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Biography of: Cheri Honkala
Author: Anne Roth

Leadership Style
Political Philosophy


  • Mid 1960s Cheri Honkala is born into poverty in Minneapolis MN
  • Late 1970s Cheri Honkala becomes a runaway and is placed in (Age 12) many foster homes and institutions until declared legally an adult
  • Mid 1980s Son Mark Webber born in Minneapolis (age 17) Cheri and Mark are features on Social Service poster Cheri joins Welfare Rights Union
  • Mid 1980s Cheri forms her first Anti-Poverty group in Minneapolis: Women, Work, and Welfare She quits because it turns into self-help support group Up and Out of Poverty Now formed in Minneapolis by Cheri (Group to help welfare recipients)-Affiliated with National Welfare Rights Union (NWRU)
  • 1989 Cheri and Mark move to Philadelphia, PA 1990 Cheri starts a Welfare Rights Union branch office in Kensington, a notoriously rough Philadelphia, PA neighborhood-becomes known as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU)
  • Winter 1993 Cheri and the KWRU take over an abandoned Catholic Church closed only because congregation numbers were falling for Kensington- All Philadelphia shelters are full at this time.
  • Late 1994 KWRU breaks in and takes over vacant Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Homes destined for low-income housing and subsidized rent. All inhabitants are eligible, but choose to ignore the paperwork. Cheri and the inhabitants pay rent into an escrow account to avoid actual trespassing charges, but completely ignore HUD paperwork and process Known as the Underground Railroad Project, giving available houses to homeless. Cheri also lives in a "taken" house. The group is eventually kicked out.
  • June 1994 Quaker Lace factory burned in arson by drug lords in an attempt to rid the neighborhood of another DEA lookout post. The fire leaves an enormous empty lot that Cheri thinks has potential.
  • Summer 1995 Cheri builds an impressive "Tent City" on the abandoned Quaker Lace lot in Kensington. No one can come up with the proper proof of ownership to kick them off of the land. The "city" lasts until it is flooded out. This proved to be a most effective attention-getter and earned Cheri many donations for the KWRU, though she continues to live in poverty.
  • October 5, 1996 Homeless sit in led by KWRU on the floor of Philadelphia's capital building rotunda is a success. KWRU created a makeshift "city" in the floor and named it Ridgeville in honor of Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who slashed state welfare and healthcare. Cheri just wanted the homeless to see how the Governor lived, since the state takes a reported one million dollars out of tax income per year to house him in the 26,000 square foot Pennsylvania state owned Governor's mansion. State legislators who had opposed the cuts ordered a $650.00 meal to house those occupying Ridgeville.
  • April 30, 1997 Cheri is arrested for defiant trespassing for attempting to build shacks for homeless families in Philadelphia on an empty industrial lot despite the fact that the shelter system is full and forcing people to live on the streets.
  • May 1997 Cheri meets with the welfare department to renew her checks and refuses to sign the Agreement of Mutual Responsibility (AMR) citing it as an "unfair contract in which the state offers no responsibility to recipients (i.e. the right to a job at a living wage, child care, health care, transportation)-it is a form of economic violence that in essence blames the victims of an unjust economic structure." The AMR is intended to provide the state with the name of the father who has abandoned them or from whom they have fled, and proof of domestic violence. This allows the Department of Public Welfare to collect child support from the father, if he can be found, and use it towards general public welfare funds, giving none of it to Cheri and Mark. This also gives the father, if searching for Mark and Cheri for whatever reason, access to where he might find them, possibly endangering them. This refusal to sign denies her welfare for one month.
  • June 1997 March for our Lives (Led by Cheri and the KWRU, 10 Day march from Philadelphia to New York City by the poor to protest human rights violations caused by welfare reform.)
  • September 1997 "Link up and Build a Movement' Campaign speech delivered across Philadelphia
  • September 1997 Cheri Honkala named Philadelphia Weekly Woman of the Year for service to the city and innovation
  • Dec. 10, 1997 Take Action Date: Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • June 1998 New Freedom Bus travels across the country gathering stories of human rights violations to present to the United Nations (Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, an affiliate of KWRU)
  • Sept. 22, 1999 Cheri Honkala banned from the Liberty Bell and National Independence Park for one year for being a part/leading a peaceful gathering to protest welfare cuts and to call attention to the numbers of homeless on Philadelphia's streets.
  • October 1999 Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign joins with other organizations for March of the Americas (month long march from Washington, DC to the United Nations building in New York City)
  • Dec. 1, 1999 KWRU paraded through the auditorium at a Department of Public Welfare's public invitation to air comments and recommendations wearing homemade McDonald's uniforms and handing out McDonald's hamburgers in mockery of jobs for welfare recipients- "Living Wage Jobs Now"

