A Roof Over Our Heads
and Other Inalienable Rights

By Bonnie Weinstein

In an April 22, 2009, article in The New York Times by David Streitfeld, entitled, “An Effort to Save Flint, Mich., by Shrinking It,” the first two paragraphs read:

Dozens of proposals have been floated over the years to slow this city’s endless decline. Now another idea is gaining support: speed it up.

Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods.

In other words, instead of allowing families to remain in their homes during this severe economic crisis, the city of Flint intends to demolish the homes outright, leaving homeless families to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, a gripping and heartbreaking Dateline documentary has been circulating on the Internet. It follows the evictions of families from their homes. Some were evicted as the result of being swindled into subprime mortgages with balloon payments; others because they could not afford to keep up rents or mortgages for various reasons, such as work injuries, sickness, cutbacks in hours, or job loss.1 An FDIC government resource,, provides this information from the Mortgage Bankers Association:

One out of every 200 homes will be foreclosed upon…. Every three months, 250,000 new families enter into foreclosure…. One child in every classroom in America is at risk of losing his/her home because their parents are unable to pay their mortgage.2

The Dateline crew accompanies sheriffs, with guns pulled, backed by other officers and flanked by a “moving crew,” as they break open the door of a home. Finding no one there, they proceed to move all the belongings of a full household out into the street and change the locks on the doors; then they move on to another eviction. They do around 20 a day. The family has 24 hours to pick up their belongings from the street, and then the stuff is carted off to the dump. No security is left to protect the family’s belongings for those 24 hours; they’re simply left out in the street, free for the taking, and the house left abandoned and uncared for.

Evictions up close and personal

The first family the documentary focuses on is a family of four, the Alvarezes: Junior Alvarez, who works for the city of Coral Gables, Florida, his wife, Maureen, their two children—a two-month-old son and a two-year-old daughter—and an elderly grandmother. Their mortgage payments ballooned from $2,000 to $4,000 a month—an amount Junior could no longer afford. After being evicted they stayed for a short time with friends, sleeping on their living room floor, until they found a small apartment they could afford to rent.

The second family featured were renters, Lea and Porey Niscieri, their 11-year-old daughter, Hanna, and her two cats. They did not fare as well as the Alvarezes. When the sheriff came to her door, Lea told him that they were up to date on their rent—that they didn’t owe a dime, she was sure of it.

Upon returning home, Porey confessed to the Dateline reporter that he hadn’t told his wife that they were three months behind in the rent. He had had an accident on his job and was unable to work for about seven months. He just couldn’t afford the rent on his disability income. He didn’t tell his wife because he thought he had 30 days after the notice to make a payment, and hoped he’d be able to make it on time since he’d just gone back to work.

Luckily, their next-door neighbor took them in temporarily. But then the generous neighbor himself was evicted the very next week!

Their daughter Hanna, had to give up her cats to an animal shelter. The family moved into a Howard Johnson’s, but it was too expensive so they moved again, into a cheaper motel.

Porey admits that he wanted to kill himself. He felt like a complete failure. They were having a hard time finding a place to live. Their credit rating was by that time so bad no one would rent to them. They finally found a landlord willing to give them a chance in spite of their credit rating and they now live in a small, two-bedroom apartment about half the size of the home they were evicted from. Hanna still misses her cats terribly. “I don’t have them, but they are in my heart forever. They were a part of me,” she said.

Other families are moving from place-to-place, shelter-to-shelter, couch-to-living room floor—or out onto the streets. The bankers are leaving perfectly good homes to rot—or worse, to the mercy of the wrecking ball.

This is the chaos that exists under capitalism, a dictatorial economic system that puts profit over people; that tears down homes as homelessness soars.

Shelter from the storm

The crux of the issue is whether or not human beings have a basic right to a roof over their heads—shelter from the storm. Directly connected to housing is the right to education, jobs, and healthcare. These are all inalienable rights that belong to everyone, because we can’t thrive without them!

Youth hit hardest

While millions of adult working people are finding themselves teetering on the brink of economic annihilation, joblessness, and homelessness, it’s much worse for our youth.

Young people today will earn half of what their parents earned, and even now find it nearly impossible to leave the nest, let alone support families of their own. Fewer youth are able to attend college. The mass entrance into college by working-class youth in the ’60s and ’70s is in high-speed reverse.

Our children are forced to endure overcrowded, police-occupied public schools that more closely resemble juvenile detention centers than educational institutions, and have failed to give them the most basic skills and knowledge they need to develop their individual talents, skills and interests. Increasingly our schools are more likely to funnel youth into jail or the military than into higher education or gainful employment.

This economic crisis did not appear suddenly out of a void. It has been taking its toll on working people—especially youth—since the 1970s. Women didn’t join the workforce because they were bored; the steadily increasing cost of living forced the necessity of the two-income family.

The confidence game

The “conventional wisdom” of the politicians and mass media tell us we must learn to “tighten our belts,” to “live more simply.” We are told we must have faith that the government is doing everything possible to keep things from getting even worse.

They especially emphasize how “everyone is hurting,” including the wealthy, and that bailing out the wealthy is the essential key to bailing out the poor! We’re told that the wealthy bankers, who have emptied the wallets of working people to line their own with gold, have to regain the confidence to invest money back into the economy.

And we are told that the only way for them to regain that confidence is for us to pay them trillions of dollars from our own pockets—to keep them confident that they can continue to steal more from us! It’s we who must tighten our belts not them! They implore us, “How can we save this economy without the sacrifice and support of everyone?”

