On certain blocks of the south and west sides of Providence, burnt and dilapidated abandoned homes are as common as inhabited ones. These blocks are eerie, half-dead, and as the sun goes down, three different people tell me I shouldn’t be wandering around alone. What’s happened to these places? In front of his barbershop on Broadway Street, a lifelong Providence resident sums the problem up: “Everybody used to say owning a home was the American Dream,” he says. “But dreams don’t come true. Shit, here, it’s the American Nightmare.”
Providence is experiencing two complementary and interrelated crises concurrently: homelessness and home abandonment. The situation is dire. There are roughly a thousand abandoned homes in the city and over 4,000 people who will use its shelter system this year.
The city has been ineffective in addressing both issues. It expects a 282-bed shortage in shelters this winter, but it’s illegal to sleep outside in Providence, placing hundreds of homeless in a nightly double bind. Providence has one state-funded subsidized housing program, the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, and its budget has shrunk from $7.5 million at its inception to $1.5 million today. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Dollar Homes program, which sells empty homes to nonprofits for a dollar, lists only one available house in Providence on its website, from April 2010. Meanwhile, banks continue to evict Providence families from their homes for defaulting on their mortgage payments, and the homes often lie empty for months or years afterwards.
But beneath notions of property rights and legal regulations on ownership and debt, there is an intuitive and elegantly simple solution: why not match the empty homes with homeless people? Squatting, the unlawful occupation of a building or piece of land, happens all the time on an individual and temporary basis. In the face of the housing crisis, movements that aim to lend organization and manpower to squatters are cropping up across the US. So can it happen in Providence?
In November 2008, Josh Oakhurst started to notice the astounding number of abandoned homes in Providence. On his way to work, he would pass by 228 Broad Street, a three-story scorched wooden shell of an apartment with its front door ripped from its hinges, rusty nails protruding like thorns. He wondered why no one had boarded the place up, especially when it was directly across from the local high school. The building would become the first entry on forgottenprovidence.com, Oakhurst’s grassroots approach to the dearth of unified information on abandoned houses in the city.
“All over Providence,” he says, “neighbors go outside and see a property that’s been sitting empty for months. No one knows what’s going on or why these houses were abandoned or what’s being done about it.”
Throughout the next year, Oakhurst and two other volunteers shot pictures of 300 of the city’s estimated 1,000 empty homes (he makes it clear that they never entered any of them illegally). They knocked on doors and gathered anecdotal information about the properties from people in the neighborhoods, and they cross-referenced their findings with ownership data from online resources like the Providence Plan.
"We didn’t have a political agenda,” Oakhurst notes. “We just wanted to create a tool for the community.”
But the tool was not enough to excavate the mess of backlogged and disorganized paperwork that Oakhurst unearthed. Many house deeds haven’t been digitized and are only accessible at the city courthouse. Code enforcement laws are antiquated. Eviction hearings are backed up for months. The bureaucracy and red tape from city officials that Oakhurst spoke to was like a parody of government inefficiency. “It’s a runaround,” he says. “They tell you to call this and that guy who tells you to call someone else… and the trail goes cold.”
After nearly a year and a half of work, the Forgotten Providence team eventually abandoned its project.
Oakhurst gleaned one salient message from his frustrating time with Forgotten Providence: houses rot when abandoned. “Houses need people in them,” he says. “As soon as they’re empty, mold sets in, windows break, animals come. Without people, homes decay unbelievably quickly, and before you know it they’re unlivable.”
When I ask him if he ever encountered people in the houses he investigated, he nods. “Sure, we met squatters. You could tell from the sidewalk if somebody was staying in a house because lights would be on inside... But we never saw anyone trying to fix a place up. The houses were decrepit. Trashed. You wouldn’t want to imagine anyone living in them.”
Most squatters I encountered in Providence agreed with Oakhurst’s characterization—people squat temporarily and out of necessity, usually in execrable conditions. Outside Crossroads Shelter on the South Side, a man who calls himself China says he’s squatted on-and-off for years. “When it was cold and I had nowhere to go,” he says, “I’d sleep in a building for a couple nights and take my stuff out in the day… There were rats, cockroaches, no electricity. You heard about people getting killed.”
