Police arrested approximately 20 protesters who broke into and occupied a vacant two-story building at 535-537 Castro St. Wednesday night. The protesters, part of a group of more than 50 people who had gathered at Dolores Park in honor of World Homeless Day, marched to the building in an effort to draw attention to the needs of homeless people.
More than 40 officers, including some in riot gear, followed the protesters, who held signs and chanted “House keys, not handcuffs.” A “For Lease” sign hung in one of the building’s windows.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, director of the counseling program at the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, joined march organizers from the housing and advocacy group Homes Not Jails. A pamphlet handed out by the organization stated that the property owner, Leslie Natali, has kept the property vacant for five years.
“It’s insane that there are 10,000 homeless and we have vacant units,” Mecca said. “We are occupying it. If the landlord’s got so much money that he can keep it vacant, then let the city take it.”
The second-story residential space was the first to be unlocked by the protesters for homeless people and other marchers to occupy. Approximately 20 minutes later, the commercial space on the first floor was opened.
Protesters occupied the building for close to an hour, gathering in a room and hanging out of windows as people on the street yelled at police. Two people on the roof draped a banner over the side of building that read “GENTRIFICATION = ASSIMILATION.”
When a metal chain was dropped or fell from the roof, police took action.
“The persons that were up there had black hoodies and black masks,” SFPD spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak said of the people on the roof. He noted that protesters who have vandalized Mission businesses in the past have worn similar costumes. “To avoid any further damage, officers moved in.”
After gathering evidence and questioning protesters inside the building for more than two hours, officers turned off the lights on the second floor. The protesters who were arrested are being charged with burglary and property damage, among other charges. According to Andraychak, the damage to doors, sheetrock and other property could add up to thousands of dollars.
Protester Alix Txe, who has been involved with Homes Not Jails for two years, said that she disagrees with some of her peers’ aggressive tactics but believes the group is doing good for the homeless.
“It takes all kinds of people to form a community,” she said.