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Take Over Housing, Tear Down Jails

†(Video, 40 Minutes, San Francisco, 1993)

This article is a transcript of a documentary video produced by a member of the German Wildcat group and one of the people involved in producing the first issue of The Poor, The Bad And The Angry. Homes not Jails (HnJ) is an organization of homeless people and political activists who seize and squat unused buildings in San Francisco.

Part 1: Introduction

Homeless Cuban: You cannot stay in the bus station because, if they know that you have no place to stay, they kick your ass, twelve oíclock, one oíclock in the evening, if itís raining or whatever, you can not stay in the bus station. You are no bigger than no money at all and here everything is that: money. A lot of people arenít in the street cause they are bad people, they are in the street because the system pushes them into that situation.

Homeless Vietnam veteran: Iíve been here out on the streets since I came back from Vietnam. I was disabled when I came home from Vietnam and I have been fighting the government for 27 years.

Panhandler: Rent out here is too much for anybody. GA doesnít even cover rent. And about living in a hotel like on 6th Street, just stabbings, shootings, itís not worth it at all. So where do you usually sleep? I sleep in a park or in some shelter in San Mateo whenever I get a chance to get down there.

Homeless Cuban: Police, they donít help you, they kick you. They saw me twice walking around here. They pushed me against a wall, they searched me. They asked, what are you doing here. I asked them whether the color of my skin has anything to do with it.

Panhandling  woman: If you sit and hold a sign, its okay. But theyíve got the aggressive ones, people who follow you down the street, theyíve got a law against that.

Jason, shelter worker: Many homeless people, especially the ones that I deal with out in the Tenderloin do get a GA (General Assistance) check, that is a maximum amount of $347 per month. Older gentlemen may also get a social security or SSI check, that might bring their total as high as $718 per month. It is virtually impossible to find a hotel room for less than $80 a week. Therefore the cost of the hotel room is greater than the income from GA. Thatís going to put you back out on the street at least a week after you get your check, regardless of whether you spend it on food or drugs or alcohol or whatever. There is a cycle of dependency and need between getting your check, getting a hotel room for a few days. By that point you are so stressed out from living on the streets, that a certain amount of your check will go to food you might not otherwise have or alcohol or drugs and then you will be back on the street for the remainder of the two week period when checks come out again. I know that at the shelter I work at we see that cycle in terms of the level of violence and where people are at in their heads, depending on the day of the month.

Ted, Tenants Union: You either talk about numbers of say 8,000 homeless. There is a whole other category of what you could call near homeless or people on the verge of homelessness, people who are barely able to hang onto residential hotel rooms, which is kind of the last resort for housing in the city. And the number of people who are doubling up has increased - I forgot what the exact figure was but, the last census showed that it went up by 50 percent. And more and more people are just squeezing two people in a one-bedroom apartment, three people in a two-bedroom apartment. The difference between somebody who is homeless and on the streets and somebody who is living with a friend is just the difference that that friend had a small spare room or a couch you can sleep on. Itís a matter of luck. The average two-bedroom apartment rent is over $1,000 for a brand new place. Even if you are working a full-time job at minimum wage you are basically not able to pay that rent, never mind having money to pay for food or anything like that. The number of part time jobs has gone way up in recent years and even if youíre getting a decent wage, if youíre working 20 hours a week thatís the same wage as a minimum wage job.

Peter, ex-squatter & writer: In the late 70s when I was a Tenants Union organizer here, there were only a few thousand homeless people. The housing stock in San Francisco for an urban center was among the cheapest of cities in the US in terms of rental cost. Nowadays it is obviously one of the most expensive. Now, I would say, there are over 30,000 homeless people.

Ted: San Francisco right now has a relatively high vacancy rate.  About six percent of the apartments are for rent at this point, compared to past years when it was as low as one or two percent. I think partially that is because rents are so high, people are increasingly moving out of San Francisco. If you cannot afford the rent you can go across the bay, into Oakland, and get a similar place for sometimes almost half the cost. More and more people of moderate income, working, are finding that they have to move out of SF. Landlords will keep the places vacant rather than lowering the rent to attract new tenants cause they know that eventually those tenants will come back and they had to go through years to get the rents up to where they are right now.

