Fighting Against Foreclosures

Homeowners take a radical stance on foreclosures.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 13 | Posted Feb. 16, 2010

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Kensington Welfare Rights Union Coordinator Galen Tyler was on the march in 2000.

Ray Sanchez is three months behind on his mortgage payments. The North Philadelphia native is confident that Bank of America, which took over his mortgage after subprime connoisseurs Countrywide Financial went south, will soon move to foreclose. But Sanchez isn’t looking for an apartment or thinking about crashing with friends—he’s not going anywhere.

“I couldn’t just give up all my hard work. The house is basically my dream come true,” says 30-year-old Sanchez, who was laid off last year after working four years at Home Depot. “I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do.“

Standing up to save his home, Sanchez has joined a movement of homeowners that are preparing to resist foreclosure—and face arrest if need be. The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is currently reaching out to property owners across the city and linking them up with neighbors who are in a similar predicament so that they can resist en masse. If the police come to evict them, homeowners and community supporters will employ non-violent civil disobedience and refuse to leave the property.

The Campaign is a national organization that grew out of Philly’s Kensington Welfare Rights Union, whose housing takeovers and protests during the economic boom of the ’90s drew national attention to the plight of the working poor and homeless. With the foreclosure epidemic now dragging even middle-class families into crisis, Philadelphia is once again poised to become the epicenter for the radical housing rights movement.

“It’s like a finger in the dam,” says the Campaign’s executive director Cheri Honkala, discussing an expected surge of home foreclosures. “And it’s going to burst.”

The foreclosure crisis has already forced millions from their homes and brought the global economy to its knees. In January alone, 88,000 people had their homes repossessed, a 31 percent increase from last year. By this June, an estimated 5.1 million Americans are expected to be “underwater,” according to The New York Times, meaning they will owe more on their home than the property is worth.

Activists say Obama has gone soft on banks that refuse to modify loans, occasional tough talk notwithstanding. Now, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign says grassroots action is the only option left.

“People always say ‘Cheri doesn’t work within the system,’” says Honkala. “Well, the system doesn’t work.”

Honkala, 47, has been an irritant to Philadelphia officials over the past decades. The brash and energetic founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign has led building takeovers and established tent cities full of the homeless and poor. After leaving the city for two years, the formerly homeless mother of two and longtime welfare recipient is back in town and busy organizing homeowners facing foreclosure—and she knows what she’s doing.

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union was founded in 1991 to protest for the rights of welfare recipients, demonized in the media as lazy welfare queens. Honkala and the organization were immortalized in Inquirer reporter David Zucchino’s 1997 book The Myth of the Welfare Queen .

The Union’s first action was to take over an abandoned welfare office at the corner of Front and York, which they turned into a community center—until police arrested them. Many arrests would follow: in houses, apartments, churches and at the Liberty Bell. Honkala says the Union has secured housing for hundreds of Philadelphia families, many of whom have also been arrested in protest actions. Honkala has been arrested over 80 times.

During the late ’70s Honkala became pregnant at age 16 after years bouncing around the Minnesota child welfare system. She and her 8-year-old ended up homeless and sleeping in her car until a drunk driver totaled it. Hearing that the government kept the heat on in publicly owned properties so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, she moved into an empty house owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was arrested so she moved in to another. And then another.

Honkala has spent the last two years organizing back in her native Twin Cities, helping five local women resist foreclosure and organizing raucous protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention. Having established a new Campaign chapter, she returned to Philadelphia in August and is working out of offices in a Fishtown Lutheran church.

Housing activism in Philly slowed down in her absence, and Honkala says the powers that be are not happy she’s back.

“When I came back to the city, I went down to the foreclosure court,” says a bemused Honkala. “They ID’d me and escorted me out.”

In an ironic twist, Honkala says the city offered her work as a housing counselor after hearing of her return, a job she unsurprisingly refused.

“She just got back into town. Let’s offer her money so she doesn’t do the crazy shit she does,” says Honkala, laughing as she imagines what people in City Hall must have been thinking.

Philadelphia has received accolades for its foreclosure prevention program, which has helped keep a number of homeowners off the street. But while she concedes the situation in Philly is slightly better than in most cities, Honkala is not impressed. “What Philly has done is put you on life support even though they’re eventually going to pull the plug.” 

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Comments 1 - 13 of 13
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1. Anonymous said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 09:35AM

“F these people. "I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do.“ - nah, bro, you didn't. You took money and didn't pay it back like you promised. "Housing is a human right" - true, so go build your own with your own capital. I'm beginning to think that stealing is a human right, and everybody seems to be doing it except me. I don't hate the banks - but I recognize that I take for granted the virtues of a stable, viable currency protected by the genius of the central banking system. The only reason the currency is worth anything is that the people think it is and when the people stop thinking the currency is worth anything then it's not worth anything.

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2. Anonymous said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 09:43AM

“How did we get to the point where people believe that they can enter into a contract willingly, take hundreds of thousands of dollars from a bank, and then organize to get out of paying it back? I understand hard times, but if times are tough, pull together with family, friends, neighbors. Sell your current home if you have to, and use getting another one as the fuel for improving yourself and getting an even better job than you could ever imagine. Maybe Ray could start a business and hire other people and, years from now, find himself with a better life than he could ever imagine. A better life than begging for government assistance could ever provide him.

