By Michelle Chen, ColorLines
  Posted on May 26, 2009, Printed on May 26, 2009

Last fall, Yolanda James and her three children were lost in their own city. After  foreclosure had forced them from their South Los Angeles apartment, they ran into closed  doors at every turn. Aid agencies offered referrals to other offices, but no relief, and  neither the shelter system nor the city's high-priced housing market had room for them.  James burned through her welfare money to pay for motel rooms and later resorted to  sleeping with her children in their car.

  "I was, like, two or three different people at one time," she recalled. "I had to get on the grind, to hustle, to make sure my kids--when they get out of school, I could feed them, or  I could take them somewhere to shower and bathe for the next day."   Like others in Los Angeles's Black community, James, who is 34, had some ties to public  resources: a rent subsidy voucher under the federal Section 8 program, a monthly food  stamp allowance and hard-fought experience with the social service system, having  worked as an advocate with a local anti-poverty group. Still, she wasn't prepared when  the foreclosure wave hit her apartment building. Caught between a delinquent landlord and  the bank, James, her 12-year-old son and her two teenage daughters lost their apartment  and fell straight through the holes in the city's tattered safety net.

 James finally landed an apartment in November 2008 before her housing voucher expired. She said she feels safe for now but is still shaken by homelessness. "I've been a single  parent for so long. I've always had a place," she said. "I just felt like I was totally wiped  out. Like, 'What the hell happened? I'm not in control of anything.'"

 With foreclosures and job losses dragging down the whole economy, low-income families of color are plunging into an even deeper hole. While the mortgage meltdown has devastated Black and Latino homeowners, some of the hardest-hit foreclosure victims did not even own the homes they lost. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, about 20 percent of properties facing foreclosure in 2008 were rentals, and rental foreclosures are especially prevalent in poor communities and communities of color. In many states, the situation is complicated by a lack of legal protections for tenants against  sudden eviction.

 The National Alliance to End Homelessness has predicted that at the current rate, the
  recession will result in 1.5 million additional homeless people within two years. According
  to the advocacy group First Focus, nearly two million children will be impacted by
  subprime foreclosures, including some half a million Latino children and more than
  280,000 Black children. In a national survey of school systems, several hundred districts
  reported a surge in homeless children last fall compared to the previous school year.

  As displaced families struggle against poverty and a shortage of affordable housing, social
  service systems--a patchwork of local charities and government agencies--grapple with
  deep budget cuts. Resources for families are especially sparse in the shelter system, where
  many programs are designed for single adults. Though the federal stimulus package has
  boosted funds to address homelessness, including $70 million for educational assistance
  for homeless youth and $1.5 billion for Housing and Urban Development's Emergency
  Shelter program, need has far outstripped local resources.

  "All the agencies are full. All of the food banks are to capacity in terms of what they can
  provide for people who are lining up outside their doors," said Susie Shannon of the Los
  Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, where James worked before being
  laid off in 2006. "It's a train wreck in slow motion, and it's going to pop all at once."

  The trajectory of displacement turns on how much a family has to fall back on. They may
  avoid full-on homelessness for a few months, often moving in with relatives or friends--until
  a layoff, hospital bill or some other setback pushes them over the brink.

  Sabrina Otis, a Black 35-year-old mother, was skirting the edge of crisis well before
   foreclosures consumed her city. Her journey began, she said, when she moved to
  Cleveland in 2001 to escape an abusive ex-spouse. She could not find stable housing
  initially and lost her five children to foster care for several months. She later settled into a
  Section 8-subsidized house in Lakewood, a predominantly white Cleveland suburb, but
  was uprooted again in 2007 during the housing implosion. She was forced to leave, she
  recalled, after realizing that the landlord was failing to maintain the property and that the
  house was sliding into abandonment and foreclosure.

  After staying with friends and relatives for months, Otis and her children, who range in age
  from 8 to 16, found another house in the same neighborhood, only to be put out again
  when the owner moved to sell the property amid the housing market collapse. After a
  complex legal dispute that ended in eviction, Otis found herself starting over for the third
  time. Throughout the ordeal, she recalled, she battled thyroid cancer and a chronic
  respiratory condition, which had put her on medical leave from her custodial job with the

  Though Otis received a new housing voucher, the family spent another nine months circling
  among friends' and relatives' homes before finding a place that fit their subsidy--calculated
  according to the local market rent and the tenant's income. She said renters like her have
  been blindsided by the foreclosure crisis: "We are in a drive-by shooting. We got shot. We
  had nothing to do with this. And we have no recourse to get anyone to be responsible."

