During Mayor Bloomberg’s last round of budget cuts, Tasha Glasgow lost her NYC “Advantage” housing voucher. After circulating through the shelter system for the last decade, she and her two children again found themselves homeless. The night of December 6, they found themselves sitting in the bedroom of a house on Vermont Street in East New York, a home that’s been foreclosed on, vacant for three years. Occupy Wall Street protestors, housing activists and neighbors sat alongside. They had entered the residency illegally, started cleaning and making the place inhabitable again.
“It’s been here for a while,” Glasgow said. “We’re trying to… make it ours and live here.” Her kids “don’t really understand what’s going on,” she said, “but they just feel like, ‘ok, my mom’s happy, I’m all happy.’”
That Tuesday marked the first day of action of Occupy Our Homes. The 99 Percent movement 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 more vacant properties out there than people living on the streets.
“My children and their mother have no stable environment,” said Alfredo Carrasquillo, the father of the family. “It’s unhealthy for my kids.” “The reason we came to this property,” which he said is 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… they’re ashamed to announce that they’re homeless or that they need help,” Carrasquillo said. “I hope that we give them the confidence to say that it’s ok to let the public know that your situation is not good because it’s not your fault.”
Earlier that day there had been a “real estate tour” of the vacant houses in the neighborhood. Activists gave testimonies at each one. They came upon a man who was supposed to be evicted that day, staged an “eviction-watch” and saved his house—at least for the night.
Bill Dobbs, with OWS’s PR team, estimated that there were 500-600 people there. “Which is great,” he said, “considering it’s a weekday, it’s raining and it’s an outer borough.”
The rain continued through the night. The mood was jubilant, but calm. “The cops have been around but there’s been no violence, no trouble,” said Anthony Brooks, of Vocal New York. “It’s been a peaceful protest.”
No drums were to be heard 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.”
“This has been the murder capital of the USA twice,” he said. “The prices should have never been this high in the first place. The banks are getting more money, but what more are you getting for it?”
East New York has the highest rate of vacant homes in the city, three times greater than the borough overall.
“Neighborhoods like this where you have poor socio-economic levels of income,” explained Ed Needham, an OWS spokesperson, “and people whose first language may not be English… they were more or less targeted. You have ‘no-doc’ mortgages, where there was no documentation needed, or no money down needed; these were lures to get people into mortgages they couldn’t sustain.”
The community ends up reeling, he said, because when one house goes vacant, surrounding home values plummet; businesses suffer too. “It’s a nationwide disaster.”
The 99 Percent movement is trying to “shine a bright light on this.” In many ways, Needham said, “we’re a much leaner, meaner, more effective organization since we’ve left the park.”
“It’s changed the face of the movement somewhat.” But, with the day of action, Needham said, “you realize that an idea can’t be evicted, and it’s the idea that sustains the movement, not the fact that we had tents in a park.”
Another OWSer echoed the sentiment. “Now we’re really just focused on outreach,” said Jordan McCarthy, who’s been with the movement since early October, working sanitation in Zuccotti. Since the November 15 raid, she’d been involved in efforts like cleaning up the area around a low-performing school in Bed-Stuy at risk of getting shut down. She came out to Occupy Our Homes and was helping clean the once-abandoned house on Vermont Street 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.” •