Activists in support of people occupying a vacant home, center, link arms in a barricade as police arrive, Saturday, March 14, 2020, in Los Angeles. The occupied home is owned by the California Department of Transportation. Photo courtesy of Reclaiming Our Homes

Interfaith clergy unite for mothers and housing activists who took over vacant LA house

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Activists, clergy and residents gathered Sunday evening to pray for a group of mothers and housing activists who are being referred to as “The Reclaimers,” after they took over a vacant, state-owned property in a Los Angeles neighborhood as a place where they could shelter from the coronavirus.

As public health officials urge social distancing to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the homeless and their advocates are calling on city and state officials to use all vacant properties to house people who are unable to "self quarantine" during the housing and public health crisis.

The Reclaimers include Benito Flores, a 64-year-old man who was previously living in a van, and mothers Martha Escudero and Ruby Gordillo along with their children. Escudero, who has two daughters, had been living on couches with friends and family for about a year and a half.

Escudero, in a statement, said people need safe housing especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t feel safe being homeless during this health crisis, and I need a place of my own to protect my children from the virus,” Escudero said. “I’m scared for everyone who is one paycheck away from my situation, who may lose their jobs and then their housing because of the virus.”

The Sunday evening service was streamed live on Facebook to "stay connected to community in a time of social distancing." The stream showed about more than two dozen people in attendance. The action was inspired by the Oakland group Moms 4 Housing, which took over a vacant house owned by a real estate investment group.

The moms, their children and Flores moved into the vacant house on Saturday (March 14) with the help of volunteers, including housing advocates from United Caltrans Tenants and Democratic Socialists of America Los Angeles. According to Los Angeles County property records, the home is owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which an investigation by the Southern California News Group found owned as many as 163 vacant homes that the state agency bought to make way for a now-defunct 710 Freeway extension project.  

Caltrans was not immediately reached for comment. 

During the Sunday evening service, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, who is part of Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice, told the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom, he said, was evil and was destroyed because, according to the Prophet Ezekiel, "they had resources and they didn't share with the poor.

“Sodom elevated private property to be a value above all values. This was the sin of Sodom.” 

He continued, asking, "Are we going to look around us and say today, in the midst of a crisis, in the midst of the coronavirus plague which is coming upon us, ... ‘No people should rather live in the street rather than go into a house which is owned by somebody else but not using it'?

"Housing is a human right,” he added.

Bert Newton, ministry associate at Pasadena Mennonite Church, agreed.

He said that in the ancient wisdom from the Bible, "the land belongs to God, not to human beings, and it is for everyone." "When houses sit empty like this, it violates our faith. It violates our sense of morality and it violates the image of God," he said.

"When people are left on the street, we consider that immoral," Newton added.

The Rev. William D. Smart Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, closed the service on Sunday by commending the mothers who seized the house.

"We bless you in all of our traditions. We bless you tonight that you will be safe, you will be steadfast in your journey. You will be protected by all the Gods,” Smart said.

Smart said there needs to be a shift. "You are part of the shift. You have the audacity to reclaim," he told the mothers. He said the house belongs to the people because it is owned by the agency "that we put our tax dollars into."

He added, "This is just the beginning. There will be other homes that will be taken up because we need people to be housed."

To Escudero, one of The Reclaimers, the service reminded her of her moral duty to fight for just practices.

"All these faith leaders were just reminding us — just as Martin Luther King did in his time — that where there are immoral laws, that it is our duty to fight against them."