Occupied Territory : Homeless Advocates Seek to Make Point With U.S.


Charles Johnson arrived at the boarded-up duplex on West 17th Place with only the layered clothes on his back and a bag he stitched together, stuffed with notebooks of poetry he has written about his life on the streets.

"Ah, it's good to have a place where I can open up the door and say, 'I'm home,' " Johnson said, throwing his bag down on the stained linoleum floor.

How long the duplex remains his home depends entirely on the generosity of the landlord: the U.S. government. With the help of homeless advocates, Johnson and three other transients took some bolt cutters to the place in Los Angeles' Pico-Union district and illegally moved in.

The break-in was part of a statewide effort Monday to force the federal government to turn over abandoned government-owned buildings to the homeless, as required by the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

"This is an act of civil disobedience," said Rob Leonard, a member of the California Homeless Network, which organized the Los Angeles break-in. "Yes, we are trespassing on federal property, and that's a crime. But it's also a crime that these buildings are left vacant."

In all, about a dozen structures owned by the federal government were simultaneously taken over by the homeless coalition from Long Beach to San Francisco.

The Los Angeles duplex has been owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the past six months in a neighborhood with some of the city's most entrenched social problems, including drugs and gangs. The coalition chose this particular abandoned property--surrounded by a chain-link fence with a single red rose bush on the front lawn--because of its proximity to the HUD office, where organizers first staged a rally and news conference.

While advocates tacked up signs urging HUD to "cut the red tape," some nearby residents expressed anger over their new neighbors.

"I don't want those bums in my neighborhood," said William Schuessler, who lives across the street and was watching the well-attended event. "Tell them to get a job," he said.

Shortly before noon, as the crowd thinned, the new tenants relaxed on several donated couches and beds, waiting for HUD officials to react.

Charles Ming, area coordinator for HUD's Los Angeles office, said he will meet with the squatters today to try to persuade them to leave. If they refuse, he said he will go to court to force them out.

"What would you do if someone took over your home illegally?" Ming said. "I'm disappointed that the homeless people feel that it was necessary to take over a HUD home when we've got a program where we make these homes available to them. There are normal channels there for them."

But Leonard said he and other homeless advocates became tired of negotiating for access to the government residences, which include about 50 homes and apartments in the Los Angeles area. As part of HUD's arduous applications process, homeless advocates must prove that they have the personnel and the funding to run a group home--a difficult requirement for many small organizations to meet.

"We've talked and talked and talked to HUD," Leonard said, whose group has yet to qualify for a house under HUD's criteria. "Our strength in these negotiations will be that we have occupied the duplex."

Leonard said three network members plan to stay at the 17th Place duplex with the homeless residents until the dispute with HUD is resolved.

"We'll start up a 24-hour watch, so there will always be someone awake in each of the units to make sure everything is OK," Leonard said. "We'll be ready if and when the police come."

Leonard said even if the group is thrown out: "At least we have made our point."

He said group members have been planning the takeover for several months. Using names provided by area homeless advocacy organizations, they chose Johnson and three other homeless people--two men and a woman--from a group of 15 to participate in the event.

Leonard said he wanted to make sure squatters had no previous convictions before asking them to break the law. "We were concerned about the three-strikes-you're-out law," he said. "Our people are all clean."

Johnson, who has been living in parks in Downtown Los Angeles, said he was glad to have a place to stay, even if it's only temporary.

"It's been a long time," he said.

One of his fellow squatters, Robert Furney--who has spent time on the streets in Santa Monica--added: "I've lived in storm drains, I've lived in bushes. It's nice to have a roof over my head."

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