A two-man crew is looking for open doors on a frigid January night. In this recession age, Mad Max has come to life as they scavenge the Mission in search of a basic human resource – shelter.
“There’s a place that’s had a fire less than a year ago that I’ve been curious about,” explains the guide Jim (no, not his real name).
The other scout, Gary (also not his real name), is along to explore alternative housing options. His unemployment benefits are about to run out. Tonight he’s a virgin on the “away team” – an idiom taken from Star Trek and used by the activist group Jim’s involved with, Homes Not Jails, to describe the search for buildings to crash in.
Formed in 1992, Homes Not Jails seeks out vacant spaces for homeless people. They believe housing is an inalienable right – as long as people are forced to live on the streets, these anarchists will continue to open squats in unused buildings.
Sporting a modified Mohawk and SF Seals sweat jacket, Jim explains that he’s looking for places that are “viable, safe, and within people’s comfort levels.”
Homes Not Jails’ mission isn’t an easy one. With soaring property values, more attention is being paid to keep squatters out here in the city than it is in Oakland, where Jim says almost any boarded-up building can easily be turned into a new home.
“It’s the worst squatting in all the country,” Jim says of San Francisco, “but it can be done!"
In the UK, housing is a different story. Under common law, squatters have a right to claim ownership of a dwelling if they’ve been living there for 12 years. When I was in London, I squatted for a short time in a posh neighborhood. Eventually, this beautiful house became completely trashed from constant parties. But the rent was free, a huge plus in such an expensive city.
Wanting to explore the temporary housing situation in this expensive city, I recently hooked up with Homes Not Jails at its weekly meeting – hoping to connect with SF’s squatting underground.
As a rule, it’s hard to get members of an anarchist group to come to regular Tuesday meetings. For a good 20 minutes Jim, Gary, and myself sit alone inside the office of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. It’s a little awkward.
“Do you want some donuts?’ asks Jim. As I bite into an apple fritter, he adds that the food has “either been dumpstered or found.” Donut spit-take follows.
As a few other members filter in and the meeting gains momentum, Jim explains that although there are risks to occupying a building, in his experience, legal consequences usually result in a citation unless someone is breaking and entering. “The police just process you and let you go,” he says. Even then, he says, the charges usually result in a “suspicion” of trespassing misdemeanor.
Jim adds that police can’t enter a squatted building due to liability issues. “They have to contact the landlord to sign off on it first.” With the result generally becoming a civil matter, building owners will sometimes make cash offers in an effort to evict squatters rather than bothering with the hassles of the legal process.
Soon the focus of the meeting has turned to a discussion on what to look for when trying to wrangle a squatting location:
* A lockbox (“Don’t think of it as a ‘lockbox,’ but as ‘keys inside.’”)
* “For Sale” signs or any notice of a public hearing.
* Garbage day: A vacant place doesn’t need to put out garbage.
Once a place is secured, Jim suggests making it look like a home: have mail sent to the address, get the PG&E bill set up in your name, keep the place clean. Basically, make it seem like you’re there legally.
Resources are scanned for possible locations to investigate – all which can be found online. U.S. Hudd.com provides a list of foreclosed homes. The city department’s blighted list trumpets vacant properties deemed in need of repairs. The group scours for information about the owners, looking to see if the landlords have defaulted on taxes or payments.
Gary recognizes a few of the addresses listed as being in the Outer Sunset. “That’s one of the best three neighborhoods to squat,” Jim states.
Yes, the unobtrusive Outer Sunset is good for both street parking and squatting.
Robby – a new guy in the group who sports long hair and thick glasses – is going on a solo mission tonight in his neighborhood.
“Have you done this before?” I ask.
“Not yet, but I’m about to learn,” he answers with an awkward smile.
The group offers him some mentoring: Wrapping a produce tie around a door or gate is very effective. See if it’s broken when checking back to determine if someone has been inside.
