

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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