On October 16th, Metro Justice, Take Back the Land Rochester, and other community partners came together for a rally and march under the idea that housing is a human right.
“With all of these empty houses and all of these homeless people we don’t have a housing problem, we have a priorities problem,” declared Maggie Spallina, a member of Rochester Red & Black, through the amplified blare of the megaphone. As more than three hundred people gathered in Washington Square Park for the Housing as a Human Rights march we began by talking about the crisis that has hit the nation and our city as a whole. “How did we become the city with the seventh highest child poverty in the country? How did we end up with all our neighbors out of work? And why do we keep allowing this to happen to each other?”
The Metro Justice Housing Committee was formed to further the concept of Housing as a Human Right in Rochester, premised on the idea that since shelter is a need then housing should be safe and affordable for everyone. Specifically it has begun to target the rampant rates of foreclosure that are blowing through our neighborhoods, leaving families without places to call home. In an effort to ward off the systemic levels of fraud we are calling on the city to enact a moratorium on police execution of home foreclosure based evictions, which would stop the city from allowing our police force to physically remove people from their homes. This resolution has been put before our city council, yet there has been pushback from some members while complete disinterest from others.
As this formed within Metro Justice, a member supported non-profit that has existed in Rochester for almost 40 years, it always had determined a course that would support the direct action of groups like Take Back the Land. By uniting on the critical issues, Metro Justice could feasibly put public and political pressure to then assist the direct foreclosure resistance that the community was already engaging with. The effort is to create a more public movement and create strategies why by more groups could be integrated.
On October 16th we banded together in a large coalition of groups to march to City Hall, which included partners like Take Back the Land Rochester, Rochester Red and Black, SEIU Local 200 United, Band of Rebels, and Students for a Democratic Society.
We began in the park with speakers like Maggie Spallina and Hubert Wilkerson, talking about the dire comparison between the growing numbers of both empty houses and homeless people on our city’s streets. From there the movement went down the streets, bannering under chants like “Hey, We’re Taking Over! No Evictions, No Foreclosure,” before rallying in front of City Hall to make the voices of the people heard.
A number of speakers began to relate the housing crisis, and the issues of class and racial inequality that are seen when talking about homelessness, to their own lives and struggles. Cathy Lennon, who successfully defended her house from a fraudulent foreclosure last year, broke down what it meant to stay in your own home. “I am one of the ones that the police took and drug me out of my home,” she said to a chanting crowd. “They were saying something about a shelter. We aren’t animals, we don’t need a shelter! We don’t need a shelter! We are human beings! Like Martin Luther King said, ”I have a dream!” I have a dream too! I have a dream that one day, real soon, we are coming together, and we will not be humiliated anymore! We will have our homes!”
After a long battle with cancer, Cathy’s husband passed away without a will. Since she did not have legal standing on the property, Bank of America refused to deal with her and eventually issued an eviction from a difficult foreclosure. She initiated a blockade on her home with the help of Take Back the Land Rochester and successfully defended it for a couple of weeks before an army of police finally rolled through, handcuffs ready. Shortly after she moved back into her home with the help of the local community, and she has been there since. Recently the bank finally accepted negotiations and will allow her to keep her home permanently, but only after consistent community pressure.
As the rally ended the march moved inside, packing the Speak to Council session that is available for community members to issue thoughts and complaints. The myriad of voices reflected the diverse issues involved with housing, and almost every speaker that nigh brought focused in on this topic. As each speaker finished the crowed exploded in support, completely ignoring the rules set forth by the council. Instead, in a showing of movement community, each speaker was respected as fists were raised by those in the crowd to indicate that they would let another speak. Hubert Wilkerson took the podium and opened up about the direct action that Take Back the Land has, and will be doing, to put homeless families into empty homes. “We are going to take over some city property. I’m not going to ask you. I’m telling you. We have been challenging the banks, Wells Fargo, Bank of America. You have 3,000 abandoned properties in this city.”
After the final speaker a women from the crowd rose up and openly challenged the City Council people to look her son in the eye and explain to him why he was not able to have a decent place to live. The women had faced some recent issues with eviction and could not currently secure a permanent place for her family. Cathy Lennon also crossed over the security parameters to embrace Councilwoman Elaine Spaull, who was openly moved to tears by the mix of passion and anger that the crowd had.
This event marked an ever-growing housing movement in this country, and Rochester specifically. Join us on November 3rd for our Housing Summit, which will bring together community groups to talk about how we can organize to challenge the issues around foreclosure and homelessness! The effort of this is not simply to create a public policy that will address these militant banks, but create a real movement that attempts to challenge the forces of state supported capitalism that have propped up this inequality. With this we call for a mass movement that will focus on solidarity and community, where we can finally move from housing as a commodity to community control over land.
The Metro Justice Housing Committee is also standing with a campaign to force the City of Rochester to divest all public funds from JP Morgan Chase, where a sizable portion of the budget currently sits. This is part of both a state and national effort to target Chase Bank as their record shows that they are one of the worst to deal with when times become hard in a household. More recently Hempstead, Binghamton, and Buffalo, NY, all moved money out of Chase, giving a public statement that when a movement is strong then they can determine how their community operates.