But considering the alternatives, squatting was a decent prospect for China. “You have to get to shelters hours early to get a bed,” he says. “And no one’s watching you when you squat. So people use the houses if they want to party and do drugs and whatever. I know, I did it.”
Then he looks me in the eye and hits the heart of the issue: “You’re asking if people fixed the places up; I’m asking how could they? How do you pay for that? And what about the police?”
A week later I pose the same question to John Joyce and Megan Smith B’10, the executive co-directors of the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP), a group that facilitates peer-to-peer interaction among the homeless.
Joyce confirms immediately what Oakhurst and China told me: “The vast majority of squatters are hit-and-run,” he says, “and people who squat are very private about it… I know people who I’ve worked with for two, three years who still won’t tell me their spot.”
“Here’s an example,” says Smith. “Until two weeks ago, a guy was squatting in a cellar on Wickenden Street. He’d go in after eleven and leave at five [in the morning] to go to work… The people living in the house never knew he was there. His boss had no idea he was homeless.”
While it’s rare, however, organized squatting has happened in Providence. Joyce remembers a case: “Two years ago, a six-story building near the Rhode Island Hospital complex was abandoned. A guy broke in and fixed it up and started letting people stay there. You’d crawl through a dark slot, go up to the fourth floor, ask for Savage, give him twenty bucks or work something out and he’d let you stay for the week. It was all carpeted. They got the water running and electricity and you could take a hot shower. It was a sweet setup.”
I ask what happened. “The copper [in the pipes] started to lose it,” he says. “And the word-of mouth got out of hand. They had to abandon ship. It was too easy and too convenient.”
Convenience is seldom the problem for Providence’s homeless, however. “What it comes down to is our administration is not pro-housing [for the homeless],” says Joyce. “It’s illegal to be homeless in Providence... they’re loitering by being here.”
Eventually, Joyce and Smith got fed up and decided to organize some squatting themselves. A few months ago, they went door-to-door on Charles Street on the North Side and conducted an informal survey asking neighbors about using the empty homes on the street for low-income housing. The neighbors were unanimously in favor of the idea-- anything seemed better than the crumbling empty structures surrounding their homes.
So Joyce and Smith formulated a plan to place squatters in a Charles Street “abandominium” while publicizing that Dollar Homes could easily subsidize it. “We made the preparations, notified the neighbors and the press,” Smith explains. Then something truly ironic happened: the bank that owned the house sold the property the day before the squat. “We’d been planning for so long,” she says. “It was unbelievable.”
Joyce and Smith would have assumed a significant legal risk in occupying the Charles Street home—squatters are by definition both trespassing and breaking and entering. However, there are some laws on the books that can protect them. The most commonly cited defense is called adverse possession, which states that if a person occupies a private structure or piece of land in a way that is (1) open and notorious (2) continuous and (3) unchallenged over a considerable period (ten years in Rhode Island), then the property right transfers to the occupant. But for adverse possession to apply to squatters, they have to manage to stay in a home for ten years and prove in court that they haven’t hidden their squatting—significant hurdles, especially for someone as legally vulnerable as a homeless person.
Another approach is the necessity defense. “That’s what we tried with the Tent City,” says Smith, referring to the 90-person squat off of Point Street that RIHAP organized in 2009. “The city didn’t have anywhere else to put the squatters, so we argued that they had no choice.” The case failed in court, however, and Providence ultimately forced the Tent City to disband.
Squat occupations require a tactical shift from working within a government’s legal structure to against it. On face it seems unlikely that a few individuals or an organization like RIHAP could take on a city wielding financial and police power. But in other parts of the country, squatters’ rights activists are taking a more aggressive stance, refusing to yield, and in some cases, succeeding.
Max Rameau heads Take Back the Land, a Miami organization that illegally seizes abandoned homes and places squatters in them, and then defends them against law enforcement. Rameau sums up the group’s purpose in an epigram: it “matches homeless people with people-less homes.”
Rameau is ambitious—he wants Take Back the Land to spread, and it has. Ten US cities have direct action land rights groups connected to his. He has been to Providence twice to gauge the viability of one here and made a name for himself among local advocates for the homeless.
