from the nyt:
MIAMI – When the woman who calls herself Queen Omega moved into a three-bedroom house here last December, she introduced herself to the neighbors, signed contracts for electricity and water and ordered an Internet connection.
What she did not tell anyone was that she had no legal right to be in the home.
Ms. Omega, 48, is one of the beneficiaries of the foreclosure crisis. Through a small advocacy group of local volunteers called Take Back the Land, she moved from a friend’s couch into a newly empty house that sold just a few years ago for more than $400,000.
Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said about a dozen advocacy groups around the country were actively moving homeless people into vacant homes — some working in secret, others, like Take Back the Land, operating openly.
In addition to squatting, some advocacy groups have organized civil disobedience actions in which borrowers or renters refuse to leave homes after foreclosure.
The groups say that they have sometimes received support from neighbors and that beleaguered police departments have not aggressively gone after squatters.
“We’re seeing sheriffs’ departments who are reluctant to move fast on foreclosures or evictions,” said Bill Faith, director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, which is not engaged in squatting. “They’re up to their eyeballs in this stuff. Everyone’s overwhelmed.”
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Omega sat on the tiled floor of her unfurnished living room and described plans to use the space to tie-dye clothing and sell it on the Internet, hoping to save some money before she is inevitably forced to leave.
“It’s a beautiful castle, and it’s temporary for me,” she said, “and if I can be here 24 hours, I’m thankful.” In the meantime, she said, she has instructed her adult son not to make noise, to be a good neighbor.
‘A modern-day underground railroad’
In Minnesota, a group called the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign recently moved families into 13 empty homes; in Philadelphia, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union maintains seven “human rights houses” shared by 13 families. Cheri Honkala, who is the national organizer for the Minnesota group and was homeless herself once, likened the group’s work to “a modern-day underground railroad,” and said squatters could last up to a year in a house before eviction.
Other groups, including Women in Transition in Louisville, Ky., are looking for properties to occupy, especially as they become frustrated with the lack of affordable housing and the oversupply of empty homes.
Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, said her group had been looking into asking banks to give it abandoned buildings to renovate and occupy legally. Ms. Honkala, who was a squatter in the 1980s, said the biggest difference now was that the neighbors were often more supportive. “People who used to say, ‘That’s breaking the law,’ now that they’re living on a block with three or four empty houses, they’re very interested in helping out, bringing over mattresses or food for the families,” she said.