Posted on Thu, Nov. 18, 2010 By DANA DiFILIPPO Philadelphia Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org 215-854-5934
THE FORECLOSURE notices have piled up, and collection agents call weekly.
Esther “Moya” Smith fears it won’t be long before the bank changes the locks and boots her from the redbrick rowhouse in Olney where her mother moved the brood 15 years ago.
But she won’t go. She can’t go, she says.
At 31, she’s the reluctant head of her household since her mother died two years ago, leaving her in charge of her two teenage sisters and baby nephew. Financial troubles that started with her mother’s medical and funeral bills mounted until she fell seven months behind on mortgage payments, prompting foreclosure.
So, today, Smith, her neighbors and community activists will gather at her house on Widener Street near 3rd. They plan to stay there – camping out “for however long it takes” – to fight the foreclosure and ensure that Smith’s family keeps the house.
“We are willing to go to jail. This family will not go out on the [Roosevelt] Boulevard for the holidays,” said Cheri Honkala, of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. “We shouldn’t allow banks to come into neighborhoods and empty buildings and create crackhouses. In this economy, they should be forced to modify [mortgages]. If they board the house up, we will take the boards off and move everybody back in.”
In Philadelphia, a city with 40,000 vacant or abandoned properties, squatters are as plentiful as Wawas and water ice.
But many of today’s squatters aren’t the wretches and drug-addled runaways of the imagination: They’re poor families, like Esther Smith and her charges, so desperate to stay together that they’ll move into a blighted property – or squat in their own foreclosed home.
No one tracks the number of squatters. But homeless and anti-poverty advocates say that the unrelenting recession has kept homeless shelters full daily, forcing those without homes to bunk with family or friends, or to squat in abandoned buildings.
“It’s the reality show that no one sees,” Honkala said.
Homelessness in Philadelphia has risen sharply since 2000, when there were 1,175 homeless people in the city, according to Project HOME, a homeless-advocacy group that keeps a census for the city of people living in shelters and on the streets. This year, that population has grown to 1,720, Project HOME found.
“More people are losing their homes and their jobs, and we’re absolutely seeing more families double up with [other] family members,” said Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project.
Laura I. Weinbaum, Project HOME’s director of public policy, added, “Anecdotally, we are seeing more people in squatting situations.”
Smith never thought that she’d become a squatter in her own home.
Two years ago, she worked an overnight shift as a campus shuttle-bus driver at the University of Pennsylvania.
In August 2008, her mother died. Smith’s youngest sister, Monica, then 10, quickly devolved into grief-fueled insomnia and misbehavior at school. After missing work several times to help her sister, Smith got fired, she said.
“I felt hurt, because I needed the income, but I needed even more to be at home for her,” Smith said.
Smith cobbled together an income doing odd jobs in home construction, car repair and baby-sitting – anything that allowed her to focus on her sister first.
But with an inconsistent income, she soon fell behind the seven months on her $645 monthly mortgage bills.
In early summer, she applied to her mortgage company, Texas-based American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc., for a loan modification. They denied her application, saying that her debt-to-income ratio was too high, meaning that she made too little money to qualify for a modification.
She also applied to several foreclosure-assistance programs run by social-service agencies, but she was told they had run out of money.
In July, she said, she started collecting $316 a month in welfare.
In August, her sister Barbara – who was living with her husband, an Army soldier stationed in Texas who will deploy to Iraq in January, and their 2-year-old son, Jovanie – moved back in with Smith to help with the bills. Smith and her sister thought that Barbara’s income as a housekeeper at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, along with $200 monthly from her husband’s soldier’s pay, might be enough to fend off foreclosure.
But last month, Smith received her first foreclosure notice.
Since then, she’s gotten calls several times a week from the company, demanding payment.
The increased pressure to pay prompted Honkala’s group to champion her case.
“[Leaving the home] is not an option,” Honkala said last week. “There’s a growing army around her.”
Honkala has plenty of experience in standoffs and sit-ins.
As founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, she set up tent cities for homeless people on vacant lots and led marches to raise awareness about poverty and homelessness in the early 2000s. She disappeared for a few years to help her sister and others fight foreclosure in Minnesota and to raise her son, Guillermo, now 8.
But she’s back in Philadelphia and ready for battle, with her new group, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.
The group teaches “foreclosure classes” and encourages squatting, or “homesteading” as Honkala prefers to call it, to people like Smith. Lessons include topics such as how to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience, how to prove residency in order to get utilities – even when possession of a home is illegal – and how to explain to children what’s happening.
“They can call us a criminal all they want,” Honkala said, “but we think we’ll be upholding higher laws: laws of humanity. We are good mothers and sisters and caregivers who are going to care for our families however we have to.”
In Smith’s case, it’s too early to tell whether today’s planned sit-in will be more consciousness-raising or civil disobedience.
Philippa Brown, a spokeswoman for Smith’s lienholder, American Mortgage, said her company is considering modifying Smith’s $60,000 mortgage, but she wouldn’t release details. The foreclosure, which is temporarily on hold until the company decides whether to alter the loan, will move forward unless Smith clears her outstanding debt, Brown said.
Smith is delinquent by about $9,000 since April; about half is mortgage payments, while the other is penalties and fees, Smith said.
Now that her little sister Monica has improved, Smith said she has applied for numerous jobs, including retail and janitorial positions, as well as jobs with SEPTA, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Prisons System. But she’s had no luck landing anything.
One morning last week, sassy, saggy-diapered Jovanie frolicked in the family’s living room, where they still keep candles lighted and glasses full of water for their mother.
“They give evolution to the spirit,” Smith said.
As December approaches, Smith said she grows more depressed. Barbara, Monica and Jovanie all have December birthdays. A foreclosure and eviction, Smith noted sourly, would be lousy birthday gifts.
“The sad thing is with most of these struggles [to stave off homelessness], we’ve lost them,” Honkala said. “This time, hopefully, there will be an angel.”
Smith, sifting through old photos of her mother, smiled and agreed: “Yes. Hopefully.”