November 14, 2001

Honkala Stresses Activism, Welfare

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Defeated by circumstance, starved, cold, homeless and unable to find a job, many of America’s poor often struggle to survive.

Last night, Cheri Honkala, director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), based in Philadelphia, challenged approximately seventy Cornellians in Uris Auditorium: “We’re doing our part, will you do yours?”

Honkala both encouraged activism and highlighted the problems of the American poor in an hour-long speech. “No humanitarian packets are being sent to our [poverty] fighters here at home,” Honkala said, referring to the American relief efforts being made in Afghanistan.

Lindsey Saunders ’03, a member of the Cornell Coalition for the Homeless, which helped bring Honkala to campus, said, “It’s really important for college students from our ivy tower to see that poverty does exist in America, and that we have a responsibility to work to end it.”

Honkala said that 8,000 people in Philadelphia alone will be denied welfare on March 3, 2002 when a wave of families will be removed from the federal assistance program. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 imposes a five-year lifetime time limit on welfare benefits.

“Next year is right around the corner; something is going to happen,” she said.

Following the speech, four full-time volunteers with the KWRU took questions from the audience.

Yesenia Cruz, one of Honkala’s volunteers, broke into tears recounting her experience being separated from her children following eviction from her house in Philadelphia.

Sara Forgione, a graduate of Duke University, who has spent two years with the KWRU said, “Some people have everything, and some people have nothing.” Pointing out that her college-educated father had been unemployed for a long period of time, she added, “[I know] simply going to college wasn’t going to keep me off the nothing side.”

The speech followed a day on campus during which Honkala and the KWRU volunteers led a number of classes.

“Overall it was a very positive experience,” Honkala said. “There is, however, a small portion of students that are living in the matrix, and I’m praying they get out of it.”

Honkala referred to a class on social inequality and noted, “I swear to god they were not human beings in that class.”

Cruz, speaking quickly and pacing around the room, related her own encounter with students: “They asked me, ‘If I stopped having children would things start getting better?'”

The KWRU has gained national attention for its insistence on “economic human rights,” including the right to food, shelter, clothing and health care.

The group has taken over publicly-owned abandoned houses, camped out for six weeks at a time in public buildings, and erected shanty-towns in front of the Pennsylvania’s Governors Mansion, State Capitol and Philadelphia City Hall. It has also gained national recognition for its reality tours through Philadelphia’s “blighted” neighborhoods as well as for marches and sit-ins that disrupted the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Questioned about the organization’s reputation for confrontation, Honkala replied with a confident grin, “KWRU has never been seen as a team player.”

Archived article by Peter Norlander