Homes Not Jails-Boston occupies building

Jay (
Sun, 26 Jan 1997 20:42:49 +0600


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****Homes Not Jails-Boston Holds an "Open House"**** Boston, Massachusetts, January 25, 1997

Summary: On Saturday, January 25, 1997, members of the direct action housing-rights organization, Homes Not Jails-Boston, occupied a long-vacant building in Boston's South End in order to protest the presence of abandoned buildings in a city where an estimated 6,000 are homeless. Nearly a hundred members of the organization, supporters and community members participated in a noon rally, a march to the building, and a boisterous picket outside to support the occupiers. At approximately 5:45 p.m., Boston police removed seven occupiers, charging them with breaking and entering and trespassing.


More than a hundred members of Homes Not Jails-Boston, a direct action housing-rights group, held an "Open House" on January 25, taking over a long-abandoned property in the city=92s South End and symbolically reopening it to the community "in an effort to highlight government inaction on the twin crises of housing and poverty in our nation."(1) =20

Activists and onlookers gathered at noon on this chilly, overcast, Saturday, for a brief rally at Copley Square in the center of Boston, followed by a clamorous march to the South End. Wealthy, predominantly white onlookers, brunching in a restaurant behind the full-story glass street-front window of the downtown Marriot, laughed uncomfortably at the marchers who clanked pots, beat drums, blew trumpets, danced jigs and yelled, "Housing for people, not for profit!" =20

"I=92m here because I think it really is a crying shame, the disparity= between the number of homeless people in this city and the available housing," explained Zak Sitter, a Boston musician who joined the rally in Copley. "It=92s ridiculous that so much housing would sit unused when there really= is a homeless crisis going on. There is no profit motive or incentive in putting it to use to house people."

"We are all related, we are human beings, we have an obligation to take care of each other," said Eric Weinberger of Boston Food Not Bombs, who has participated in non-violent direct actions for nearly forty years. "We=92ve got to provide housing, we can=92t let people freeze to death in the park." Boston=92s homeless shelters reached capacity on December 1.(2) On the coldest nights, Weinberger added, all that the shelters can offer is a bench upon which homeless can sit. =20

Phillip Mongano, director of the Massachusetts Homeless Shelter Alliance, anticipating the effect of social service cuts that resulted in 500 Massachusetts residents losing their Social Security benefits on January 1 and in February will block 6,500 Massachusetts adults from receiving food stamps, says that this winter will be "a total disaster, the worst ever."(3)= =20 The city=92s yearly "Homeless Census Report" for the winter of 1996-=9297 counted 4,896 homeless on Boston=92s streets, in adult and family shelters,= in hospital emergency rooms, detoxification and mental health programs and transitional housing on the night of December 16th, a 2.5% increase over the =9195-=9296 numbers.(4) This "snapshot" study does not count homeless in= the entire Boston metro area, nor does a one-night survey count those who enter the shelter system at other points throughout the year. Local homeless advocates suggest that there are at least 6,000 homeless in the Boston area at one time. Despite the growing homeless population, Homes Not Jails members emphasized that of the 250,863 residential housing units in the City of Boston, 22,399, approximately 9%, lay vacant.(5) "That=92s just not= right," Weinberger stated. =20

Earlier that morning, members of Homes Not Jails had entered the long-abandoned property, known as "The Alexandria Hotel," clipping the thick steel locks that held the doors of the structure and replacing them with their own. When the marchers arrived at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Washington Street at approximately one o=92clock, the occupiers opened= the side door and entered the property. =20

The Alexandria Hotel is a 110 year-old building which used to operate as a bachelors boarding house for well-to-do gentry. The five-story, 22,500 square foot structure, has been vacant for more than two decades. In 1993, after a fire which the Boston fire department declared "suspicious" gutted the rear of the structure, the city declared the Alexandria Hotel unsound and diverted traffic around its Massachusetts Avenue block, ordering owner Russell Britt to renovate it. He did not. Local businesses and community members protested the street closing and a housing court jailed Britt briefly for not renovating the property. Britt eventually turned the property over to Macedonia Realty Trust, which in 1994 promised to refurbish it. Though a small store is moving into the building=92s first floor, the majority of the structure remains untouched. The current owners recently put the building up for sale at the asking price of $1.2 million.(6)

