World homeless day protest targets Castro landlord

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PHOTO BY PETER MENCHINI

In a protest marking World Homeless Day, the squatter group Homes Not Jails briefly occupied a vacant building on Castro St. tonight. Twenty were arrested.

This is the third year that the group has staged a building occupation to draw attention to buildings that lie vacant while people live on the streets.This year’s demonstration began in Dolores Park, where a group of about 50 held a rally and concert. 

The group then marched up 18th street, chanting “house keys not handcuffs” and “housing is a human right.” 

When the protest arrived at the building, on the 500 block of Castro St., activists opened the building and entered it. From the roof, protesters dropped a banner reading “Gentrification equals assimilation.”

One man who entered the building had seen the march on 18th st. and joined along the way. “I don’t believe there should be this many abandoned houses,” said the man, who identified only as Scott. “I don’t mind being homeless, though,” he added. “I like sleeping under the stars.”

Police lined up across the street and closed Castro between 18th and 19th to traffic. After about 40 minutes, they charged the building. Those on the sidewalk were pushed aside, and those inside the building were arrested. According to SFPD spokesperson Michael Andraychak, there were 20 arrests.

After more than two hours, the police reopened the street.

During that time, Andraychak said, “Several people had run into an annex in the rear. Several had gone downstairs and broke into an adjoining restaurant.” Arrestees were also being searched and processed in the building.

The city’s most recent “Homeless Point-in-Time Count and Survey” finds that there were 6,455 homeless individuals and families living in San Francisco; Homes Not Jails estimates 11,000 homeless individuals. 

In either case, as members of the group often point out, the amount of vacant housing in the city is more than enough to shelter the whole homeless population. The 2011 census finds that San Francisco has 378,261 total housing units, and 9.4 percent, or about 35,000, are vacant.  

Homes Not Jails formed in 1992 to connect these homeless people to these vacant buildings. According to one organizer, the group is “made up of squatters who live in vacant places.”

He said that today’s largely symbolic housing occupation has a purpose. “It’s the experience people have when they come into a vacant, liberated space. There’s no other feeling like that. It’s transformative.”

Last year, the group targeted the Cathedral Hill Hotel , the site of a new hospital project still riled in controversy. They also less conspicuously occupied several other nearby buildings, include the Charlie Hotel. Some of these buildings are still active squats. 

Across the street, a large crowd gathered, watching the action. 

Some neighbors supported the protest. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Jesse Oliver Sanford, who lives two doors down from the building.

Sanford said the building’s long vacancy frustrated him, and the space should instead be used for something beneficial. “You could put a nonprofit soup kitchen there,” said Sanford. “I don’t understand why we’re not providing more services for queer youth. This building is twice the size of LYRIC and just a block away.”

“If the queer history here means anything, we need to have a place with a political base. That means low income and mixed income,” Sanford continued. Instead, he said, low income people are being squeezed out of the neighorhood.  “If you lose your lease, you lose all you have” he said, mentioning that a neighbor of his had recently had his rent increased by $1,000 per month.

The building that protesters occupied, comprised of a ground floor storefront and second floor apartments, has been vacant for more than five years.

The building's owner, Les Natali, owns several other properties in the Castro. The neighboring Patio Café, the restaurant that protesters allegedly entered, has been vacant for more than ten years. Natali also owns Toad Hall as well as Badlands, where he has come under fire for racist business practices. Natali used to own the Pendulum, "the Castro's only African American gay bar," before he closed it, sparking community outrage.

The buiding protesters occupied “used to be the Bakery Café,” remembered a neighbor who didn’t wish to be identified. “It was a great place to hang out and a major employer of young people. It would be great if it was a functioning business or some community benefit, and rent controlled housing on top.”

“This is at least getting a lot close to those real issues,” he said of the protest.

UPDATE: All 20 arrested are being held on charges of burglary, conspiracy and vandalism. Most have bails set at $325,000.

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