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Community Advocacy and Support by and for Young Mothers

Welfare Warriors by Emily Lauer

Cheri Honkala and KWRU: Poverty Warriors
by Emily Lauer

Cheri Honkala has high aspirations. She is leading a battle for
economic human rights for all people worldwide. Honkala is the director of
the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and the National spokesperson for the
Economic Human Rights Campaign. Honkala lives in Kensington, Philadelphia,
one of the most impoverished areas in the city, with a high population of
homeless people. Cheri became an activist and founded the Kensington
Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) because she felt that as a poor, homeless mother
herself, she “had no choice,” she told abcnews.com readers in a live chat.
Honkala has helped build a “worldwide movement to end poverty, led by the
poor.” which is now one of the most high-profile economic rights groups in
the country. Whether there has been a decrease in homelessness since KWRU’s
inception is not yet clear. However, it is clear that through KWRU Honkala
is helping publicize the often silenced voices of poor and homeless people
in America.

As a poor, single teenage mother, Cheri was determined to make the
world a better place for her child. She became pregnant with her son, Mark
Weber, when she was seventeen years old. They were homeless for much of his
childhood. Mark is now a successful actor, appearing in movies such as Snow Day, 10 Things I Hate About You and White Boys, yet is still active in the fight for economic rights of those less fortunate than he has become. In an online interview with abcnews.com
Mark attributed his strength to actualize his dream of becoming an actor to
his mother. He said that when he and his mother were living on the streets
he was ashamed to tell anyone at school that he had no place to live, but
his mother instilled in him “that it was awful that we were homeless and
not to be ashamed,”. Mark met other homeless children through his mothers
activism and realized that he was not the only child suffering, and that he
needed to do something about it.

KWRU’s mission is to end poverty and homelessness in the United States
where families with children are becoming homeless faster then any other
segment of the population. KWRU implements a number of non-violent tactics
in the fight against poverty and homelessness, including marching protests,
raising public money to provide emergency temporary housing for homeless
families who cannot find room in a shelter, erecting tent-villages in
abandoned lots and hosting “poverty workshops”, moving homeless people into
condemned or abandoned federally owned buildings, and negotiating with
political officials to provide hotel vouchers for the homeless (KWRU.com,
Jan. 2002).

In December of 2000, Honkala and other homeless people moved into the
Philadelphia Convention Center and set up a “living room” complete with
couches and a Christmas Tree, to demonstrate the lack of housing for
families around the holidays. Seven of the demonstrators had been squatting
in abandoned HUD houses and were evicted. During the same time period KWRU
also organized a sit-in with sixty-plus protesters at Philadelphia’s City
Council building. This time, they were protesting emergency shelter waiting
lists, “There shouldn’t be a waiting list. We have more abandoned houses
then we have homeless people. Something’s wrong,” Honkala argued. Nine
people including Cheri spent the weekend in jail.

Cheri helped to organize “The March For Our Lives” which took place in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Cheri and her fellow
poverty activists’ message addressed issues affecting low-income people in
the USA, including globalization of our economy, welfare reform, and the
lack of living wages. “Real homeland security is feeding, clothing and
housing ourselves and our children” Honkala stated in a speech during the
Olympics. This message is even more important for our government and the
public to hear now in these times of "terrorist warnings," with the Bush
administration planning to spend trillions of our dollars on killing Iraqis
and ousting supposed terrorist dictators. We all know far too well the effects that
budget cuts (due in great part to increased military expenditures) will have
on social services we need to maintain our families’ survival and stability.

Honkala and four other activists were arrested and jailed while in
Salt Lake City for failing to comply with approved protest areas.
Non-violent civil disobedience and direct action are Honkala’s main tactics
for fighting poverty. She purposefully puts herself in positions to be
arrested to send a message. In the above case Honkala said to the media,
while being forced into police custody, “Poor exist in America, tell the
whole world!” KWRU’s education director, Willie Baptist, a homeless man
himself, responded to media questions about the protest by saying that
“While the Olympics is something to be respected, the lives of people are
something to be respected.”

KWRU has developed allies across the globe with other groups working
to radically change the lives of homeless people at a grass roots level.
One such group, Las Acerolas in Puerto Rico, has helped over 8000 families
claim government owned land that was abandoned after Hurricane Hugo. These
homesteaders have now become official owners of these illegally acquired
homes. Los Acerolas and many other groups attended the Poor People’s World
Summit to End Poverty, organized by KWRU and held at a church in New York
City. This summit stood apart from others because “it [was] poor people
working on behalf of poor people”.

KWRU also is partnered with an anti-globalization group from El
Salvador called CRIPDES (Communities for the Development of El Salvador) to
bring to attention the harm that the Free Trade Agreement of The Americans
will bring to the poor to all countries.
“...when poor people in the United States and... in El Salvador both say,
‘this is no good for us,’ then it leads people to ask, ‘who is the Free
Trade Agreement of the Americas good for?’ The answer, of course, is that
it is good only for those who would exploit us,” explained Lorena Martinez,
president of CRIPDES.

Cheri Honkala continues to fight for the rights of poor people around the
world. Activism plays center role in her life, “for me, and people like me,
this is fuel,”. For the sake of our country’s poor people I hope her fuel
does not run out. Recently Honkala and members of KWRU toured the United
States by bus, stopping in poor areas across the nation to organize and
unite with other activists.

For the most up to date information on KWRU’s
current focuses go to their web site at http://www.kwru.org