One morning last October, Jeanila Callwood looked out her window and saw unusual activity: two dozen people clearing trash from the vacant lot next door, then unloading pallets and plywood and beginning construction on several small structures. “I really wanted to know what was going on,” says Callwood, 22, a health care student.
The vacant lot, owned jointly by Dade County and the City of Miami, Fla., had been sitting empty since the city demolished a public housing project years ago. Those units were never replaced. Neither were all but a few of the 850-unit Scott Carver Homes a few blocks away, knocked down in 1999 under the federal government’s Hope VI program. The former Scott residents, once a settled, tight-knit community, were scattered around: many are still without permanent homes. Meanwhile, 41,386 people languish on Miami-Dade’s low-income housing waiting list. The people of Liberty City, Callwood’s impoverished Black Miami neighborhood, have been reeling from the effects of the city’s massive land boom.
Max Rameau, housing activist and Liberty City resident, began meeting with other activists in the Black community to hash out some possible solutions to Miami-Dade’s housing crisis. Their talks led to the unusual scene outside Callwood’s window, when an organized group of activists calling themselves the Take Back the Land movement laid claim to the vacant lot and built a shantytown there. The Pottinger settlement, which outlawed the city of Miami’s practice of arresting homeless people for performing “life-sustaining” activities on public land, provided legal protection.
The shantytown, known as Umoja Village, has grown and flourished. Now home to over 40 formerly homeless folks, Umoja — the Swahili word for unity — has kitchen and bathroom facilities, a living room, and a well. About two dozen shanties, singles and duplexes, have been built from scavenged materials. Many are adorned with art and houseplants; beaded curtains hang in doorways. A free store, open to everyone, contains the many clothing and bedding donations the community receives. Gray water from the tiled shower shanty is being routed into one of the gardens that dot the landscape.
Rameau says Umoja Village is an immediate answer to a number of problems. “There’s the issue of public corruption, and there’s the issue of bad public policy,” he says. Last summer, the Miami Herald ran a series exposing widespread mismanagement and shady deals at the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. MDHA paid a well-connected cadre of developers more than $12 million for affordable housing that was never built. Government investigations have led to several arrests.
Since local policymakers have not been offering solutions, says Rameau, “We determined that we could no longer go through the county or the city to get help with this problem.”
And they came up with a way to let people help themselves. “It’s very possible that even with no corruption, even with good public policy, there’s still this system — capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy — that would still be so bad that even if you had no bad policy, you still could not provide decent, affordable housing for poor black women, or poor people in general,” says Rameau.
John Cata has lived at Umoja for five weeks. He has recently installed wood paneling on his shanty, and plans to put in a window and grow flowers on the roof. A Vietnam veteran originally from New York, Cata lived in Miami in the late ’60s and participated in the first successful union-organizing drive in the city.
Stopping over in Miami on his way to New Orleans, Cata saw Umoja taking shape and wanted to participate. “Back in it again! And loving every moment of it. I love fighting politicians.” He says that, although it’s not always easy, life there is “joyful.” Cata hopes that Umoja will become a national model for poor and homeless people around the country struggling with similar issues.
The Take Back the Land movement has inspired the active involvement of many community members. Among them, Callwood, the neighbor. “I thought, oh, that’s really awesome.”
By RONNI TARTLET, Contributing Writer
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/14/feb-14-2007-entire-issue