The side entrance of the Alexandria Hotel opens into a crowded, cluttered foyer, winter shiver radiating from the stark brick walls. Splintered boards, rotting and ripped, empty jugs of paint thinner and jagged metal poles scatter the dismal room, most buried beneath a layer of dirt and grime. The tile floor lives beneath a film of filth, leading to a raised surface ringed by muddy columns. The building=92s center staircase is a creaking, uncomfortable row of exposed boards which steps abruptly to the uncertain darkness of the upper floors. Though parts of the building=92s= rear have crumbled, a direct casualty of fire, the street-front rooms upper floors are soiled but sound.

When the occupiers reached the third floor they pried off the gray boards that covered the windows, stuck their heads outside and hung a banner which read, "Housing is a Human Right!" Upon the windowsill they balanced a bouquet of delicate white flowers, given them by a supporter, according to Jennifer Jones of Students Together Ending Poverty who spoke through a small p.a. system set up on the front steps of the house, "to make the house seem like a home." =20

The Boston police arrived soon after members of Homes Not Jails occupied the building and commanded that the protesters continue to move or be subject to arrest for blocking the sidewalk. Police arrested radio reporter John Greebe of Tufts University=92s WMFO for disorderly conduct when he did not move upon their command. =20

Though at first supporters were able to smuggle food to the occupiers through the rear of the building, police soon blocked the flow of supplies. Occupiers lowered a wire from the open third story window and lifted water and food until the police commander tied the wires=92 ends to one of the building=92s columns. Police arrested demonstrator Liz Layton for being a "disorderly person" when she attempted to hook food to a wire. Police released Greebe and Layton later that afternoon.

Though few South End community members participated directly in the protest, most who passed by offered encouragement. "It does anger me to see what could be a really beautiful building like this sitting here unused," said Zack, who lives across the street from the Alexandria Hotel, "though it disturbs me that there is a sea of white faces here, and this neighborhood is still predominantly African-American." While some community members wondered what effect the picket would have =96 "All this shouting won=92t do nothing," one passerby commented =96 many more nodded their heads in= agreement. =20

Other members of the Boston activist community joined Homes Not Jails in the protest, such as the Eviction Free Zone, which supports Cambridge residents who have had difficulty paying rent after Cambridge abolished rent control. "The name of the group, =92Homes Not Jails,=92 means a lot to me," offered Harry, a resident of the First Church Shelter=92s transitional housing= program who participated in the protest. "We could be housing people in homes and instead we=92re paying all this money to lock them up. It don=92t make much sense to me."

At approximately 5:45 p.m., Boston police entered the structure and removed the seven remaining occupiers, carrying them one by one from the base of the stairs to the arrest wagon. Police charged them with breaking and entering (a felony) and trespassing (a misdemeanor), releasing them on their own recognizance later that evening. They will appear for a preliminary hearing on Tuesday, January 28 at 8:30 a.m.

Local activists founded Homes Not Jails-Boston in the fall of 1995 and on November 24, 1995, briefly occupied a different South End property in conjunction with other Homes Not Jails chapters around the nation that held takeovers on the same day. For more information on Homes Not Jails-Boston, contact Mark Laskey at (617) 730-9675.

(1) Homes Not Jails-Boston press release (2) Boston Globe, December 2, 1996: "Homeless shelter face crisis; Despite improving economy, Mass. Facilities overwhelmed." (3) Ibid. (4) "State of Homelessness in the City of Boston Winter 1996-1997, Annual Homeless Census Report, December 16, 1997," by the Emergency Shelter= Commission (5) 1990 Census, the most recent comprehensive survey of Boston=92s housing. (6) South End News, September 26, 1996, and Boston Globe, June 4, 1993 and May 18, 1993


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