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Occupy Our Homes Gains Support Near A Foreclosed House In Brooklyn

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Occupy Our Homes plans to move a homeless family into this vacant house in Brooklyn.
Occupy Our Homes plans to move a homeless family into this vacant house in Brooklyn.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Until three days ago, Teresa Bolton didn't consider herself part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Bolton is 55 and lives in East New York, Brooklyn, an hour's train ride from the skyscrapers of Manhattan's financial district, where the movement was born. But when occupiers appeared on her block this week, as part of a new national campaign to help homeless families move into vacant houses and resist foreclosure-related evictions, she opened her door.

"Occupy Wall Street came to me. I didn't go seek it out," she said, standing on her porch, wearing a navy turban and a pink sweatshirt, large silver hoops dangling from her ears. "I always wanted to be involved in something positive that was beneficial to everyone."

The street was relatively quiet on Friday afternoon. The exception: a few neighbors milling about on the sidewalk and a steady stream of white 20-somethings filing in and out of a house down the street. The neighborhood is home to mostly poor African Americans and Caribbean immigrants; Occupy Wall Street protesters are overwhelmingly white. On Friday, those activists were the only white people spotted in the neighborhood, besides the police officers stationed nearby. The house had a large banner stretched across it that read, "BANKS STEAL HOMES," and a sign perched on the roof declaring, "FORECLOSE ON BANKS NOT PEOPLE, OCCUPY WALL ST."

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On Tuesday, the street had been packed with hundreds of protesters, community organizers and neighbors who joined a marching tour of foreclosed homes in the area. Out here, there are plenty: East New York has the highest foreclosure rate in the city. The march ended at the house with the banners, where a homeless family of four plans to live. For now, more than a dozen occupiers are staying there, along with the father, Alfredo Carrasquillo, as they make renovations and address lingering security concerns.

How and if the authorities respond to the squatters will partly determine the future of Occupy Our Homes, a national campaign aimed at the nation's foreclosure crisis. So far, police in East New York have observed but not attempted to enter the premises.

Since activists first erected tents in Zuccotti Park, many have questioned the protesters' unwillingness to settle on one demand. In the last month, as Occupy camps across the country have been cleared, the skepticism has escalated: Without public camps, will the movement end? This week, some protesters answered with Occupy Our Homes. The new campaign, which some say may be the future of the Occupy protests, takes the movement far from its financial district roots.

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 East New York foreclosures on RealtyTrac's website looks like it came down with chicken pox. A recent report spells out the danger this holds for neighborhoods: More vacancies lead to declining property values and tax revenues, crime rises, and a vicious cycle ensues.

After just three days in the neighborhood and despite little warning, East New Yorkers appear to have embraced Occupy Our Homes' presence. Many storefront windows hold supportive signs: "Foreclose on banks, not on people."

Bolton didn't have much warning about Tuesday's march -- just a knock on her door Monday afternoon. But as the crowd passed by, Bolton said, she invited groups of occupiers into her home for tea and coffee until the beverages ran out. At one point, Bolton noted, it became too much and she locked her door, refusing to let anyone else into her bright blue kitchen. "I was overwhelmed, I'm not going to lie," she said. But that night, when the crowd dispersed, she sat down and wrote a poem about Occupy Wall Street -- and she called it "our movement."

"It's a positive thing, to see a family in a home," she said.

Down the street, Carrasquillo sat in the yard of the occupied house, by a Christmas tree topped with an "Occupied Real Estate" flag, chatting with a crowd of occupiers and a videographer from the Yes Men, a loose-knit association of activists. A couple of neighbors dropped by.

"What made you do this?" asked Dannett Burnett, who lives across the street.

"I know it's crazy, right?" Carrasquillo said, laughing.

"It's not crazy, it's right," she said.

Burnett moved into East New York in 1974, when another plague of vacancy swept the neighborhood. At that time, she said, white families were fleeing faster than African Americans and Caribbean immigrants were moving in.

The occupied home and its immediate neighbor are attached and technically part of a single building. But there are large differences.

At the occupied house, the front door is secured by a steel link chain hooked through the window.

Next door, a brass lock seals the door. Velveteen red bows and nearly three-foot tall candy canes that light up at night have been placed at consistent and precise intervals around the postage-stamp-sized yard. The black metal mailbox, the fence, even the house's white front door all look freshly painted.

On Monday, people associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement knocked on the neighboring door -- where James, who declined to give his last name, lives -- and explained their plans to move a homeless family into the vacant house. The group spoke with James' wife, who told him about the plan.

"I'll be honest," said James, 44, who has lived on the street for six years. "My first thought was, OK, are the police going to come here, shoot up the place and drag people out the door? Bullets don't know addresses."

But there are also five vacant houses on the block, James said. That night, he thought about the number of people who have lost jobs, homes and their sense of security since the financial downturn began.

"Basically, I am always going to be in support of anything that is for people," he said. "I agree with this concept. It is better to foreclose on banks than it is to foreclose on people."

James remains concerned that the police may pay an unexpected and messy visit next door, putting his wife, four children, and grandchild in danger. But he also hopes that the idea of occupying foreclosed homes will catch on around the country.

Just before noon on Friday inside Lechonera Restaurante 2, a Dominican restaurant down the road, the lunch crowd is busy with plates of stewed pork, rice and beans, and heavily seasoned fish. While no one appears to be talking about the nearby occupation or its broader goals at Lechonera, an Occupy sign hangs in the front window. On top of the toilet in the restaurant's only bathroom, a copy of the Occupy Wall Street Journal waited for a reader. The publication is produced by people associated with the movement.

"A man came by on Monday, if I remember correctly, and he told me what they were doing," said Evcely Olivera in Spanish. She has owned and operated Lechonera for seven years in this spot. "He asked if they could hang a sign in the window, and I said yes, of course. I like the general idea."

Olivera said that although she is familiar with Occupy Wall Street, she does not speak enough English to follow all its activities and organizing efforts. Still, she likes that someone has come to the neighborhood and said something about all the wasted, vacant houses taken from families who never had much money.

Back at Bolton's house, her husband, Doyle Coleman, stood on the porch painting the front of their home. The two of them weren't concerned that the occupiers are mostly white or that someone would be living down the street from them without a lease and not paying rent.

"People come into this country every day from all over the world, so what's the matter with an American citizen occupying anything in the United States?" she asked.

"Well said," Coleman responded, nodding.

The couple have been renovating their home as they could afford it. The floors and stairs are currently stripped down to the bare wood. "No credit cards, no contractors, no debt," Coleman said, dipping his paintbrush and delicately touching up the frame of the house.

Inside, above the computer, hangs a framed photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King. Bolton thinks there's a strong parallel between the Occupy movement and the civil rights movement.

She was born not long after Rosa Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake's order to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. When Bolton was a small child, after the law was lifted -- but when racism in the South was still a powerful force -- she rode the bus with her mother and wanted to sit upfront, but her mother, worried about her daughter's safety, insisted they sit in the back. Bolton sees the occupation down the street as a similar gesture of defiance.

"The difference now," she said, "is nobody is telling them, 'Get out.' People here are saying, 'Stay right here. Stay here. Stay put.'"

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