How we liberated a house

January 7, 2013

On December 6, housing justice activists began a campaign to "liberate" an abandoned, bank-owned home in Southwest Atlanta. The action--organized through Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA)--was staged alongside a nationwide day of action for housing justice and called for M&T Bank to turn over a house in the Pittsburgh community, a Black working-class neighborhood devastated by the housing crisis.

At the center of this struggle are Renika Wheeler and Michelene Meusa and their two children, Jahla and Dillon. Months after being displaced from their home due to financial hardship, the couple led the way in occupying the pink bungalow on Windsor Street. The plan is to turn the house into a home for their family.

The occupation lasted for six days. On December 12, Atlanta police and sheriff's department officers raided the occupied house after being contacted by M&T Bank. Renika, Michelene and two other OOHA activists were arrested during the raid.

Renika and Michelene spoke with Ben Smith about the home liberation campaign and their experiences in the broader movement for housing justice.

CAN BOTH of you tell me a bit of your personal biographies?

Michelene: I was born in Georgetown, Guyana. I came to the U.S. in November 1979, and I've been here ever since. Around 2010, I fell into a housing issue in New York. Atlanta was the one spot that I could call home outside of New York. I had lived here in the late 1990s for a few years. So I landed here in Georgia with my last two kids--Dillon, who is now almost 11, and Jahla, who's 5.

I was in a hotel room. After about a week or so, I couldn't pay for it anymore, so I ended up in My Sister's House, Atlanta Union Mission [a shelter]. And that's where I met Renika.

Renika: I never knew that I'd encounter homelessness. Never knew that I'd be displaced. Never knew that I'd be taking over a house. That was not the destiny that I foresaw for myself.

I moved out here to Atlanta in 1995. I worked at a grocery store, and then I got a security job during the Olympics, and from that, I got a job at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I loved it. It was when the city was booming. But once that ended, financial times hit hard for me again. After returning home to Toccoa, Ga., I came back to Atlanta, and I ended up in the shelter.

Renika Wheeler (left) and Michelene Meusa
Renika Wheeler (left) and Michelene Meusa (Rob Call | OOHA)
Renika: We moved out of the shelter at the end of March and got a townhouse together. I had gotten a job at Georgia State University when I was about to leave the shelter. We rented a townhouse in Clarkston. Michelene had a job working at an insurance agency.

My job was contracted to start. But a week before I was due to start, they contacted everyone and said, "We're letting people go." And therein lies a problem, because then we went from having two paychecks to having one. So how are we going to pay this rent and these bills?

Michelene: I worked for an insurance company. And I was supposed to start managerial training. I had already spent my money on taking the courses. But for some reason, the information I needed to know would not stick. I decided, fine, since this part doesn't seem to be working out, I can just switch over and do the customer service portion. I figured it wouldn't bring in as much money, but it would bring in something. But then, when it was time to work, they started cracking the whip.

Just to get to work, I had to travel from Clarkston all the way to College Park, and it took me almost two hours because I had to go from bus to train to bus and then walk a mile. I did all this for what turned out to be a commission job. I got a check for something like $50 each week, but this was not how they had explained it. For every sale they got from me, they paid five bucks. On top of that, I'd have to hunt them down to get my money.

After a while at that job, I thought, I can't do this anymore because it doesn't make any sense. We still can't pay this rent. They're still about to put us through the dispossessory court.

Renika: We were supposed to be out of our place in a week. Fortunately, we got a month.

Michelene: Then, when we finally got in front of the judge in July, the final verdict was, "Oky, you have to leave in a week." We had to pack up everything. We gave away almost everything we owned.

Renika: I had one rolling suitcase. She had one. The kids had one. We had to sit the kids down and explain to them. We only could take what we could take walking out that door. And then we were back to the hotels and shelters. We ended up in Gateway for one week, Cavalry for three weeks, Salvation for three weeks, then Task Force.

When you've been shelter to shelter, you can't go back for a limited amount of time. You're stuck. If you've already been in their system, and it's been under six months, you don't get to go back. Task Force was the last resort. It was the last docket on the boat.

But that's when we met organizers with Occupy Our Homes Atlanta. At the time, OOHA was kicking off a housing justice action on September 10. They said, "You need to come rally behind this." We joined that march, and from that march on, our lives have not been the same.

From there, we went to Washington, D.C., for a protest against Fannie Mae. From Washington, we've been organizing with the renters from Chappell Forest Apartments. Recently, they've protested at City Hall because of the conditions there. That's how we got into this. Sometimes it takes things to really just topple you over, where you can't take it anymore, for you to really say, "You know what, I'm going to stand now. I'm going to do something."

SO AFTER this experience of going shelter to shelter, you saw this opportunity to fight back.

