The Belles of St. Edwards

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The burglar alarm was ringing, ringing, ringing. Leonardo. the soft-spoken caretaker of St. Edward the Confessor Church, wished it would stop. It was the third time the alarm had sounded in the past two days. It was probably pipers again, Leonardo thought. They were always breaking in, looking for a place to smoke crack or scrounging around for something to steal. There wasn’t much to take at St. Edward’s. The massive old church was abandoned. And it was Leonardo’s job to guard it.

Leonardo stepped out from the rectory next to the church and looked toward the stone steps of St. Edward’s and its towering red front doors. At the corner of Eighth and York, a few steps from the church, he saw a young woman with flowing brown hair leading a little girl by the hand. Behind them walked a group of about 20 men and women toting blankets and babies and placards. The brown-haired woman directed everyone to the front steps of St. Edward’s, where they sat down. The alarm was still wailing, but the people on the steps did not seem concerned. Leonardo walked back inside the rectory to call the police.

In the brilliant morning sunshine, Cheri Honkala stood on the pale gray church steps and addressed her most loyal supporters. Mariluz and Elba, two homeless welfare mothers, were there with their six children, including Mariluz’ daughter Destiny, who held her book bag in her lap even though she was not yet registered in school. J.R. and Tara were there, holding hands. Katie was there too, smoking a cigarette next to Elaco who, on this late September morning, had loaded women and children on the back of his truck and driven them to St. Edward’s from an encampment called Tent City in a nearby section of Philadelphia’s notorious Badlands neighborhood.

Cheri stubbed out her Marlboro. Then she laid out the plan. “Listen up, people,” she said, “the police will be here pretty soon. Our message to them is: We are borrowing the church for a while to keep warm and keep all our families together. The cops will ask us to show permission to be here. I say that God gives us permission to live in his house.”

It was Cheri Honkala’s idea to organize these homeless families and–very publicly–provide them makeshift housing. With great fanfare, she built Tent City earlier that summer on a vacant lot near an old Quaker Lace factory. But as summer gave way to autumn’s cold winds, Honkala and the families needed warmer space. She thought St. Edward’s was perfect. The neighborhood’s recent church closings had generated extensive and not entirely favorable publicity for the Roman Catholic archdiocese, and Cheri thought it would be difficult for the archdiocese to evict homeless families from an unused church in a poor neighborhood.

Cheri, founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) and a welfare mother herself, loved to create politically charged spectacles. This was the summer of 1995, when a newly-elected conservative Congress was crafting the landmark legislation that would eventually end the nation’s guarantee of welfare benefits for children, Cheri was now at war with society over its treatment of the poor, seeking new ways to dramatize how city. state and federal policies had set destitute people adrift. She knew journalists had lost all interest in Tent City. Taking over St. Edward’s would once again put the plight of the city’s homeless on the nightly newscast and in the pages of the local dailies.

After the group broke in, they set up cribs for the babies and laid blankets on the floor for the toddlers. Mariluz found a box of pink plastic flowers and handed them out. Cheri gathered everybody at the pulpit and led a brief prayer. Then everyone sat quiet-ly and waited for the police. Cheri took Mariluz’ hand and said, “Keep calm.” Within minutes, someone at the front door cried out: “The cops are here!”


The newspapers called Cheri a homeless rights advocate or a welfare rights advocate. The bureaucrats responsible for welfare, housing and the homeless in Philadelphia said worse things, chiefly that Cheri was a publicity hound, that she lied and schemed, that she was all mouth and no results.

It was not surprising that that they said such things, for Cheri woke up almost every morning with a new plan to confront and embarrass some poor city functionary. She would gather welfare mothers in a city office and chant and scream until the bureaucrat in charge came out to take a painful and very public tongue-lashing. After the city spent millions to build a new convention center next door to a soup kitchen, Cheri led a group of homeless welfare recipients who bedded down for the night on the center’s polished marble floors, Later, she and a gang of homeless people camped out a city housing official’s front lawn. That same year, Cheri issued an arrest warrant for the governor, saying he had committed crimes against the poor. And just recently Cheri had been seen chasing the mayor down a City Hall corridor, engaging him in a rousing shouting match as press photographers snapped away.