Jim warns Robby not to hang out at any one location for more than 10 minutes, and to look through the windows and shine a flashlight in the mail slot to see if there’s evidence of someone living there. “You don’t want to get inside and hear someone snoring,” Jim adds. “It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
Robby nervously shakes his head.
Activists have found that Mondays and Tuesdays are the ideal nights to scout for squats because people usually go to bed early.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Jim and Gary’s away team make a pit stop at Homes Not Jails’ headquarters in the basement of a tenants’ rights building. Within the cramped quarters, labeled boxes are filled with all the necessities to secure a property: crowbars, lock cutters, dead bolts, screwdrivers, tape, nails, lock pickers, sleeping bags, car batteries for electricity, and flashlights.
Gary hesitates for a minute. “I’m kind of tired,” he mumbles. “I might get going.”
“I’ll need you as a lookout at the last location,” Jim stresses.
After eating an orange, Gary gives a full commitment. Black stocking caps are put on. Jackets zipped. Jim grabs a backpack. The away team heads out.
I tag along as the pair steers through the heart of the Mission to check out a street-level unit that was scouted the evening before. “Those lights weren’t on last night,” Jim notes.
The tape stuck at the bottom of the door is still intact. “It could be a place for 23 hours a day or it might be a situation where you have to be out by 7 a.m. every morning,” Jim says, adding that only having a night or two in a squat is better than being on the streets.
Homes Not Jails’ methodology on securing a place involves hanging out in front under a blanket, appearing like a sleeping homeless person. If a real estate agent comes by at a particular time, Jim says he secures the door by grabbing the knob after they go inside and then slips a piece of cardboard into the frame so the door won’t shut all the way. Once inside, he locates an alternative route to regularly enter the premises.
“They just flashed the ‘hello’ lights,” Jim says, noting another illuminated beacon in the upstairs window.
A boarded up storefront on Valencia shows more promise as we move along.
New questions arise: Does it have a back alley route? Does it have a backyard? “Google Satellite is good for that,” Jim explains.
We pass numerous people sleeping in corridors. Jim says that over the past few months two groups tried to squat in the now abandoned New College building. “One person lived there for four months,” he adds.
Trekking down Mission Street toward 20th, we pass the Sierra Hotel. The 46-unit SRO has been vacant since 1991 and the owner refuses to sell the property to groups wanting to turn it into low-income housing. Last year Homes Not Jailsstaged a public occupation here to demonstrate the availability of vacant housing for the homeless.
“We have the best direct action demonstrations in the entire country,” Jim says. In coordination with World Homeless Day, the group also helped to take over the vacant Leslie Hotel on Eddy Street. Once inside, they lowered banners outside the window to promote the cause. “The action was filed as a complaint and only four squatters were cited for misdemeanors,” Jim states.
The away team’s last location is an eight-unit apartment building that’s been unoccupied for the past five years. Jim had previously been inside, so tonight he’s working on securing the place.
Under theEllis Act, if a landlord evicts all his tenants, he has to leave the place vacant for five years to avoid having it flipped back onto the market with jacked-up rent. Some owners would rather keep their units empty for 10 years than sell their buildings, so they can profit when rental prices further skyrocket – inadvertently creating a potential new squat.
Someone’s dozing in an orange sleeping bag out front when we arrive. Jim turns to Gary and says, “I want you to hold your bike so I can climb up the side of the building and grab onto the fire escape. If there’s any danger, or you see someone paying too much attention, I want you to text me.”
The duo strolls far down the block and then crosses the road. After a small trickle of drunken people pass, Gary holds his bike steady. Jim quickly goes all Spiderman up the side of the building toward the roof, disappearing out of sight.
In the freezing cold, I watch the vacant building for an hour until 3 a.m. No sign is given of what’s stirring inside.
Gary finally gets the text: The building has been secured for squatting. He relaxes in the knowledge that he has a housing option when his unemployment benefits disappear.
Do you think there should be an alternative to homeless people sleeping on the streets? Homes Not Jails meets at 8 p.m. every Tuesday night at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco at 417 South Van Ness.