Michelene: When you're in the shelter, you have to find something to do during the day. We walked around, and I think God opened our eyes to a lot of things. We really saw all the buildings that were dilapidated and boarded up. We saw all the homeless people.

Renika: People laying on park benches and sleeping there with all their belongings.

Michelene: Everybody had a backpack. You figure everybody's going on a trip. But no, that's not it. This is just life in Georgia. We came from the point of being so disgusted with the situation that it opened up the space for us to actually be a part of the struggle.

HOW DID the idea to liberate a home from the banks, as you did on December 6, come about?

Renika: We didn't plan our home liberation campaign to be on the December 6 day of action. We had just talked about it. We had been doing the marches and the protests. But at the end of the day, we still have a family, and we still have to do something for that family.

What are we going to do? We still can't get jobs for some reason. We're still not generating enough income to be able to pay for these places if we got them. What are we going to do? We could go squat. But I had always said that was less than where we want to be.

Michelene: So OOHA folks said, "Okay fine, we could do it another way--with lights blaring, with the media and everyone there." And we liked that. That's how we decided to liberate a house.

Renika: But then we had to pick the house. We had gotten past the fact that we're not just going to squat. We want legitimate lights. We want legitimate water. We want everything that comes along with having this house--because it might just work>. So we spent three months of canvassing, trying to find the right home.

Michelene: So finally, we found 1043 Windsor St. We went over and took pictures of it. We figured it's right here in Pittsburgh. We've been fighting for Pittsburgh to become a unified force, to become a community. It made sense for us to be here.

Renika: We were looking for community. And we got the blessings of the neighborhood because we canvassed.

Michelene: And then our friends from Task Force for the Homeless got people to help clean up, plant gardens, prepare the lawn and make it a great day.

We did a small march [to announce the home liberation]. At the end of the march, we went to the door of the house and opened it up. We were screaming, "Yeah!" And we were presented with artwork from a man from the Peachtree Mission. It was a beautiful moment. And there were speeches--from Douglas Dean, Rev. Darren Bozeman, Joe Beasley. Everybody came out.

Renika: That night, we had our Thursday night meeting for OOHA, which we usually hold at the church down the street. But we had the meeting that night up at the house. Everybody was bundled up in their big coats and their hoodies. So many people helped to donate something: pizza, blankets, pillows, lanterns. And everybody was sitting around, talking about their stories.

Michelene: It was community--community in a way that you want it to be. You want to see that kind of thing foster and get bigger and continue. We had no heat, no light, no nothing. But we had a beautiful night.

Renika: The thing is, we thought we'd be arrested the same day that we took the house. We never expected that we'd be there six days. We prayed, and we asked God, "What do you want us to do here?" and "Where should we go here?" He didn't tell us anything!

Just dress warm. I told Michelene, "Okay, we're going to do the march, they're going to descend on us, and we're going to jail. Dress warm, hon!" And I had my hoodie on, I had everything on. I was stocked, right and ready!

Michelene: But we didn't get arrested at first. And after that, we slowly got things moved into the house.

Renika: We had plumbing done in there. We had electric stuff done in there. Because I said, "You know what? We're going to make it our home." On the last day that we were in there, I had sent folks out to get weather stripping for the door, a hammer to put it up, nails and plastic to seal up the windows. When they came back, I'm getting arrested. I had cuffs on when they got back with all the stuff.

HOW MANY cops came?

Renika: About half of the APD [Atlanta Police Department]! I looked up and down the street when I was coming out and when I was arrested. They had blockades with police swarming up and down the street. And I'm like, "What the hell is going on here? This is for us?"

Michelene: Along with the police and the sheriff's department, there was LaShawn Hoffman, CEO of Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, and four executives flown in from M&T Bank's headquarters in Buffalo. It was like a swarm.

Renika: So I asked them, "Who's going to arrest me?" He said, "You don't have to be arrested today, miss. You don't have to do this." I said, "Yes, I do. So who's going to do it?" And he said, "Okay, if that's what you choose."

We're saying that the charges should be dropped, because I wasn't read my rights--and we have that on video. All they did was frisk me in public and take me in. I wasn't read my rights when I got to the station either.

SO WHAT do you plan to do next?

Michelene: No matter what, our future looks bright, because we have gotten amazing amounts of support. There are people who come to Renika and say, "You guys are so brave that you can do this!" And we're just like, "Huh? Brave?" We just did it! It was just something that we felt like we had to do. A lot of people want to do the same thing now.

Renika: And at this point, we're just thankful to God: his graciousness, his mercy and his defiance against injustice! He wants people to stand up and fight for goodness. He said, "Do something!" And so, Lord, we've done something.

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