Inspired by Oakland's Moms 4 Housing, Homeless Women Briefly Occupy Vacant SF House

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Two women who are experiencing homelessness have occupied a vacant house in San Francisco's Castro District as a way to protest the lack of affordable housing in the city. (Erin Baldassari/KQED)

For just a few hours on Friday, two women experiencing homelessness occupied a vacant San Francisco home.

Couper Orona, one of the women in the home, said police threatened to remove them with force, so they left on their own.

“We didn’t want anything negative to happen,” Orona said, “So, we just walked out the way we came in.”

The women were there to draw attention to the issue of homelessness in the city. There were more than 8,000 people living in tents, cars, RVs and shelters at the city's last count in 2019, and many remained in the makeshift or congregate settings despite the coronavirus pandemic and orders from San Francisco County health officials to stay inside.

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The protest was organized by Reclaim SF, a group that advocates for affordable housing. Quiver Watts, an organizer with Reclaim SF, said it’s "unforgivable" that so many units are vacant in San Francisco while thousands don't have a home.

“Leaving people outside is a crisis in any moment,” Watts said, “but to do so during a global pandemic is unconscionable.”

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Watts said Reclaim SF was inspired by the Moms 4 Housing protest, which involved a group of mothers experiencing homeless taking over a West Oakland home to protest speculation in the real estate market. The demonstration lasted for more two months and ended with the protesters reaching an agreement with the city of Oakland to buy the contested house.

Moms 4 Housing argued that housing is a human right — a principle Watts echoed on Friday.

“Our neighbors are dying on the streets and in congregate shelters,” Watts said. “They have nowhere to shelter in place.”

The home on 19th Street in San Francisco has been vacant for years, said Monica Covington, who was commissioned by the property’s former owners to sell the two-story walk-up. It was last listed at nearly $2.5 million, she said, but needed significant work to refurbish. That was about three to four years ago, she said.

“Even then, it had been vacant for a number of years,” she said.

Covington wasn’t sure what happened to the property but said the investment group who had hired her, Citadel Real Estate, no longer owned it. Public records show that the home is now owned by a trust.

The occupation was the terminus of a “cancel rent” car caravan that began Friday morning at Pier 50 in San Francisco. Demonstrators were calling on landlords, mortgage holders and the government to suspend rent and mortgage payments during the coronavirus pandemic. It was one of the many May Day demonstrations calling out the lack of adequate health care, insufficient personal protective gear and lack of hazard pay for essential workers, and the lack of adequate affordable housing.

The “cancel rent” car caravan took place Friday morning at Pier 50 in San Francisco. Demonstrators called on landlords, mortgage holders and the government to suspend rent and mortgage payments during the coronavirus pandemic. (Erin Baldassari/KQED)

Orona is a former San Francisco firefighter who is now disabled and can’t work. She said she has nowhere to go because San Francisco's rents are astronomically high. According to the real estate website Apartment List, the average two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco was $3,094 in April.

"It’s cold out here and there are no places for us to go,” Orona said. “Our city leaders and (Mayor) London Breed need to make something happen and make something happen now."

Activists have been stepping up pressure on San Francisco Mayor London Breed to move more homeless residents into hotels to protect them from becoming ill during the coronavirus pandemic.

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On Thursday night, a few dozen people spread out in front of Breed’s home, staging a die-in to call her attention to the plight of people living in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs. More than 100 residents and staff at Multi-Service Center South, the city’s largest navigation center, tested positive for the virus, along with 22 residents and staff at Casa Quezada, a transitional housing facility.

The city says it has secured leases for more than 2,700 hotel rooms, but only a little over 1,000 of those rooms are occupied.

"We're continuing to move more people into these sites every day as we respond to this pandemic," said Andy Lynch, a spokesperson for Breed's office.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance last month demanding the city lease at least 8,500 rooms — a strategy Breed has called “unrealistic.”