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Squatters See Silver Lining in Foreclosed Homes

MIAMI, Florida, Feb 18 (IPS) - With foreclosures skyrocketing and U.S. families sinking deeper into poverty, a number of organisations are turning to a new strategy to end homelessness: moving families into vacant, foreclosed houses that are currently owned by banks or the government.

About 15 percent of the housing units in the United States in the fourth quarter 2008 were vacant, representing 19 million units, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

One advocacy group in Miami, Florida, Take Back the Land, has already moved seven families into foreclosed properties.

So far, city officials in Miami have declined to get involved, telling local newspapers that it is up to the property's owners - usually, the banks - to initiate any actions.

Four of the Miami families have already moved on to better situations, having been able to save up money during their months of squatting. Only once have police forced a family out of an abandoned property, but activists simply moved them to another one of thousands of vacant properties.

In Minneapolis, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign recently announced on Valentine's Day that they were moving a dozen families into foreclosed homes.

The PPEHRC has an "underground railroad" of activists in states across the U.S. who have moved hundreds of families into foreclosed homes within the last nine months, Cheri Honkala, national organiser, told IPS. Actions have taken place in California, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and Ohio, Honkala said.

"We have 13 houses right now in the Twin Cities we've taken over, they're owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These properties were foreclosed on and owned by the federal government," Honkala said.

"Right now, if the families weren't living in the properties, they would be either living in their cars or outside, or maybe on a relative's couch if that's an option," he said. "The Twin Cities only has two family shelters and those are full. What ends up happening is families are split up. We're about keeping families together."

"We need to have a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and sheriff sales until we can deal with this affordable housing crisis in our country," Honkala said.

Meanwhile, one U.S. Congresswoman, Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, is advising her constituents not to leave their homes if they are foreclosed on.

"So I say to the American people, be squatters in your own home! Don't you leave!" Kaptur said this month on the U.S. House floor.

Kaptur told CNN and Democracy Now! that she does not believe consumers have been receiving adequate legal representation when facing foreclosure, and that in many cases, banks may have difficulty even producing the original mortgage note behind the loan. No note, no eviction, Kaptur says.

One Miami woman, who asked to be identified as Omega in this article, moved into her new vacant home shortly before the start of the new year.

"I had a serious financial setback and I saved for rainy day, but I didn't save for two rainy days," said Omega, 49.

The first rainy day was a court case and the second was a loss of income. "It sucked up all my money and propelled me into homelessness," Omega said.

"I needed one-time assistance from a county agency. Did you know I was denied with an eviction notice?" Omega recalled. "Veterans homeless, people with PhDs homeless, Masters [degrees] homeless...I really question my government... You can go to other countries and fund wars, but you can't house your own people."

Take Back the Land assists families with moving in, setting up utilities, and, if necessary, obtaining furniture and household items.

"Getting into this place was enlightening; I realised I had a lot of work to do. Days into moving in here, there was no heat, we didn't have a heater available," Omega said, adding that she cleaned for eight days straight "to just get the dust out, there was so much dirt".

She said she has no qualms about sleeping in a house that belongs to a bank. "Maybe the bank got over on a lot of people. I can't feel too guilty about them. I guess I figured out a way to rob the bank without messing with any of their money."

"I do tie-dye [clothing]. This place is going to afford me a place to set up my business- go back into doing tie-dye clothing. This house is giving me a chance to establish myself, to reinvent Queen Omega. I am so thankful to have room with enough space, I could put 50 shirts on the floor."

"When I leave here, I hope to have enough money for my own house and my car," Omega said.

Max Rameau tells IPS his organisation, Take Back the Land, takes a cue from Pan Africanism and Black Nationalism, as well as land movements all over the world, including the MST in Brazil and the Landless People's Movement in South Africa.

Growing up in Haiti, Rameau says the idea of squatting is not a big mental jump for him. Indeed, globalisation and urbanisation have led to sprawling shanty-towns all over the world.

During the recent economic crisis, the squatter's reality is coming home to the U.S., Rameau says.

"What's happening now, we're heading towards a big social clash... between two competing rights or perceived rights, the right of human beings to housing and the right of corporations to make a profit. The two are mutually exclusive," Rameau said.

"The clash [is] being moved by this naked corporate power that's happening right now. Society will have to decide who wins," Rameau said.

Rameau believes Miami officials have not gone after the squatting families because it would be a political embarrassment and because cities are facing declining revenue.

"At some point these local governments which are having budget problems [are] going to have a hard time driving around figuring out who's living, who's squatting in the house, playing savior for these banks," Rameau said.

"In five years this is gonna be very, very common," Rameau predicts, "because the conditions in the U.S. are getting so bad, this is the price people are paying for globalisation. It has triggered this race to the bottom in terms of conditions and jobs and things, and we're seeing the effect of that now in the U.S.," he said.