Liberate the Southside – an ad-hoc group of Chicago clergymen, community organizers, and local residents – do not believe the “Occupy” movement should be limited to geographic locations like streets and cities.
They are interested in a more literal form of occupation:
placing homeless families in abandoned houses that have been foreclosed
on by big banks.
The group gathered yesterday near the corner of
87th and Kenwood in the city’s South Chicago neighborhood for their
first public action: moving single mother Tene Smith and her two
children into a newly renovated house. The building, a handsome
two-story brick unit with white shutters, is legally owned by HSBC.
Since the bank foreclosed on the property nearly two years ago, it has
remained dormant – making it the perfect target for Liberate the South
Side’s new experiment.
After speaking with neighbors and receiving their support, Liberate volunteers entered the abandoned property last year. They spent months renovating the house by hand, preparing it for Ms. Smith and her family to move into – all this, despite the fact that their charity work might legally be considered breaking and entering.
“It’s legal in the sense that it’s been illegal what they’re doing to the community,” said Rev. Booker Vance.
Vance is a member of Liberate and a leader of SOUL, another Southside grassroots community organization. He believes that putting homeless families in foreclosed and abandoned bank-owned properties will send a message to big banks and local government: “Tax the one percent, house the ninety-nine percent, and redeem our community.”
More than 93,000 Chicagoans were homeless in 2011, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. As of 2010, the city contained more than 15,000 vacant buildings, 85 percent of which were in various stages of foreclosure.
Shani Smith thinks there is something wrong with that math.
Smith, who is also a member of SOUL and Liberate, says home foreclosures have created a rash of vacant properties in her South Chicago neighborhood: “Neighbors are having to shovel the snow and cut the grass” in front of abandoned homes, even as the buildings are stripped by vandals and the houses “fall into disrepair.” She noted that the resulting blight has driven down property values on her and her neighbors’ homes, without any corresponding reduction in property taxes.
Meanwhile, many Chicago families remain without homes - including Shani’s sister, Tene, the recipient of Liberate the Southside’s home takeover. Shani refers to her sister and others like her as “displaced”, a word she prefers to “homeless” because she believes it carries less negative connotations.
Tene Smith has been gainfully employed for most of the past several years. After the sudden death of her children’s father, however, she could no longer support a family by herself on her income. As a result, she was forced to move her family into her sister Shani’s home - a situation known as “doubling up,” which is counted under broader definitions of homelessness.
Shani Smith says that Tene and her family should be accorded the same redemptive opportunity given to big banks, which were bailed out by the government after suffering heavy losses during the sub-prime mortgage crisis. “They were given a second chance. Now it’s time to give working families a second chance.”
Liberate the South Side members have taken it upon themselves to grant second chances, in what Rev. Vance referred to as a “non-violent protest” against home foreclosures. Vance said the group has been speaking with local government officials about how to handle an eventual legal action by HSBC. “Ultimately, we’d like to sit down and talk with them about making [Tene Smith] a homeowner.” Vance admitted that, in part, the decision to occupy foreclosed homes was a way of gaining attention for problems in the community. Yet he was quick to add that the ultimate goal was not just protest, but actual results. “Action sparks conversation,” said Vance. “The goal is to have conversation and negotiation, in order to bring about resolution.”
Whether or not Tene Smith actually owns her new home, she and her children are now officially occupying it. Yesterday, in front of family, volunteers, and media representatives, Ms. Smith entered the formerly vacant house in South Chicago and ceremonially hung on the wall a painting she had made for the occasion – a symbol of her new residency.
“We plan on reoccupying more vacant houses,” said her sister Shani. “This is only the first step.”
Image: IIRON/Liberate the Southside