Jason: I work at Multi Service Center North, that is at 1001 Polk and Geary. Our shelter capacity for men is approximately 100, for women 100, these are in beds. On any given night about 50% of those beds are case managed, which means you have a bed there for six months at a time, services of a case manager, substance abuse clinic, mental health clinic. At present there is no direct employment assistance. If you are on GA you give a certain percentage of your money to your case manager who will bank it for you until you get out. The idea is to put you back in the housing market with a job to let you run. The other 50 percent of the bed are given away nightly by lottery. People will get a ticket in the morning and come back and check their ticket. If their ticket won they get a bed, dinner and breakfast. Gentlemen may also get a shot at a floor space for the night. We give that away by lottery as well. We put 90 people on the floor every night. And thatís a hard floor, believe me. Try sleeping on the floor with a thin blanket. Iím not even talking about an army blanket, Iím talking about a thin square of woven nylon. I guess most days we give away about 350 tickets for men and about 75 tickets for women.

Young homeless woman: More men are homeless. Why do you think that is? Well, maybe because women have a little more precious commodity than men. No, what am I saying!?

Jason: If you are one paycheck away from homelessness, why is that? You are working 40 hours, man. If I worked for 40 years and then fell of a ladder and got hurt, and Iím on disability, SSI and GA, how come that I still cannot afford a house to live in, how come I still canít get treatment for my substance abuse problem thatís keeping me on the streets? How many paychecks are you away from being homeless? Exclude family and friends you could rely on. How many paychecks are you away? One?

Part 2: White Panthers (1978-84)

Peter, ex-squatter & writer: The first generation of squatters that I saw in SF was what I saw in the summer of 1978 and I permanently moved here in December of 1979. At that particular time there was a group called the White Panther Party, located on the lower blocks of Cole Street in the Haight Ashbury. The WP began squatting in that neighborhood in the early 1970s. Their political program was a complete replication of the Black Panther Party program in Oakland and other urban centers of the US. They were democratic centralists, with different forms of parliamentarian strains of activity and so on. What they did in the Haight Ashbury is, they took over several buildings that were unaccountably owned by absentee landlords. These buildings were inhabited at that particular time by masses of junkies, by masses of unorganizeable homeless people, who the White Panthers, like their black counterpart, would call the lumpens.   So what the White Panthers did, and they believed in armed struggle as well as being parliamentarians and democratic centralists, they took over these buildings, kicked out the junkies and laid claim and started barricading themselves inside. In order to create an authentic if not organic relationship with the neighborhood around there, again like their black counterpart, they created food distribution programs in the Haight Ashbury as well as other parts of the city that had neighborhoods where constituencies of very poor people lived. They distributed food at cost, wholesale food, thus creating a base of support for their program, much larger than the essential occupation of the buildings that they inhabited and occupied in the Haight Ashbury. They also tried to defend their position in these buildings through legal claim. I would not say they were homesteaders, because they were not legally trying to lay claim to the buildings, but they defended their rights as squatters to obtain possession of these buildings through the usage of the SF court system. What made the White Panthers different or distinct in terms of their social appeal was that they were working class. The leadership was working class and the cadre. Because like the Black Panther Party they appealed to the same class that they sprang from, as the Black Panther called it, the lumpenproletariat. That in society that was completely unorganizeable, those people who sprang from a working class background, who had dropped out of the working class milieu that they were born into, who were on the streets, homeless, who were out of the prisons, who were ex-drug addicts, who were - what we would call - of an outlaw nature in this society, who were no longer recuperable into mainstream dominant cultural matrixes.

