Cheri Honkala was born into poverty in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She grew up watching her mother suffer from domestic violence that she quietly endured for fear of losing her kids. At the age of 17 her 19 year old brother Mark, who suffered from mental health issues committed suicide. He was uninsured and could not afford to get the help he needed. At the time of Mark's suicide Cheri was a teenage mother living out of her car and going to high school. Despite her difficult upbringing she graduated high school.
Cheri and her son Mark (named after her brother) lived in and out of places eventually becoming homeless after the car they had been living in at the time was demolished by a drunk driver. Mark was 9 years old and Cheri could not find a shelter that would allow them to remain together that winter so in order to keep from freezing Cheri decided to move into an abandoned HUD home. She then began working to help other poor families and became a pioneer in the modern housing takeover movement. For the past 25 years Cheri Honkala has been a leading advocate for poor and homeless in America. She co-founded the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. She has organized tens of thousands holding marches, demonstrations and setting up tent cities.
Honkala was included in Philadelphia Magazine’s list of 100 Most Powerful Philadelphians and was named Philadelphia Weekly’s “Woman of the Year” in 1997. In 2001 Ms. Magazine also named Cheri Woman of the Year and she's since been the recipient of numerous awards including the Bread and Roses Human Rights Award, Public Citizen of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of Social Workers, and the prestigious Letelier-Moffitt award from the Washington Institute for Policy Studies. In April 2005 Mother Jones magazine named her Hellraiser of the Month. Front Line Defenders has named Cheri one of the 12 most endangered activists in America.
Cheri is nationally and internationally respected for her anti-poverty work. Honoring the legacy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign of 1967-68 Cheri inspires a new generation of leaders working to end poverty. In 2004 Cheri spoke at the World Social Forum in India. In 2000 at the Republican National Convention Cheri was a leader of a march of over 100,000 people and she also addressed 148 governments at the United Nations on poverty.
In 2011 as a result of the recent bank bailouts and near complete lack of support for the millions of struggling homeowners caught in the undertow of Wall Street's housing bubble Cheri became the first woman to run for Sheriff of Philadelphia and the first and only Sheriff candidate nationwide pledging to stop home foreclosures by the big banks. Running under the Green Party her platform was to "Keep Families in Their Homes", A position that could finally force the banks back to the table with taxpayers and homeowners alike.To get on the ballot Cheri and her volunteers collected 4,300 signatures and on election day received over 10,000 votes in Philadelphia growing the Green Party, particularly in lower income neighborhoods.
Cheri's son Mark Webber is an actor and director. Cheri played herself in Explicit Ills, Mark Webber's drama about poverty in Philadelphia.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Zucchino chronicled Cheri Honkala and the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign for six months during 1996 in his book The Myth of the Welfare Queen which include Cheri organizing 70 homeless families taking over an abandoned church, setting up another homeless encampment in an abandoned lot, and getting arrested and charged for attempting to set up a tent city in front of the Liberty Bell. Honkala faced over 10 years in prison, as local law enforcement claimed she assaulted officers, however video footage later abosolved her of any crime.
Since the mid 1990's Cheri has been extensively documented by photographer Harvey Finkle. Cheri was also photographed by photographer Richard Avedon's Democracy 2004 series, which appeared in the October 2004 edition of the New Yorker magazine.