Homeless women, activists take over empty house in San Francisco

Echoing Oakland’s Moms 4 Housing movement that took the Bay Area by storm last year, two homeless women and a group of activists briefly took over an empty house in San Francisco on Friday, demanding officials provide housing to everyone living on the streets.

The group, calling itself ReclaimSF, occupied the home on 19th Street in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood as the culmination of a May Day affordable housing protest. Police forced them out just a few hours later, but the activists promised they’d be back — and that they’d take over as many other houses as necessary to get all San Franciscans inside during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re not going away,” said Quiver Watts, a spokesperson for the group.

The two homeless women — Couper Orona, an out-of-work firefighter who has been living in an RV since her divorce almost five years ago, and Jess Gonzalez, a dog walker who has been living in her van since she was evicted a year ago — entered the house Friday afternoon. Orona said they didn’t force their way in — they walked in through an open side door.

They then hung a large banner in front of the house proclaiming: “End Homelessness. Reclaim San Francisco.” Supporters showed up wearing face masks, carrying signs and chanting “Fight fight fight. Housing is a human right” and “London Breed: Let them stay.”

San Francisco police showed up too. Dozens of officers surrounded the house and blocked the nearby streets with yellow tape, cutting off access to the scene. Police ultimately declared the protest an unlawful gathering and ordered the protesters to “disperse immediately.” A line of officers wearing face masks and holding batons began advancing away from the house, yelling “move out” as protesters slowly cleared the area.

As officers were trying to get people away from the house and outside the police tape, they pushed one woman to the ground and handcuffed her. She was holding a Chihuahua, which other protesters grabbed and took to safety.

Police eventually convinced the women squatting inside the house to come out as well. Orona, Gonzalez and one supporter came out peacefully after police threatened to break down the door with a battering ram, Orona said.

“I didn’t want them smashing that person’s door,” she said.

Officers first responded to the scene just before 12:30 p.m. due to a report of people blocking the street, according to PIO Adam Lobsinger. Once officers arrived, they determined people had entered an unoccupied residence and locked themselves inside. The incident was brought to a “peaceful conclusion” by 3:30 p.m., Lobsinger wrote in an email, and one person was cited and released for jaywalking, disobeying a lawful order and battery on a peace officer.

The activists took over the house after using real estate websites to determine it had been empty for at least three years, Watts said.

The house, which is owned by a trust, has sparked complaints in the past, according to city records. One filed on Feb. 26 reads: “Caller is making a complaint of blighted building at location. This house has been vacant for a couple years now. All the windows are open.”

City records also show the owner had pulled a building permit to remodel the house.

The speed with which San Francisco police quashed the ReclaimSF protest and threw the squatters out was a dramatic contrast to how authorities handled the Moms 4 Housing movement that started last November in Oakland. In that case, a group of homeless and insecurely housed women and supporters took over an empty house in West Oakland, garnering a massive amount of support from the community and even local and state officials, while law enforcement mostly stood by. It took two months before the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office evicted the women and arrested several of the squatters and their supporters.

In January, the owner of the West Oakland home — real estate investment company Wedgewood — agreed to negotiate to sell the property to the Oakland Community LandTrust. The groups have worked out a deal and should have a closing date by the end of the month, said Carrol Fife, regional director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which has been working with Moms 4 Housing.

She hopes to renovate the house and turn the first floor into a resource center for unhoused mothers, and have the mothers living upstairs.

“We will have the keys very soon,” Fife said. She said she couldn’t yet disclose the agreed-upon price.

The ReclaimSF activists said they were inspired by Moms 4 Housing, and that their cause took on new urgency as the coronavirus swept through the Bay Area.

“It’s pretty inexcusable to leave thousands of people on the street anytime,” Watts said. “But doing it during a pandemic is unconscionable.”

To Orona, who lost her job as a firefighter when she got injured and now lives on disability benefits, the house in the Castro represented home.

“That’s what I was hoping,” she said. “That I could have some structure. Some stability.”

Article source: https://www.mercurynews.com/homeless-women-activists-take-over-empty-house-in-san-francisco

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