The “house keys not handcuffs” signs are gone as are the sounds of guitars and the people hanging out on the roof of the vacant 42-unit building in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, home to Latino immigrants, artists and radical activists. Not to mention homeless folks who make their bed on the streets because the price of housing is so outrageous. One could also describe it as immoral.
On July 4, Homes Not Jails, a group formed in 1992 that advocates “for the use of vacant and abandoned housing for people who are homeless,” led a group of protesters from Dolores Park, where the San Francisco Mime Troupe had just finished its annual free performance of an original, radical-themed play, to the abandoned 42-room hotel at 20th and Mission.
At the site, people went inside to check out the building as the Brass Liberation Orchestra, which led the march, finished up its rousing musical set. The rooms and halls were stripped bare, but from the looks of them they could easily be made livable again with some fresh paint on the walls and refinishing on the worn wooden floors.
Gaining access to the roof, some of the demonstrators decided to take advantage of the late afternoon sun. It was a beautiful summer day in San Francisco, with temperatures in the 70s. No fog was in sight. It promised to be a warm night, a perfect one for watching fireworks from the top of the building. Which is exactly what some people did.
I stayed around for a while, singing two of my songs, one appropriately entitled “Redistribute the wealth.”
I missed the arrival of the boys and girls in blue, who, from the accounts I’ve heard, roughed up one of the protesters and then arrested him because he tried to block them from going into the building. As I understand it, the police can’t evict squatters from inside a vacant building until they have a signed trespassing complaint from the owner. At that point, they didn’t have one so by right they should have left the squatters alone until they did.
The occupation ended peacefully the next morning, but the issues raised by demonstrators will not go away anytime soon. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently 30,000 vacant housing units in San Francisco, and 10,000 homeless people on the streets. It doesn’t take a math genius to see that every homeless person could easily be housed three times over.
The solution is obvious: allow people to squat in buildings that have been left vacant for a certain period of time.
According to Robert Neuwirth, author of Squatter Cities, a billion people worldwide are squatters. That's a lot of human beings who would otherwise be without some form of shelter. Countries across the globe are grappling with the issue of squatting in various ways. In some places, there are squatting households that have been going on for years or laws that allow people to legally own a place after occupying it for a number of years.
Wikipedia reports that in 2002, New York officials gave 11 buildings with squatters to a nonprofit that will now form cooperatives owned by the tenants.
With a record number of foreclosures last year and more predicted this year, squatting could become an attractive alternative to homelessness, even by folks who may never have considered it.
It’s simply immoral to allow buildings to remain unoccupied when so many people are in need of a home.