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Homes Not Jails is an American organization that emerged from two of San Francisco's prominent activist organizations Food Not Bombs and the San Francisco Tenants Union and describes itself as an all-volunteer organization committed to housing homeless people through direct action.[1] The group was formed in 1992.[2] Homes Not Jails does public actions as well as legislative advocacy and squatting (occupying empty buildings for free). Homes not jails groups do "housing takeovers", acts of civil disobedience in which vacant buildings are publicly occupied, to demonstrate the availability of vacant property and to advocate that it be used for housing. The group has done many such occupations. Homes Not Jails has also done and assisted with hundreds of "covert" squats in which vacant buildings are broken into so that people in need of housing can move in.

Invoking squatters' rights, Homes Not Jails has filed for legal ownership of a squat opened in 1993 through a process called adverse possession. Homes Not Jails adheres to three main principles: nonviolence, no drugs, and consensus decision-making. These principles apply to both types of Homes Not Jails occupation: covert squats, and public takeovers of symbolic buildings.[1] Homes Not Jails also encourages city and state officials to use their eminent domain powers to declare unused and vacant buildings a public nuisance, take them over and use them for low cost housing.[3]



Homes Not Jails began in 1992[2] in the wave of homeless activist groups that began nationwide following the economic recession of the 1980s. In addition to traditional homeless advocacy, Homes Not Jails has used squatting as a tactic since its first public takeover. The group began in fall of 1992 with the takeover of a building at 90 Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin district.[4] On Thanksgiving Day, shortly after this first occupation, the group held a rally and marched to another building at 250 Taylor street, and publicly occupied it.[4] There were originally about 30 members.[4] Homes Not Jails has had extensive media coverage of its advocacy in support of affordable housing, its covert housing of people in vacant buildings, and its protection of buildings slated for demolition.[1]

In 2007 in California Homes Not Jails pushed for passage of a state bill, SB464, which would discourage housing speculation by requiring a five year ownership before property owners can evict tenants under the Ellis Act and give all tenants a year to find new housing if a senior or disabled person resides in the building.[3]

In 1999, Homes Not Jails tried to claim ownership of a vacant house at 715 Page St. in San Francisco. Homes Not Jails contended that squatters had occupied the building for five years and the organization paid more than $5,000 in back property taxes in order to claim adverse possession of the building. Homes Not Jails was denied ownership, because it unable to prove continuous occupation for the previous five years.[5]

San Francisco Supervisor Angela Alioto introduced legislation in 2004 sponsored by Homes Not Jails that would allow the city to seize abandoned buildings and give them to nonprofit housing groups; these could employ homeless people to repair and live in them.[4]

January 25, 1997 Members of Homes Not Jails in Boston MA, occupied a long vacant building called "The Alexandria Hotel" a 110 year old building that was previously used as a bachelors boarding house. The locks had previously been replaced with members own locks and a march was planned. At one o'clock when the march arrived at the unoccupied building the Homes Not Jails members unlocked the gates and held a symbolic "open house" for the invited homeless. Police arrested and charged seven activists with trespassing and breaking and entering.[6]

January 18, 2001 homeless advocates, including members of Homes Not Jails, D.C., the Homeless Association and other organizations hung from an empty HUD-owned home a banner that reads, "HOUSING FOR PEOPLE, NOT FOR PROFIT." Activists also carried cardboard coffins to the home, located at 3602 New Hampshire Ave. in Washington D.C., stacked them there, and hung a second banner that says, "OUR PEOPLE FREEZE OUTSIDE EMPTY HUD HOUSES".[7]

On Saturday, April 7, 2007 at the 24th Street BART Station Homes Not Jails, with the San Francisco Tenants Union, the San Francisco Peoples’ Organization, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, Religious Witness with Homeless People, St. Peter’s Housing Committee, some other organizations and approximately 150 housing activists, protested Ellis Act evictions with a march and building occupation in downtown San Francisco. Supporters attempted to supply the occupiers with food and water, but police confiscated the rope and bucket being used and detained any supporters attempting to supply the occupiers.[8]

Sweat Equity

Sweat equity is the cornerstone of the Homes Not Jails philosophy. It is formulated to address the problem that most affordable housing is unaffordable for people with no income or people on General Assistance, Supplemental Security Income, or Aid to Families With Dependent Children.[1] Homes Not Jails proposes an alternative model for people who are destitute and need to do labor instead of pay rent. The use of sweat equity decreases the amount of government funding needed to make affordable units available, and for more complex building skills such as architecture or engineering Homes Not Jails has historically relied on volunteer work. The underlying principle is to have residents do the work on their own housing and greatly reduce the cost of running a large non-profit organization that would contract out or source volunteers to help in construction efforts.

Covert Squatting

Homes Not Jails relies on lists of addresses supplied by sympathizers and search teams. At least one search team a week has been organized since 1992.[1] On any given search the teams open one to a half-dozen vacant buildings. From 1994 to 1999 over 250 search teams have opened between 700 and 800 buildings.[1] Search teams carry bolt cutters and often replace a landlord's padlock with their own or leave windows open for the homeless who may attend their weekly public meetings.

Public Building Occupations

  • Thanksgiving, 1992: occupied 250 Taylor Street in San Francisco (the first public occupation).[4]
  • December, 1992: members reoccupied 250 Taylor Street, creating a standoff with police.[9]
  • June 14, 1993: squatters occupied and barricaded themselves inside a vacant federally owned building at 1211 Polk Street in San Francisco; after a negotiating team outside held talks with Federal officials, the building was eventually given to a nonprofit housing agency.[9]
  • Christmas 1993: San Francisco Homes Not Jails occupied 66 Berry St., a state-owned property.[9]
  • May 2, 1994: Homes Not Jails and the Northern California Homeless Network occupied empty residential buildings on San Francisco's Presidio Army Base.[9]
  • April 7, 2007: Homes Not Jails occupied a house in San Francisco's Mission District that had been vacant for four years. Faced with felony charges of conspiracy to commit trespass the occupiers left the same day.[3]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Corr, Anders. No Trespassing! Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999. pp. 17–18, 22–24.
  2. ^ a b Novella Carpenter (January 27, 2009). "A Tale of Two Squatters". San Francisco Chronicle.  
  3. ^ a b c Articles of Interest to GP Members. James Stapleton. 7 Apr. 2007. San Francisco Gray Panthers, San Francisco. 8 Nov. 2008 [1]
  4. ^ a b c d e Michael Steinberg. Nov, 1994 Homes Not Jails: House building group in San Francisco The Progressive.
  5. ^ Wilson, Yumi. "Squatters Try to Make Claim for Abandoned House: Homeless group paid $5,000 in back property taxes" San Francisco Chronicle 7 Jan. 1999. Retrieved May 26, 2009
  6. ^ Altaf Bhimiji. 27 Jan. 1997. Homes Not Jails - Boston Occupies Building. Direct Action News Center, Boston, MA. 8 Nov. 2008
  7. ^ Homes Not Jails DC Drops Banner on Bush, Occupies Vacant HUD House. Tom Boland. 19 Jan. 2001. HPN, Washington DC. 8 Nov. 2008
  8. ^ Terrie Frye. 8 Apr. 2007. Homes Not Jails Building Takeover. San Francisco Health, Housing, and Public Services, San Francisco. 8 Nov. 2008
  9. ^ a b c d Steinburg, Michael. "Homes Not Jails." Progressive 58.11 (1994): 1-2. 8 Nov. 2008

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