Part 3: Squatters Anonymous (1982-86)

Peter: Squatters Anonymous began in November of 1982 and their activities became more public exactly ten years ago in February 1983 with a series of several public occupations in the Haight Ashbury. One particular building was at the southeastern corner of Haight and Masonic. The upper floors were completely occupied in a mass public media occupation in which hundreds of police came, dozens of journalists and hundreds of potential squatters and squatter supporters. This was what I would call the beginning of squatting mediafication or the mediafication of squatting. From the spring of 1983 until the end of 1984 various squats of an antiauthoritarian persuasion sprang up in SF, in the Mission District, the Haight Ashbury and in the South of Market. The most successful elements that were able to sustain their activity occurred in the South of Market. The second generation of squatting tended to lend itself in constituency towards a more obvious affluent class nature, which was: you could see there were a lot of middle class dropout kids coming to have an adventure in poverty in SF. The mediafication of the second generation, which is very interesting, cause most of these people as anarchists or of an antiauthoritarian persuasion, they were definitely children of the television generation and they couldnít separate political activity from the imagification of that political activity. It was hard to discern what was more important to this generation, the experience or the image of their very own activity, it was hard to discern, what they got more pleasure out of, doing the act or seeing their acts recorded and becoming an image on television, it was hard to discern what was more powerful, the act of occupying a building or seeing yourself at news late at night occupying the very same building, what became more important, yourself as a political component acting in an extra-legal fashion against the entire system of capital or seeing yourself on television being described as such. This created the collapse of many squats.  

Part 4: Comparison

Peter: There was leadership and cadre within the White Panther Party. There was a sense of democratic centralism which creates a hierarchical nature in an internal organisation: you have your leadership, you have your cadre, and, obviously, there is a permeable effect where power is coming from the top and being disseminated to the baseline, to the cadre who follow the orders that the leadership devises in all of its wisdom to hand down. The second generation attempted a sense of collectivism as a political program which manifested itself in a social and a daily sense as a form of communalism. What we would call the tactic of gaining an understanding in that collective sense was through the usage of consensus. In the long term the White Panthers, their life-span as squatters, armed squatters, standing up against any element, any form of authority that the city was throwing at them, both in the courts and on the streets, they were the most successful. Whether I agreed with what they were doing ideologically and organizationally is a completely separate issue, but they were very public, they were very successful, if for nothing else that their life-span was obvious to the people in the neighborhood, to the people in the city, the powers that controlled the city, the White Panthers literally stuck by their guns. The second generation for lack of an organized political program they came and went like the wind. The sense of commitment to squatting as part of a program of overall struggle against capital, against the free open market place of housing which again was creating so many homeless people, that was far less successful.

Part 5: Homes not Jails (since 1992)

Keith, Food not Bombs & HnJ: We took over the first building and we started planning for the public takeover of a building on Thanksgiving Day. That generated huge amounts of publicity and attention. And then we immediately started planning to take over houses covertly every week. After a regular scheduled meeting weíd all go out  afterwards and put a bunch of people into a house and then we planned the above-ground actions, which were public protests which we also carried out on Christmas and that was a siege for two days. We have three buildings right now. They have existed for quite some time, for over a month and a half. The meetings we had were from a low of about 30 up to 65 or 70 people. So [itís] a pretty large number of individuals. From the people in the buildings frequently not very many come to the meetings. A lot of people that we are housing are kind of a different population than those people who are organizing. The people who are being housed are people who have been living on the streets for a long time. Their interest is [in] being housed and not so much organizing and collective activity. They are typical of the average Americans. They donít have a background of political organizing or a point of view that there is something that people can do socially to ultimately result in bettering your life. They are not seeing their lives as being effected by overall societal patterns. They see themselves having no money, no place to live, and they see their own personal problems, so they are tackling the situation on that [level]. Itís kind of frustrating on some levels, although I have to say that the percentage of people in the squats that are politicized has increased, and the percentage of people that are politicized that are living on the streets in general, eating at Food not Bombs, that are becoming more politically sophisticated, that has increased over the years.

