Just after midnight in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, two men smoke cigarettes outside the gate of an abandoned school. They’re waiting for the right moment to break in.
“We’re looking to gain entry to a long-vacant private commercial building that’s been vacant at least four years,” says Matt Crain. “Tonight what we’re going to do is just go in through the back. I’m going to pick a padlock that’s on a side gate of the place, and if that goes smoothly then we’ll proceed to the back and see if there’s an open door or an open window, and just proceed from there.”
The two men are on a mission to provide housing from some people who don't have any.
“The main reason we’re here is three people came to the meeting tonight who all were in essentially immediate need of housing, and this was a spot that could house 20 people comfortably. It has water and electricity, and it’s truly abandoned,” explains Crain.
When the taxis and pedestrians pass, Matt Crain slips two slender pieces of metal into a padlock and begins to maneuver them.
Crain’s lookout warns him when people come near. “Red light,” he says, and the pair light new cigarettes. Finally, the padlock opens.
Now Crain can venture onto the school’s property. The next step is to see if people can live inside it.
“Humans, we're animals, and we're going to do what we need to do to survive,” says Crain. “Our survival instinct is powerful. If a human being is cold they're going to do what they need to do to get warm.”
Crain is member of a group called Homes Not Jails, a 20-year-old collective dedicated to opening squats. It's a loose association of a few dozen activists, anarchists, and otherwise homeless people, united behind a cause.
“We've come to together collectively because we believe in squatting, in taking back vacant properties and abandoned properties and actually using them, putting them to use,” says Crain.
The group also hosts public demonstrations to draw attention to the number of vacant and abandoned buildings in San Francisco. This July 4th, they took over the Sierra Hotel on Mission Street, which had been abandoned for more than 20 years.
Crain is among the group’s most active members. Two to four nights a week, for the last couple years, he’s gone to neighborhoods around San Francisco, locating and opening vacant buildings for squatters to live in.
Squatting is a form of trespassing, and the group's activities also involve vandalism, such as picking locks or forcing open doors. These are misdemeanors and potentially felonies, but they're willing to risk jail to give shelter to people in need. It's illegal. It's a violation of the right to property. But is it wrong?
Homes Not Jails member Bruce leads me down a quiet block in the Mission. He’s showing me the first steps in turning a vacant building into a squat.
“We’re at the end of Shackwell. The Shackwell side right here, by FoodsCo.”
“Could you say where we're going?” I ask.
“Uh, no,” is Bruce’s simple answer.
Bruce lives in an SRO in the Tenderloin. He spends a lot of time writing for Poor Magazine and getting in the city's hair about tenants’ rights and affordable housing issues. He's also pretty good at spotting vacant buildings.
There are more official ways of finding vacant buildings. The city keeps track of foreclosed homes, and real estate websites list properties for rent and for sale. The Department of Building Inspection also keeps a list of abandoned properties that's kind of tough to get your hands on, but can acquired. I've seen it. But the best way is to just be out on the street, noticing.
Bruce has a technique for making sure a property is vacant. He sticks a strip of duct tape across a closed gate or door.
“The tape I put on, I can look at it tomorrow,” he explains. “And if the tape is not moved in a week, I know it's vacant.”
“So what's next?” I ask.
“Then find a way to get access in there. Go inside.”
“How do you think you'll do that?”
“I can't tell you at this time.”
Over time, I learned them. The simplest and least destructive involves just going up through a window. But Homes Not Jails might also pick a lock, or pry a door open with a crowbar. Probably the most aggressive technique involves stealing the keys in lock boxes at for-sale and for-rent homes. They clip off the box with bolt cutters, and then smash it open with a sledgehammer. Then they go to a meeting to talk about their progress.
“Tonight as I was coming here I happened to be walking by it, and the tape on the smaller gate was still intact, but the tape on the larger gate – that tape was completely split. It was obvious somebody had breached,” says Matt Crain.
Homes Not Jails meetings are hosted at the office of the San Francisco Housing Rights Committee, which is sympathetic, but not officially affiliated. Meetings start with a roll call. Tonight’s seven attendees say their names, their housing status, and if they’re willing to go on an “away-team,” which is code for late-night squat exploring.
The average squat only lasts about month, so Homes Not Jails constantly needs to find new ones. They’re good at it, though. This year alone, Crain estimates they’ve moved nearly 100 people into about 50 vacant homes. Anyone who shows up at the meeting can be placed in an available squat. Those housed include people forced into homelessness, and people who are voluntarily homeless.
“I'm homeless by choice, in a sense. I'm housed, but I'm housed because I've taken the effort to open up a vacant or abandoned place and use it. I just, personally, can’t support a system that I don't believe in,” Crain says.
Crain stays in an abandoned condo he shares with other squatters. They’ve been there about five months. Cops will respond to any complaint about trespassing, but if the squatters can make a convincing argument they belong there – with mail in their name, or permanent-looking furniture – then the landlord has to go to court to get them out. For people like Crain, squatting is a way to resist a system they can't abide. But for landlords and property owners like Robert Link, it's an expensive annoyance.
