Michael Premo, an enthusiastic organizer for a new initiative called “Occupy Homes”, doesn’t see anything new in what he or other groups are doing to stop foreclosures and evictions.
“It started with the Communist Party during the depression in 30’s,” he said, “Then the National Union of the homeless used it in the eighties to organize coordinated occupations of vacant and HUD-owned buildings. And the Take Back the Land movement has used these tactics for the last seven years.”
Right as Occupy Wall Street movement began in the Fall of 2011, pockets of Occupiers in the newly-erected camp began discussing the need to practically address the effects of the financial crisis. It was proposed that, rather than merely wage rhetorical attacks against banks or the U.S. Government, the Occupy movement ought to first bolster its credibility by attacking the heart of the nation’s economic woes: housing.
“Everyone needs a place to live,” Premo says, “and this issue clearly illustrates the connection between Wall Street and the displacement and destruction of our communities.”
As time went on, many realized that this conversation wasn’t confined to Zuccotti Park: similar ideas were being proposed at Occupy encampments around the country. This was aided, in part, by the movement’s Inter-Occupy communication network, which allows disparate groups to connect with activists in other cities and share ideas.
Occupy Homes has become one of the most visible elements of the movement after most Occupy groups were evicted from their encampments late last year. Originating with a National Day of Action on December 6, which saw a multitude of direct actions executed in 25 cities across the country, Occupy Homes has transformed into a decentralized national campaign against unnecessary foreclosures and evictions.
To date, the most successful incarnation of this movement is in Minnesota, with four cancelled evictions under its belt. Occupy Homes MN has received a fair amount of logistical support from local community organizations like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), that have been battling this issues for years, long before Occupy began. Some of the group’s staff also works for these organizations, although Occupy Homes MN has secured independent operational funding.
In another example, Occupy Homes in Nashville operated more independently in attempting to save the home of Helen Bailey, a 78-year-old former civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fifties and sixties. When JP Morgan-Chase threatened to foreclose on Ms. Bailey’s home in January, Occupy Homes in Nashville hosted a press conference on her behalf and staged an anti-foreclosure action against the bank. Occupy Nashville was assisted by members of Occupy Atlanta, who had already successfully defended several homes in preceding months.
At the press conferences, activists drew attention to JP Morgan-Chase’s most recent ad campaign, which prominently featured images of Martin Luther King in an attempt to compare the bank’s ‘community-building’ work to his. Ultimately, public pressure generated by a petition on Change.org thrust the issue into the national spotlight and garnered 80,000 signatures. The bank negotiated with Ms. Bailey to allow her to stay in her home. This was a victory for the retired freedom fighter, but also for neighbors invested in and concerned for the community.
“I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” Bailey said. “I love my home and my community and I am so blessed to be able to stay here.”
That feeling is very important, says Cat Salonek, a community organizer for Occupy Homes MN. People that the group works with “are stepping out of this shadow of shame built around foreclosure, and see that there’s a supportive community around them to help.”
Salonek was not initially on board with the Occupy movement, although she did visit Occupy Minnesota’s encampment at Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.
“But as Occupy moved out of public spaces and into homes, it all started to make a lot more sense to me. I get canvassing, I get having specific demands and achievable goals,” she said.
As she describes it, the points of entry for involvement in Occupy Homes – at least in Minnesota – are a lot simpler to understand for the average citizen. Many volunteer activities bear a resemblance to the work one would do on a political campaign, like phone banking, canvassing, and maintaining a website. This allows for an entry point into more “creative” actions in the future, like a home occupation.
“At that crisis moment, at the eleventh hour when we need them to come out for a direct action, they show up,” Salonek said.
Bringing the Occupation to MA
Inspired by actions in Minnesota and Nashville, activists in Massachusetts and members of Socialist Alternative have formed a local Occupy Homes group in collaboration with Occupy Quincy.
The group is being mentored by City Life / Vida Urbana (CLVU), a Boston-based community organization with nearly forty years experience promoting tenant rights and preventing housing displacement. According to Occupy Homes MA organizer Bryan Koulouris, the groups’ goal is to “build an organization of mutual support for all the fights against the banks, getting as many people facing this situation to shake off the shame, stand up and fight back, together!”
During the first quarter of 2012, banks and other holders of mortgages filed 4,348 petitions to foreclose in Massachusetts. Although lower than the foreclosure highs of several years ago, this figure is a 71.5 percent increase from the first quarter of last year. Filing a petition is the first step in the foreclosure process.
Occupy Homes is planning two anti-eviction actions for July. The first is on July 10, when the home of Ken Goodman, a resident of East Weymouth, is scheduled for auction. The results of this action could not be included in this article, as the Occupier went to press just hours afterwards.
The second action deals with the family of Donna Shea. The Shea family was issued a foreclosure notice by PNC bank with an auction date of July 17, just days after her son was killed in an industrial accident.
“PNC picked the wrong family and the wrong community,” said Koulouris. “We’re going to let all the investment vultures know that they wouldn’t just be buying a home; they’d be buying a big problem”
Those interested in learning more about Occupy Homes MA and upcoming local actions can go to Occupy Homes MA and Occupy Quincy on Facebook.