Housing activism turns confrontational in face of deepening housing crisis
This article was first published by Street Roots on Feb. 3.
Across the country, battles that were fought primarily in courthouses and through legislation, nonprofits and community centers have evolved. Now, some of these battles are waged from behind the barricaded doors of formerly vacant public housing and in front of eviction courts rendered inaccessible as tenants link arms, blocking their entrances.
Spurred on by the country’s deepening housing crisis, this wave of militant housing activism has enveloped the nation. With roots in Moms 4 Housing’s late 2019 takeover of vacant housing in Oakland, California, the phenomenon has intensified during a pandemic that has caused economic pain for many families.
On Christmas Eve 2020, members of Tacoma Housing Now — a direct-action-oriented housing activism group — paid for 16 rooms in a motel just across the Puyallup River from Tacoma, Washington. Then they refused to leave and sent the bill for what would become five additional nights to the city and county.
One organizer with the group, Rebecca Parson, told The News Tribune that at least five houseless people had already died of exposure that season, including one of the group’s houseless members, Thomas Lee Hutchinson. Hutchinson died while sitting in his wheelchair one night, less than a month prior. “There was frost on the ground last night,” Parson, who also serves on Tacoma’s disabilities commission, told The News Tribune during the occupation.
Tacoma declared a state of emergency around houselessness more than three years ago, but Parson said the problem has only gotten worse.
The occupation, which housed over 40 houseless Tacoma residents at its peak, ended on December 30 with local police evicting the group after receiving widespread pressure as far-right media picked up the story.
The day after the eviction, driving back to the camp where many houseless members of the group live to drop off hot coffee and check in with everyone, Stringy, an organizer with Tacoma Housing Now, told Street Roots about the group’s structure. Stringy said Tacoma Housing Now meets houseless members where they are at, holds weekly meetings at a houseless camp and has “gotten to know them as people” by doing so.
For Stringy, it is important that the imbalance of power between housed and houseless members of the group is minimized. Information and communication are key to that, he said.
“All the residents that were from the camp and went to the motel were aware that this is a protest and not a permanent housing solution,” he explained. “They knew the risk going into it. They all are part of the movement.”
For some unhoused participants in the motel occupation, it was simply a way to get out of the cold for a few days, shower and have access to other amenities. But for others, Stringy’s statement rings true.
Nathaniel told Street Roots he started working with members of Tacoma Housing Now four months ago when they brought food and other aid, under the name Tacoma Food Not Bombs, to the large encampment where he lives under the name Tacoma Food Not Bombs.
From there, the relationships between the housed organizers and many residents of the encampment, called “509” due to its location under Washington State Route 509, grew and led to a short-lived occupation of the abandoned Gault Middle School.
Nathaniel said the group doesn’t just bring food and work with them in the fight for housing; it also brings hope.
“When we first got into the Gault school, everybody had a smile on their face and a sense of relief,” he said. “When we got into the motel, it was like a sense of relief also, and it felt good.”
And he explained that while benefits like warmth, showers, safety, and phones to call family during the holidays are important, he is on a larger mission.
“We have demands that we want to get met,” he stated.
Nathaniel said it’s about having a place where they are allowed to live more than the need for a structure. He said the group is capable of building — he gestured to the sturdy, recently winterized camps surrounding him — “but if we had a property that we could occupy, I think that would take care of a lot.”
And that isn’t unprecedented in Tacoma. Gage, another resident of the 509 camp, explained to Street Roots that both he and Nathaniel were part of a larger group of 20 to 30 people that led a civil disobedience campaign that culminated in the city capitulating and allowing them to create Tent City Tacoma, a self-governing houseless camp that existed from 2013 to 2016.
Houselessness is nothing new, but the situation is getting worse.
“My last couple months being at the [Tacoma Rescue] Mission, I’ve seen more and more young people down there looking for places to stay,” Nathaniel said.
Hearing him say that, Pink, another resident of 509, added: “I’m 51 years old. I’ve been here 20 years, 21 years, and I’ve never seen this many.”
And the numbers back them up. Pierce County, where Tacoma is located, saw its houseless population grow 28% from 2019 to 2020 to a total of 1,897 people, according to the city’s Point-in-Time counts. These surveys are widely understood to be undercounts. The county’s houseless population is also disproportionately made up of people of color — 46% in a county where people of color make up only 27% of the general population.
More specifically, the ZIP code where the Tacoma Rescue Mission is located was one of the 20 most rapidly gentrifying ZIP codes in the U.S. between 2000 and 2016, according to a study by RENTCafé.
And straddling that 98402 ZIP code is the city’s Hilltop neighborhood. Hilltop, which is home to the other primary encampment that Tacoma Housing Now works with, is a formerly redlined area. The neighborhood is still the heart of Black Tacoma, but it is rapidly gentrifying as Seattleites flood in amid massive public and private capital infusions.
It’s also where Billy, who is Blackfeet, grew up. He participated in the motel occupation, and he still lives in Hilltop – only now in the encampment with his sister, Vicky Swims Under (also Blackfeet) and other family and community members.
“I came up here in 1979 — I was only 9 months old — with my mom,” he told me. Swims Under joined him in 1997, living housed in the city until a robbery four years ago pushed her onto the streets.
Swims Under, back at the camp the night after the eviction, told me that she joined in the occupation to get out of the cold because of the relationships Tacoma Housing Now had formed with her encampment and because of serious fears about anti-houseless vigilante violence.