Take Back the Land’s basic tenet is that housing is a human right, a concept that is anything but radical—the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically delineates a human right to housing. Rameau sees his organization fitting into a tradition of morally justified and mandated resistance. “We’re directly implementing our own public policy,” he says. “It’s not just civil disobedience, it’s positive moral action.”
Take Back the Land aims to organize individual squatters to give them the best chance of success in keeping their homes. It has a manifold pre-squat screening process: the families it moves in need “some level of income, to pay their utility bills, and to be good neighbors.” This last factor is crucial, Rameau says, because “at some point you’re going to get found… and you’ll need the support of your community and neighbors.”
The houses Take Back the Land squats also undergo a screening process. “The house has to be in good condition,” says Rameau. “We won’t move people into places without running water or the capacity for electricity. That would defeat the purpose.” The first step is to send a scouting team that tries to get access to a home to make sure it’s salvageable. Then a vetting team trudges through public records and deed files to ensure the home is foreclosed or government-owned, often pairing findings with real estate websites—the very same grassroots methods Forgotten Providence employed. Lastly, the organization changes the locks, cleans, paints and furnishes the house, and sets up the utilities.
“When families move in, we ask them to keep records of the first piece of mail they recieve to get the clock ticking on adverse possession… But we aren’t trying to skirt the real issue by falling back on that. The real problem is that there are tens of thousands of vacant homes [in Miami]. We could literally end homelessness tomorrow if we put people in them. We don’t want to use a loophole. We’re willing, but it’s not ideal. What we really want,” he says, pausing for breath and effect, “is to elevate housing to the level of a human right and create community control of land through co-ops and land trusts… We need a portion of homes to operate outside market forces.”
The issue becomes how to create this subset of homes considering the housing crisis, and more fundamentally, the capitalist American economy. Take Back the Land has set up direct action systems and made demands for changes in public policy, but how to codify these systems and make them economically feasible remains unclear. The bottom line is that a movement like Rameau’s needs a critical mass of support before it can effect overarching change because the change it seeks is so radical. When I ask him what’s happened to his squatters, Rameau thinks his response over carefully:
“Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, people have gotten up and left when the police get there. It’s up to them whether they want to challenge the police or leave… In some instances the families stay and most times when that happens the police just leave. But if [the police] want to go forward with the eviction, then people get arrested.”
“I don’t get paid for this,” says Rameau, who has been arrested twice while working for Take Back the Land. “We have a moral obligation to break these laws. We have a moral obligation to break them.”
While Take Back the Land is prepared to stand up for squatters’ rights, squatters themselves often reject outside help. Back at Crossroads, TJ stands outside the shelter waiting for a bus, hunched over with his hands deep in his sweatshirt pocket. “I used to stay here some nights,” he tells me. But more often he would squat—ten years ago he lived in an abandoned Providence house for eighteen months. “I’ve got an apartment nearby now,” he says, puffing out his chest slightly. I congratulate him and ask how he thinks the city should deal with squatters today. “People shouldn’t be doing that,” he answers. “They don’t have any rights, it’s trespassing. They don’t own the places, it’s illegal… That’s the way it is.”
TJ’s reaction reflects the conflict between the transience of homelessness and the comfort of a place in civil society, a comfort that fundamentally links ownership and worth. The homeless own nothing, so to the community they are nothing. The police harass them, tell them to leave the Starbucks or clear off the grass while college students and business people lounge nearby. The homeless commit a crime just by staying in Providence: when they sleep they lie in hiding and when they walk around they loiter. So it makes sense that when they pull themselves out of the shame of having nothing, they might reject all that came with it, embracing the prospect of a home, of owning things, of acceptance into the community.
The issue we need to address is this culture premium on accumulation, property, and competition over basic welfare and respect for human life. The squatters’ rights movement challenges it on a structural level. The problem is nuanced, complicated by economic obstacles of incentives and loans and bank debt. But Forgotten Providence and RIHAP are evidence of the will for justice fermenting in the city. The question becomes how to channel that will, how to induce a paradigm shift strong enough to politicize it and create foundational, revolutionary change.
MIMI DWYER B’13 has a moral obligation to break the law.