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On May 21, 2020, Free Speech TV is hosting a special 30th anniversary screening and discussion of Takeover, a film by Peter Kinoy and Pamela Yates. The film follows a movement of homeless people who organized to take over government housing in eight cities across three days in May, 1990. The following is a conversation between Skylight’s Executive Director, Paco de Onís and Peter and Pamela about how the film was made and its relevance today during the COVID-19 pandemic when more people in the U.S. are likely to be pushed into homelessness due to unemployment. 

Details for the screening and discussion on May 21 at 8PM ET can be found here.

Featured photo: National Homeless Union Leader Ron Casanova (r) leading a takeover of an empty building in New York City on May 1, 1990. Photo credit: Jeff Greenburg

Paco de Onís: In Takeover, you follow homeless people in eight cities who simultaneously take over government-owned housing sitting empty, to live in. How did you get wind that this was going down?

Peter Kinoy: At Skylight in the late 1980s we began working with other filmmakers in NYC to support homeless organizing with the National Union of the Homeless, which was organized and led by homeless people themselves.  We created a 15 minute short film Street Heat featuring those homeless leaders. The Union used Street Heat extensively to train and organize a clandestine takeover of empty houses. In fact we were invited to the meeting where it was all planned out.  

Pamela Yates: We were on the inside and that inspired us to make Takeover, documenting this unprecedented radical action of civil disobedience.Why should people live on the street when there were thousands of empty houses, good houses? It was cruel and inhuman. The homeless organizers hated most of the media’s depiction of them as pitiful, helpless, powerless, uneducated people who made bad choices in life.  That was not how they saw themselves, nor did we. The homeless leaders understood how inequality and poverty worked systemically and they educated others living on the street, trying to build momentum for action.

Paco: Why did you think this takeover was important? What was different about your approach?

Peter: By 1990 you couldn’t go to work in NYC without seeing dozens of people living out on the street.  There were tent cities. It was obvious that a growing strata of Americans were desperately poor. The takeovers were a way not only to house the participants, but to raise awareness that there were plenty of empty houses to end the problem of homelessness, that it was a systemic problem, rather than the fault of homeless individuals. 

Pamela: The economy was expanding rapidly, but more and more people were falling below the poverty line.  Why? Our approach was to tell the story of a burgeoning national movement from the inside out so people could see the hopes, the fears and the dreams of people who envisioned a different, more equitable country.  They fought to participate, to have a loud voice.  

Paco:   You had 12 film crews in eight cities filming on the same three days in May, 1990. This was before the widespread use of cell phones. So, no calls, no texts, no WhatsApp. How did you organize the filming and keep on top of what was happening? How did you fund it?

Pamela: Since I had been working as a location sound recordist on many films, I actually  knew cinematographers in every single city where the takeovers were being planned. I asked them all to volunteer to give me three days of their time and to stick with the Homeless Union people. To never leave their side, even sleep where they slept, because there would be no way to contact them again if we lost touch. And there’d be no way to know which empty houses they were going to target and break into if you weren’t right there. I was in Philadelphia and Peter was in New York. We gave everyone instructions and then I called across the country from pay phones when I could, but most crews were on their own, led by the audacious actions of the homeless organizers.

We raised the money from Michael Moore whose breakout debut documentary, Roger & Me, had just been sold to Warner Brothers, and he’d set up a foundation to help other filmmakers. We also received funding from Bruce Springsteen, “The Boss” himself, who was a real champion of the homeless.

Paco:  What became your strategy for editing the filmed material into a coherent story?

Peter: From the beginning it seemed like the unique strength of the material was its insider status. Rather than mainstream media which tended to look at the situation from the outside, we were on the inside of this movement. So an obvious approach was to build on this strength.  The second guiding principle was that in its own way the film should be an embodiment of the struggle of the Homeless Union. We wanted the audience to believe the Union’s motto “Homeless Not Helpless,” and also help the viewer  understand that everyone has the possibility of organizing for a better future.

Pamela: I had wanted to begin the film with a big idea realized artistically – that homeless people were dying in the streets all over America – the richest country in the world. I asked filmmaker Matt Mahurin and photographer Susan Meiselas to accompany me to the NYC mass grave on Hart’s Island where we filmed the burial of unidentified people who die on the streets and those whose families can’t afford a funeral. Now, 30 years later this potter’s field is being used to bury the poor and unidentified bodies of COVID-19 victims.  These haunting images shot in lush 16mm black and white negative film,  along with Charles Neville singing his soulful “Amazing Grace,” became the opening scene of Takeover.

Paco: How did you release the film?  

Pamela: The world premiere of Takover was at the Sundance Film Festival in early 1991 and it went on to be broadcast on the PBS series POV shortly thereafter. The film had a long life and was used even more widely by the National Homeless Union, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and other organizations. And it became the first in a trilogy of films we made about poor people’s movements in the U.S. called “Living Broke in Boom Times”.

Paco: It’s estimated that between 8-11 million people are homeless in the U.S. On its 30th anniversary broadcast, what resonance does Takeover have now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic that has brought the number of unemployed Americans to 22 million? What do you want people to take away from the film for their own lives?  

Peter: The takeovers of the 1990s were a direct result of growing poverty and homelessness. Now 30 years later, conditions are even worse.  The current pandemic has made every social problem sharper, more urgent and more visible.  Even before the current pandemic forced us to “pause” there were 140 million Americans living in poverty or paycheck to paycheck. In these present conditions the Union of the Homeless has been reborn, with chapters in dozens of cities.  And it is a testament to the fact that we were able to successfully capture the ideas and spirit of the homeless organizing back in the day, that one of the first things that new members now are shown is this film.  

Pamela: The guiding principle of the National Homeless Union then and now is something we live by too, “You only get what you’re organized to take”.

Paco de Onís

Paco is the Executive Director and Executive Producer of Skylight, a human rights media organization dedicated to advancing social justice through storytelling by creating documentary films and media tools that can applied in long-term strategies for positive social change.

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