Woman Illegally Squats on Foreclosed Home And Changes Locks, Property Owner Changes Locks Removing All Woman’s Property, Woman Says She Is Victim. [Take Back the Land]
Take Back the Land is an organization that moves people into foreclosed homes with the belief that “housing is a human right, and, therefore, our right to housing supersedes others right to profit. Consequently, Take Back the Land is matching homeless families with vacant housing units and moving those families into the units”.
They call themselves a “grassroots organization” advocating their mission that they have a right to the land in their community and “to use public space for the public good – specifically, to house, feed and provide community space for the poor, particularly in low income black communities. As such, we are Taking Back the Land and empowering the black community, not the politicians, to determine how to use land for the benefit of the community.”
Their objectives are to first “feed and house people”, second to “assert our right to control the land in our community”, and third “build a new society”.
And how they are trying to obtain these objectives, is by breaking into empty foreclosed homes, and helping the homeless live in these homes, illegally. On woman found herself in one of these homes thanks to the help of Take Back the Land, and two weeks later found the locks changed on the residence with all her belongings gone. She claims although she is illegally on the property, she is the victim of theft.
UMOJA VILLAGE SHANTYTOWN
Umoja means “unity” in Kiswahili. Umoja Village was originally a village in Kenya. In 1990, 15 women established the village in Kenya who had fled their abusive husbands to set up their own women-only community after fleeing their homes. To make ends meet, they began brewing traditional beer in the bush to sell by the roadside, and making bead necklaces. Over time, more women arrived and the women “liberated” themselves from abuse.
In the United States, back in 2006, when TBTL “liberated” in their words, a vacant lot on the corner of 62nd St. and NW 17th Ave. in the Liberty City section of Miami, Florida, founding the Umoja Village Shantytown asserting the “black community’s right to own land” in its own neighborhood, they erected 21 shanties on public land using wooden pallets and tarps. The location was chosen after the county razed a 62-unit low-income apartment building in 2001 and never replaced it.
TBTL claims what they are doing is legal, due to a 1998 court ruling, known as the Pottinger settlement, in which a federal district court judge said Miami could not criminalize homeless people for conducting “life-sustaining acts” including eating, sleeping, lighting a fire and building temporary structures on public land if local shelters were filled. In that settlement, the city agreed that homeless people could not be arrested if they met three criteria:
1. The individual is homeless;
2. the individual is situated on public land;
3. there are no beds available at homeless shelters in the city; and
4. the individual is engaged in “life sustaining conduct,” such as eating, sleeping, bathing, “responding to calls of nature,” congregating and building “temporary structures” to protect one’s self from the elements.
The Village contained shacks that had the frames built from wooden pallets and covered with blue tarps and cardboard. Residents grew cabbage, collard greens, kale and papaya. There were stacks of firewood and they were digging their own well for water. They even had a small library of donated books. In the “Liberty Cafe” a kitchen the pantry shelves were lined with donated canned goods. Villagers cooked over oil drum grills and washed dishes in buckets of soapy water.
Facilities also included a portable toilet and they even built a community shower which consisted of corrugated plastic walls and terra cotta tiles with a plastic jug atop the makeshift shower.
They also had their own form of local government and decided in weekly meetings how to settle disagreements and distribute resources. The also decided who got to stay, and who would be evicted. They even had their own security.
Each individual residence bore a prominent black leader’s name, voted on by the camp’s residents and posted on hand painted signs: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Fred Hampton, Marcus Garvey and even Tupac Shakur’s godmother, Asatta, a former Black Panther who fled to Cuba.
From a New York Times article, the conditions are described as follows:
“When an emaciated, gray-haired woman staggered into the ragtag encampment complaining of a toothache the other day, Eugene Simpkins fed her peanut butter sandwiches from the communal kitchen and fetched her aspirin from the makeshift medicine cabinet.
As night fell, the woman slept on a urine-stained couch, while Mr. Simpkins fried batches of cornmeal-dusted fish over a campfire.”
