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Squatters say foreclosed homes beat homeless shelters

They may lack heat and a consistent water supply, but the vacant dwellings aren't as 'depressing,' as one New York mother puts it. Advocates say the number of squatters nationwide is rising.

December 21, 2011|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Occupy Wall Street activists join Alfredo Carrasquillo, center, and his children Tanisha and Alfredo Jr. at a house-warming party during a tour of foreclosed properties in Brooklyn.
Occupy Wall Street activists join Alfredo Carrasquillo, center, and his… (Mary Altaffer, Associated…)

Reporting from New York — Slips of paper are pasted to the broken door of the corner row house, violations for the garbage piled near the front steps. The stench of trash wafts up the dark interior stairway, where an ashtray filled with cigarette butts sits like an abandoned potted plant on the second-floor landing.

Nobody lives here, at least not officially.

But as you climb the narrow stairs to the top floor, a door opens into an airy apartment that is home to Tasha Glasgow, who is part of a largely invisible population of squatters occupying vacant homes across America. Given their clandestine lives, it's impossible to say how many people are squatting in this country, but with more than 1.3 million homes in foreclosure and hundreds of thousands of people homeless, advocates say it's safe to assume the number is growing.

"You have these abandoned dwellings that are sitting there vacant, sometimes for many months," said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, where shelters are reporting record numbers of residents. "It's not an issue of whether squatting is right or wrong. The fact is that people are desperate for places to live, and they're going to do what they need to do."

New York would seem to offer an ideal setting for squatters, with its ubiquitous apartment blocs providing safe hiding for people who can't afford the sky-high rents or stomach life in the shelters. The cutoff of funding this year for a program called Advantage, which helped needy renters pay for housing, has deepened the dilemma for people like Glasgow, 30, who has two children, one of them autistic.

Her 9-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy have been taught to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of life in a squat, which is a bit like life during wartime.

There is no heat. Empty jugs sit on the kitchen counter, waiting to be filled when the water comes on. Toilet-flushing and bathing are timed according to the faucets' erratic flow. Bare bulbs jut from ceiling fixtures, the wood floors are bare of carpeting, and tattered drapes cover the windows. There are none of the signs of regular family life: no dishes in the sink from the last meal, no dining table, no mail to be opened.

Still, it's better than a shelter. "I didn't want to be in a shelter. It was depressing. I wasn't getting support trying to find a place to live," said Glasgow, who has occupied this apartment near the ocean, on the foggy tip of Queens, on and off since 2007.

Glasgow probably is not who most people have in mind when they envision squatters. With her shy smile, cropped curly hair, youthful face and earnest demeanor, she seems more like a grad student than a struggling mother.

At first, she was in this apartment legally, her rent covered mostly by the Advantage program. When the building's owner stopped paying the mortgage a couple of years ago, she had to leave and ended up in a shelter with the children. Glasgow's hopes of getting another apartment with city help faded after Advantage was canceled. She heard that her old apartment was empty, so she moved back in earlier this year.

If all goes well, Glasgow and the children soon will move to another, better squat — a vacant Brooklyn house. The children's father, Alfredo Carrasquillo, entered it Dec. 6 as part of a nationwide effort by homeless advocates to highlight the housing crisis, which included public occupations of bank-owned properties. He won't move the rest of the family in until he has made it more suitable for habitation.

"Honestly, we just thought it would be a great opportunity," Carrasquillo said of taking over the vacant house in a public manner, which included a march through the neighborhood and a party on the quiet street, complete with balloons and housewarming gifts. "This is for everyone who doesn't have a house right now — to show people they can fight back."

There's no guarantee Carrasquillo will be able to remain in the house long enough to fix it up for Glasgow and their kids. But if the cases of squatters elsewhere are any indication, it won't be easy dislodging Glasgow or Carrasquillo now that advocacy groups — galvanized by the momentum created by Occupy Wall Street — have gained confidence in their battles with the banks.

"I wouldn't say it's the new normal yet, but I think it's coming close to that," activist Ryan Acuff said of people occupying vacant homes, or refusing eviction orders from their own homes. Acuff is a leader in Take Back the Land-Rochester, part of a nationwide network of activists. Its goal, Acuff said, is to publicize the housing crisis through confrontational tactics such as the occupation — or "liberation" — of foreclosed houses. He said officials have been reluctant to move against squatters when the spotlight is on them.

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