Homeless Occupy Foreclosed Houses

By D.H. Kerby

RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosure properties which compiles statistics about real estate, issued a report showing a total of 3,157,806 foreclosure filings—default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions—on 2,330,483 US properties during 2008, an 81% increase in total properties from 2007.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, three and a half million people experienced homelessness in the United States during the same year.

Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign has a simple solution to this glaring gap between unused resources and people in dire need. Her organization just goes ahead and moves the homeless into vacant, foreclosed homes. The group has acknowledged achieving this for 12 families in North Minneapolis recently. It also teaches people how to how to take over empty homes and provides other services to the poor.

Gary Blasi, professor of Law at UCLA, said that an argument in support of their actions would be some version of “the necessity defense.” In other words, faced with the threat to a street dweller’s survival posed, for example, by Minneapolis’ freezing weather, that both the organizers and the unhoused families they help simply “had to” act as they did.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies a right to housing, and Honkala’s campaign makes reference to that provision of this foundational human rights document. The spontaneous exercise of a right to housing characterizes Honkala’s efforts, which, according to a video posted on Minnesota Independent Media includes a sort of “underground railroad” for the unhoused in Minneapolis.

Street dwellers are first welcomed into the home of an organizer, then moved into a vacant home. Honkala, who endured homelessness herself at one point in her life, says that law enforcement has for the most part left them alone and she believes that it recognizes that it should have other, higher priorities.

“Nowadays most city police are very sympathetic and actually support us. We’ve had police officers bring by blankets or food or those kinds of things when they’re off-duty … (They) are in favor of people living in houses and not living the streets, especially when it comes to children,” she said.

Unhoused persons are asked to sign a contract with her organization agreeing that they will abstain from drug or alcohol use while living in the previously vacant, foreclosed homes. The contract also requires them to participate in the movement to end poverty and homelessness in the United States.

“There are other arenas that we can utilize … aside from the domestic, US courts,” she said. For example, her group has also interacted with international organizations. It went to the Organization of American States and presented expert information about the lack of public housing, about Hurricane Katrina’s effects on the poor, and about the foreclosure crisis. Honkala said that there was supposed to have been a “government response.” It seems she is still waiting for that.

“We’ve also linked up with the Zero Evictions Campaign that really talks about … housing in a human rights framework.” That campaign is part of the International Alliance of Inhabitants, which is supported by the Europe-based Foundation for the Progress of Man.

Honkala continued, “… (W)e also see ourselves (as) human rights monitors. Especially when we live in a country where there’s such an abundance, we see these things as human rights violations and we think that they should be documented and they should be photographed, written about and the rest of the general public (should) be made aware of what’s happening because we think that the majority of the American people are good people, they just don’t know what’s really happening in this country.”

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, might well agree. In a speech to a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Feb. 20, she said that the poor “bear the brunt” of the world economic crisis and are most threatened by it, adding that “A human rights approach [to the world economic crisis] will contribute to making solutions more durable in the medium and long run.” She appealed to states and the corporate world to ensure that their policies and practices do not jeopardize people’s human rights.

Pillay warned that the downturn in economies around the world was likely to “undermine access to work, affordability of food and housing, as well as of water, basic health care and education.” She mentioned the rights to which everyone is entitled under Articles 23, 25, and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These Articles are also prominently referenced on Honkala’s organization’s website (www.economichumanrights.org).

Homeless advocacy groups in the United States have lined up behind Honkala’s organization. Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, was quick to support the efforts of the group, saying, “yes, we’re concerned about how the foreclosure crisis is impacting Americans and causing them to become homeless so at the very get-go we want to … keep people in their homes before they lose their homes and if there’s many abandoned buildings across this country and there are homeless people there needs to be a way to figure out how we can take advantage of this housing stock and to help people no longer to be homeless.” Stoop’s organization, he says, is the nation’s “oldest and largest homeless advocacy group.”

Susie Shannon, Housing Advocate with the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, said “We are in full solidarity with the people who are doing this, because we … definitely (want to) … call attention to the fact that people are becoming homeless as a result of this foreclosure crisis…” Los Angeles has the largest population of homeless people in the nation.

She continued, “…(W)e also want to call attention to the fact that this is also affecting people who are renting… but I think anything that calls attention to the homeless situation and forces the government, whether it’s the local (or) … state government to do something about it is a good thing at this point.” She says that “a little under 50,000” renters nationwide have been evicted because the buildings they lived in were foreclosed on, adding that “until there is a national focus on this, there will be things like this, where people are squatting in foreclosed homes.”

In her address to the Human Rights Council, Navi Pillay emphasized the necessity “to identify the specific needs and entitlements of vulnerable groups and individuals, particularly women and children, migrants, refugees, indigenous peoples, minorities and persons with disabilities.” The groups to which Ms. Pillay refers are disproportionally represented in the homeless population in the United States. “They stand at the frontlines of hardship, and are most likely to lose their jobs and access to social safety nets and services,” she said.

Michael Stoops went on to say that “We know it’s … against… I guess it is … against the law to take over a building but we would much rather have people inside than outside and I think if it’s done in a correct way and if there’s a non-profit or an activist group involved the goal is to house people and so if people do get arrested for squatting we’d help put those people who get charged with a crime in touch with local legal support groups around the country,” adding “I think squatting is going to become more common and when you’re homeless you’re really working at trying to survive.”

D.H. Kerby is a writer in Philadelphia. Email DH@DHKerby.com.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2009

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