The city commissioner, Michelle Spence-Jones, who is black and whose district encompasses Liberty City, originally tried to shut the settlement down because she considered it a health and safety hazard, with an ordinance to require a permit for gatherings on public land, but after several visits changed her mind. She withdrew the ordinance and promised to arrange for trash pickup at the site three times a week. She would not however, allow the group’s request for a mailbox. “That sends a whole other message,” she stated.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said he favored shutting down the camp: “We’ve always had concerns. People seemed to focus on the politics and not on the human life.” Diaz said the city wanted the residents to leave but also wanted to respect their situation and give them a say. “We kept sending county and city service people to get them to leave nicely. We were in a no-win situation. They city was trying to be sensitive,” he said.
The state attorney general’s office came by the site to take pictures. When questioned by Take Back the Land residents, the officials replied, “We don’t have to say what we are doing.”
The Village grew to about 44 – 50 residents, including one couple who was expecting a baby.
On April 23, 2007 Umoja Village had a six-month celebration. On April 26, 2007, on the day the first hexayurts (a type of circular, domed, portable tent actually used by nomadic people of central Asia, similar to a yurt, more “permanent” than the pallet/tarp/cardboard shanties) were scheduled to be built, shortly after midnight,a fire engulfed the entire Village, and it burnt to the ground, with no one being hurt. Although Take Back the Land organizers state the fire started under “mysterious” circumstances however, two reports (here and here) a lone report stated the fire was started by a tipped over candle in the camp.
The next morning the police came and moved everyone off the city’s property. One man refused to leave, chaining himself to a table. “”I ain’t going nowhere,” Wanda Whetstone said as she sat on a log. “I told you, I’ll get arrested. But they ought to be housing us, not jailing us.” Eleven were arrested including Max Rameau, the director for Take Back the Land when he didn’t heed an order to stop erecting a tent on the land. The same day, the City of Miami enclosed the lot in barbed wire.
“They’re using an accident to enforce their action to regain the land, which is what they’ve wanted all along,” said Denise Perry of the activist group Power U. “How safe are people who sleep outside or under the bridges? We can go back and forth on what is safe.”
TAKE BACK THE LAND
Take Back the Land has 10 volunteers, who first gained attention with their Umoja Village. After the Umoja Village burned down in April, 2007, TBTL’s sights changed on how to house the homeless.
In a Oct 27, 2007 post on their blog they claim that Miami-Dade County intentionally leaves units vacant, or tears down public hosing all together “ as a means of fueling the real estate ‘boom.’ When the governments take units of low-income housing off of the market, the value of the remaining privately held units increases, as families scramble to find new living arrangements. This is nothing short of tax financed market manipulation, designed to decrease supply at a time when demand is sky high, resulting in a government sponsored – not a market driven – real estate ‘boom’”
“Take Back the Land, again, asserts the right of the Black community to control land in the Black community. In order to provide housing for people, not for profit, this community control over land must now take the form of direct community control over housing.”
“Housing is not a privilege reserved for the wealthy. Housing is a human right, and we, hereby, assert our humanity.”
Jonathan Baker, lived at the Village. He stated his ex-wife use to refinance houses and had a crack problem. He stated he was use to being financially secure with everything paid for but,
“when it went south real bad, instead of killing her, I just decided to jump on the road and start over somewhere else.”
“I came over here and had the second place built, and I’ve basically been here ever since,” he says.
“You have facilities; you have food. The only thing you have to come up with is job transportation and then sticking to it.”
“Having a place to live, having a place to cook your food, having a community of social people around you – that is not a privilege, that is a right, OK?”
Originally TBTL tried a plan to put homeless people into private housing. The homeless people were suppose to hand a check – for whatever money they could spare – to the property manager. If the property manager cashed the check, Rameau thought it would signal that the people could stay. They tried cashing nine checks with different residents –- but property mangers rejected them. The squatters left. “We were really surprised,” Rameau said. “We took it to mean that they actually started paying attention, not just stealing money.”
On October 22, 2007, TBTL moved its first homeless family into a foreclosed home, illegally. Cassandra Cobbs and Jason Thompson, a couple in their late 20s, and their two small children was this homeless family. This couple wasn’t entire homeless, as they had help and “hated” it.
