[Marxism] Squatters movement taking shape

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 10 07:17:32 MDT 2009


NY Times, April 10, 2009
More Squatters Are Calling Foreclosures Home
By JOHN LELAND

MIAMI — When the woman who calls herself Queen Omega moved into a 
three-bedroom house here last December, she introduced herself to the 
neighbors, signed contracts for electricity and water and ordered an 
Internet connection.

What she did not tell anyone was that she had no legal right to be in 
the home.

Ms. Omega, 48, is one of the beneficiaries of the foreclosure crisis. 
Through a small advocacy group of local volunteers called Take Back the 
Land, she moved from a friend’s couch into a newly empty house that sold 
just a few years ago for more than $400,000.

Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the 
Homeless, said about a dozen advocacy groups around the country were 
actively moving homeless people into vacant homes — some working in 
secret, others, like Take Back the Land, operating openly.

In addition to squatting, some advocacy groups have organized civil 
disobedience actions in which borrowers or renters refuse to leave homes 
after foreclosure.

The groups say that they have sometimes received support from neighbors 
and that beleaguered police departments have not aggressively gone after 
squatters.

“We’re seeing sheriffs’ departments who are reluctant to move fast on 
foreclosures or evictions,” said Bill Faith, director of the Coalition 
on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, which is not engaged in squatting. 
“They’re up to their eyeballs in this stuff. Everyone’s overwhelmed.”

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Omega sat on the tiled floor of her 
unfurnished living room and described plans to use the space to tie-dye 
clothing and sell it on the Internet, hoping to save some money before 
she is inevitably forced to leave.

“It’s a beautiful castle, and it’s temporary for me,” she said, “and if 
I can be here 24 hours, I’m thankful.” In the meantime, she said, she 
has instructed her adult son not to make noise, to be a good neighbor.

In Minnesota, a group called the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights 
Campaign recently moved families into 13 empty homes; in Philadelphia, 
the Kensington Welfare Rights Union maintains seven “human rights 
houses” shared by 13 families. Cheri Honkala, who is the national 
organizer for the Minnesota group and was homeless herself once, likened 
the group’s work to “a modern-day underground railroad,” and said 
squatters could last up to a year in a house before eviction.

Other groups, including Women in Transition in Louisville, Ky., are 
looking for properties to occupy, especially as they become frustrated 
with the lack of affordable housing and the oversupply of empty homes.

Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the 
Homeless, said her group had been looking into asking banks to give it 
abandoned buildings to renovate and occupy legally. Ms. Honkala, who was 
a squatter in the 1980s, said the biggest difference now was that the 
neighbors were often more supportive. “People who used to say, ‘That’s 
breaking the law,’ now that they’re living on a block with three or four 
empty houses, they’re very interested in helping out, bringing over 
mattresses or food for the families,” she said.

Ben Burton, executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, 
said squatting was still relatively rare in the city.

But Take Back the Land has had to compete with less organized squatters, 
said Max Rameau, the group’s director.

“We had a move-in that we were going to do one day at noon,” he said. 
“At 10 o’clock in the morning, I went over to the house just to make 
sure everything was O.K., and squatters took over our squat. Then we 
went to another place nearby, and squatters were in that place also.”

Mr. Rameau said his group differed from ad hoc squatters by operating 
openly, screening potential residents for mental illness and drug 
addiction, and requiring that they earn “sweat equity” by cleaning or 
doing repairs around the house and that they keep up with the utility bills.

“We change the locks,” he said. “We pull up with a truck and move in 
through the front door. The families get a key to the front door.” Most 
of the houses are in poor neighborhoods, where the neighbors are less 
likely to object.

Kelly Penton, director of communications for the City of Miami, said 
police officers needed a signed affidavit from a property’s owner — 
usually a bank — to evict squatters. Representatives from the city’s 
homeless assistance program then help the squatters find shelter.

To find properties, Mr. Rameau and his colleagues check foreclosure 
listings, then scout out the houses for damage. On a recent afternoon, 
Mr. Rameau walked around to the unlocked metal gate of an abandoned 
bungalow in the Liberty City neighborhood.

“Let the record reflect that there was no lock on the door,” Mr. Rameau 
said. “I’m not breaking in.”

Inside, the wiring and sinks had been stripped out, and there was a pile 
of ashes on the linoleum floor where someone had burned a telephone book 
— probably during a cold spell the previous week, Mr. Rameau said.

“Two or three weeks ago, this house was in good condition,” Mr. Rameau 
said. “Now we wouldn’t move a family in here.”

So far the group has moved 10 families into empty houses, and Mr. Rameau 
said the group could not afford to help any more people. “It costs us 
$200 per move-in,” he said.

Mary Trody hopes not to leave again. On Feb. 20, Ms. Trody and her 
family of 12 — including her mother, siblings and children — were 
evicted from their modest blue house northwest of the city, which the 
family had lived in for 22 years, because her mother had not paid the 
mortgage.

After a weekend of sleeping in a paneled truck, however, the family, 
with the help of Take Back the Land, moved back in.

“This home is what you call a real home,” Ms. Trody said. “We had all 
family events — Christmas parties, deaths, funerals, weddings — all in 
this house.”

On a splendid Florida afternoon, Ms. Trody’s dog played in the water 
from a hose on the front lawn. The house had mattresses on the floors, 
but most belongings were in storage, in case they had to leave again.

“I don’t think it’s fair living in a house and not paying,” Ms. Trody said.

She said the mortgage lender had offered the family $1,500 to leave but 
was unwilling to negotiate minimal payments that would allow them to 
stay. She said she and her husband had been looking for work since he 
lost his delivery job with The Miami Herald.

In the meantime, she said, “I still got knots in my stomach, because I 
don’t know when they’re going to come yank it back from me, when they’re 
going to put me back on the streets.”

The block was dotted with foreclosed homes.

Three of her neighbors said they knew she was squatting and supported 
her. One is Joanna Jean Pierre, 32, who affectionately refers to Ms. 
Trody as Momma.

Ms. Pierre said Ms. Trody was a good neighbor and should be let alone. 
“That’s her house,” Ms. Pierre said. “She should be here.”

Ms. Trody said that living here before, “I felt secure; I felt this is 
my home.”

“This is where I know I’m safe,” she added. “Now it’s like, this is a 
stranger. What’s going to happen?”

Even without furniture or homey touches, she talked about the house as 
if it were a member of her family.

“I know it’s not permanently, but we still have these couple days left,” 
she said. “It’s like a person that you’re losing, and you know you still 
have a few more days with them.”




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