A big focus of Cheri’s wrath was the city’s shelter system. No homeless person could receive housing assistance without first going through the system, which the city used as a vast tattered net to collect the homeless so they might be more easily sorted and catalogued. Only then were they eligible to be placed on waiting lists, containing thousands of names, for scarce rent-subsidy vouchers. By requiring all housing voucher applicants to enter the shelter system, the city was able to determine not only whether the applicant was truly homeless but also what mix of social pathologies–drugs, alcohol, mental illness, job loss, fire, domestic abuse, AIDS, desertion by spouse–had contributed to their con-dition. This process was called certification.

Cheri despised the notion of a bureaucrat’s certifying someone’s homelessness. She believed people knew damn well whether they were homeless or not and that the last place they needed to go was a homeless shelter. She regarded shelters as dirty, dangerous. noisy. crowded internment camps. In a city with 27,000 abandoned properties, she argued, the homeless should be placed in homes, not shelters.

For the last four years, Cheri had stubbornly tried to help people bypass the shelter system. Famously, she and the ‘war council”–as she called the Kensington Welfare Rights Union’s ruling committee–had recruited homeless people from the shelters and helped them break into and take over abandoned houses. In 1993 and again in 1994, she forced the city to back down and award about three dozen KWRU families rent vouchers for the privately owned houses they had taken over without going through the shelter system. But by the summer of 1995, the city had tired of Cheri’s tactics. It was taking a stand. There would be no more exceptions. Cheri’s people had to go through the shelter system like everyone else. Cheri responded by building Tent City.


At the church, Cheri was waiting for a police supervisor. News camera crews, alerted by the police radio, were milling around, filming sleeping babies and taking long shots of the magnificent cathedral ceilings.

Finally, Captain Herb Lottier of the 26th District appeared near the altar steps. He stood with his hands jammed into his rear pockets, gazing around at sculptures of the saints and the intricately carved buttresses beneath the high windows. He saw Cheri below the pulpit and asked, “Who are you with?”

“The Kensington Welfare Rights Union,” Cheri said. “We’re seeking shelter in the church. It’s abandoned. It’s got warmth for the kids.”

The captain stroked his chin. He seemed to be a man of few words. He told Cheri that someone from his district was trying to contact the archdiocese. He wanted to find out the archdiocese’s position on people living in church.

Cheri asked if the police intended to let the families stay.

“I’m not the ultimate authority,” the captain said. He looked up at the vaulted ceiling. “Who’s to say who the ultimate authority is?”

At the offices of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the call from the police caught everyone by surprise. It was late afternoon before four church officials arrived. The four men asked Cheri if they could “have a dialogue” beneath the pulpit, away from the reporters and TV crews. Cheri summoned Mariluz, Elba, Tara and Katie, and the women sat in a tight circle, facing the men from the archdiocese.

The men told the group they were breaking the law. They could not stay. St. Edward’s was not designed for habitation, particularly for children. The families would be much more comfortable in church-run hospices. There the families would have warm beds, hot food and working toilets. They could put their names on the city’s waiting lists for vouchers for transitional housing. Wouldn’t that make more sense? Couldn’t Cheri be reasonable?

Cheri told the men they had missed the point. The point was not the services the archdiocese provided for the poor. The point, she said, was the city’s failure to provide affordable housing to poor families at a time when their primary source of income–welfare–was threatened by politicians in Washington and Harrisburg. Putting the families in church-run shelters was no better than putting them in city-run shelters. They needed homes, not shelters.

The men from the archdiocese repeated that Cheri was breaking the law. Cheri raised her voice and said, “There’s a higher law involved here.”

The monsignor said, “Cheri, you’re an educated person. You can’t look me in the eye and say our laws aren’t just.”

“I’m saying our laws aren’t designed to protect the interests of the poor,” she replied.

The monsignor shook his head. “You’re wrong,” he said.

“I thought a man of the cloth would want to discuss spiritual and moral issues, not the law,” Cheri said. “You have a very narrow viewpoint.”

“You’re not leaving, are you?” the monsignor asked abruptly. Cheri did not respond.


Church officials, sensing the makings of a publicity nightmare, did not attempt to evict the families. This was good news for Mariluz who appreciated the relative warmth and security of the church after living in a tent on the Quaker Lace lot, The mother of three young children–Destiny, Desiree and Demitre–she was on KWRU’s war council and with each passing month grew more skilled at helping lead the organization.

