Reclaiming Vacant Homes in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photograph Source: University of Michigan – CC BY 2.0

There are homes without people. More visible are the people without homes. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, homeless and housing insecure folks in the Los Angeles area moved into publicly owned vacant homes as politicians and public health experts told people to take precautions to avoid infection.

One precaution was for people to stay home, termed “shelter in place.” Another was “social distancing,” keeping six feet of distance from others to prevent infection.

Moms Martha Escudero and Ruby Gordillo, and senior Benito Flores decided to heed that call and moved into a vacant home that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) owns. There were over 150,000 homeless people in the Golden State at last count, according to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.

“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,” according to Reclaimer Martha Escudero, in a statement. “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.”

There are eight state lawmakers: Richard Bloom, David Chiu, Sharon Quirk-Silva, Scott Wiener, Buffy Wicks, Lorena Gonzalez, Rob Bonta, and Mark Stone, who comprise the California Legislative COVID-19 Housing & Homelessness Urgent Action Group. In support of the Reclaimers, the lawmakers sent a letter to Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom asking him to make available the vacant Caltrans homes to people who are homeless or living in inadequate abodes.

Ruby Gordillo is relieved to have moved with her husband and their three kids from their one room, small kitchen and bathroom, which rents for $1,000 a month, into a vacant three bedroom and 1.5 bath vacant home that Caltrans owns in the LA area. “We were shoulder-to-shoulder there for the past five years,” she told me by phone. “Our kitchen was about a foot and a half from my bed. “It’s been very difficult rearing a family in such a confined space.”

Ruby’s husband earns wage income in the labor force. She is a stay-at-home mom who cares for the family’s three special needs kids. The Reclaimers took inspiration for their action from Moms 4 Housing, the Oakland-based group of unhoused women and their kids who moved into a vacant investor-owned home in late 2019.

Decades ago, Caltrans bought the vacant homes for the I-710 freeway expansion project. That project never came to fruition.

“The state should have been using vacant homes to house people all along,” Dominique Walker, who founded Moms 4 Housing, said in a statement. “This pandemic is highlighting the profound injustice of a society that says some people deserve a roof over their heads and some don’t. Housing, like health care, is a human right.”

What is next for the fledgling movement to provide shelter for all? All things equal, when the coronavirus pandemic ends, the struggle for affordable and livable housing will continue.

For more information about the Reclaimers, visit https://reclaimingou​ on the web.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email