An interview with Cheri Honkala at Temple University, April 14, 1997


John Potash and Laurel Carpenter

Cheri Honkala is a welfare
recipient who is co-chair of the National Welfare Rights
Union, as well as the leader of Philadelphia’s
Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), a grassroots
organization of welfare recipients who have been leading
practice civil disobedience with street protests, abandoned
housing take-overs, and forming "tent cities."
They’ve formed unusually strong alliances with local
union leaders and religious leaders who have joined them in
their disruptive protests, from blocking doors to state
office buildings, to stopping traffic, and various street
theater activities such as mock slave auctions. Academy Award
winning film makers Pam Yates and Peter Kinnoy filmed them
for five years for their documentary Poverty Outlaw
which was a Sundance Film Festival finalist. KWRU plans to
march from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the United
Nations in New York City, from June 21 to July 1, to make a
statement that recent welfare reform in the U.S. is an
international human rights. KWRU is supported by two support
groups of people who aren’t welfare recipients. The
Underground Railroad is a network of professionals including
doctors, lawyers, social workers and others, along with a
student activist group called Empty the Shelters, both help
KWRU.

LC: We went to the workshop
about how social workers can work in collaboration with the
Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU). What has been your
experience working with social workers, among other
professionals? What strategies have been effective and what
hasn’t worked?

CH: I think the thing that has
been successful is when poor people’s organizations have
been respected: their leadership, their ability to take
charge and determine their own direction. When it hasn’t
worked is when good-meaning folks and social workers have
decided they know what’s best to alleviate folks’
pain. It works better when more of an alliance is struck.

LC: Can you describe specific
examples and the process you went through to get there?

CH: Well, we’ve had both
good and bad experiences. I think we’ve gone through a
variety of different stages of struggle around this
particular issue, in which we’ve had to hold onto our
principles and really discuss things out, and really help
shape the development of the Underground Railroad project.
Nothing was ever easy. Sometimes social workers would come
into the process and they would inject their ways and their
visions and then we just had to have some serious discussions
with them about what works for us and what works for our
community. And in terms of bad experiences, the New York
experience with the WEP workers is an example [Work
Experience Program is New York’s workfare]. Originally,
the direction was being set by welfare recipients, and then
somebody else was hired to come into that process, and I
guess that they’re having pretty huge problems now. I
think that developing a relationship and working together is
important. In real life, we know that social workers are only
a few paychecks away from being in our situation in the first
place. When you develop relationships together about mutual
support, there are things that we can give back in classrooms
and discussions, as well as help with our own labor and
ideas. We really develop a mutual relationship around those
kind of things.

LC: About Public Assistance,
do you have a vision of how it could work better in this
country? How do you think it should work? Do you think we
should all have a guaranteed minimum income or do you have a
particular way of thinking of Public Assistance?

CH: The National Welfare
Rights Union advocates for a guaranteed annual income. At the
same time, we are also fighting for a right to a job and a
living wage. We know that the political climate and the
reality out there right now is one of "get a job."
We’re saying fine, absolutely, as long as it’s a
job that has a living wage, we’re all in favor of it. In
terms of the welfare system, quite frankly, this is maybe
where we line up with the conservatives. We hate the welfare
system just as much as anybody in this country, if not more,
because it’s a degrading, demoralizing system that
forces people to live below the federal poverty level. So, we
want to see a new society in which people and their
contributions are valued. Hopefully we’ll get to a day
where we don’t need the kind of welfare system that we
have in this country.

JP: There’s a professor
named David Gil at the Brandeis School for Social Change,
which is something like social work but not really, better in
my mind. He says that he’s against welfare as it’s
been administered and he’s part of a Jobs for All
Campaign, too. So, I feel that the "radical left"
agrees with you, but the "liberal left" thinks,
just put the money out there, give people welfare, and keep
them dependent. How does the War Council come to be? How do
they vote with you as their elected leader?

CH: Well, the War Council
basically consists of folks that are committed to the overall
war and not just individual battles. If they’ve
demonstrated over a period of time the ability to stay
involved in the struggle and the ability to be involved in a
whole host of battles, and have shown a commitment to their
own political education, they have to go through classes at
the Annie Smart Leadership Development. Basically what ends
up happening is those people make up the board of the
organization and we call it a War Council, because we feel
like it’s a war. We vote on all the policy and the major
actions the group is getting ready to take, but basically the
membership ends up making those decisions. If we have a large
number of families that are dealing with x problem, than
that’s what we end up dealing with. If we get 30 more
families that are currently homeless, then we go forward with
another tent city or massive housing takeover or whatever.

