All-American Squatters Fight Homelessness

Max Rameau stood at a lectern in one of Portland State University’s student centers on an April afternoon. “Being against oppression and exploitation in your mind is not enough,” he told a group of 70 activists. Rameau had been invited to Portland, Ore., to talk about Take Back the Land, his audacious-and illegal-campaign to fight homelessness caused by the economic crisis.

Take Back the Land, based in Miami, finds empty foreclosed homes and illegally moves homeless families into them. So far his organization has moved nine families into “liberated” houses and has at least four more occupations planned.

Squatting has a long history in the United States. During the westward expansion, much of the land was settled by squatters. Pioneers lived on land they had no legal entitlement to until the federal government recognized their rights as “homesteaders” with several pieces of legislation in the 1800s.

More recently, squatters have had a quiet, countercultural presence in the urban landscape of cities with high rents and vacant buildings. Typically they have been unorganized. But during the recession of the early ’80s, organized squatting movements sprung up nationally. In 35 cities across the country, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) set up squatters’ encampments known as Reagan Ranches.

Today, as the recession roars on, organized squatting movements are springing up across the nation. Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, says squatting-both organized and spontaneous-is increasing, a fact he attributes, in part, to Rameau’s work. According to Stoops, there are 12 organized squatting operations around the country. He expects that number to rise as more people slide into the ranks of the homeless.

In New York City, Rob Robinson, an organizer with Picture the Homeless, is tight-lipped about the specifics of his squatting operation. “Sometimes you have to force change on people,” he says. “If you’re going to make squatting effective, you have to keep it on the down low.”

Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, brought Rameau to Cleveland, a city that was hit particularly hard by the collapse of the housing market­. But despite Rameau meeting with activists, squatting there is largely unorganized. “It is a naturally occurring phenomenon in Cleveland,” Davis says.

ACORN, the nation’s largest grassroots organization of low- and moderate-income people, uses a similar approach to fight homelessness. In February it launched the Home Savers campaign to encourage people to stay in their homes or move back in after they’ve foreclosed.

Take Back the Land operates unhindered in Miami, a city at the epicenter of the housing boom and collapse. Police Chief John Timoney told ABC News he has little interest in halting the organization’s activities. One in every 85 housing units in Miami was foreclosed on in April, according to the real estate industry’s online database

Take Back the Land offers help only to families that have been screened for mental illness and drug addictions. After they are approved, the families are required to turn on the utilities, keep up with house maintenance and generally be good neighbors. Rameau says he even had a homeowner call and ask him to put a family in a neighboring foreclosed home because its vacancy attracted unsavory activity.

Rameau’s approach has caught on says homeless advocate Stoops. “They’re doing it in a responsible way.”

Jake Thomas is a freelance reporter living in Portland, Ore. He covers politics, social services and other topics for the Portland Observer.