LOS ANGELES — Activists, clergy and residents gathered March 15 to pray for a group of mothers and housing activists known as “The Reclaimers” after they took over a vacant, state-owned property 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.
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 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 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.
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 destroyed because, according to the Prophet Ezekiel, “they had resources and they didn’t share with the poor.”
He asked: “Are we going to say today, in the midst of a crisis, in the midst of the coronavirus plague which is coming upon us, ‘People should rather live in the street rather than go into a house which is owned by somebody else but not using it’?” and added, “Housing is a human right.”
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.”