During Mayor Bloomberg’s last round of budget cuts, Tasha Glasgow lost her NYC “Advantage” program housing voucher. No other program existed to help her pay rent. Soon after, her landlord stopped paying his mortgage, skipped town and let the house go into foreclosure. Having circulated through the shelter system for much of the last decade, she and her two children again found themselves homeless.
Last night, they found themselves sitting together in the bedroom of a home on Vermont Street in East New York, a house that’s been foreclosed on and vacant for the past three years. Alongside them were dozens of Occupy Wall Street protestors, housing activists and neighborhood residents. They had entered the residency illegally, started cleaning and started making the place livable again.
“It’s been here for a while,” Glasgow said. “We’re trying to take over the property, make it ours and live here.” Her kids, “they don’t really understand what’s going on,” she said, “but they just feel like, ‘okay, my mom’s happy, I’m all happy.’ He’s happy because I’m happy.”
Tuesday marked the first national day of action of Occupy Our Homes. The 99% movement, joined by community activists, occupied vacant, bank-owned houses in over 25 cities across the country for families that have lost their own. Though homelessness rates in New York are at or near record highs, activists claim there are still more vacant, foreclosed properties out there than people living on the streets.
“We put this all together within a short time period, within the last month,” said Alfredo Carrasquillo, the father of the family who works with Vocal New York and is homeless himself; he has been couch-hopping for years.
“My children and their mother have no stable environment,” he said. “It’s unhealthy for my kids.” They’ve been staying at a foreclosed home in Far Rockaway that’s largely in disrepair.
“The reason we came to this property,” which he said is currently owned by Citibank, “is because we not only wanted to address our personal issues, but also the issues that are happening nationwide.”
“A lot of people around here… they’re ashamed to announce that they’re homeless or that they need help,” Carrasquillo said. “I hope that we inspire people and inspire families to give them the confidence to say that it’s okay to let the public know that your situation is not good because it’s not your fault.”
Earlier that day there had been a large rally in the neighborhood, a “real estate tour” of the vacant bank-owned houses. Local activists and residents gave testimonies and speeches at each one of them. They even came upon a man who was supposed to be evicted that day. The staged an “eviction-watch” and saved his house, at least for the night.
Bill Dobbs, with OWS’s PR working group, estimated that there were 500 or 600 people there. “Which is great,” he said, “considering it’s a weekday, it’s raining and it’s an outer borough”—also reasons he suggested why many larger media organizations might not have shown up.
The rain continued through the night. Still the mood was jubilant and calm. “The cops have been around but there’s been no violence, no trouble,” said Anthony Brooks, a community organizer who also works with Vocal New York. “It’s been a peaceful protest.”
No drums were to be found either. But there was a banjo; several tambourines at one point, too. At dinnertime, demonstrators used the mic check to share the phone number to Johnny’s Original Pizza around the corner.
Herman McClain, a retired 64-year-old neighbor, looked on from a few houses down and expressed his support. The noise was “better than hearing gunshots,” he said.
“It’s ridiculous,” McClain said. “The prices should have never been this high in the first place. This has been the murder capital of the USA twice. Twenty years ago, you could see bodies all along this block. So what are you paying for?”
“The banks are getting more money, but what more are you getting for it?” he added, “I’m glad to see somebody is trying to do something against the greedy, because the rich are just getting stupid rich.”
East New York has been particularly devastated by the foreclosure crisis. It has the highest rate of vacant homes in the city, three times greater than the borough overall.
“It is neighborhoods like this where you have poor socio-economic levels of income,” explained Ed Needham, an OWS spokesperson, “and you have people of color, people whose first language may not be English, and they were more or less targeted because they would be more likely be restricted to home ownership through a subprime mortgage.”
“You have different types of mortgages like ‘no-doc’ mortgages,” he continued, “where there was no documentation needed, no money down needed, and these were lures in order to get people into mortgages they couldn’t sustain.”
The whole community ends up reeling, he said, because when one house goes vacant, home values all around plummet; businesses suffer too. “And you look at all the communities that this has happened to across the country and you know it’s a nationwide disaster.”
The 99% movement, Needham said, is trying to “shine a bright light on this.” In many ways, he claimed “we’re a much leaner, meaner, more effective organization since we’ve left the park.”
The trouble with leaving Zuccotti he added, “is that many of the people across country came to understand the movement through the park. So without the park it’s changed the face of the movement somewhat.”
But, with Tuesday’s day of action, “you realize that an idea can’t be evicted,” Needham said, “and it’s the idea that sustains the movement, not the fact that we had tents in a park.”
“Now we’re really just focused on outreach,” said Jordan McCarthy, another OWSer who’s been with the movement since early October, mainly working sanitation crew in Zuccotti. Since the November 15 raid, she had been involved in more community efforts like cleaning up the area around a low-performing high school in Bed-Stuy at risk of getting shut down. She had come out for the Occupy Our Homes rally and was helping clean and paint the once-abandoned house late into the evening.
“Tonight I’m going to stay for a few more hours,” she said, “and I’ll be back until all the work is done.”