Occupiers, Officials Try to Help Homeowners

by Tyreshia Black 

Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in partnership with Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood.

Urban Youth International Journalism Program reporter Tyreshia Black interviews Willie “JR” Fleming, an activist with Occupy the Hood Chicago. Photo by Micah Maidenberg

There were only a few people on the steps of Herman Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus in Bronzeville on Oct. 2, and they stood waiting to talk to distressed homeowners. It was a small event but one that had a big message and connected to a bigger movement.

The scene was part of Chicago’s version of the worldwide events known as the Occupy Movement – protests that have spread from state to state affecting different cities and neighborhoods. The event the group “Occupy the Hood” held at Herman Hall focused on home foreclosures and forced evictions.

Inside the building, homeowners were trying to get help modifying their mortgages under a separate program from the Illinois Attorney’s General’s Office.

I got a chance to interview a couple of activists and supporters at the Occupy event and also talked to people inside with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. Both events were trying to help people in different ways.
Loren Taylor, who is from the South Side, is with the group Occupy the Hood Chicago. He provided an overview of the organization.

“It all started in Harlem, roughly 10 days after the Occupy Wall Street movement wasn’t reaching out to all people, mainly African Americans,” he said. “But soon the Occupy activism approach spread to 15 to 20 cities in two weeks! Then the Occupy the Hood started October 15.”

At first, I didn’t understand exactly what was going on with each group, so I asked Taylor to explain more.

“Each local chapter is independent, but the focus in Chicago is the…neighborhoods,” he said. “What better place to protest on foreclosure and eviction than Chicago? This is where it is needed the most at this point.”
The Occupy the Hood group in Chicago brings together different organizations. A key one is the Anti-Eviction Campaign, which works closely with homeowners facing foreclosure, and people illegally evicted from apartments.

The movement also brings together people of all ages. Crystal Vance Guerra, a 23-year-old from the South Side, explained: “This is a solidarity event. You can look at the occupation movement and come to a conclusion that it is a demand for justice. As an active participant, we mainly stand up for what’s right and the people who are responsible for it.”

Guerra told me their current demand is for proper education, prison reforms and economic justice. They’re also really concerned about the eviction process.
“This is what has everyone fired up” said Guerra. “Eight families in there had less than two weeks to be gone from their apartments in this upcoming winter due to immediate eviction. That’s not right, and this is why this event was held today.”

Guerra’s friend Gabriel Schivone, 27, from Arizona, also attended the event.
“I’ve been in the situation of being one step away from not having a house, and it’s not a pleasant feeling, so I can relate to those going through eviction,” he said.

J.R Fleming, an activist from Cabrini-Green, also attended the event at Herman Hall.
“I believe housing is a human right,” he said. “We help people from homeless to homeowners. The amount of foreclosures and evictions in Chicago are out of hand. It’s time for corrections. Not temporary, but permanent.”

The Attorney General
Inside Herman Hall, Lisa Thompson-Bennett, a housing liaison from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, was handing out resources to people. Bennett said the office had fought against poor home lending practices, referencing a major law suit that occurred in Illinois. She explained that the attorney general’s office sued the company Countrywide for targeting minorities with “subprime mortgages” that had high interest rates.

“We won the lawsuit with an $8.7 billion settlement – the largest of its kind,” she said.

A portion went to families that lost their homes due to foreclosure and to families seeking Countrywide loan modifications to help them keep their homes.

After talking to people who had faced eviction, it seemed as though a lot of home owners didn’t know what to do when they were short or late on their mortgage payments.

Bennett’s advice was that borrowers should “respond to lenders at all times and pay what you can. People are better off with advocates. But what’s most important is that you should seek help as early as you can.”

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