Videos From the Press Conference:

Progress Illinois – Southside Organization Gives “Occupy” New Meaning

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.”


The Chicago Maroon – Foreclosed Homes a New Occupy Target
Students joined several South Side activists to celebrate their occupation and renovation of a single family home.
by Stephanie Xiao – Feb 3, 2012 3:42 am CST

Forget Wall Street. Students joined numerous South Side community activists at a teach-in Wednesday night to discuss and celebrate their occupation and renovation of a place much smaller than Zuccotti Park: a single family home.

Students joined numerous South Side community activists at a teach-in Wednesday night at a house in the Calumet Heights neighborhood. Members of the University’s Southside Solidarity Network (SSN) convened in the living room of the house with leaders from Liberate the South Side, an ad hoc organization aimed at bringing the Occupy movement closer to home by placing displaced Chicago families into foreclosed houses.

According to Shani Smith, a member of both Liberate and Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), a grassroots social justice empowerment organization that works closely with SSN and Liberate, SOUL specifically targets foreclosed homes because of the extent to which the negative effects of foreclosures can weaken the surrounding neighborhood.

“We were looking for homes that the bank owned and that basically are a blight on the community. We wanted these homes that are eyesores, that the neighbors didn’t want to be a part of the community any longer,” Smith said. “It really takes a toll not only on the people who were removed from their homes, but also the community,” she added.

The occupied single-family brick house is about 30 blocks south of the University in the Calumet Heights neighborhood, and has been vacant for the past two years after HSBC terminated its mortgage.

The teach-in offered around 30 attendants a forum through which they could reflect on the “home liberation” journey, which involved locating and renovating the house, gaining support from neighbors, and identifying a suitable family to resettle the house. The entire process culminated in the physical reoccupation of the home on January 19 by Shani Smith’s sister Tene Smith, a single working mother of four.

Liberate’s financial resources limit the group’s involvement to homes with only light renovation needs, and the Calumet project was often hampered by a lack of approval from neighbors, although the group was able to succeed with the help of supporters across the South Side.

“We had so many people just working around the clock for two weeks to get this home in move-in condition…The furnace and water heater were donated, and a lot of the work was donated,” Smith said.

Ultimately, Tene Smith, whose family was displaced for the past three years, welcomed the opportunity to settle down and start over.

“We’ve adjusted to it quite a bit. We love it,” Smith said. “This was a grand opportunity for her to truly get a fresh start…. The kids are really appreciative because now they have a little bit more space…. They can come home and do their homework,” Shadi Smith added. “She’s really attached to it. She loves the independence.”

First-year SSN member Emma LaBounty highlighted the importance of being aware of the communities outside of the “U of C bubble” and the issues that affect them. “There are neighborhoods around the U of C where most students have never been…but the U of C is situated in a broader community that we can engage and learn about and definitely link these sorts of struggles with the conversations that students have about the economy,” LaBounty said.

LaBounty also believes this campaign gives credence to the notion of bank accountability by giving a face to issues that are often discounted. “Once you actually talk to people face to face, it’s a lot harder to maintain the sense of complicity that comes when you complain about the individuals, and when you realize that there’s a structural crisis and look on maps, and these maps are dotted off by foreclosures, it’s hard to talk about stupid individuals making stupid individual decisions,” she said.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s