The media in America is corporate owned. They have their interest. Theyíve been relatively nice to Homes not Jails and have given us relatively sympathetic coverage. They could have been painting us as total outlaws steeling sacred private property and they really havenít done that. A lot of that has to do with the fact, that there is no real ideological point of view that people are able to attach themselves to even in the mainstream at this point. Basically, a lot of the pretense that capitalism was obviously the best type of economic system, that ownership of private land was sacrosanct, as the former mayorís coordinator for homeless said,... the ruling class isnít that totally clear on what it is going to do and hasnít come up with an idea itself for housing the homeless. And so I think they treated us nicely and relatively fairly.

Homes not Jails has gotten so much media it has been a drag on the group on some level. It has pulled in a lot of people and we have a large name recognition. A lot of people understand exactly the principle we are trying to get across. I think that is really great. Our meetings have tended to focus on debates around the media and in fact up until last week there was a real drain on our meetings and a real drain on our ability to organize and to deal with issues like drugs in the squats or with expanding the clandestine parts of our program or even getting started on any kinds of trying to take over buildings that are so bad off that we need to get grants to fix them. Basically, so far we raised $50 since October and we still have people in three houses. We actually housed more people than the city and county of SF has in that period of time with our fifty bucks.

Jason, shelter worker, HnJ: I donít know who started HnJ or when. I came into the organization about two and a half months ago. The way I found out about the organization was very simple: there was a flyer posted at the shelter. So I put the number down and I called it and I went to the next several meetings. This was something that I thought was extremely important. It is important to me for a number of reasons: One: Iím a substance abuse addict and formerly homeless myself. I spent a considerable period of time on the streets, using, and I know about the cycles of use and dependency that are involved. Two: I work with homeless people every day, I have to be hard with them. I have to be hard with my brothers on the street and have to say, Iím sorry but we have no room tonight. And worse than that, I have to say, sorry sir, you didnít play our lottery, you did not call at 10:15 to find out whether we have space or not. I have to turn you away, you are 65 years old and itís raining out there. HnJ is an organization that is on the face of it an consensually run organization, that means that it is run by an ultra-democratic process. I say on the face of it because it is and it is not actually run this way. Thatís because there are different action groups within HnJ that commit themselves to specific actions and then go out and do them. Those actions are not necessarily individually approved by the group nor are the action groups specifically set up as action group committees with group sanction. So certain kinds of decisions get submitted to the group and other kinds of actions get taken over by individuals in the group. Itís really very much like that old Marxist dictum: From each according to his needs - to each according to his means or something like that. It operates on what skills you have and where you put yourself and what you can do and who you are than any kind of set roles. If there was a legal instrument that said all you have to do is live in abundant structures and pay the taxes, pay the utility bills and you own it, than we would have power, than you would see a lot fewer buildings because landlords would be scared we would be taking them. But every one of these houses that we have now, donít fool yourself, if the landlord swears out a trespassing warrant, the people in those houses will be evicted, will be removed at three in the morning and they will hear the policemen at the door. We donít have the power to deter that yet. Weíve come to negotiated compromises with some owners and we are living in the vacuum [where] they donít know what is going on. Some of them donít know, some of them owe too much money, some of them donít care anymore about their houses. Those are our ideal sorts of squats.

Ted, Tenants Union, HnJ: One of the most exciting things about it has been that homeless people, previously homeless people who are in HnJ are doing most of the work these days. When new buildings are being opened up itís people from the squats who are actually breaking into the buildings, who are turning on the utilities, who help and support new squats. When a new squat gets opened up, then one from the older squats will go over to that squat and help them turn on the gas, turn on the electricity. We have had situations where the police have come and the people in the squat have been savvy enough to deal with the police and say, look come on in and take a look around, yeah we are not supposed to be here but this used to be a crack house and look, how we fixed it up, and having a police tour and them seeing that now there is furniture and people have lights and they are reading books. The same police have been in there a month ago and saw people smoking crack, saw needles and just trash. In those cases the police have chosen not to call the landlord and just let the people live there. I think a lot of our support in the community has come because people saw that we were not just marching, we were not just protesting in front of City Hall, we were actually taking people off the streets and putting them into houses. We were making a political point, but at the same time we were actually doing something.

