With Advocates’ Help, Squatters Call Foreclosures Home

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.

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