Cheri Honkala is trying to rebuild what’s left of “Clintonville.”
While the political elite delivered pitches for Hillary Clinton on Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center, the protest camp Honkala had built alongside fellow activists got hit by what felt like a storm of biblical proportions. Their ad-hoc shelter of battered wood and tarps collapsed in the rain, leaving a few dozen people temporarily homeless in the blighted lot at American and Somerset streets.
Honkala thought it was a fitting metaphor. Her nonprofit group, the Kensington-based Poor People’s Economic Human Right Campaign, based the encampment on Depression-era Hooverville shantytowns. It was meant to be both a safe space and a symbol of protest during the Democratic National Convention. There would be free food and housing for the homeless, political discussion, and, so Honkala hoped, a dry space for those outraged by the excessives on display downtown.
“We are trying to raise the contradictions between the fact that we have homelessness in America, and we have a convention where we spend $60 million on parties, and $43 million on security,” Honkala said. “It’s absolutely criminal. It’s a huge misappropriation of funds.”
But then came the rains, and the winds. And in a 24-hour window, Clintonville was wrecked. Honkala took people from the streets into her own home. Then, in an unrelated turn of events, she was reportedly arrested at a protest downtown. Call it a day in the life of an activist during the DNC.
On Tuesday morning, her phone rang nonstop as she drove through Kensington to find a computer. Seventeen unread messages. Cash flow problems. Clothes and food were damaged by the storm. She threw up a call for help on PPEHRC’s Facebook page: “Clintonville is under political threat — and the storm last night was devastating. WE NEED YOUR PARTICIPATION, NOW ALL THE MORE! PLEASE GIVE WHAT YOU CAN!!! AND–PLEASE BRING WATER, FRUIT, OTHER HEALTHY FOOD to CLINTONVILLE.”
The rain started Monday right after PPEHRC’s long-scheduled march down to the Wells Fargo Center. Honkala spent the rest of the night trying to locate dry space for the Clintonvillagers, which included her home in the neighborhood.
“Nine people without mattresses on the floor with sheets” she said. “That’s not true. It was 10 people. I picked someone up at 5 a.m. this morning who had sought shelter on the steps of a church.”
By noon Tuesday, Clintonville was busy with a rebuild effort. A hodgepodge of out-of-town Green Party activists mingled with local Kensington residents, everyone looking for shade from the blistering sun. Some hailed from as far as Portland and Minnesota. It was hard to tell who had been homeless for years or just a few hours since the rain destroyed the shelter. Some said they had jobs and homes to get back to in the coming days. Others had neither money nor a place to go but here.
“Homeless or not, we don’t really care why you come here, or what your group is,” said Asad Al-Khidr, who’s been volunteering with PPEHRC for two years. “Even if you’re a Hillary supporter, you can stay here too if that’s what you need.”
It has an Occupy vibe, but Al-Khidr insists it’s not like Occupy. Help started rolling in for Clintonville. Activists from a group called the Rainbow Coalition staying in the same lot, who had all slept in buses and other a weather-ready shelters, offered to help re-erect the Clintonville shelter bigger and more gloriously than before. There was some back and forth. “We’re not going to build something that big again,” Al-Khidr yelled. “It was fragile because it was so big!”
Attempts to reach Honkala Wednesday morning were unsuccessful. Al-Khidr said she was one of the protesters arrested during Tuesday night’s demonstration downtown. She has since been released, he reports, and is expected to return to the partially rebuilt Clintonville.
“The camp, it’s here,” Al-Khidr said. “I wish it was bigger, but it’s here. All the buses are here and there are six or seven cars on the lot.”
The original large shelter had been replaced with some smaller ones. But with about 30 people on the Clintonville lot as of Wednesday morning — as opposed to the estimated 50 or 60 on Sunday night — it’s far from the bustling space it was expected to be. Al-Khidr said that many of the poor and homeless who he hoped would find Clintonville likely won’t know it exists until too late.
The meager crowd could also be because the city partnered with Project HOME to provide extra beds for the homeless displaced by the DNC festivities downtown. It was a concerted effort to avoid the crackdowns and arrests that usually take place before a big event.
City officials also put out a strict ban on camping during the DNC, even though protesters at FDR report that it’s not really being enforced. But Clintonville is miles from all the main action.
This part of Kensington, a mixed-race neighborhood that has been crushed by post-industrial woes, offers a fitting backdrop of deep poverty. Last weekend Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein stopped by the camp during a “reality tour” of the neighborhood. Even some national outlets like the Washington Post have perked up to this protest. But it remains to be seen what kind draw the camp will have for the remainder of the week.
Why not go down to the “free speech zone” in FDR park where other campers and protesters are? Why be siloed up in this corner of North Philly?
“I think it’s important that we distinguish ourselves in this process. Otherwise we just blend in,” Honkala said. “We’re trying to highlight poverty in America, and what the media does to us over there, we become amorphous. We’re lumped in with ‘the protestors.”