Part 6: Polk Street Squatters

Female homeless punk #1: Some squats were really organized. We had squats where we had squat meetings and it went smooth. We had 40 people living in one building and we had squat meetings and rules, but it wasnít like Nazi rules. It wasnít like no drinking. You could do your own thing, you just shouldnít interfere with other people doing their thing. It was really cool and worked well. And that was weird, cause at that point there were 40 percent junkies and the rest were all alcoholics and all got along. People fought, but it wasnít anything that we couldnít handle. I donít want any rules except for what me and my friends decide on. I donít want outside influence. Anybody can open a squat, thatís easy. You just find an abundant building and there are so many ways to get in. If you want to be inside, youíll be inside. People just feel that they have to pay money for anything in this world. People are weird, they donít like to accept free things. I donít care if itís free or if I have to pay for it. Well, I get it somehow. People are also seeing that they have to give money over for a VCR. They are not just giving their money over, they are giving their lives over because they go to work every day for that money. They donít want to go to work cause you hear them bitching, ooh, I donít want to go, but they are doing it just so they can have some stupid box to stare at. Not me, man. Some squats, you open them and you get three nights out of them, some squats, you think you get three nights and you get a month and a half. I only got arrested once and that was, I was arrested in the squat, but it was not for squatting. They thought the squat was a heroin ring and so they took twelve males and two females down to 850 Bryant. They booked us, but they had to drop the charges cause it was a bunch of bullshit. They were totally off. They are stupid. They think that they know what they are talking about: When cops come into a squat theyíll always ask, ďWhoís the head person, who is the boss, the manager?Ē And itís like: You are so far off, you donít even understand, man. We are totally against any kind of authority over anyone. And then they expect it, and we say that no one is, and they wonít believe it. I donít see why they canít comprehend that fact. Then they look at either the weirdest looking person or the one with the most piercings, whatever, and then for some reason the assume that that is the boss or whoever.

Female homeless punk #2: How long have you been homeless? Since I was eleven. How old are you now? Seventeen. How did you start being homeless? I kept running away and then my mom just said, basically,...donít come back. Where have you usually stayed for the last six years? Sometimes it was at relativesí houses, sometimes it was at friends. Most of the time I squat. Cause I refuse to be part of the system, I refuse to go to a group home or a treatment program. I choose this over the system. Whatís wrong with the system? Itís basically just fucked, excuse my language, but itís not right.


Part 7: Statements

Homeless Vietnam veteran: If all the people in this country get together, we refuse to go to work and we start to refuse to do all this stuff, we let the rich man go down to the store and he canít get his damned gasoline and he canít get the rest of his shit. I believe, itís time for the poor man and middle-class man to tell the rich man, weíre tired of your bullshit and start kicking their ass.

Jason: I donít think property matters shit when people are out in the rain.

Keith: This is crazy, we can squat. Why are we paying this rent?

Panhandling Woman: Thatís ridiculous, I mean, paying rent.

Peter: I donít even think people understand the difference between homesteading and squatting. I donít think people even know, that one is in complete philosophical defiance of the law and will never bow down to the law and the other yearns to become legal, to become part of the system. I think also, more catastrophically, is the use of the media. Squatters have no use for media and never will. The media is simply an extension of the ideological machine of capital. The media purports images of capital and squatting is in complete defiance of that. The only way we can actually use the media to our own benefit is to completely disavow the presence of corporate media and to make our own. And if we donít have the means to make our own documentation and archiving of our experiences then fuck it, itís not worth it, better to get on with the act of gaining the houses and keeping them. And forget the false idea of trying to build mass support from the community via corporate television image making processes and devices. If you know the local politicians in the city, you know that there is a sense of complete nepotism. These people are absolutely corrupt bastards. To negotiate with them in any form or fashion is an absolute tactical and strategic abnegation of the very reason why people squat in the first place. These people will use any and all means through the ages of SFís bankrupt liberal tradition to appropriate squatting for their own political devices, to enhance their own careers as politicians in this city.

Homeless Cuban: Well, if Iím going to wait for the government or the system to pull me out of this situation, I think, Iím going to be homeless for the rest of my life.