Link, like the other realtors and property managers I spoke with, says vacancies in San Francisco are so low that he doesn’t need to deal with squatting too much. But if Crain and his crew stake out his apartment, cut his lockbox to get his keys, and stay without permission...
“First I’d file a police report. I would feel violated. I would feel ‘this is illegal, this is trespassing.’ Second call would be to my attorney, to get these people out,” says Link.
I ask if he’d have any sympathy for the squatters.
“Honestly, no,” Link replies. “There may be sympathy for the fact that there may be people having hard times. But there are alternatives to illegal taking. There are shelters.
Shelters aren’t a great option, though. There are only 1,176 shelter beds, for 6,455 homeless people, according to the Coalition on Homelessness – a national advocacy organization. But squatting is no cure-all, either. It’s hard to do, and, even for those who are sympathetic, it’s sometimes hard to defend.
About a week after the HNJ meeting, I’m with Crain and another member named Gina, on an away team. They’re going to a neighborhood in the Excelsior, to check out some potentially vacant homes. During the drive, Gina confesses she’s not really sure how to justify taking other people’s property.
“What is there to protect somebody from walking into my home and saying, ‘You have a free dining room, let me live in it?’” says Gina.
“That is the most absurd thing I've ever heard in my life,” Crain counters.
“I'm just saying, I have gotten that,” says Gina.
“I would say, whoever makes that argument is being absolutely absurd and silly,” pushes Crain.
"That's a common concern I've got – what's to stop somebody from taking my spare room, or squatting in my car, or my backyard, or my office?” says Gina.
“You're going to stop them. What would you do if someone squatted in your dining room?” asks Crain.
“What would you do if somebody came and squatted your dining room?” Gina wants to know.
“I'd say, ‘Welcome home.’”
Just because Crain lacks a coherent philosophy doesn't mean he's wrong. He knows what he sees: people without homes, and homes without people. And for him, that’s justification enough to take over empty buildings.
“I feel very comfortable admitting that I am not a good political theorist, and an even worse spokesman for any kind of political theory,” says Crain. “I know what feels right for me. And it feels right for me to take a piece of property that's being neglected, that's being underutilized, and turn that into a home.”
We've just come inside what was a single family home but it’s been converted to a duplex. It’s a place that we were at last week, and we were able to come in, secure the front door, and replace the lock. We step onto plush carpet in an unfurnished room. In the kitchen, motion detector lights go on when we pass through. The electricity and water work.
“It has hot water too, so the gas is still on,” Crain points out.
Crain guesses it's a stalled renovation keeping this home empty. There are no tools in sight, but the downstairs has a nearly finished linoleum floor, and outside each room is a little card, with a dollar amount written on it: “This garage that’s halfway through a remodel has a price on a piece of paper in front of the door that’s $450. So it was somebody’s concept that this little garage, this dank little unit, was worth $450 to somebody. And they probably would get $450 today in the city.”
Crain doesn't like people to profit off housing. With this place at least, he can do something about it. He deems the building squattable in an emergency, but he’ll have to investigate to see if it’ll work as more permanent housing. The rest of the houses he taped up have been breached – the duct tape’s broken – so he and Gina decide to check out a new neighborhood.
I ask what he’s looking for now.
“Anything from no curtains and obviously a vacant space, a vacant room; doors or windows that have been previously broken; old lockboxes, lockboxes that have been hanging for a long time, that nobody’s been by,” Crain explains.
“Is it kind of like looking for water in the desert, just kind of like intuition?” I want to know.
“Yeah, there’s certainly some of that. If it’s a quiet night, you might be able to hear a smoke detector whose battery has run down to a point where it’s beeping to let you know that it needs to be replaced,” says Crain.
It's hard to know just how many ‘squattable’ places there are in San Francisco. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 31,131 vacant housing units. Most are for rent, or they’re vacation homes. But 8,000 are abandoned for other reasons the census doesn’t specify. The people with Homes Not Jails say they belong to speculators who buy homes and keep them off the market until prices go up. Realtors I spoke with disagreed.
Inside the duplex, Crain hears something.
“I don’t know if you heard that, but we just heard a smoke detector battery beep,” Crain says.
He freezes and puts his head up. He waits a half-minute or so, until he hears the beep again. Somebody needs to replace the smoke detector’s battery – the beep could mean no one’s around to do it. He and Gina cross the street, in the direction of the sound. Then they wait again. The beep comes like a tiny heartbeat from inside the house. It’s shelter – maybe.
“Water in the desert, maybe a mirage ... When you're homeless that's exactly what it can feel like, water in the desert: to want a little bit of security, warmth, and to close a door behind you, know that you're safe and you have a little bit of your own space. I would equate that to the desire to quench your thirst. As natural as drinking water,” Crain concludes.
Squatting is no solution to homelessness. It’s too impractical, too difficult, and too temporary. It can also cost property owners: aggravation, time, and money. But as long as there are homes without people, and people without homes, there will be squatters.