Cobbs and Thompson had originally been part of the Village after their two-bedroom house in Fort Lauderdale was condemned. They linked up with social service agencies through the Homeless Trust. The agencies placed them in hotels, then in an apartment. They hated both and began to sleep in their white Chevy Astro. Rameau moved them into a vacant foreclosed one-story stucco home in Liberty city, illegally. “We’re not looking for a handout,” Thompson said. “We’re looking for a hand up.”
In February, 2008 they were still living at the same residence. Cassandra worked as a street vendor selling jewelry and incense. In their living room there were two chairs, a moving trunk, and a small TV. Bedsheets covered the windows, and the walls had just been painted saffron. The neighbors initially loaned the family electricity via an extension cord until an anonymous man turned on power at the house.
The day after Rameau moved Cassandra and Jason into their new “home”, he announced he had a new strategy. The plan: Move the homeless into the deserted houses, with or without permission.
The move-ins work like this: Rameau and four other volunteers screen candidates to measure “urgency of need” – and to ensure they aren’t mentally ill or addicted to drugs. Next the group chooses a house. Repair costs, safety, livability, and proximity to Take Back’s headquarters in Liberty City are considered. Volunteers then “visit the location several times in order to gauge if the place is being watched,” Rameau says.
Mamyrah Prosper checks out such a property. Stepping over ankle-high grass, plastic bags and trash the yard of a vacant redbrick house in Miami’s Liberty City, she looks through a gap in a boarded up window. “It looks in good shape,” she says. “I mean, the walls aren’t falling down. This is definitely one of our stronger options.” If the place “checks out”, she and Take Back the Land will break in, change the locks, paint and clean, “innovate” a way to connect water and electricity, and then move a homeless family into the house.
Participants are instructed to enter through the front door and to be honest – even to befriend neighbors and put utilities in their own names. What is not said or told, is how participants are getting through the locked doors on the homes.
Max Rameau, Haitian-born and Washington D.C. raised, is the director of Take Back the Land and Copwatch. Copwatch is a database of complaints filed against police officers.
Rameau is a stay-at-home father of two, Serge and Akinle. It is unknown what his significant other Bernadette Armand does for a living.
He is Haitian-born and Washington D.C. raised. Previously Rameau held the position as the leadership development coordinator at the Miami Workers Center which includes cases and issues of police brutality, Haitian refugee rights, the war in Iraq, Election Reform Coalition, Fix HOPE VI, and fighting against Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and expansion of NAFTA.
Most recently Rameau has been offering the homeless a home in Miami, Florida. He helps homeless people illegally move into foreclosed homes. “We’re matching homeless people with people-less homes,” he says with a grin. SO far, he has moved six families into foreclosed homes and has nine on a waiting list.
From Rameau’s Take Back the Land’s blog, “Since October 2007, Take Back the Land has been identifying vacant government owned and foreclosed homes and liberating them by moving homeless people into people-less-homes – without permission from the government or the banks. This is the real bailout.”
Additionally stated on the blog: “Take Back the Land further asserts it is immoral to maintain vacant homes for the purpose of profits in the future, while human beings are forced to live on the streets today. The madness of such a policy is only compounded when one considers the owners of these vacant homes are not other people, but banks, the same banks receiving billions of dollars in bailouts without having to trade in the foreclosed homes for use by some of the people financing the bailouts. Additional government resources, including police and other government agencies, should not be used to evict low income people from homes in order to maintain vacant structures for bailed out banks to profit from some time in the future.”
“We could virtually empty the streets and shelters simply by filling the vacant houses,” Rameau says. “Homes should go to people, not kept empty so banks can cash in.”
Rameau and others formed Take Back the Land. “I think everyone deserves a home,” says Rameau. “Homeless people across the country are squatting in empty homes. The question is: Is this going to be done out of desperation or with direction?”
Rameau is not scared of getting arrested for what he is doing. “There’s a real need here, and there’s a disconnect between the need and the law,” he said. “Being arrested is just one of the potential factors in doing this.”
