Welfare Rights Activism

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

By 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.