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Associated Press

Homes with No People, People with No Homes

Activist Moving Homeless People Into Foreclosed Houses in Miami

Tamara Lush

Max Rameau says he's "matching homeless people with people-less homes." (By J. Pat Carter -- Associated Press)

MIAMI - Max Rameau delivers his sales pitch like a pro. "All tile
floor!" he says during a recent showing. "And the living room, wow! It
has great blinds."

But in nearly every other respect, he is
unlike any real estate agent you've ever met. He is unshaven, drives a
beat-up car and wears grungy cut-off sweat pants. He also breaks into
the homes he shows. And his clients don't have a dime for a down

Rameau is an activist who has been executing a bailout
plan of his own around Miami's empty streets: He is helping homeless
people illegally move into foreclosed homes.

"We're matching homeless people with people-less homes," he said with a grin.

and a group of like-minded advocates formed Take Back the Land, which
also helps the new "tenants" with secondhand furniture, cleaning
supplies and yard upkeep. So far, he has moved six families into
foreclosed homes and has nine on a waiting list.

"I think
everyone deserves a home," said Rameau, who said he takes no money for
his work with the homeless. "Homeless people across the country are
squatting in empty homes. The question is: Is this going to be done out
of desperation or with direction?"

With the housing market
collapsing, squatting in foreclosed homes is believed to be on the rise
across the country. But squatters usually move in on their own, at
night, when no one is watching. Rarely is the phenomenon as organized
as Rameau's effort to "liberate" foreclosed homes.

Florida --
especially the Miami area, with its once-booming condo market -- is one
of the hardest-hit states in the housing crisis, largely because of
overbuilding and speculation. In September, Florida had the nation's
second-highest foreclosure rate, with one out of every 178 homes in
default, according to Realty Trac, an online marketer of foreclosed
properties. Only Nevada's rate was higher.

Like other cities,
Miami is trying to ease the problem. Officials launched a
foreclosure-prevention program to help homeowners who have fallen
behind on their mortgage payments, with loans of up to $7,500 per

The city also recently passed an ordinance requiring
owners of abandoned homes -- whether an individual or bank -- to
register those properties with the city so police can better monitor

Elsewhere, advocates in Cleveland are working with the city
to allow homeless people to legally move into and repair empty,
dilapidated houses. In Atlanta, some property owners pay homeless
people to live in abandoned homes as a security measure.

In early
November, Rameau drove a woman and her 18-month-old daughter to a ranch
house on a quiet street lined with swaying tropical foliage. Marie
Nadine Pierre, 39, had been sleeping at a shelter with her child. She
said she had been homeless off and on for a year, after losing various
jobs and getting evicted from several apartments.

"My heart is
heavy. I've lived in a lot of different shelters, a lot of bad
situations," Pierre said. "In my own home, I'm free. I'm a human being

Rameau chose the house for Pierre, in part, because he knew
its history. A man had bought the home in the city's predominantly
Haitian neighborhood in 2006 for $430,000, then rented it to Rameau's
friends. Those friends were evicted in October because the homeowner
had stopped paying his mortgage and the property went into foreclosure.

who makes his living as a computer consultant, said he is doing the
owner a favor. Before Pierre moved in, someone stole the
air-conditioning unit from the back yard, and it would be only a matter
of time before thieves took the copper pipes and wiring, he said.

a couple of months, this place would be stripped and drug dealers would
be living here," he said, carrying a giant plastic garbage bag filled
with Pierre's clothes into the home.

He said he is not worried about getting arrested.

a real need here, and there's a disconnect between the need and the
law," he said. "Being arrested is just one of the potential factors in
doing this."

Miami spokeswoman Kelly Penton said that city
officials did not know Rameau was moving homeless people into empty
buildings -- but that they are not stopping him.

"There are no
actions on the city's part to stop this," she said in an e-mail. "It is
important to note that if people trespass into private property, it is
up to the property owner to take action to remove those individuals."

herself could be charged with trespassing, vandalism or breaking and
entering. Rameau assured her he has lawyers who will represent her for

Two weeks after Pierre moved in, she came home to find the
locks had been changed, probably by the property's manager. Everything
inside -- her food, clothes and family photos -- was gone.

But late last month, with Rameau's help, she got back inside and has put Christmas decorations on the front door.

So far, police have not gotten involved.

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