It’s hard to imagine a 48-year-old woman who’s been arrested more than 200 times becoming Philadelphia’s new sheriff. Disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer are just a few of the charges Cheri Honkala’s faced while promoting welfare rights. But that’s what Philly’s most infamous embodiment of grass-roots guerilla protestdom, plans to do. And while Honkala’s outlaw days may be through, her law enforcement years may be just beginning.
“Building a large, multi-racial movement to end poverty … means we have to enter into the political arena,” Honkala says. “Because we’re pretty much going to have to wait until we’re dead if we want to see Democrats develop any kind of a backbone.”
If elected, Honkala says she won’t close the corruption-ridden office, as one of her Democratic opponents, John Kromer, plans to do. She says she’ll do one better: Work with City Council and the city’s poor to change the rules. After freezing foreclosures, Honkala plans on coming up with almost any idea imaginable to put an end to tossing families out of their homes. That includes: turning sheriff’s deputies into glorified social workers; setting up community service work, which would allow those at risk of foreclosure to work off their debt; giving control of abandoned buildings to community-developed land trusts; turning over confiscated homes to drug and alcohol rehabilitation services and creating employment for those at risk of losing their homes.
“I think we can come up with anything other than what we do now,” she says. “It’s wrong to throw people out … Period.”
The whole thing is summed up nicely in her campaign slogan: “Keeping families in their homes.”
The slogan is a personal one to Honkala, who spent her childhood without a home or a family. Born in Minneapolis, Minn., Honkala spent her youth in and out of juvenile detention facilities after her mother was deemed an unfit parent. She got pregnant at 16 and began living out of a car. She managed to earn a high school diploma and came to Philadelphia a few years later to raise her son, actor Mark Webber, dedicating her life to advocacy on behalf of the working poor and those on welfare. She’s led hundreds of protests and has gained a huge following of volunteers throughout the city, including recently released mob boss “Skinny” Joey Merlino during the mid-’90s, who offered to buy turkeys and help her hand them out to the homeless.
When money for her poverty programs dried up over the years, she worked on and off as an exotic dancer, putting all her tips back into her nonprofit, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. “I’ve had to work in the sex industry, actually, until very recently,” she says.
But at least she had a cause. “The money she made from doing that wasn’t just money to build her organization, but a movement to end poverty,” says Tara Colon, a formerly homeless mother who’s volunteering on Honkala’s campaign. “She’s taught us that being poor isn’t something to be ashamed of … She’s done things that are looked upon as immoral, but she makes them moral choices by saying, ‘Everything around me is wrong. It’s wrong that children are hungry and it’s wrong that children are homeless.’”
Honkala has been running the KWRU since 1991, mostly out of rowhouse offices in the Badlands, helping Kensington’s poor and homeless keep their possessions and, in extreme cases, illegally take over vacant properties. In 1997, she helped begin a second nonprofit, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, a national organization and direct response to Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform legislation, which she and others claimed hurt welfare recipients. She was profiled in David Zucchino’s 1997 book The Myth of the Welfare Queen, publicizing her North Philadelphia activism, which included building tent cities and taking over vacant HUD buildings. Some of her arrests in the ’90s were actually arranged by Kromer, then-Director of Housing under former Mayor Ed Rendell. She staged several protests outside Kromer’s residences while he worked for the city. Rendell once referred to Honkala as “a pebble in my shoe.” “And that pebble’s still alive,” she says with a smile.
Can she really win this thing? “I don’t like to see anyone kicked out of their home, either,” says a skeptical interim Sheriff Barbara Deeley on the potential Honkala candidacy. “But we have to follow court orders, and that’s what a sheriff’s sale is.” Deeley seems somewhat sympathetic when told of Honkala’s ideas, specifically for the enactment of a land bank, which would take over city land for individual community purposes. “There are many, many vacant properties in this city that could go to, maybe, people that don’t have homes and, maybe, go to work everyday…Maybe someone could come up with the idea that, as long as you show income, that you have a job, maybe the city could give these homes to people,” she says.
Such an idea would have to be enacted by City Council, on which Honkala plans to lay down some pressure. “I plan to work particularly with Bill Green,” she says, “who says he wants to champion this legislation.” And her advocacy on the streets won’t stop, either. On the campaign trail, Honkala regularly tells her supporters to call their Councilmembers for such legislation. “There are 24 hours in a day,” she says. “We’ll use all of them to create our coalition [for this legislation.]”
Regarding those who see her run as a protest or publicity stunt, Honkala says, “I’m in it to win it…One thing I have over my opponents is that I’m known on a lot of blocks in Philadelphia, and for concrete reasons. Helping people deal with their heat, their landlord, their foreclosure, helping them get access to medical [assistance]. You look at my opponents,” she says with a laugh, “that would probably not be the case.” With the moratorium on sheriff’s sales coming to an end in April, Honkala hopes to have embedded herself into the perfect storm for a street radical to take office.
Hugh Giordano, a 26-year-old Philadelphia Green Party leader and union organizer, was the first to place that bet. After watching her speak at a Love Park demonstration in November, the former state Senate candidate approached her, hoping she’d agree to get on the ballot. Giordano recalls telling her: “You’re the type of person who stands for working people and poor people and you’re what the Green Party needs…I’m tired of rich people representing poor people.”
Honkala had always refused such invitations in the past. So it came as a shock when it didn’t take much convincing. “She was all about it,” says Giordano. Recalls Honkala: “I’ve been involved in too many fights in my life where I thought I was separate from the machine and the corporate money, only to find out later on that I was being used as a pawn for the Democratic Party…[The Green Party] has a strict policy of no corporate money, which I liked.”
Her campaign kicks into high gear on April 1, when she’ll open her office at 718 Market St. “I think I can be the sheriff who represents the poor people, rather than the corporations and the banks. To throw men, women and children out onto the streets in the richest country in the world—it should be illegal to do that,” she says. “Someday, that might not be such a radical idea.”