But working people know what this means. The wealthy endure “restricted retention bonuses” while working people sacrifice their jobs, their healthcare, their pensions, their homes—and their children’s future—for the sake of banking and corporate confidence.

My youngest son’s girlfriend commented to him that the economy seems to be doing better after she saw some upbeat story on the local news. (They’re both currently unemployed, with two children and rent coming due again at the end of the month.) My son explained to her:

“You have to understand that they mean the economy is better for some people. Not for most people. They’re talking about making things better for the top wealthiest one percent or less of the population at the expense of the bottom 99 percent. The top wealthiest one percent or less owns 80 percent of the Earth’s wealth. The government is bailing out those people at the top using trillions of dollars of our money. The rest of us have to scramble for a share of the crumbs the wealthy drop from their plates. And at this time they’re not only wiping their plates clean but stealing the food right out of our plates!”

A fightback begins

But there is some good news. All across the country and around the world, working people are beginning to mount a fightback and they are winning real victories!

Not all families are taking it on the chin. In an April 10, 2009, article in The Times, “With Advocates’ Help, Squatters Call Foreclosures Home,” John Leland wrote:

Ms. Omega, 48, is one of the beneficiaries of the foreclosure crisis. Through a small advocacy group of local volunteers called Take Back the Land, she moved from a friend’s couch into a newly empty house that sold just a few years ago for more than $400,000.

Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said about a dozen advocacy groups around the country were actively moving homeless people into vacant homes—some working in secret, others, like Take Back the Land, operating openly.

In addition to squatting, some advocacy groups have organized civil disobedience actions in which borrowers or renters refuse to leave homes after foreclosure.

The groups say that they have sometimes received support from neighbors and that beleaguered police departments have not aggressively gone after squatters.

“We’re seeing sheriffs’ departments who are reluctant to move fast on foreclosures or evictions,” said Bill Faith, director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, which is not engaged in squatting. “They’re up to their eyeballs in this stuff. Everyone’s overwhelmed.”

In an article in the March/April issue of ColorLines (reprinted in this magazine), “Hitting the Pause on Foreclosures,” Valeria Fernández wrote:

In the last year, Goldberg and his staff at Moratorium NOW!, a coalition of activists and union and religious leaders, have brought at least 50 cases to courts in Detroit on behalf of homeowners. They have been fighting to save homes literally one house at a time through picketing at the banks and legal action.

The article ends with a quote from Max Rameau, founder of the group Take Back the Land, a grassroots volunteer organization in Miami, Florida:

“This is a solution coming from the community,” said Rameu. “We value the human rights of housing over the right of a corporation to make a profit.”

As the economy tanks, and evictions and unemployment increase, such organizations and actions will grow across the country.

In addition to the anti-eviction/foreclosure organizations and actions sprouting up, there have been sit-down strikes and occupations in jobsites around the globe, in England, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Canada, and here in the U.S., to name a few.

Most recently, coalitions are forming that incorporate all these issues—including those of immigration and war—with demands such as:

•Money for jobs and social services, not for war

•Tax the rich/progressive taxation

•Single-payer healthcare for all

•Pass the Employee Free Choice Act

•Immediate moratorium on foreclosures and evictions

•No more bailouts for Wall Street—bail out working people

•Stop the ICE raids and deportations

These are the demands of a newly formed coalition in the Bay Area. A broad organizing meeting was held in San Francisco on April 11, 2009, at the Plumbers Hall, and was attended by over 70 people. Most attendees were representatives of labor organizations, including the heads of the San Francisco and Santa Clara Central Labor Councils and the President of the AFT 2121 (community college teachers), and of grassroots, community-based groups.

Many of these groups are funded to help with such things as tenant and landlord mediation or police-community dialogue, etc. They are being cut out of the budgets of most cities and towns, leaving the poor to fend for themselves.

The meeting was called to organize a teach-in based upon the above demands. The outcome was very encouraging and positive; its work is ongoing.

The strongest consensus among the participants of this meeting were the demands, “Bail out working people, not Wall Street!” and “Tax the rich, not working people.” The goal of the teach-in is to plan a set of actions, including a mass mobilization, and the establishment of independent, labor/community committees to build ongoing, proactive responses to the crisis for the interests of working people.

In other words, they intend to organize a real fightback against this current economic program of open season on working people, our homes, healthcare, housing, schools, and all of our social safety nets.

Unite and fight back!

We don’t have to point out to working people that our future and the very future of our planet are in jeopardy. This is abundantly clear.

Our most important task is to build a broad, democratically organized, and independent labor movement that unites working people across the board—that can organize the unorganized, employed and unemployed, “documented” or not—into a movement powerful enough to carry out the kind of mass, unified actions necessary to win decisive victories for working people anywhere and everywhere these attacks occur.

Our unity here and with workers across the globe will fortify our weakest links with our strongest protection and defense—our massive numbers and our solidarity of action against these assaults.

We can keep that wrecking ball from our homes and our schools; we can force the hospitals to tend to the sick; we can keep factories from closing; we can move the homeless into homes; we can stop the deportations and the war machine.

Together in unity and solidarity we can ensure our own inalienable right to happiness—to a life of liberty, democracy, economic and human equality, justice, and a peaceful and healthy world for all.

We, the majority of working people across the globe, have an inalienable, democratic right to choose people over profits, to bail out working people not the banks—to choose socialism over the brutal chaos and profound inequality of capitalism!

1Watch the video at:

And the update at: