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As Obama Unveils Foreclosure Plan, Activists Place Homeless in Vacant Homes

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As President Obama is scheduled to announce his $50 billion foreclosure prevention plan today, we go to Minneapolis to speak with Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. The group is taking matters into its own hands and finding housing for homeless people in foreclosed and vacant homes. We also speak to Dwayne Cunningham, a homeless man who recently moved into a vacant home. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


President Obama is set to unveil his long-awaited foreclosure prevention plan today at a speech in Phoenix, Arizona. Obama has promised to devote at least $50 billion to the plan; however, the package is not expected to mandate massive changes to stop defaulting mortgages. Rather, it’s likely to funnel government payments to mortgage companies, which will use that money to reduce borrowers’ interest rates and, therefore, their monthly payments.

By the end of 2008, slightly more than nine percent of all mortgages in the US were either delinquent or in foreclosure, this according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. A total of 8.1 million US homes, or 16 percent of all households with mortgages, could fall into foreclosure by 2012, this according to a report by Credit Suisse.

As people were getting thrown out of their homes across the country, and in the absence of any real government action thus far, some are taking action on the local level. The community organizing group ACORN recently unveiled a campaign in at least twenty-two cities to help homeowners resist foreclosure evictions. Meanwhile, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America is busing homeowners facing foreclosure to the homes of chief executives of financial institutions to protest outside.

Sheriffs in some places have also taken a stand. In Wayne County in Michigan, Sheriff Warren Evans suspended all evictions starting February 2nd, until the federal government implements a plan to help homeowners facing foreclosures.

And in Ohio, Congress member Marcy Kaptur, recently speaking on the House floor, encouraged homeowners facing foreclosures to stay in their homes. And you can go to our website at to hear our full conversation with Congress member Kaptur.

Today, we go to Minneapolis to look at a similar organizing effort. The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign recently revealed to the media its long-running project moving homeless people into many of the foreclosed and vacant homes in Minneapolis’s North and South Side. They’re also seeking a city moratorium on foreclosures, short sales and evictions.

Cheri Honkala is a national organizer with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. She grew up in Minneapolis, but she’s based in Philadelphia. Also joining us is Dwayne Cunningham, who, along with his wife Lonnetta, recently moved into a vacant home.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Cheri, lay out the campaign that you have going now in Minneapolis.


We’ve begun to do a variety of things. One is that on March 11th we are organizing folks across the Twin Cities, and we’re going to stop sheriff sales on March 11th by going in and holding sit-ins over and over again to stop the sheriff sales.

The other thing that we’re doing is that we’re putting homeless people with vacant properties. So, any of the homes that have already been foreclosed on, that are sitting there vacant, we’re moving homeless families into them.

And then we’re also organizing what’s called emergency response teams as a part of the Underground Railroad project. And we’re going in and remaining with families that are in the final stages of foreclosure and saying that we’re not going to leave. We’re asking for a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and sheriff sales, until we can deal with this serious affordable housing crisis in our country.


Well, let me go to Dwayne. Dwayne, can you talk about what you’ve done in Minneapolis, where you’ve moved into?


Well, it’s like this. I’ve been homeless for a while, so I’m just going to cut this short. But the home I just was blessed with by the homeless association, I couldn’t have got no better, because I’m outside of the cold, and being in the cold is not that nice. And trying to get in to talk to landowners or people who may foreclose their own homes, I can’t get in no doors. I have no numbers. I can’t get no door. So the best number I have and the best door I can walk through is this door right here.


And how —


And I know it’s going to help me.


How, Dwayne Cunningham, did you link up with Cheri Honkala? How did you learn about this program?


Well, say, for instance, she heard about me and my plight, as far as my situation. And I have an injury I sustained back in June. I met Cheri through my wife and through another associate, a relative of mine. And ever since I met her, she’s been like a guardian angel over me and my wife, so, yeah, I’ve become like family to her. We’re like family.

