Vacant Castro home occupied by unhoused SF residents in May Day protest

Couper Orona cheers from the window of 4555 19th St. | Photo: Reclaim SF/ Twitter
By Sasha Perigo - Published on May 01, 2020.

New homeless advocacy organization Reclaim SF launched with a bang this morning: In a protest to mark International Workers’ Day on May 1, unhoused San Francisco residents Couper Orona and Jess Gonzalez illegally occupied a vacant home in the Castro.

The Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco (HRC SF), Causa Justa/Just Cause, and the Coalition on Homelessness teamed up to lead a car caravan starting at Pier 50 at 10 a.m., waving banners that read "Cancel Rent" and "Cancel Mortgages."

“The SF May Day Car Caravan is bridging the struggles between tenants, workers, unhoused, imprisoned and undocumented folks,” HRC SF wrote on Twitter.

Activists with Tenants Together gear up to participate in the May Day car caravan. | Photo: Shanti Singh

The caravan ended at 4555 19th St., where Orona and Gonzalez moved in, and the group announced the formation of Reclaim SF. Orona and Gonzalez occupied the home for several hours before they were evicted by police.

Olivia Glowacki, Development Director for the Coalition on Homelessness (COH), said the occupation came as a surprise to neighbors, who quickly called the police. Other neighbors were more friendly to the protestors — one household brought over a crate with wine and flowers.

A group of protestors faced off for the next few hours with a dozen police officers, who surrounded the doors of the building. The protest resulted in at least one arrest where a protestor was knocked to the ground by several police officers. All protestors have since been released.

According to San Francisco property records, 4555 19th St. is owned by an organization established in 2015 called the 4555 19th St. Trust. Glowacki claims the property has been vacant for four years.

Orona, one of the occupiers of 4555 19th St., is a retired firefighter. After she was injured on the job, she found herself unable to afford rent on disability payments alone. Today she’s known as a “street medic,” volunteering her time tending to the injuries of others living on the streets and training people how to use Narcan.

Orona has been unhoused for over five years. She is currently living in an RV in the Mission District. As is the case for many of San Francisco’s other RV dwellers, Orona’s RV does not run reliably. She does not have plumbing, and she says she frequently runs the risk of being towed when the vehicle won’t start in time for street cleaning.

Like Orona, Gonzalez is also vehicularly housed. She was raised in the Bay Area, but became homeless a year ago after she was evicted. Today, she works as a dog walker.

SFPD officer surround the doors of the home | Photo: ReclaimSF/Twitter

According to Reclaim SF's website,  the group is composed of "housed and unhoused community members who are tired of waiting for the city to address the very immediate need for housing."

The launch of Reclaim SF comes just months after a group called Moms 4 Housing made headlines for occupying a vacant home in Oakland. Since then, partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, activists have followed suit across the state. As of March, families working with Reclaiming Our Homes in Los Angeles were occupying 13 vacant homes owned by state agency CalTrans.

After occupying the Oakland home, Moms 4 Housing embarked on a lengthy legal battle where their lawyers argued for housing as a human right. The argument did not hold up in court, and the moms were evicted in January. After pressure from the community and elected officials, the owner, Wedgewood Properties, entered into negotiations to sell the home to the Oakland Community Land Trust. The sale is still in progress.

Squatting remains illegal in the state of California. Glowacki said Reclaim SF intends to occupy other vacant buildings.

Orona says she isn't deterred by the eviction. "I love my city," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."

Update, 5:45 p.m.: District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman arrived on the scene after the eviction.

"This public health crisis has thrown into high relief the vast social inequities and growing wealth inequality of our time," he said in a public statement. "The requirement to shelter in place has reminded all of us that there are thousands of people in San Francisco that don't have that option. We can and must do better."

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