Skip to content
The Upside
Link copied to clipboard

Longtime Philly homeless advocate Cheri Honkala finally gets a home to call her own

Cheri Honkala became a homeowner for the first time in April, with a big assist from Jamie Moffett, another dedicated community advocate.

Cheri Honkala, an advocate for the homeless, poses for a portrait outside her home in Philadelphia, Pa. on September 17, 2020.
Cheri Honkala, an advocate for the homeless, poses for a portrait outside her home in Philadelphia, Pa. on September 17, 2020.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Cheri Honkala has worn many hats during her life as a determined activist for homeless people.

She has struggled with homelessness herself. She’s been a controversial figure (arrested “more than 200 times” by her count). She’s been a community advocate for more than three decades. And, in 2012, she was a vice presidential candidate, running with Jill Stein on the Green Party ticket.

Yet throughout the years, there is one title that has eluded Honkala: homeowner.

“I have helped a lot of people get homes,” she said. And finally, somebody helped her.

Through the efforts of Jamie Moffett, another community advocate, Honkala bought her first home in April in Kensington. It’s a cute two-story rowhouse — with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and a small backyard patio — located on a Custer Street block with many good neighbors but a few too many vacant properties that can create a nuisance. Honkala’s house is in nice shape.

» READ MORE: Trying to fix Kensington, one home at a time

Moffett, an artist and former film director, owns several rental properties in the area and Honkala was renting one of them when he suggested that she buy it and at last become a homeowner.

“I said that I am not young anymore,” said Honkala, now 57. “If it could happen, I would be excited.”

Then came the tough part: working around her low credit score.

Moffett went to bat for her with Finanta, a mission-driven nonprofit lender in Kensington with which Moffett shares strong community ties. He attested to Honkala’s excellent record of paying her rent on time: the first of every month, at 8 a.m. — month in and month out. It took a little while, but Honkala got a mortgage whose monthly debt service has worked out to cost less than her rent had.

“It was a lot to do and there was no way I would be able to get a mortgage on my own,” Honkala said. “Jamie was amazing.”

Becoming a homeowner was just the latest challenge in Honkala’s life, although not on the level of running for vice president.

“It was pretty much like standing in front of a Mack truck and having somebody back up into you,” she said about her political run. “Politics are just nasty. It just got ugly, but it taught me a lot about being sure of myself, and courage, and that you could pull bravery out of nowhere.”

Moffett, 44, says Honkala, who is originally from Minnesota, made a profound impression when he met her about 25 years ago. He saw how dedicated she was to helping those without permanent housing. In fact, the majority of her arrests have come from her finding shelter for homeless people in abandoned buildings.

“When I met her, Cheri was working with homeless moms in an abandoned Catholic church," St. Edwards, in Kensington, he said. “I was inspired and wanted to help.”

He was a college student at the time and, with a handful of fellow students, threw his support behind Honkala. And a few years later, he moved to Kensington himself.

“She changed my life," said Moffett, who now lives in Palmyra, Burlington County.

Moffett has no official charitable organization. He just donates his time — lots of it.

“A typical day, I speak to developers and ask them what their take on the market is, their thoughts on crime, and issues that we can resolve together,” he said. “I also speak with my friends in nonprofits and community development, keeping an eye on how things are going in the neighborhoods.”

He also supports people through the home-loan application process; in June, he helped three renters in the area became homeowners. And he works on identifying abandoned properties that could be used for affordable housing.

“There needs to be more developers and nonprofits putting [out] affordable housing resources if we are going to make [a neighborhood] a safe and healthy place,” Moffett said. “I am most passionate about quality affordable housing. If we can get to the point where we can have more options for renters to get the chance to be homeowners, it gives them more options in life.”

Before the pandemic, Honkala was employed by Instacart, delivering groceries to people in Philadelphia.

She went on unemployment after contracting COVID-19 when the pandemic hit.

Little has come easy for Honkala, who lives with and cares for her 18-year-old son, Guillermo Santos, who is on the autism spectrum. Her other son is movie star Mark Webber, 40, who lives in Los Angeles.

“He is a formerly homeless kid," Honkala said about Webber. “He was homeless when [he was] 9 years old and we lived in a car. These issues are near and dear to him. He used to say, ‘Mom, you have to get in your own housing,' and I have told him to send money to the organization.”

The organization she is referring to is Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, which she founded and which has been helping low-income and homeless people for more than 30 years.

Not surprisingly, the doors of her new home are always open to those seeking a roof over their heads. Any given week, she said, a half-dozen people in need of shelter will find it at her place.

“In the middle of a pandemic I became a homeowner,” she said proudly. “It is really wonderful, just a great feeling.”