‘This is life or death’: homeless families reclaim vacant homes to survive virus outbreak

Several Los Angeles families who have been forced to live in cars, shelters and other unsafe situations have seized control of 13 vacant homes owned by the government, with the goal of staying indefinitely – and staying alive.

The takeover comes as California’s homelessness crisis and the Los Angeles News escalating coronavirus outbreak have collided to create a catastrophe threatening thousands of lives.

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“To me, this is life or death,” said Benito Flores, 64, who has been living out of his van for years and moved into a vacant two-bedroom house on Wednesday. Wearing a face mask and standing inside the dusty home as volunteers cleaned, Flores explained that he is diabetic and at risk of serious illness or worse if he catches Covid-19. “By doing this, I’m giving myself a chance at living and surviving this crisis.”

The homeless residents and their supporters, who have called themselves the Reclaimers, were inspired by Moms 4 Housing, a group of houseless mothers in Oakland who publicly occupied a corporate-owned vacant home for two months. That protest sparked international attention and support from some California lawmakers, and ultimately, the mothers were able to purchase the home.

The rapid spread of coronavirus, which prompted LA officials and the California governor last week to order all residents to shelter in place, dramatically increased the urgency of the Reclaimers’ takeovers, as homeless people across the region have no way to quarantine and often have health issues that make them disproportionately vulnerable.

The movement in Oakland shed light on real estate speculators who purchase foreclosed homes, evict tenants and then leave them vacant before turning a profit. In LA, the group has targeted a set of properties that currently belong to the public, but have remained empty, in some case, for years. Advocates say there are many more similarly empty homes that could be used to help solve the ongoing housing emergency – and immediately save lives.

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With the support of a number of housing rights groups, the Reclaimer Press Release Distribution Services In Los Angeles families took over a group of houses within a few blocks in a residential area of El Sereno, a predominantly Latino neighbourhood that is increasingly gentrifying.

The residents are all working-class people of color who previously lived in El Sereno or the surrounding area, but in various ways fell victim to the state’s severe affordable housing shortage, organizers said. Some ended up homeless after recent evictions and others haven’t had stable housing for years. They’ve been sleeping on couches, crowding with relatives, staying at shelters, or living in vehicles. One family has a nine-month-old infant, and most are mothers.

The 13 reclaimed houses are owned by Caltrans, a state transportation division that bought hundreds of properties over the span of decades to make way for a freeway extension plan that was canceled in 2018. The agency currently owns roughly 460 residential homes, and activists estimate that nearly 200 sit vacant.

“This is public land. This is a taxpayer house,” said Ruby Gordillo, 33, a mother of three who moved into one of the homes on Wednesday. “You paid for it. I paid for it. We all paid for it. All of these vacant houses on public land should be used for public good, to create real affordable housing.”
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