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Occupy Our Homes: Far From Wall Street, Protesters Find A New Focus

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Since losing hold of Zuccotti Park skeptics have wondered how Occupy Wall Street would remain focused. On Tuesday, far from the skyscrapers of Manhattan's financial district, protesters gave answer, sharpening focus from a broadly anti-wall street sentiment to take action on the nation's foreclosure crisis.

The new campaign, Occupy Our Homes, teams up with a number of community groups long-focused on housing issues and homelessness. It also comes with a specific agenda: putting homeless families into the millions of homes that have been taken over by banks and sat empty since the housing bubble popped, and helping those families on the verge of foreclosure resist eviction.

In the last three weeks, Occupiers have been struggling to find a new space in Manhattan's heavily-policed financial district to occupy; out in East New York, Brooklyn, there is plenty of free space. The neighborhood where protesters and community activists convened Tuesday afternoon has the highest foreclosure rate in the city -- some 16.8 per 1,000 homes receiving filings last year -- and the streets are packed with foreclosed homes and vacant lots ringed with barbed wire.

Since 2006, more than 4 million American homes have been taken over by banks, according to RealtyTrac, a California-based real estate data firm. A map of foreclosures in East New York on RealtyTrac's website appears as spotted as chicken pox.

As hundreds of protesters marched the streets here Tuesday, they paused at boarded-up homes marked with foreclosure signs to use the People's Mic to tell stories of homelessness and eviction. Residents popped their heads out of windows and ventured out to their porches. The day was dreary, with rain falling off and on throughout the afternoon, but the crowd kept growing as neighbors joined in.

A woman wearing a brown sweatshirt and glasses, her bangs died blond, stepped out her front door to find out what was going on. After observing the flow of signs for a minute -- "Foreclose The Banks," "You can't gamble with our lives" -- Marie, who didn't want to give her last name, leaned against the bars of her gated porch.

"I think it's a good thing for change. We need that out here," she said. Marie, like many of her neighbors, said she has been looking for steady work for five years; no luck. As a policeman wound his way through the marchers, she nodded her head in his direction. "We need police out here. But it's only when these types of things happen, that's when they come." She planned to join the protest, currently paused at a nearby vacant home, once it started moving again.

Next door, an Occupier who gave his name as Daniel A. chatted with a group of young guys standing on the porch who had also come out to observe the scene. Throughout Tuesday's event, Daniel hung towards the back of the march, stopping at each house where an East New Yorker -- many of them bewildered by the activity -- poked their head out their front door or leaned out of a second-story window.

"I think we should smoke weed and just enjoy ourselves -- that's all I say baby -- smoke weed," said a young man dressed in a black oversized jacket and baseball hat, standing on the steps behind a gated porch.

Daniel, wearing a bandana around his neck and a Marmot jacket, leaned over the gate. "We're going to all the houses in the neighborhood pointing to the fact that why the hell people are homeless when there are all these houses out here?"

"We're behind you one hundred percent," the man in black called back.

"At the end of this march, we're going to break into an empty home," Daniel said. The guys on the porch approved. "Now, you're going to see a bunch of people with died hair and piercing: like, what the fuck are you doing in our neighborhood?"

Daniel paused and looked out at the crowd, which, along with tattooed people, also had families with children, community leaders dressed in suits and activists from Picture the Homeless and VOCAL-NY (Voices Of Community Advocates & Leaders) -- two groups involved with organizing the day's events. Many people wore raincoats and carried umbrellas, but also held potted plants, chairs, lamps and other housewarming gifts.

"All of us are homeless too, after we lost our park, man," Daniel told the guys on the porch, smiling.

But Daniel never lived in the park -- he had been traveling in Honduras before he joined the Occupy protests, and by the time he had gotten to Zuccotti, it was cleared and surrounded by twenty-four-hour security surveillance. He has been couch surfing in Brooklyn.

Many of the Occupiers in the crowd said they thought Tuesday was an important turning point. A central facet of the Occupy Wall Street movement -- that drew both critics and broad support -- is the lack of one central demand. But now that many of the largest Occupy encampments across the country have been cleared, the lack of a demand has grown more problematic. In New York, the days since the eviction have been full of friction and division, as Occupiers struggle to figure out an identity going forward.

"The post-eviction transition is difficult," Hannah Appel, a post-doctoral fellow in Anthropology at Columbia University, said. She wore a brown cowboy hat and an orange rain coat, and carried a yellow sign: "Got Housing?"

"The more actions we have like this that are focused on really key issues like foreclosure and what does it mean actually logistically to put people back in their homes --" the sounds of chanting and drums interrupted her -- "the better. I hope to see more in the future."

An older woman leaned out of a second story window as Appel walked by. "I wanted to come out but I'm working!" she shouted.

After several hours, the group, now numbering more than 500 or so, stopped in front of a boarded-up home where Alfredo Carrasquillo, Tasha Glasgow and their two children, an eight-year old daughter with autism and five-year old son, plan to start living. The home had been vacant for three years, and is owned by Bank of America, the Occupiers said. On Tuesday, the yard was filled with balloons. On top of the roof sat a tent with lettering along the side: "You cannot evict an idea whose time has come."

Carrasquillo, who is also a community organizer at VOCAL-NY, stood before the crowd and spoke with emotion through the People's Mic, his voice echoing through the gathering. "This moment is really special," he hung his head and the crowd cheered. "This is just the beginning, there's still a lot more work that needs to be done but I hope that all of you will be here as that work continues."

Carrasquillo shouted his thanks to the police for allowing the event to go smoothly, before pausing, "hopefully they wont bother me in my bed at 2 a.m. this morning."

Throughout the afternoon, relations between the police and the protesters had been peaceful. How authorities will react to the occupation of the foreclosed homes going forward will determine in part how the Occupy Our Homes campaign proceeds.

"The block party is now beginning," a young woman shouted as a cleaning crew dressed in hard hats and carrying mops made their way inside the yard. A marching brass band began to play and protesters carried platters of food covered in tin foil towards the house. Housewarming gifts were passed forward: bags of children's books, small pieces of furniture, christmas lights. A small carved wooden bird travelled from hand to hand, above the crowd, towards the house.

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