I was chosen as the
spokesperson of the organization because of the particulars
in regards to Pennsylvania. I made a joke yesterday about it:
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and Alabama in between. But
there’s some real reality to that aspect as well. The
majority of folks who are poor and on public assistance in
Pennsylvania are white. We’ve seen the manipulation that
the media has used to make the issue urban and black. So
we’re playing our role at trying to decode that.

We’ve had people come up
to us in middle Pennsylvania when we were sleeping on the
stairs. They would be crying and saying, "my son is
homeless in the state of Pennsylvania…before I saw you, I
didn’t think it could be really true that it could
happen to my son." We’ve heard just heartbreaking
stories in which people have been able to identify with me.
I’ve been able to operate as a mirror for a whole lot of
folks as well, including a lot of students.

JP: I hear you’ve gotten
lots of job offers in a lot of different places to take you
out of what I’d call the militant, strongest leadership
role in the struggle where you are now. How have you dealt
with that? How much were you enticed?

CH: The reality is, I miss a
normal life, whatever that is. I’m not a martyr.
There’s very little romanticism about this work. I would
love to go on vacation, I would love to go shopping, buy my
son things, and I’d love to have paid my rent for the
last two months. However, I think that there are many
fundamental things that happened to me in my life that
knocked me so down, from growing up and being taken away from
my mother to pulling myself up by my bootstraps in this
country and then becoming homeless with my son, and then
burying tons and tons of people as a direct result of being
poor. Those are the things that really make me who I am, and
give me strength to not take the easy way out. Actually, it
really wouldn’t work for me. I think that once you have
your eyes opened, and you see what’s happening in this
world…for me I can’t go back. I might be able to
handle working in one of those kinds of jobs for maybe a few
weeks or whatever, but I would go insane. There’s
something deeper that I would lose in that process. Right
now, I may not have any money. However, I sleep well at
night, and I can get up every morning and feel good about who
I am. I really feel like I’m totally alive. I think that
even though I don’t have money, I have something that a
whole lot of people strive their whole life for, which is to
live life to the fullest.

JP: How about to have so many
people that care about you so much that they’ll pick you
up if you fall without the money..

CH: Well, that’s
partially true. With it [being the leader] comes having the
crown that the queen wears.

JP: Wouldn’t members of
the War Council pick you up?

CH: The War Council,
that’s not other folks. Most people really cannot
believe my position. They say, "How can you work the
whole time at doing this kind of work, and not be a paid
staff person?" They themselves operate with their staff
and secretary and all these kinds of things, and they
can’t quite believe that poor people can operate without
those kinds of things. But actually, I’ve got a much
larger extended family of folks that I’ve found
who’d make it their business if I didn’t have
something to eat on my table tonight.

LC: You mentioned that
you’re having an appeal process because you
wouldn’t sign the Agreement of Mutual Responsibility.
What can we do to help?

CH: A couple things. There
will be a demonstration in May that’s coming up at a
state office building here in Philadelphia. It would be great
if social workers that were available could send in telegrams
or come down themselves because I am actually the only
welfare recipient in the entire country that has refused to
go along with the new welfare reform plan. It would be great
to draw national attention to the issue that social workers
and welfare recipients are standing alongside of each other,
saying "This is unethical, this is not moral, and
we’re jointly opposed to it."

JP: Can you think of things we
could do to help in the future?

CH: I think the most important
thing is by continuing to write your newspaper [Social
Justice Action Quarterly
] with this type of information,
because we’re dealing with a blackout in terms of the
media. Our silence is killing us. The more that we can get
this paper out and distributed to every single social worker,
the more that’s going to help us out of our isolation.

JP: How was living in Tent
City? Was dealing with the rain and the cold hard without
shelter? What were some of the worst hardships and how did
you deal with them?

CH: The question of morale was
much harder to deal with than the actual weather. I found
that it was actually the opposite. You can sit in the pouring
rain and depending on where you’re at with your morale,
the elements aren’t as important. We had to be loving
and gentle with each other. That was like food for the soul,
which was the most important thing through that process. If
we hadn’t been conscious of that with each other, it
would have been a much harder experience. We had no choice.
Basically, we relied on the community. It was other poor
folks who came by and gave us their last food stamps, found
old tarps from their houses, and brought out the last couple
of blankets they had in their house. It was those kind of
things that kept us going.

JP: The National Welfare
Rights Union is in how many cities?

CH: We’re in about 20
cities and I’d have to get you a list of all the places
that we’re at. Whenever social workers are visiting a
particular town and there is no Welfare Rights Union there,
let us know and we’ll help with that.

Cheri Honkala was recently
elected to the Labor Party’s National Council as one of
five representatives. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union can
be reached at 215-763-4584; the Underground Railroad at
215-724-1908.