So, whatever she’s on, I know it’s got to be something positive, because there’s not been one person that came to her I ain’t seen her — I have never seen her turn away no one. So, this is the truth, you know. I don’t know what you’re looking for, you know. I don’t know what the people are looking for, but this is the truth. Why you’ve got all these people out here homeless, and you’ve got all these homes, south and north, south and north. I’m talking about more homes than there is people homeless. And you still — this is — it’s red tape. So she’s cutting the red tape. That’s the way I look at it.


Cheri Honkala?


Yeah. One of the things is that Dwayne and his wife were not allowed to be vouchered into appropriate facilities. They both have very serious healthcare issues, and for insurance reasons, you know, the shelter just basically told me, you know, “Cheri, this is not an appropriate place for them to be at.” So, we didn’t think living in their car was an appropriate place for two people that have serious medical issues to be staying. So that’s why we thought they were an important candidate for one of our takeover houses.


And Cheri, what has been the response overall of the city of Minneapolis?


Well, I mean, so far, in the thirteen houses that we have, there was only one house that we were kicked out of. But as Dwayne was saying, there’s plenty of them. So, you know, with thousands of empty properties, it was easy just to take that family and re-move them into another abandoned house. So, unless the police department starts to, you know, put police officers in front of every abandoned property, we’re OK.

The one property that folks were kicked out of, were only kicked out of there because we had a, you know, overactive cowboy police department at that particular property. But other than that, the police know that there’s more important things that they need to be doing, like dealing with murders and drug issues and all of those kinds of things.

And people, quite frankly, are sick of having empty houses next to them, that are then used for drug houses and those kinds of things. So, you know, we’re about the business of bringing the neighbors back into the neighborhood, as opposed to throwing them out onto the streets.


Cheri, you’re going to court today? You’re on trial?


Well, actually, I got a late-night call that they’ve postponed it now to March 9th. I think that we’re stirring up some controversy here in the Twin Cities, so I don’t know if they know what they’re going to do with it.

But yes, I’m standing trial against Housing and Urban Development, because during the Republican National Convention, the head of HUD here, the director, promised that he would meet with hundreds of families across the state of Minnesota to hear their foreclosure stories and to, you know, listen to the troubles that they’re dealing with. And right before the Republican convention, he went back on that commitment. So we organized a bunch of folks to bring them down to their office during public hours in a public building, and instead, they had us met by Homeland Security, and myself and another member, Deeq Abdi, were arrested and charged with trespassing. So we go to trial on that on March 9th. And the director of HUD has been subpoenaed in the case.


Overall, Cheri, you were homeless for years with your son. Can you talk about the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign that you started?


Yeah. Well, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is actually across the entire country. And one of the things that we do, and for people that are watching the show or listening today, is we teach people how to reclaim housing as a human right. We’ll teach you how to move into an abandoned government-owned property, to house families. We’ll teach you how to hold a sit-in, to hold a house that’s in the process of foreclosure. You know, we help people with food, with — that aren’t getting access to healthcare — all of the basic necessities of life.

It’s not enough to just try and change things in the halls of Congress, because people are dying today, the people that don’t have access to healthcare, the people that are going to freeze on the streets because they’re pushed out of their homes. And so, that’s why we have to take these immediate measures. We can’t just wait until perhaps some laws are changed in a year or two from now. You know, we’re going to lose people now. We’re going to lose them to our prison system, or worse, they’re going to die because they’re going to freeze to death on the streets, when we’ve got all these empty heated homes.


Finally, Dwayne, before we move on to our next segment, the RNC 8, others who were arrested at the Republican National Convention, President Obama is in Phoenix, Arizona today to sign off on legislation around the closing of houses, home foreclosures. Very briefly, what do you want him to do?


I think everyone should be given the chance to own a home. And that’s what I feel he should be trying to sign. If he signed anything, I think that should be the most important thing he should be sign: everybody have the opportunity to own a home.


Well, Dwayne Cunningham, I want to thank you for being with us. And Cheri Honkala, national organizer for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. She grew up there in Minneapolis, usually based in Philadelphia.

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