“I’m afraid that I might be here by myself and get shot or stabbed or something. And since being back here, I just think about flashbacks of everything in my mind,” Swims Under said, referring to a particularly brutal incident earlier that month.
Her friend of 12 years, Patrick Nathan Shenaurlt, was murdered while protecting her and others at the camp from two anti-houseless vigilante attackers. Pierce County prosecutors said the attackers came armed to the camp to confront the campers about perceived crime and to “force all the people living in the tents to leave the area,” as Q13 Fox Seattle reported. Michael Red Cloud and Thomas Pearson have since been charged with second-degree murder.
Prosecutors said Red Cloud beat the campers and their tents with a 2-inch-by-2-inch piece of lumber, hitting Swims Under and her daughter in the process.
“My daughter came out and said, ‘Get away from us,’ and he started swinging the bat and hit her arm and broke it, and then (he) started swinging on other camps. Then he got mine, put, like, five big holes in it, and then I got hit over the head and knocked out,” Swims Under remembered.
Prosecutors said that before Shenaurlt was killed, he produced a BB gun from his tent in an apparent attempt to scare the attackers off. Campers said that Pearson shot him and continued to fire at him as he ran away after being struck.
Standing beside Shenaurlt’s newly vandalized memorial at the camp, Swims Under said, “Now that we got booted out, we’re back in the same spot again — freezing cold.”
For Tacoma Housing Now, events like this and other recent deaths of houseless Tacomites underscore the urgency of the fight.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Stringy said. “It’s the middle of winter. We want to house people. We don’t want one more death.
“There’s empty buildings all over the city that people could live in and not be out in the freezing cold,” he continues, “and that’s why we see direct action as a way to house people in Tacoma — and in the shortest amount of time possible.”
The path of most resistance
While the situation in Tacoma is dire, it is certainly not unique. Around the country, cities are facing similar problems and residents are taking similar approaches in their attempts to address them.
In Oakland, the houseless population grew by 47% to about 4,000 between 2017 and 2019, according to the city’s Point-in-Time counts. The Mercury News found there are about 1,580 more vacant homes in Oakland than there are houseless people — a fact Moms 4 Housing didn’t overlook. The group of Black mothers highlighted that reality when they targeted a gentrifying property developer during their occupation of a vacant home in Oakland.
In Philadelphia, amid mass sell-offs and the privatization of the city’s public housing stock, the city set a record in 2019 for the most construction permits issued in a year since the city started keeping records in 2007, WHYY reported.
Around the same time, longtime housing and houseless activists formed Philadelphia Housing Action. The group, working in-tandem with #OccupyPhiladelphiaHousingAuthority, the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and other groups, occupied a soon-to-be-developed lot across from the Philadelphia Housing Authority to pressure the agency to provide housing. When that tactic didn’t work, and while the authority’s more than 40,000-person wait list for the city’s dwindling public housing wasn’t shrinking, they began taking control of empty Housing Authority-owned houses and giving them to families to make their own.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, gentrification is reaching deep into some of the city’s historic non-white neighborhoods, The Washington Post has reported. However, in the El Sereno neighborhood, activists with Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community pushed back by breaking into and occupying a number of empty homes owned by Caltrans, California’s transportation agency.
In Seattle, as of 2018 (when the most recent census data was available) the city was the fastest growing in the country, Seattle Times reporting shows. And with the population leap, the median income rocketed from $33,000 to $93,500 between 2010 and 2018. Amid this, protesters, freshly swept from a houseless encampment at Cal Anderson Park, took over a nearby abandoned house.
Portland, meanwhile, was the fourth-fastest gentrifying city in the U.S. as recently as 2017, according to a study by Realtor.com. And, according to a recent report by Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, there were as many as 38,000 people experiencing houselessness in the tri-county area in 2017, with Black people twice as likely and Indigenous people five times as likely as white people to experience houselessness.
Protesters in Portland have engaged in a number of militant actions including defending a large houseless camp at Laurelhurst Park from a sweep and the Red House on Mississippi’s eviction defense.
In Kansas City, Missouri, gentrification is also making its mark. Blavity reported on the anger and anxiety among longstanding Black residents as a so-called “urban architectural renaissance” and more white faces are driving up prices in the city’s historically Black neighborhoods. There, protesters with KC Tenants staged an eviction court blockade, rendering the court inoperable and demanding stronger eviction protections.
The similarity in the groups’ approaches is no coincidence. Enabled by mass media, social media and national activist networks, groups from all parts of the country are seeing and hearing about one another’s responses to their similar situations — and taking action.
A banner displayed outside of the Tacoma motel occupation underscored this. It cited Portland’s Red House on Mississippi, Los Angeles’ Reclaim and Rebuild Our Community, Philadelphia Housing Action and Seattle’s Cal Anderson Park as influences and allies in the fight.
Similarly, in a conversation with Street Roots, Philadelphia Housing Action and #OccupyPHA organizer Jennifer Bennetch said that when she saw Moms 4 Housing take over vacant housing in Oakland, she looked around and saw the rapidly disappearing public housing and housing crisis around her, and she knew what she had to do.
These actions, militant orientations and the means through which they spread are reshaping activists’ collective understanding of what is possible and how it can be achieved. And, as the nation sits on the edge of an eviction crisis as pandemic-era eviction moratoria are set to expire, they show no signs of slowing.