Activist and former homeless mother promotes poverty awareness

Homelessness is a major national issue, as well as a local one in the city of Rochester. That is why the Social Work Department at the College at Brockport brought Cheri Honkala to campus to speak about her firsthand experience as both an activist and former homeless mother.

“I’ve lived a very surreal kind of life,” Honkala said. “I live in, like you guys do, one of the richest places in the entire world and I consider myself to be fairly educated and smart and resourceful and yet I found myself living in a car with my 9-year-old son driving around trying to figure out where I was going to sleep on any given night.”

To prevent herself and her son, Mark Webber, from freezing, she began taking over abandoned government properties, like vacant houses.

“In all the houses in the winter time in the north, they keep the heat on because they think it’s important that the pipes don’t freeze, yet there’s no place for human beings and children,” Honkala said. “It’s OK to, like, let a kid be outside and freeze to death or the homeless …  in the winter time but we keep the heat on in abandoned properties and then we pay people to monitor and make sure those abandoned properties stay vacant in the winter time … I think it’s dysfunctional.”

Honkala was often kicked out of these houses and sent to jail. As a poverty advocate, she has been arrested more than 200 times. Honkala said her son always had a bag of quarters so when she was arrested, he could call friends to help take care of him and her release. According to Honkala, after being released from jail, she would move right back into these vacant spaces.

“Soon, I learned what I was beginning to be a part of creating was something that was called ‘organization,’” Honkala said. “You can’t really do anything or get anything done without other people.”

With growing support and organization amongst the poor, Honkala began teaching families across the U.S. how to move into abandoned heated homes, setting up homeless encampments and created leadership amongst the ranks of the poor. According to Honkala, she helped build what she calls the “modern-day underground railroad,” in order to  find ways to keep families together and create a movement of poverty awareness.

Honkala was separated from her family at a young age, to which she attributes to much of her passion for raising awareness for these issues.

“When I was growing up, it was during a period of history that they didn’t have battered women shelters,” Honkala said. “Instead of them saying, ‘Let’s figure out a place for your mom to live and let’s deal with the fact that she’s never worked outside the house and help her figure out how to manage a checkbook,’ they separated myself from my brother and my sisters.”

She spent most of her childhood moving from one institution and foster home to another trying to reunite with her family. Honkala now works with families across the country to try to ensure these children of parents who have low-wage jobs or are impoverished and can’t pay their mortgages or have a lack of food are not immediately taken from their families. She sees a better solution.

Along with impoverished parents and their children, Honkala will sit outside Philadelphia homeless shelters to fight for their rights as well as raise awareness for these issues. Many times, Honkala is criticized by these homeless shelters and social workers who say she is putting the children in danger of being taken by social services.

“So what am I supposed to do at that point?” Honkala said. “Pretend like you’re the mom, ‘um excuse me, like, you’re going to take my child?’ Do you think separating kids from their moms, when they’re good moms, is a good thing to do?”

Honkala believes these families have been abandoned by both the government and the social services system.

“Do you really believe in any part of the country that or here in Rochester … do you think that there’s absolutely no place for those people to go?” Honkala said. “There are places, so why are they outside? … Last time I looked, there are lots of buildings here in Rochester, lots of churches. … [It] is not the right response [to say], ‘There’s just no place for these folks to go and that it’s OK for people to freeze to death, particularly children in the winter time, and die.’ So I think we have a responsibility to not only follow your code of ethics but to speak up and say something about it.”

To help fight homelessness, Honkala, along with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, of which she is the National Coordinator, trains and educates the homeless on their rights and how to reclaim vacant lots. She organizes groups of the homeless and impoverished into “Tent Cities,” one of which is in North Philadelphia and another called “Sanctuary Village” here in Rochester.

“I do that all over the country,” Honkala said. “Number one, they need warmth and they need it now, and it’s good that they are staying together in a tent city because that’s where their power comes.”

She has tips for anyone interested in helping the homeless, especially those in the Sanctuary Village in Rochester. She suggests getting scrap wood, nails and a tarp together to build a structure with cots and blow heaters to keep them warm.

“What you’re doing is you’re literally preventing people from dying,” Honkala said. “… that would be the best holiday gift.”

Sanctuary Village is located underneath the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridge in downtown Rochester. If anyone is interested in raising money, supplies or awareness for the homeless in Rochester and nationally, they can contact the college’s Photographic Services Manager Matthew Yeoman or social work adjunct professor Melissa Sydor, who are making efforts to sustain Sanctuary Village and find permanent homes for its inhabitants.

Original Source: The Stylus