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Leadership Style

Cheri grew up in poverty in Minneapolis. She was a member of a welfare family from day one. Mentally and physically abused by her stepfather, who was an alcoholic, and unable to tolerate living at home, she ran away. By the age of twelve she was in and out of institutions for runaways and abused kids. She would stay within the boundaries of the Minnesota foster care system for the rest of her teenage years. Cheri was finally sent to an "alternative 'last chance' high school" where she was inspired to go to college. She gave birth to her son Mark at age seventeen, but managed to finish three years of college in the process. Destined to be a welfare mother herself, her child hood experience had taught her one powerful lesson: "give up or survive." What the future held for Cheri was unknown, but she knew that she had to find some way to make ends meet-to survive.

It all began with a poster of Cheri and her son Mark advertising the welfare system. She realized then that she herself was a "poster child"-the unforgettable face that you see time and time again and finally begin to feel sorry for. Determined to make something out of nothing, Cheri's crusades began.

Cheri Honkala began with a laissez-faire attitude with her work directly on the street, building tents, finding food, and helping others in her situation. She presented an idea, started working on it, and everyone followed suit. She was in charge mostly because it was her idea. A good example of this is found in the early groups she formed in Minneapolis: Women, Work, and Welfare, and Up and Out of Poverty Now. The groups didn't go where she wanted them to mostly because she didn't guide them.

Today, Cheri operates primarily as an Authoritarian, but manages to do it without an egocentric air. Her efforts have developed into organizations, which branch out to encompass several smaller movements. People like Cheri and tend to follow her because they admire her. She is not just an activist, but one of them. What makes Cheri different is the fact that she turned nothing into something. She is a constant motivator-she puts others ahead of herself, even though she doesn't often have any more than the others do. Her generosity, survival tactics, vision, creative thinking and problem solving skills, and her infallible organization have made her a strong leader. Cheri is a good figure head because she's been there herself. She doesn't only speak for other people, she speaks from experience. Cheri's past tent cities and the Underground Railroad project illustrate her authoritarian power best. She gets a good idea, and she runs with it. With the Tent City on the old Quaker Lace lot, she decided it should happen, and everyone banded together and got things done. She wanted pallet floors for the shacks, so they found pallet floors. Cheri was just so accepted by others that she didn't really have to delegate tasks, vote on decisions, or worry about what was next because they couldn't do anything but wait for things to come together. She is usually so successful because she has the backing of so many people from different walks of life because she has earned their respect by sticking up for herself and others.

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Political Philosophy

"We are fighting to make this country what it set out to be."

Cheri Honkala abides by a primarily innovative philosophy. She believes in the underlying intent of the original welfare/social system and the help they were created to provide to our nation's poor. What she objects to is the way our government has developed these ideas, acted upon them, and presented them to the public. This welfare/social services system has been so poorly maintained and so negatively spoken of that most Americans view welfare as a "worthless and unnecessary handout"-most American's believe that we're paying our poor to stay poor.

"We are encouraging people to organize minimarches and tribunals in the poorest districts in their states so that the poor and homeless families in that district can speak to the conditions and what is happening in this country. We want you to document how many women, children, and men are going to live in houses this coming winter without any heat, without any hot water to bathe their children; document people that die in house fires as a result of resorting to other means of obtaining heat; document the people that die in houses that collapse because they didn't have access to decent and affordable housing; document the people that are going to go deaf because they didn't have the money for amoxicillin for their children . . ."

Honkala is definitely nonviolent. She does not want to hurt anyone to get their attention, she just wants the attention. She works hard to dispel the image of welfare recipients as drug abusers, or lazy, and she loathes the "Welfare Queen" image that Reagan coined during his campaign for president: the woman on welfare making money off of the government, having babies to increase the paycheck.

Honkala relies primarily on sit-ins and tent cities, signs, and gathering numbers of homeless together in one place to gain the attention primarily of city officials, politicians, and everyday onlookers. She wants to educate the system about what's really out there in an effort to inspire change.

Excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25 1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection . . .

What Cheri Honkala is fighting for seems to be a chance for our entire nation's poor to meet the basic needs for survival. With this assistance, the poor can reach a level of survival that would allow them to turn around and help the people who need it more than they do. This isn't a fight for a bigger handout, it's a fight for a realistic opportunity to exist under the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, not very many people in America have access to these basic rights because they simply can't afford them.

Honkala states very simply that her actions are motivated by a "moral sense of urgency." For more information, contact the KWRU at or check out The Myth of the Welfare Queens by David Zucchino. It's a story of two women on welfare, a chronicle of what daily life with Cheri Honkala, a welfare recipient and activist, and Odessa Williams a welfare grandmother.

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