Mariluz was finishing her fifth year on welfare. She was weary of her own dependency. She had fallen into motherhood accidentally, while addicted to crack. But she kicked the habit during her pregnancy and her first child, Destiny, was born as normal and healthy as a baby could possibly be, given her mother’s circumstances. Mariluz had managed to stay off drugs since. She said she was willing to pay for her mistakes, but it pained her that her children were suffering because of her inadequacies. The longer she stayed on welfare, she thought, the more likely it was she would condemn her children to the same sort of bleak existence.

As a result, she longed for a home and a job, the two stabilizing fulcrums of life she had denied her own children. She had worked as a grill cook at Burger King and as a sales clerk at a thrift store, but those were minimum wage jobs that did not pay any more than welfare–and they did not provide medical coverage. If she ever found an affordable home, Mariluz promised herself, she would find day care for the kids and go back to school. She wanted to be a pediatric nurse.

The statistics, however, were not in her favor. Altogether, more than $2.4 billion a year in welfare benefits poured into Philadelphia, much of it directed to North Philadelphia. At least 550,000 people, or one-third of the city’s population, received some form of public assistance. Philadelphia’s welfare outlay was bigger than that of 38 states.

Despite the politicians’ rhetoric, the chances of moving these huge numbers of people from welfare to work were not good, given the economic realities of the city. Philadelphia’s three-decades-old economic slide was accelerating, continuing to drain the lifeblood of the poor–blue-collar and service industry jobs–from the urban core. Since 1970, Philadelphia had lost a quarter million jobs; since 1979, it had lost more than half its factory jobs. Between 1985 and 1994, the city posted 68 consecutive months of job losses.

At the bottom of the welfare pipeline were single, homeless mothers like Mariluz. She wondered how anyone on welfare could afford housing, much less food and clothing. She could only imagine that they had family and friends to rely on, or husbands and boyfriends who gave them money under the table. Mariluz had no family, no boyfriend. Her only true friends were Cheri and Elba, who were as destitute as she was.


Later that week, I encountered John Wagner, one of the archdiocesan officials responsible for homeless and housing issues. I asked Wagner what the archdiocese intended to do about the families living at St. Edward’s.

“I think the archdiocese has been wonderful about this whole thing.” He spoke in a weary way, tinged with the earnest intensity assumed by church people when speaking of the non-devout. “We want to help these people, not throw them out. Just about everybody in there has some sort of special need–AIDS, mental illness, drug abuse, alcoholism. We want to address each person’s needs.”

His argument summed up perfectly the fundamental conflict between Cheri and the people who run homeless services in Philadelphia. The officials thought people’s problems need to be repaired before they could be housed. Cheri didn’t.

I told Wagner that not everybody inside the church was an addict or an alcoholic or a mental patient. While many of the hangers-on were indeed former or current drug users, or suffered from mental or emotional problems, I said the core leadership consisted of sober, competent people. Their resourcefulness and survival skills were obvious enough.

He agreed, but he added that the housing vouchers Cheri was seeking wouldn’t solve most of these people’s problems. “You think they’re capable of handling a house and running a household, some of them? It wouldn’t be fair to them. They have serious problems,” he said. “Giving some of these people vouchers would be like a doctor giving a cancer patient painkillers to make him feel better but not doing anything to treat the cancer.”

After speaking with Wagner, I decided to visit Bill Parshall, whose formal title was deputy city managing director but who was better known as the city’s “homeless czar.” I wanted to hear his views on Cheri and KWRU. I met him in his office on the fourteenth floor of a drab Center City high-rise filled with second-tier municipal agencies. He was pleasant and accommodating, eager to discuss his little niche of city services–the thankless job of dealing with the poor, the miserable, the lost, the homeless.

Parshall stressed what other city officials had been saying in the newspapers. Cheri’s days of circumventing the shelter system were over. Her people had to wait in line with everyone else for transitional housing vouchers. (The vouchers committed the city to paying a portion of the rent in a private apartment, usually for 12 to 18 months, while a recipient waited for federally subsidized housing.) Parshall pointed out that of the roughly 38 KWRU individuals or families who had received transitional housing vouchers in 1993 and 1994, nearly half had later dropped out of the voucher program. Many did not fulfill city requirements that they remain drug-free and find jobs or further their education. “Now we have a baseline position,” Parshall said. ‘People have to go through the shelter system to get the goodies.”

