PHILADELPHIA — In the late 1970s and early '80s, squatters seized more than 1,000 abandoned buildings in Philadelphia, breaking the law to create decent places to live.
Today, community organizers say they are working with the city and private sector to legally place people in permanent housing.
This cooperative movement is bearing fruit in other cities, too.
Squatters who seized 25 vacant city-owned houses in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1985 have since become legal homesteaders under a city-assisted housing program. People are also living in homes they seized and renovated in Boston and Pittsburgh.
But in Los Angeles, a squatters' tent city for up to 600 homeless people was dismantled this September with no alternatives to replace it.
"Squatting's always extremely difficult," said Bruce Dorpalen, director of ACORN Housing Corp., which organized about 300 takeovers at the high point of squatting activity in Philadelphia. "It's very hard on the family."
It was hard on Maria Santana and her husband, Juan Soto, when they seized a two-story Philadelphia row house in 1984. Neighbors said the house had been unoccupied for three years, and parts had been damaged by fire. Graffiti scarred the walls.
As the couple labored at renovations and applied for the title, the owner, whose taxes were unpaid, one day made a surprise visit, demanding to know "who gave us the permission to come in," Santana recalled. Since then, with help from the city and a neighborhood group, the family has traded the squatter's fear of eviction for the homeowner's responsibility for tax payments.
Now, Santana said, "I consider it my home."
Dorpalen's organization, part of the national Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, acknowledges squatting as a tool to win policy changes but focuses on preventing homelessness.
"We try to get people into homeowner situations that are affordable for low-income people," he said.
People living on the streets, contends Mike Shea, national campaign director for ACORN, are a small minority of those needing help to get livable homes.
"We need a Marshall Plan for housing," he said. "It's got to be a long-term plan. Unfortunately, given the budget deficit problem, the future looks bleak."
Henry DeBernardo, director of a north Philadelphia community group, Project Aegis Inc., said squatting has slowed because of a changed political climate that fostered more government efforts to find affordable housing.
But he said he believed the surge of homelessness would likely trigger another wave of squatters in coming years.
"I would think that it's going to be worse the second time around," he said. "I think the issues are going to be much more elaborate. It's just like a little bomb sitting in the city's safe, ticking away. All cities are just the same, actually."
One Philadelphia effort to defuse that bomb, a $9.4-million project to try to place 960 homeless people into 315 existing single-family homes around the city, was recently stalled when some City Council members balked at the process for choosing tenants and home sites.
Jeffrey A. Cruse, president of Philadelphia Council for Community Advancement, said he hoped that the setback would be temporary.
"I am fearful that the winter's fast approaching and we are going to have delays in construction which will have the first families moving in during the spring instead of during the winter when it's most critical to have people off the street and out of shelters," he said.
Once the council authorizes acquisition of the first 100 properties, all habitable but needing repairs, some homeless people could be housed within 10 to 15 days, Cruse said.
The Dignity Housing project will cost city government $6.85 daily per person, according to an Oct. 7 project summary. That includes amortization of development costs, plus administrative expenses and a spectrum of social services to help homeless people become independent.
By contrast, the average cost of public shelter is $13 daily per person, not including the cost of social services.
People who move into Dignity Housing homes will have to sign contracts promising to participate in job training, education, family counseling, health programs and community activities.
"This is not just a housing program where we give you the key and you go in and sit there and watch TV," said Chris Sprowal, president of the Philadelphia-based National Union of the Homeless. "There are some things that are going to be a must, and if you don't do those things, we're going to put you out."
The housing units are in areas that have decent schools, access to transportation, job opportunities, medical care and food markets.
"We don't want to put those people in ghettos or in drug-infested communities, but in communities that are stable and have a strong sense of community pride," Sprowal said.