Standing up for the evicted and the homeless

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On Friday, Feb. 20, the four-generation family of Carolyn Connolly was evicted from their foreclosed home in Miami-Dade County, victims of a fraudulent refinancing scheme. The next Monday, alongside members of the Take Back the Land foundation and others, they broke the bank’s locks on their home and moved back in.

The Connolly household was the eighth to be helped by Take Back the Land (www.takebackthe Led by Max Rameau, the group has been moving homeless families into vacant residences since October 2007. As the foreclosure debacle adds a new dimension to the problem of homelessness, Take Back the Land’s tactic is just one of a number of innovative and defiant responses to the crisis.

At the same time, direct-action mobilizations and legal challenges are taking aim at the laws and policies that harass and penalize the homeless and threaten their very survival.

Moving in and staying put.

A recent study estimates that one out of every 50 children in the U.S. is homeless. Carolyn Connolly is determined to do everything she can to prevent her grandchildren and great-grandchildren from swelling that statistic. “I want people to stand up and fight,” she says.

“We’re matching homeless people with peopleless homes,” says Max Rameau.

For now, Miami authorities are ignoring Take Back the Land’s relocation efforts. A police spokeswoman, Kelly Penton, says that while “People need to obey the law, obviously,” police will only act on complaints by property owners, which so far have not been made.

Other organizations and movements are resisting foreclosures and evictions as they happen.

One effort is the “produce the note” strategy. This is a jujitsu move that takes advantage of the messiness of the mortgage lending scam itself. Because companies sold and resold the same mortgage to each other so many times, profiting with each transaction, the original promissory note signed by a home buyer has often been lost. People facing foreclosure are finding that by demanding that these elusive notes be produced, they can stall legal proceedings against them.

How long this will work is an open question, but so far it has enabled many households to stay put. The Web site has extensive information about using this tool.

Groups are also using civil disobedience to keep people in their homes. In the Boston area, the long-standing social-justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU, has won eviction postponements and new negotiations with banks after using human blockades and chaining themselves to foreclosed homes in order to prevent authorities from tossing people out.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN, launched a campaign in February to likewise provide physical support for households being evicted. ACORN is planning to use phone trees, the Web, and text-messaging networks to connect people who need assistance with volunteers who will stand with them when officials arrive.

ACORN sees its national Home Defenders campaign as a stopgap measure until President Obama’s mortgage rescue program takes effect. But Obama’s plan would provide only limited help to some homeowners, and little or no assistance for renters, who are 40 percent of the people facing foreclosure evictions.

The only real hope for those about to lose their homes is the expansion and radicalization of just the types of grass-roots organizing that ACORN and others are undertaking now.

Punishing homelessness.

The need for action is urgent, because homelessness is increasing sharply. And as the numbers of homeless grow, so do official efforts to “deal with” the problem by criminalizing the homeless.

The array of anti-homeless laws compiled by the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project is staggering. Banned acts include: being at a bus stop in Tucson, Ariz., for more than 30 minutes; sitting on a Seattle sidewalk; storing “property” (including people) in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; and camping or sleeping in a park in a long list of cities that stretches from Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., to Miami, New Orleans, and Dallas.

On Nov. 9, 2008, a court in Illinois decided that the state’s election laws prohibit homeless people from running for office because they lack a fixed address.

In Beverly Hills, Calif., it’s a crime to set baggage down on the sidewalk. In February in Portland, Ore., a judge ruled that a similar ordinance, requiring that people keep their personal belongings no more than two feet away, is unconstitutional.

Some of these laws may seem merely ridiculous. But for people who are homeless, when the policies are enforced – and they often are – they can mean fines, jail time, and serious interference with the ordinary business of living. Sweeps of illegal camps by authorities result in the loss of much-needed belongings, at best, and death, at worst. A Seattle man was accidentally bulldozed to death when his camp was cleared, and other homeless people have been killed in traffic as they are harried from place to place.

Courting justice.

Challenges to these inhumane laws and practices are growing all over the country.

In December, the Oregon Law Center brought a federal class-action lawsuit against an anti-camping ordinance in Portland, where more than 1,000 people are estimated to sleep outdoors. “Sleeping has been recognized by multiple courts … as a life-sustaining act that is fundamental to human existence,” the suit asserts. “Punishing homeless people for sleeping outside is placing the burden of the lack of sufficient housing squarely on the shoulders of those who can do the least to remedy this problem.”

In Berkeley, Calif., a disabled homeless woman named Kim Nemirow, a law school graduate, was singled out and charged with loitering while sitting in Willard Park with her wheelchair nearby in 2007. She successfully challenged the constitutionality of the citation in court, and the Berkeley City Council repealed the ordinance in July 2008. “I’m glad,” said Nemirow, “but the problem of attitude and policy remains.”

As it does everywhere. In Los Angeles in 2006, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city could not ban homeless people from sleeping in any and all public places when the city does not have sufficient shelters for them. But the decision did not bar the city from making it illegal to sleep on some sidewalks, and police continue to arrest and abuse the homeless – along with legal recognition of the right of homeless people to do what is necessary to live. Lawyers in Seattle hope to win just that in their representation of a score of homeless people and their supporters, including this writer, for refusing to leave the Nickelsville encampment this past September. (See sidebar for more.)

But, while important, an end to harassment should be just the beginning of the story. It is way past time to fight seriously, and with all means available, for comfortable, secure shelter for everyone.

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