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The kitchen cabinets of Martha Escudero’s new house in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles were all bare. The bedrooms only had mattresses on the floor, and the dining room still needed a table. Still, she was ecstatic that her two children, ages 8 and 10, had a place they could finally call home.
“The kids created an edible garden,” said Escudero, a 42-year-old elder caregiver. “It’s the happiest I’ve seen them in a long time.”
The house has one big catch, though: Escudero doesn’t own it. In fact, she and her kids are occupying it illegally.
Escudero is part of Reclaiming Our Homes, a collective of activists in Los Angeles calling for a massive investment in public and social housing. Its members are currently occupying a dozen of homes that had been vacant for years, among a group of 160 houses that were supposed to be torn down as part of a proposed freeway extension. After decades of political battles, that project failed for good in 2018. On March 13, just when COVID-19 warnings began circulating through the country, the Reclaimers took them back.
While the tactic of taking over vacant housing isn’t a new one, the current trend in California has a unique sense of urgency due to the interwovenness of the housing and public health crises. Right now, people can’t afford places to live — but they also need places to live, or else they risk contracting COVID-19, a threat that disproportionately affects those experiencing homelessness as well as Black and Hispanic/Latinx people.
“With coronavirus, it’s become urgent for the government to do something about all these abandoned houses,” Escudero said. “Families have to wait in shelters for three years. That’s not fast enough for the most vulnerable children and seniors, who need to be housed immediately. If that’s not going to happen, communities need to take matters into their own hands.”
Before Escudero found the home — a two-bedroom, one-story bungalow — she didn’t know where her family was going to live. A few years ago, she was paying $1,200 a month in Boyle Heights, but after a two-year move out of the country, she returned to discover that rents for similar places had skyrocketed to almost $3,000. Her family spent a year and a half sleeping on friends and family’s couches before they decided it was time for a different tactic.
“My father was an immigrant, and he had a grade-school education and worked in a factory as a janitor, but he was able to own a home,” Escuadero said. “I was born and raised here, I speak English, have a college degree, and I’m still unable to pay the rent. Something is going on in our society to create those dynamics. Doing things right doesn't pay off anymore.”
Every inevitable disaster caused by the U.S.’ capitalist-driven approach to allocating housing has resulted in similar occupations, either for overtly tactical reasons or simply due to the reality that people need places to exist. The 2008 Great Recession led to a series of actions to occupy foreclosed homes. New York City’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s catalyzed hundreds of people to squat in Alphabet City tenement buildings, and shantytown “Hoovervilles” surrounded cities during the Great Depression.
“The LA mayor put a shelter-in-place order, but how am I supposed to wash my hands without a house?”
Now, the coronavirus has created another economic crisis. The various piecemeal shutdowns have lead to unprecedented unemployment claims, 46 million over the last 13 weeks. Meanwhile, rent forgiveness never came, eviction moratoriums are ending, and people’s one-time $1,200 stimulus has likely run dry. A new study suggests 250,000 more people won’t have permanent shelter in the U.S. due to COVID-19.
“The LA mayor put a shelter-in-place order, but how am I supposed to wash my hands without a house?” asked Benito Flores, a 65-year-old member of the Reclaimers, through a translator. Flores had been living in an apartment until 2005, when rent hikes became too much to afford on his minimum-wage income. Then, he lived in his van until moving into one of the vacant houses in El Sereno.
“When I heard about the coronavirus, that really solidified in my mind that I had to do something,” he said.
Despite the timing, the Reclaimers had started planning this round of occupations before the pandemic took hold in the U.S. A group of Black mothers in Oakland, known as Moms4Housing, inspired them. They famously occupied a house in January for 57 days — and later reached a deal to purchase it. “No One Should Be Homeless When Homes Are Sitting Empty” reads a title card on the Reclaimers website, a near-parallel mission statement to that of Moms4Housing.
“They were moms, and I was a mom as well, and I was housing-insecure,” Escudero said. “We all know we have a major housing crisis. What I didn’t know is that there are so many vacant homes. To me, that’s immoral, to hoard all these vacant homes while there are people like myself or people living in worse situations on the streets.”
Since the Reclaimers took over the vacancies in El Sereno, several other occupations have gone down. On May 1, two homeless women moved into a vacant home in San Francisco’s Castro District; police quickly removed them.
Days later, members of Street Watch L.A., an advocacy organization for poor and unhoused tenants across the city, talked their way into a Ritz Carlton in downtown — and said they weren’t going to leave. Hours later, police removed them, too. The hotel, as activists have pointed out, has received nearly $270 million in tax breaks since 2005.
A few days after that, more homeless activists in San Francisco attempted to occupy vacant rooms in the Marriott Marquis hotel before police dispersed the action. Activists told VICE News more actions are in the works across the state.
Then, a demonstrator chained herself to security bars in an Oakland motel in protest of the city government failing to commandeer the rooms for public use, that is, to house homeless people.
More recently, a group in Minneapolis occupied a vacant Sheraton hotel and housed more than 200 homeless residents.
“This tactic of taking over properties is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades, but it’s becoming more and more of a tactic,” said Jed Parriott, a member of Street Watch L.A. who assisted in the hours-long occupation of LA’s Ritz Carlton. Actions like the Reclaimers or the string of attempted hotel occupations are then about not only highlighting the system’s current frayed ends but also urging others to take matters into their own hands.
“Holding up a sign and protesting is not enough,” Parriott said.
The Reclaimers and other groups know that their actions will be met with a police response sooner or later. They’ve already received a letter to vacate and have had some contact with officers. The Moms4Housing, for example, were evicted in a pre-dawn raid by dozens of police equipped with riot gear, AR-15 rifles, and an armored personnel carrier called a BearCat. But these groups also know many people experiencing homelessness have no other choice.
“I know an eviction is an inevitable process that will come sooner than later,” said Rudy Gordillo, another Reclaimer, who recently moved into a vacant home in El Sereno. “But the community is in desperate need for a safe place to shelter themselves in, and it would be inhumane to evict us that way."
Gordillo had been living with her husband and three children in a small, old building filled with single-occupancy units in LA. They had a queen-size bed, and the kids shared a triple bunk an arm’s length away.
“There was one-and-a-half steps from the foot of my bed to the kitchen, two-and-a-half from the bathroom to the opposite side of bed,” Gordillo said. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, and my husband is a near-minimum-wage worker. We paid nearly $1,000 in rent and gas and trash collection in the building.”
But when COVID-19 hit, the Gordillos felt moving to another place, even one they would be occupying illegally, was the safest move for them. The units in their building are already doubled or tripled up. It’s a cramped space that, similar to homeless shelters, risks becoming a vector point. So they moved into one of the vacant homes in El Sereno.
In the meantime, as everyone waits for the threat of COVID-19 to subside, for evictions to resume, for whatever new version of normalcy to take over, the Reclaimers will continue fighting to keep what little they have. Recently, a group successfully blocked the Department of Water and Power from shutting off the water to a home occupied by one of the Reclaimers. And in-between preparations for the inevitable skirmishes with the city or the police, they’ll just live.
“My daughter wants a jasmine bush, the others want poppies, so we’re trying to figure that out,” Gordillo said. “I now have a washer and dryer of my own, and I never had that before. I’m looking forward to washing pots in the beautiful sink.”
“I was actually looking forward to doing chores this morning when I woke up,” she said, as she wiped away a tear.
Cover: Members of Reclaiming Our Homes hold signs as part of a demonstration outside one of the occupied homes in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Reclaiming Our Homes).