Los Angeles: “Reclaiming our homes’’
Coronavirus slammed into America like a winter hurricane, driving everyone to shelter. If they had any. And while protecting their own family, many also volunteered to help the most vulnerable by shopping for elderly shut-ins, opening spaces for the homeless.
In the pandemic’s first few days, people defended their communities, because the government did not.
But just before spring, something new had bloomed. Homeless people and their neighbors in Los Angeles launched a campaign to take over vacant state-owned homes.
It kicked off on March 14, when activists opened the first house for two moms with kids, and for a 64-year-old welder who lived in his van. They called their movement Reclaiming Our Homes, and by March 18 they put people into 11 more homes.
“I’m a native Angeleno,” said Reclaimer Martha Escudero. “When I was growing up, Skid Row was just downtown; now it’s the whole state.”
She and her two daughters, ages 8 and 10, had been couch surfing between the homes of family and friends for 18 months. Then activists told her that Oakland moms had taken over a vacant home owned by a company that bought homes to “flip” them for the highest price possible.
“Moms4housing in Oakland were my inspiration. I thought ‘Wow, we could do this.’ They’re my heroes.” She agreed to join the Eastside Café organization’s campaign to put people into homes the state had purchased for planned freeways that had been canceled.
“There are thousands of units owned by State Caltrans, but they let them go vacant instead of helping house people.”
The day after the first takeover, the Reclaimers introduced themselves to their new neighbors. “They loved having us here instead of having the house become a drug house,” Martha recalled. “They said they already had a meth lab in another house that burned down.”
Martha understands she is fighting a different economy than the one her immigrant dad worked in. “He worked as a janitor in a factory but was able to buy a home.” She works as a caregiver to the elderly and says, “I’m college educated, born here, can’t even find affordable rent. A lot of us are one paycheck from being homeless on the street.”
The March 18 action started with a rally at a Caltrans home that Ruby Gordillo and her three kids moved into. “With this health crisis and this housing crisis, we need every vacant house to be a home for those who don’t have a safe and stable place to sleep in,” she said.
She thanked the movement’s participants, adding “We’re humbled to have you the taxpayers welcome us into your home,” a home the public’s money had gone into, but which the state had kept people from using despite the twin epidemics of virus and homelessness.
Under pressure from Reclaiming Our Homes, Eastside Café and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, by the time the second wave of takeovers had come, several state legislators and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti called on the state to make Caltrans homes available to those in need. At the same time, the California Highway Patrol began stationing a fleet of vehicles to guard the state homes that had not yet been occupied.
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Steve Teixeira, writer, editor and retired university educator
Xochitl Palomera, activist educator defender of the community welfare and healer