Have some self respect people!”

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3. Tim Kearney said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 12:21PM

“Welcome home Cheri. Housing, jobs, health care, and education for everyone!!! (and honest government)”

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4. Patriot said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 12:42PM

“3 million homes were foreclosed in 2009 - a record in U.S. history. Trillions have been spent on wars and bailouts for the rich, while practically nothing has been done to protect the general population of people - a huge number of which are struggling for survival in the richest country in the world. Nothing has been done to help house the growing numbers of poor and homeless people - victims of a vicious and predatory economic system. The wealthiest 20% of Americans own 80% of the wealth and land. It’s not that there isn’t enough to go around – the deck is rigged. The distribution is deadly. I support poor people organizing to meet their survival and restructure the economic system to be more fair and democratic. Protect people, not banks. Serve citizens, not corporations. Challenge unjust laws, like the founding fathers and the Civil Rights Movement did. You only get what you're organized to take.”

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5. Anonymous from first post said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 02:13PM

“"while practically nothing has been done to protect the general population of people" - the taxpayer will end up taking most of the hit for the refinancing programs currently under way. I understand these programs are overwhelmed and folks have been very frustrated with trying to modify, but you can't lay that 'nothing's been done' sh1t on me. Uh-huh. Whining about the rich in this country of opportunity is a cry of envy.”

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6. J'accuse said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 02:30PM

“i have to say that while i agree with housing and a living wage as a human right, i do not agree with the tactics of Honkala, KWRU or the PPEHRC.

They receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations and basically the only thing that happens is they get into a newspaper or magazine, or they make movies of themselves. Bread and Roses contributed a generous amount of money to KWRU so they could update their website for 2009- take a look at and see for yourself what that money went to.
why did the PPEHRC not act sooner and begin large scale protests during the first bank bailout?
why have they not used their funding for financial workshops for families facing foreclosure?
why have they not donated money to legal counsel or to pay off amounts of back bills for those in foreclosure?
why would they advise people in foreclosure to risk imprisonment over any number of options they should be providing?

this is why: because their movement only serves them”

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7. FYI said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 02:38PM

“links supporting the above information”

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8. Correcting some mistakes said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 03:01PM

“"They receive hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations and basically the only thing that happens is they get into a newspaper or magazine, or they make movies of themselves" - This is a lie. Either you don't know anything about these organizations (which I doubt) or, more likely, you are deliberately lying to make them look bad.

PPEHRC and KWRU have organized the largest national demonstrations at the last 3 Republican National Conventions, of upwards of 10,000 people. They've brought together poor and homeless families from across the country in a movement to educate folks in ways to challenge the system and resist foreclosure (both within the system and using more confrontational means after the system has failed), and provided support for countless poor families in the movement. It is precisely BECAUSE they do SO MUCH to help others, while the leadership continues to live in poverty, that others reach out to them to write books and make movies that document this movement.”

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9. LOLZ! said... on Feb 17, 2010 at 05:10PM

“Dear CSMS- thanks for proving how irrelevant your organization is. what good did all that protesting the rnc do?! @lolz!”

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10. Anonymous said... on Feb 18, 2010 at 11:25AM

“two far more note worthy groups that actually assist the homeless in finding housing in Philadelphia

Bethesda Project

Project HOME”

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11. jmb27 said... on Feb 18, 2010 at 05:44PM

“Predatory Lending is a major contributor to the economic turmoil we are currently experiencing.

Here is an example of what I am talking about:
Scott Veerkamp / Predatory Lending (Franklin Township School Board Member.)

Please review this information from U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley regarding deceptive lending practices:
"Steering payments were made to brokers who enticed unsuspecting homeowners into deceptive and expensive mortgages. These secret bonus payments, often called Yield Spread Premiums, turned home mortgages into a SCAM."

The Center for Responsible Lending says YSP "steals equity from struggling families."
1. Scott collected nearly $10,000 on two separate mortgages using YSP and junk fees. 2. This is an average of $5,000 per loan. 3. The median value of the properties was $135,000. 4. Clearly, this type of lending represents a major ripoff for consumers.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Feb 21, 2010 at 10:27AM

“i agree with the above article. hey its difficult to save up when company's don't give you an increase in cost of living increase, cut pensions, force layoff even when the president of the company is going to make millions in stock bonus if they make it so the company are still making a profit even in the recession. its weird when you see high level positions being offered i am sure at a huge compensation and yet at the same time your company is touting we need to make sacrifices by foregoing pay increase and pension cuts. When I see it I wonder well if there is a recession why is there so many vice presidents in a company.

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13. Anonymous said... on Jan 9, 2012 at 03:40PM

“Unfortunately, this situation is true for millions of Americans and is getting worse everyday. There are ways to help.

Learn about our Mortgage Forensic Audit process and call for a free consultation. Lower your monthly payments and avoid foreclosure.


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