The 11th Hour Activism Before Philly Sheriff’s Sales
Around 4:30 Monday afternoon, anti-poverty activist and Sheriff candidate Cheri Honkala stands outside Acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley’s Center City office. The veteran protester is joined by her son, Guillermo Santos, and a handful of supporters. She tells members of the press, some onlookers and passers-by that some day, she hopes we’ll all “live in a country that will make it against the law to throw families out on the streets, where people will stand up and say something.” She points at the office and tells the crowd that although 2,000 homes will be sold in sheriff’s sale the next day, “they haven’t even dealt with the corruption yet, in this office,” referring to $53 million the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t been able to account for.
On Tuesday, the much-put-off sheriff’s sales took place and Honkala wanted to make sure everyone knew about it. So she planned a “Sleep Out” in front of First District Plaza at 3801 Market St., where about 2,000 homes were to be—and were—auctioned off. According to Honkala, she and her supporters from the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign would demonstrate all night and sleep outside the building, to let the city know about the $105 million in federal funds allocated for Pennsylvania, which finally came through—after a months-long ordeal—on April 1.
“We want people to know there’s a program in Philadelphia now,” she says, referring to the Emergency Homeowners Loan Program, which could help residents stay in their homes. “Thanks to the work of Senator Bob Casey’s office and Bob Brady and some others who fought to make it happen…but it’s not enough. Homes are still going to be sold and we expect to be the first ones in line tomorrow to bid for these properties.”
Around 5:45, Honkala parks her van next to a PPA kiosk on 38th Street in West Philly. She and the van’s crew join 11 others in front of the building and are immediately met by wary security guards. Visibly angered and dressed in black, the guards tell them to stay off the entrance path outside the Plaza. By 6:05, two police cars and an SUV are blocking the bike line in front of the Plaza. Fifteen protesters, three cops.
Honkala walks up to the first officer—a large, smiling, bald man—and shakes his hand. “I just told him, we’re OK here, I think looking around, you can see there won’t be a riot,” she says after making her way back to the larger group: PPEHRC members, a busload of volunteers from the New Jerusalem drug and alcohol facility and Liberty Resources volunteers.
A couple minutes later, a middle-aged woman with curly red hair rolls down the window of her sedan, apparently noticing signs reading “Keep people in their homes” and “No sheriff’s sales.”
“What can I do to help?” she asks the group, the light at 38th Street still red.
“You can bring us some food if you want,” answers Honkala.
She looks flustered. “I mean, is there a website or something I can go to?”
“Economic human rights dot org,” says Honkala, hands cupped around her mouth.
After some private conversation between the cops on the scene, one comes back and assures Honkala and her supporters they have the right to be there. “I don’t see anyone getting out of hand here,” he says. “Civil Affairs might show up around seven just to check up.”
At 6:41, volunteer Tara Colon attempts to bring one of the children on the scene inside to use the bathroom. The security guard opens the door slightly, then slams it shut, locking it, shaking his head. “For her!” Colon says, pointing to the child. He folds his arms.
One supporter from New Jerusalem, Breanna Dillon, says she supports demonstrations such as this one put on by Honkala because, “She’s the people’s person,” she says. “She came from the bottom up and she’s been through a lot and she stands for people like us.” Some admittedly don’t have a full grasp of the Philadelphia housing situation, they say, but often go where Honkala does, says one, to “add numbers and have a voice for justice.”
As the sun begins setting, pizza money is gathered. It’s still sunny at 7, but the overnight forecast calls for heavy rain.
They begin letting people into First District Plaza a little after 9 a.m. Long lines form on the third floor—we’re all patted down, frisked, metal-detectored and, well, violated.
As soon as the first sales were to begin, Honkala gets up in front of the couple hundred people waiting to bid, and tosses Monopoly money up in the air, referring to the funny money as “the people’s bailout”—a direct ‘fuck you’ to the federal government, which, mind you, handed out funds to banks within days, while EHLP funds for homeowners, which make up 1/700th of what was given out to Chase, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Wachovia and others, have taken months.
She’s escorted out. The guy behind me lets out a snorted chuckle. The PPEHRC follows. Together they walk down the three flights chanting, “Banks bailed out, people thrown out.”
Image: Ryan Strand