  While economic tumult rocked Miami's neighborhoods, Mary Trody's household gradually
  crumbled. Her husband lost his job delivering newspapers, and her part-time work did not
  pay enough to make rent. Trody, a white woman in her forties, her husband and two
  teenage children moved in with her mother, whose modest home in a nearby
  predominantly Black neighborhood had long been a refuge for the extended family. But
  late last year, the house got swept up in Florida's foreclosure epidemic, due to what the
  family believes was a predatory refinance loan.

  Trody then sought out local shelters but was told there was no room for the whole family.

  "The shelters talked about separating us," Trody recalled," and I said, 'How you gonna
  separate my family? My family's the only support I got now. I'm already without a house.
  And then you want to tear away everything that is my support?'"

  By February 2009, a dozen family members--including Trody's older daughter and
  grandchildren--saw just one way to stick together: they decided to pile into their van and
  live there for three days, awaiting a chance to reclaim their home.

  The obstacles that the Trodys encountered are common in shelters throughout the country,
  which often restrict access by barring children or setting age restrictions. For many
  families, staying intact may mean staying on the streets. The dilemma may be deepened by
  a looming fear of separation by child welfare authorities, who may place children in foster

  For Yolanda James's 16-year-old daughter, Mary Quaker, the threat of separation
  dwarfed material hardship. She struggled through living in a car, even sleeping in her school
  gym when her mother could not afford a motel, but she clung to what mattered. "I just
  wondered," she recalled, "is she going to put us somewhere so we can be able to eat and
  take a shower and all that? I'd always tell everybody, 'Just don't split us up. We'll all get
  through it together.'"

  Dr. Ellen Bassuk, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, said that as
  family homelessness intensifies, "The system is not set up to deal with this kind of
  complexity. And what you want is holistic, family-oriented care. It's not available in a lot of

  Displaced families are also fractured by legal definitions. Homeless programs under the
  Department of Housing and Urban Development, commonly known as HUD, target only
  "street" or "shelter" homeless. So children living in doubled-up arrangements or motel
  rooms may qualify for educational assistance such as transportation to their original
  neighborhood schools, yet their parents may be excluded from HUD programs using the
  narrower definition of homeless.

  Advocates are pushing for legislation that would enable motel and doubled-up families to
  obtain HUD services like shelter and transitional housing. A technical redefinition of
  homelessness could impact thousands of families: about 470,000 children eligible for
  education-related services have been excluded from HUD programs, according to the
  National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. The
  organization's policy director, Barbara Duffield, said now is the time to expose previously
  neglected needs. "Right now, it's ludicrous for somebody to say that someone who's been
  evicted, who's been foreclosed, who's temporarily staying on someone's floor, is not
  homeless," she said. "And from a youth development perspective, they're absolutely in
  crisis. They're absolutely homeless."

  As the economic crisis plows through marginalized communities, advocacy groups are
  seeking a paradigm shift in the country's housing policy--moving past the rhetoric of the
  "ownership society" and recognizing the critical role of affordable rental housing and social
  supports for low-income families. One step forward, advocates say, would be a funding
  injection for the recently established federal housing trust fund, which would support
  housing development for lower-income households. State and city governments have
  already seeded similar, smaller-scale programs to fund affordable housing opportunities.
  Federal financing could build on efforts to revive blighted houses in Cleveland, for instance,
  under a "land bank" initiative that enables the county to take over and rehabilitate
  foreclosed properties as a public investment.

  Meanwhile, community organizers are forging new paths in the ravaged landscape of the
  foreclosure crisis by exposing the paradox of scarcity and excess in the housing system.
  Grassroots activists have launched civil disobedience campaigns in several cities to
  encourage foreclosed homeowners to squat in their houses in protest.

  In Miami, Take Back the Land, a campaign focused on the Black community, has seized
  vacant properties and moved in local homeless families. Through direct actions, the group
  ties political empowerment to reclaiming control of community resources.

  "We've got too many empty houses, and we got too many people who have nowhere to
  live," said Max Rameau, a campaign organizer.

  In Rameau's view, displacement in communities of color has historically taken myriad
  forms, from homelessness to gentrification to foreclosures--but the underlying crisis is
  about self-determination.

  "The real issue is that we don't have control over the land upon which we sit, live, worship,
  work and play," he said, adding, "We have to get down to the core of what the problem

  In February, activists with Take Back the Land and other local groups stood alongside the
  Trody family on their foreclosed property. Reporters and police stood by, too, watching
  the family reenter their home of more than 20 years as "trespassers," defying the bank that
  had just seized ownership of the house.

  Trody hoped to hold onto her mother's house and arrange to make payments the family
  could afford. But she saw a broader struggle beyond her home's walls. "Maybe we can
  make the change," she said. "Maybe we can make this stop happening for the next person.
  'Cause I don't want to see nobody go through this pain and the hurt that I'm going

  Michelle Chen has written for the South China Morning Post, Clamor,
  INTHEFRAY.COM and her own zine, cain.

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