More squatters calling foreclosures home
In a movement likened to a modern-day underground railroad, advocacy groups are finding homes for squatters in foreclosed houses.
The New York Times
When the woman who calls herself Queen Omega moved into a three-bedroom Miami house in 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 she had no legal right to be in the home.
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 throughout the country were 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.
Representatives of the groups said they have sometimes received support from neighbors and strapped 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, Omega sat on the tiled floor of the 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, 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 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 them abandoned buildings to renovate and occupy legally.
Honkala, who was a squatter in the 1980s, said the biggest difference these days is 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 remained 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 OK, and squatters took over our squat. Then we went to another place nearby, and squatters were in that place also."
Rameau said his group differed from ad hoc squatters by operating openly and screening potential residents for mental illness and drug addiction, 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, Rameau and his colleagues check foreclosure listings and scout out the houses for damage.
So far the group has moved 10 families into empty houses, and Rameau said the group could not afford to help any more people. "It costs us $200 per move-in," he said.
On Feb. 20, Mary Trody and her family of 12 — including her mother, siblings and children — were evicted from their modest blue house northwest of Miami that 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," Trody said. "We had all family events — Christmas parties, deaths, funerals, weddings — all in this house."
On a recent afternoon, 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.
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.
"I don't think it's fair living in a house and not paying," Trody said.
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 neighbors said they knew she was squatting and supported her. One is Joanna Jean Pierre, 32, who affectionately refers to Trody as "Mama."
Pierre said Trody was a good neighbor and should be left alone. "That's her house," Pierre said. "She should be here."
Trody said that living in the house previously, "I felt secure; I felt this is my home.
"This is where I know I'm safe. 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."
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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