As for Cheri’s argument that the city should throw open its 27,000 abandoned properties for poor people to fix up, Parshall said most of the places were beyond repair. About 20,000 had been abandoned so long that they had been stripped clean. It would cost at least $100,000 each to make them habitable. Another 6,000 homes would cost about $45,000 a piece to rehabilitate. That left only about 1,000 homes in good enough condi-tion that only $5,000 to $10,000 in repairs would be needed to make them habitable. But Philadelphia was a city with at least 24,000 homeless people and the waiting list for federally-backed Section 8 housing more than 15,000 families long.


Cheri wasn’t homeless herself. She lived in a row house with her son Mark. At first, like the others, she had survived on welfare. But eventually, Cheri found the system’s endless demands too time-consuming and humiliating. While the group was still in Tent City at
the Quaker Lace lot, Cheri dropped off welfare and quietly took a job in a local strip club. It paid the bills and allowed her to work all day on the KWRU campaign. None of her patrons revealed this to the press, which for Mark’s sake she was grateful.

As fall gave way to winter, Cheri knew she would have to come up with new homes for everyone living in St. Edward’s. The war council had a plan. For weeks, Katie and others had been scouting out houses owned by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. From HUD offices downtown, they had obtained the addresses of HUD properties listed for sale or rent. These were prime row houses, taken over by HUD, typically for foreclosure on an FIIA loan or failure to pay taxes, and considered in sufficiently good condition to be repaired and put on the market. HUD owned 260 such homes, all unoccupied. Katie had scouted out the most promising locations, carefully noting whether they had active gas and electric hook-ups. She and Cheni prepared a list of 19 houses they believed were ready for instant occupancy and could be broken into with little effort. The war council assigned the 19 addresses to KWRU members who had been with the group the longest and who had displayed loyalty and commitment to the struggle. The first names on the list were Mariluz and Elba.

Cheri set moving day for two weeks before Christmas. She knew several factors were in her favor. For one thing, the savagely cold weather made it unlikely that HUD or the city would try to evict people from the takeover houses, with homeless people dying in the streets and the shelters full. For another, bureaucrats were not inclined to forcibly remove destitute families from otherwise unoccupied homes just before Christmas. Cheri imagined the newspaper headlines: Officials Play Grinch, Evict Homeless Families at Christmas.

The day before the move, Cheri held a war council meeting at her house on Randolph Street to make final plans for the operation. Cheri turned to Mariluz and Elba. She told them that their house would be considered KWRU’s “public house.”

“It’s going to be stressful for you two,” Cheri said. “Everything you do will be watched closely, right down to what you put in your trash. Just remember it’s important to let the public know there are thousands of empty houses going to waste in this city and you arc willing to pay for the right to live in one of them and fix it up.”

The next day, people tore down the partitions they had built inside St. Edward’s from plywood and donated sheets, and packed their belongings for the big move. Mariluz and Elba were driven to their new home. As they walked up the steps, each with a baby in her arms, they found someone from KWRU had already used bolt cutters to slice open the HUD lock on the front door. A fellow KWRU member appeared from the inside and threw open the door and said, “Welcome to your new house!”


Mariluz and Elba made plans for Christmas Eve. They put the children’s presents under the tree and plugged in the tree lights. Elba cooked rice and beans on the kerosene heater, and Mariluz brought out salami and cheese and bread. As they cooked, Destiny came downstairs and complained that it was too cold in her room. Mariluz reminded her that she had worn her overcoat and boots inside the church. Now she walked around the house in her pajamas and slippers.

Mariluz swore she would never go back to the church, even if she got kicked out of her HUD house. “I think we can stay here for a while. Katie told me she stayed seven months in a HUD house. That would be paradise to me.” As long as the government did not cut her off from welfare, she said, she could survive.

“This is where I want to be,” Maniluz said. “I’m going to have Christmas Eve right here with my kids in my new home. That’s what I’ve been working for ever since we set up Tent City.

“We’ll be the perfect little American family, at home, all warm and fat, singing Christmas carols and opening the presents under the tree.”

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