Ernest Flythe broke down the door of an empty house in a Northeast Washington neighborhood last week, clearing the way for Hazel Adams-Shango and her family to move in.
The break-in came after about 50 people marched three blocks to the Trinidad neighborhood house chanting, "We want housing!"
The home, which belongs to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has been vacant for more than four years as the District of Columbia's shortage of affordable housing was becoming critical, according to organizers of the takeover.
Flythe is a board member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a nonprofit group that is sponsoring the squatters' campaign aimed at forcing federal authorities to turn over more of their empty properties to homeless families or to those who are paying most of their income for rent.
"We need a home and a decent place to raise our children," Adams-Shango said as she walked through the house at 1619 Gales St. NE. Adams-Shango and her husband, Bamboshi Shango, both work and have a combined annual income of $27,000, but the rent on the apartment where they live now with their two young children is more than $600 a month.
"It's time to open up housing" and meet education and health-care needs instead of spending "a million dollars a day in Saudi Arabia," she said. "If people had a decent environment and decent living conditions they wouldn't turn to drugs. We wouldn't have to have a war on drugs."
Neighbors, who pointed out several other boarded-up houses on the same block, generally supported ACORN's action.
"I think they're more than justified. I'm all for it," said Beverly Randall, who grew up in the neighborhood and still lives there.
She said some of the houses on her street have been boarded for years, including one that has been vacant for two decades.
HUD owns about 50,000 single-family homes throughout the country, acquired when owners defaulted on their government-insured mortgages, and plans to sell about 1,500 of them to nonprofit groups and state and local government agencies in a pilot project beginning Oct. 9, according to a spokesman. These organizations, in turn, will sell the properties to low-income buyers.
HUD Secretary Jack Kemp said last October that the department would begin sheltering homeless people in houses the department owns.
In a statement issued as part of their campaign, ACORN leaders said that after almost a year of meeting with HUD officials, including three meetings with Kemp, the organization is "tired of waiting for action."
In the pilot project, HUD "will give away their most worthless properties in the worst neighborhoods in the country," the statement said.
Meanwhile, ACORN plans "to continue moving families who need homes into HUD houses, and we are prepared to stay in" until HUD begins making more homes available to needy families, the statement said.
Three weeks ago, another ACORN-sponsored family tried to move into another vacant house in the Trinidad area, not far from the house Adams-Shango and her family now occupy, but were stopped by police.
"We were arrested but that hasn't stopped us," said Myrtle Edwards, who tried to move into the house with her husband and son.
The police released Edwards' family soon after the arrest, and she said they are ready to move in again.
Other organizations, including the National Rural Housing Coalition, Peace Baptist Church, the Gray Panthers, the McAuley Institute, Calvary Episcopal Church, People's Rent Control, and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' Local 25, are taking part in the campaign by helping to support families that occupy the homes.
Jon Linfield, a rural housing coalition board member, said his organization will help Adams-Shango and her family and "supports ACORN to the hilt" in its housing campaign.
Squatting "is a very old American tradition," dating back to the opening of the American West and the California Gold Rush years, said Mike Shea, executive director of ACORN housing programs.
"People would squat on the land and claim it," he said.
During the Depression era, "there was a wave of squatting" by Americans devastated in the country's economic collapse, he said.
ACORN and homeless organizations in some areas have revived the tradition during the past decade. Activists sponsored by ACORN carried out squatters' campaigns in nine cities during the early 1980s, moving nearly 500 families into vacant houses, Shea said.
Campaigns in Philadelphia and Detroit resulted in new laws that permitted people to take over tax-delinquent properties, fix them up and move in. Groups of squatters began moving into vacant buildings in New York in the mid-1980s.
Although HUD's policy is to sell foreclosed properties through sealed bids, the Washington area office notifies nonprofit organizations in advance and gives them 10 days to decide whether to bid on the property, said I. Toni Thomas, head of the office.
Of the 277 houses in the District field office's inventory, about 90 are available for sale and another 114 are under sales contracts, Thomas said.
In an unexpected twist, Thomas told ACORN members this week that the house occupied by Adams-Shango and her family is one of 26 HUD-owned homes leased to the District of Columbia government for use by homeless families, she said.
"We'll work this out and we'll see what we can do for the family that's there," said Barbara Burke Tatum, the city's commissioner of social services. "This is not a dispute or an argument."
Tatum said she has talked with ACORN workers, who told her they did not know the house had been leased to the District.
The house was one set aside for the District's "family uplift program," operated in conjunction with Metropolitan AME Church, Tatum said.
Homeless working families move into the homes with the help of church members, she said.
Thomas said about half of the foreclosed properties sold by the D.C. office have gone to investors, but the figure is "higher than I would like it to be. I would like to see more people in the community be able to acquire those properties."
Thomas said she also is developing a program to help homeowners in trouble as a way to reduce foreclosures.