Most recently on Rameau’s blog, dated Nov. 26, 2008 is stated: “So, as this country celebrates the Pilgrims – who took over land without permission from the owner – we must think about using land to benefit people, not just corporations. We assert that our right to housing supersedes the corporate right to profit.”
In an article written for UHURU News, Rameau wrote such statements as “Miami’s government and laws are just tools of white rulers”, “…there are unelected forces with more power than lowly local governments, who make unilateral decisions without public hearing, and those powers have an interest in ensuring the black community cannot exercise self-determination.”
Miami recently passed an ordinance requiring owners of abandoned homes – whether an individual or bank – to register these properties with the city so police can better monitor them. However, the city can not stop squatters from “moving” into these homes.
Miami spokeswoman Kelly Penton said city officials did not know Rameau was moving homeless into empty buildings – but they are also not stopping him. They can’t. “There are no actions on the city’s part to stop this,” she said in an e-mail to NRP. “It is important to note that if people trespass into private property, it is up to the property owner to take action to remove those individuals.”
According to the Miami-Dade County Housing Agency, squatters, if discovered, will be promptly removed from the premises and potentially prosecuted. So far, though, Take Back’s foreclosure squatting clients have avoided detection.
There was a law passed in October giving police and zoning authorities more power to deal with the squatters – but it has yet to go into effect. “We’re putting a priority on it because there are places for criminal activity, for drug dealing and drug use,” Mariano Loret de Mola, Miami city code enforcement director said.
MARIE NADINE PIERRE aka CASSY, aka the “VICTIM”
[NOTE: The following is a combination of three articles. In one article the woman is referred to as Pierre, and the other she is referred to as Cassy, not her real name. Comparing the two articles (here, here and here[Video]), the number of children (4), the number of children sent to her husband (3) leaving one with her, the jobs, dates and house price and location are the same. It is assumed they are the same person. For purposes of continuity, Cassy will be referred to as Pierre.]
”This house is a castle”, says Pierre, a 39-year-old Haitian mother, in November 2008. Pierre had worked as an instructor at Miami Dade College and as a researcher at Florida International University while working for her PhD.
Prior to this, Pierre had a too-good-to-be-true mortgage loan. When the rate on the loan changed, she could no longer afford the payments. The county put a lien on her North Miami home, and she was evicted four years ago. She tried to rent an apartment but was broke and had bad credit. “The shelter system is hell,” she adds. “It isn’t made for human beings.” She said she had been homeless off and on for a year, after losing various jobs and getting evicted from several apartments. “My heart is heavy. I’ve lived in a lot of different shelters, a lot of bad situations,” Pierre said. According to Local 10 WPLG, Pierre has been in and out of shelters, with Pierre stating the shelters “could not accommodate her”, and has been living off and on the streets for four years.
So after losing the home four years ago, with her husband in tow, they could not afford to find another place to live and went in and out of homeless shelters until September, 2008 when Pierre’s husband was deported to the Bahamas, leaving her with the kids. “I don’t mean to cry crocodile tears,” she says. “But we paid our dues.” With no place to stay, she was forced to send three of her children to live with her husband in the Bahamas. This prompted a "nervous breakdown” and a trip to the psychiatric ward. After she recovered, a volunteer referred her to Rameau in October, 2008.
With Rameau’s help in early November, Pierre and her 18-month old daughter “moved” into a ranch style, three bedroom, two-bathroom, sky-blue 1,450-square-foot house on a tree-lined street in Miami’s Buena Vista neighborhood. According to a statement by Local 10 WPLG Rameau broke into the house, changed the locks, and offered Pierre the home.
“I’ve never had a walk-in closet … and all this space.” She takes warm showers, cooks dinner, and watches the news on a TV. But what is not understood, is who is paying for the water, the electricity.
This house was chosen for the woman because Rameau knew the history of the house. A man had bought the home in the city’s predominantly Haitian neighborhood in 2006 for $430,000, which is now worth about $263,000 according to county records, then rented it to Rameau’s friends. Those friends were evicted in October because the homeowner had stopped paying his mortgage and the property went into foreclosure. He believes he is doing the owner a favor my illegally moving in a squatter because, for example, someone stole the air conditioning until from the backyard, and it was only a matter of time before the copper pipes and wiring disappeared. “Within a few months, this place would be stripped and drug dealers would be living here,” he said.
Two weeks after Pierre moved in, she came “home” to find the locks had been changed. Everything inside – her food, clothes and personal items – was gone. Pierre stated she knows that she is there illegally, but feels that she has been victimized. In the Local 10 WPLG video, a sign can be seen on the front of the house saying “Who stole my baby’s diapers?”
But late last month, with Rameau’s help, she got back inside and has put Christmas decorations on the front door. It is unknown how Rameau “helped” her get back inside.
Back in her “home”, Pierre talks about her new part-time job selling T-shirts saying the past few weeks in her new “home” are the most stability she has had since 2003. Her plan is to get her kids back and pay the mortgage on the house. “I’m not trying to be a freeloader,” she says. “[I’m} In my own home, I’m free. I’m a human being now.” “I just finally feel like I’m home. I am ready to fight these people.”
The home is owned by Aurora Loan Services, and as of December 2nd, the police have not gotten involved as they did not have any orders to evict Pierre. Meanwhile, Pierre has put up Christmas lights along with a sign that states “People live here” and plans on having all four children back together in the “home” by Christmas. “I’m so looking forward to getting my other three children, they gonna love the space and its big, there’s a nice yard ya know, beyond being spacious, they will all each have their own room for the first time.”
T-bone is a 48-year-old man who once lived in Umoja Village. He said he borrowed a screwdriver in late October, 2008, unlocked the front door of a foreclosed home across from a graveyard in Brownsville, and temporarily moved in. There’s no power or water, the walls were ripped out, glass bottles lay broken, and plastic toys from the previous residents are about. In the back, a bare single mattress lay on the floor. “Its hard to find work,” he said. “I read the paper. Their ain’t no jobs.”
Well, I fully expect an email or a posting from Max to be honest. And hey, I welcome it! This is the United States and our Constitution allows us the right to free speech and opinion thanks to the Second Amendment. And hey, feel free Max to ridicule my post. I need the hits, thanks.
First, I believe that poverty and homeless knows no ethnic bounds. It happens to all races, all over the world. No one is immune. Its something this country is going to learn about the hard way in the very near future if our economy and “savior” Obama doesn’t do something about it. He made promises during his campaign, does he intend to keep them?
Second, I believe that you can not get what you want, a silver spoon, handed to you without any work. If you want something, you work for it, you don’t think you “deserve it” because your “good enough” for it. There is a time to be part of the “welfare” system, and then there is a time to stand on your own two feet. Handouts, donations and help are NOT suppose to be a permanent way of life.
And the problem with what Max is doing is that the homes are someone else’s property and someone else’s liability. The house is broken into, and squatters live there without the permission of the owner, and without paying a dime to the owner. The legal owner of the home has a Constitutional right to be secure in his property and possessions, whether he is physically on said property or not. Max and his “Take Back the Land” organization are encouraging crime. Let me pose this question to you. If you own a vacation home, or have to leave a home empty while moving, is it right for people to break in, move in and call it their own, without paying the owner a dime? What if you don’t lock your door while you run around the corner to the store, and come back home and find people in your home telling you to get out of THEIR home? A foreclosed home is not the same thing as finding “treasure” by digging through trash during a “dumpster diving” event.
Personally I think moving a homeless person into a foreclosed home is only moving a person from one crisis to another by illegal action. Its not a permanent resolution, but it is a criminal resolution. The residents could be arrested at any time, losing everything they have. What kind of organization encourages the homeless to break the law and face losing everything just for a temporary roof over their head just to prove a point?
So first there was Cassandra Cobbs and Jason Thompson who were given help by the “system” and didn’t like what was given to them, so they decided to live in their van, which makes them voluntarily homeless. They had a home and gave it up because it wasn’t good enough and wanted a “hand up” to something better. Now they have been living in a house, that is not theirs, a house they have not paid for, a house they have not paid property taxes on, a house they live in rent free, illegally for over a year. And that is “good enough” for them. Cobbs and Thompson are criminals.
Then there is Ms. Pierre. Ms. Pierre is also criminal. She and her husband lost their home four years ago, and during that time couldn’t seem to get it together bouncing in and out of homeless shelters and the street. Four years ago, the economy wasn’t really that bad, at least nothing like it is today. And why do I have a feeling that Ms. Pierre wanted to be able to finish her PhD without taking a job since homeless shelters were “able to accommodate” her.
Probably what didn’t help them is that her husband was an illegal immigrant. I’m pretty sure that during those four years, she was eligible for low income housing, food stamps, health care (things we aren’t eligible for), and managed to have at least one more child.
So tell me, who paid for all those things? Welcome to America Ms. Pierre, where ALL single moms have a hard time. Your story is nothing special. And how are YOU a victim when YOU illegally live in a home, and the owner had the legal right to remove your property from his, since you are trespassing and illegally living there? Tell me, who cuts your lawn? Who pays for your water and electric? Who pays for your child care? Who pays for your child’s healthcare? Where do you get your food from? Who pays for your trash removal? And who pays taxes on the property that you illegally live on? You are telling me, that you are able to pay for all of that, without using taxpayers money, without using handouts, by simply selling t-shirts? Yea right.. if you expect people to believe that, I’ve got ocean front property in Arizona to sell, really cheap.
Why is Ms. Pierre’s situation so different and so special from millions of other single mothers of ALL races, who don’t receive child support and have to decide on whether there is going to be food on the table tonight, or if the electric bill is going to be paid for the month? But instead, you choose to illegally “take” that which does not belong to you saying its your right. Why is it right that a person lost their home because they couldn’t pay, and now you have a moral right to live in that same home, illegally, for your own purposes.
And how is it that her husband can afford to take care of three children in the Bahamas, yet he can’t afford to send her money every month so that she could have kept those three children with her?
But Take Back the Land reeks of grass roots communism and socialism. And the problem is, that Max seems to think that everything should be handed to people without working for it because they deserve it as a basic human right. What makes the “black community” more special for handouts and rights than say the Latino community, or the Asian community, or *gasp* the White community? Last time I checked, poverty and homelessness knew no ethnic bounds and no group of people, according to me, should get special treatment over other people based simply on their ethnicity. Because if you do, that RAAACCCCIIIIIISSSSSSSTTTTTTTTT.
Isn’t socialism about all for one and one for all and sharing everything? Or is a Democratic society about freedom, and working for what you have? Its one’s own personal responsibility for what they do have and what they don’t have. And unfortunately with our economy, a rise in unemployment, a rise in foreclosure, and a rise in homeless, over the next 2-3 years, its going to get worse, so get use to it. It could happen to everyone.
- “Miami activist moves people into foreclosed houses”, AP via NPR, 01DEC08
- “Squatters”, Miami New Times, 19NOV08
- “Homeless Find Shelters in Foreclosed Homes”, Local 10 TV [VIDEO]
- Take Back The Land Blogspot
- “Foreclosure Nation: Squatters or Pioneers?”, Mother Jones, May/Jun 2008
- “An Experiment and a Protest in Shantytown for Homeless”, The New York Times, 16JAN07
- “Shantytown U.S.A.”, Sun-Sentinel, 03JAN07
- “Take Back the Land, Interview with Max Rameau”, Real Change News, 16JUL08
- “It Took a Village; Photo Essay”, Yes Magazine, unknown date
- “Shantytown fire renews fears”, Miami Herald, 27Apr07
- “Miami Residents Claim Vacant Lots”, Final Call News, 02JAN07
- “Umoja Village gets burned again!” (By Max Rameau)UHURU NEWS, 02AUG07
- “South Florida workers and homeless seize government land for community housing”, Party for Socialism and Liberation, 14NOV06
- “Housing Activists Try Squatter Strategy”, Citizens for Judicial Accountability, 24OCT07