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Police cite homeless advocates who took over empty building

The Associated Press
Tuesday August 14, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — Nine advocates for affordable housing were cited Monday, two days after breaking into and taking over an abandoned city-owned building to draw attention to their cause. 

The squatters had turned on the electricity and had planned to turn on the water and start cleaning up the place if the school district, which owns the four-story building, had allowed them to stay. 

But Tony Irons, city architect and the school district’s chief operating officer, said he called police at 2 p.m. after the activists refused to leave. 

“It is an immediate and serious health hazard,” he said, adding that there was asbestos and lead throughout the building. “It’s really bad in there. It’s even off-limits to the maintenance staff.” 

Police cited the following: Diana Valentine, 27; Mara Raider, 30; Samuel Dodge, 25; Michael McCarron, 32; L.S. Wilson, 49; Ted Gullicksen, 48; James Hewitt, 30; Thomas Gomez, 37; and Jeffrey Giaquiento, 26. All were released without bail or fines, according to police spokesman Dewayne Tully. 

Four homeless people and four activists broke into the fence-enclosed building late Saturday, and another activist joined the group Monday.  

The historic building, built in 1910 as a school, was home to several city offices until it was damaged in the October, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.  

It was declared unsafe soon after and has been vacant since. 

“Just because there is money available to take over the building and redo it, maybe there might be other properties much more suited to what they have in mind,” said school district spokeswoman Jackie Wright, who added there are currently “no announced plans for that property.” 

She also said “the district is taking extra precautions to make sure that property won’t be broken into again.” 

The occupation was designed to draw attention to homelessness and gain support for a new city ordinance proposed by San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly. 

The ordinance would identify unused and underused city-owned buildings for review by a committee, which would then assess their suitability for use as homeless shelters or service providers. 

“Homelessness is a crisis and it should be the thing that we look at first,” Daly said.  

“(The ordinance) directs that unless there’s an overriding local use or compelling reason why the property should not be turned over on a rental basis for use by the homeless.” 

San Francisco estimates about 5,400 homeless people live in the city of 777,000.  

Advocates put the total much higher. The city has fewer than 2,000 shelter beds, which are assigned by lottery. 

Gomez lived in Golden Gate Park before occupying the building. He said he’s trapped in a cycle of not being able to get a job because he has no place to live and not being able to find a place to live because he doesn’t have a job. 

“To be employed, it helps to have a place to shower, a place to shave, a place to cook,” he said Monday morning from an open second-floor window before the arrests.  

“Most of the homeless people who are able-bodied do grunt labor ... usually for very little money and you still don’t have a place to stay.” 

Advocates agree many of the newly homeless are the working poor. 

“People are making what used to be a living wage and finding that it’s not enough to rent in San Francisco,” said Gullicksen of San Francisco-based Homes Not Jails, which organized the occupation.  

“The shelters are full of people who can’t afford to rent.” 

Monthly rents in San Francisco currently range from about $1,800 to $3,500 for a one-bedroom apartment. 

San Francisco’s Real Estate Department has no estimate of how many city-owned buildings are currently vacant, according to spokesman Steve Legnitto. 

“The city tries to use every facility that we have,” Legnitto said.  

“The only reason we don’t use it is if it’s in need of repair. If it’s in need of repair, we use it for storage. The public perception of what is not being used may be completely different from the truth.” 

But housing advocates like Gullicksen look at a vacant building and see shelter for needy people. 

“The politicians see property in San Francisco as too valuable to just give away. They’ll keep it vacant for 10 years rather than let homeless people fix it up and live here,” he said.  

“Even if we can stay here a month and provide housing for 100 people for one month, we’ve done more than most.”