Interview with Cheri Honkala
Cheri Honkala is a community activist who has spent her life fighting against poverty and homelessness. Honkala, who has been homeless herself, is running for Sheriff of Philadelphia with the Green Party, promising to refuse to evict individuals from their homes if elected. In an interview with Counterpoint’s Cole Stangler, she talks about her political vision, poverty and homelessness in the United States, and how her campaign is similar to the Occupy Movement across the country.
Why are you running for sheriff?
I’m running for sheriff because this next year there’ll be over a million new families that will lose their homes due to foreclosure and [because] every seven seconds in this country a family is losing their home. I intend to be the first sheriff in the country that runs on a platform refusing to throw families out of their homes.
Why have you chosen to do this with the Green Party? How did that come about?
Well, the Green Party came into my office and said if there’s anybody who could take this foreclosure issue to the national arena, it’s you Cheri after your twenty-five years of working on housing and anti-poverty issues in this country. I agreed with them and I chose the Green Party because it … doesn’t receive money from the banks and from corporations. I think in order to keep families in their homes and to truly be a people’s sheriff, it means not taking money from corporations and banks and [it means] making decisions on behalf of the people—not the banks, developers sand speculators.
You mentioned your background working on housing and anti-poverty issues. Could you talk a bit about the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign [which you founded] and what that’s all about?
I began as a formerly homeless mother—you know, I almost froze to death myself one night in an abandoned property—and I realized the importance of trying to … pick up where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left off and build a multiracial movement that’s led by actual poor and homeless people in this country. So that’s what I’ve been doing for twenty-five years, is teaching people how to build homeless encampments, take over abandoned houses, and do some of the similar occupy stuff that we see happening now in this country. And also really trying to concentrate on building the leadership of poor and homeless people themselves and trying to have them understand the politics behind homelessness and hunger and poverty in this country.
You were also homeless for some time. How did that experience influence your politics and how do you think it makes you different from, say, the typical politicians, the kind of people you’re running against?
One of the important things that I’ve learned is that if you’re inside the boxing ring, you shouldn’t have someone outside telling you how to punch. I think, for low-income people, for most of our lives, people have been writing from academia and other walks of life about what our experience is like—I think if we look if at history, people that have actually been in that [oppressed] situation have always played the biggest part in changing history. If we look at the civil rights movement, if we look at the women’s suffragette movement, whatever it is, if we’re serious about changing history, we’re serious about having the people that are most impacted in the forefront of that process.
I also don’t have any time to mess around. Basically, a candidate like myself, who’s a single mother—I live month to month—I never realized just how much money you have to have in order to run for political office. I’ve gone through a total loss of innocence since February and learned just how vicious people are about not wanting low-income people to get involved in the political process and not wanting them to get organized. And I’ve learned just how important it is—many years ago, I just quit anything having to do with electoral politics—now I really understand the need for some kind of independent third party in this country, whether it’s the Green Party or [another] party. We’ve got to get serious about building independent political motion in this country because our one party system in this country is responsible for killing us.
Going back to your platform…you have a pretty radical platform—for instance, you’re going to refuse to work with the ICE [Immigration Customs Enforcement] and then of course, you plan to refuse to evict anybody from their homes. Could you talk just briefly about both of those points, and how you came to adopt those positions?
For twenty five years now, I’ve watched the destruction of the family from ICE … A good friend of mine, she gave birth to her child, and the following day, her husband was deported to Honduras. We’re a country of immigrants. We live in a country that has plenty. There’s no reason that we have to continue to separate families and destroy workers who have been here for many years helping to build the wealth of this country.
I’ve also taken a position on community land trusts [in which] communities and neighborhoods should be in charge of deciding what happens to vacant land and vacant housing—so that developers and speculators can’t just come into neighborhoods, like in Philadelphia, where’s there’s 40,000 empty properties, and decide how to make some kind of profit out of it. It’s time that communities are controlled by people who have lived in those communities their entire lives so that they can do things like build recreation centers, and open more libraries and have community gardens.
And then on the foreclosures platform, I’m hitting people hard. I’m asking the clergy to step forward. And I’m asking unions and everybody else, in 2011, can’t we come together as a country and really understand that it really is archaic to make men, women and children homeless in a country that has this kind of wealth? We put people on the moon, we can build convention centers and stadiums, et cetera—why do we have to add to the homeless population in our wealthy country?
On that point, and then refusing to work with ICE, are you anticipating the legal consequences? Has this made you pause at all about it? What could happen if you start trying to enforce your platform?
Well, we’re gonna take this one thing one step at a time. And that’s why we need as [much] support as possible and that’s why many people across the country have been participating in this campaign as well. Because certainly, the banks and law enforcement and politicians who have a vested interest in not changing things in our country are probably…they’ll probably begin with trying to do the equivalent of an impeachment once I’m [elected]. It will still take some time for them. So who knows? It might start off with, first, I’m elected and then in the second stage, [it’s] free Cheri Honkala. But I think the issue we’re fighting for—keeping families in their homes—is far more important than the incarceration of one individual.
So you were at Occupy DC, Occupy Wall St. and the Philadelphia one too. Do you see your campaign as part of this struggle or as reflecting some of the same things going on there?
Absolutely. I see myself as an Occupy candidate if there is such a thing. Because I see myself as one of the 99 percenters, and like I said, I’ve been trying to connect the occupy movement in this country with families that are already occupying their homes—where families have been told that they have to leave their properties and give their homes back to the banks. And I’m encouraging people across the country to continue to stay in those homes, because the banks received billions of dollars to bailout the American people and they refused to do that—and until they come to the table and modify people’s loans after they received billions in taxpayer money, I believe families have a right to stay in those homes.