In South Florida, Occupy movement targets housing crisis

After months of noisy protests and public-space encampments, South Florida's Occupy movement has quietly shifted its focus to "occupying" houses to support homeowners caught in the foreclosure crisis.

The initiative represents a new tactic for Occupy groups in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach County and Miami that in recent weeks have struggled to maintain momentum.

"The only thing that works is public outrage and media exposure of bad practices by banks," said Lisa Epstein, 46, a nurse who became an activist after almost losing her own West Palm Beach home to what she calls fraudulent foreclosure practices.

Among several successful interventions claimed by Occupy forces is the case of Marie and Jean Bien-Amie, who were notified that on Jan. 3 they would be evicted from the Coconut Creek home they built 11 years ago because they had fallen $27,000 behind on a second mortgage.

"I told them that I have the money, but they said no, they had to take the house," said Marie Bien Amie, 41, a mother of four whose oldest son serves in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Dozens of Occupy supporters rallied at the house last month and alerted the news media, and days later Wells Fargo halted its eviction plans.

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Natalie Brown said Thursday that the lender would "continue to work with the Bien-Aimes to understand their financial situation," and that the bank stood ready "to consider all viable options to help them avoid eviction."

S. Tracy Long, a Deerfield Beach mortgage lawyer representing the Bien-Amie family, said Occupy Fort Lauderdale's involvement was pivotal in the bank's decision to call off the eviction.

"Occupy can shine a light where it needs to be, on an entire system that is broken," Long said. "They need to do this more."

The emphasis on stopping foreclosures and investigating bank practices has reinvigorated many Occupy participants, including those who said the value of encampments has diminished.

Occupy Fort Lauderdale's camp at city hall faded away weeks ago, while Miami's larger tent city was cleared out by police on Tuesday.

A handful of Occupy Palm Beach participants continue to camp out in downtown West Palm Beach.

The Bien-Aimes case

represents a real-world result of the financial meltdown, said Occupy participant John Wessel, 52, a woodworker from Plantation. "This was a family trying to do the right thing, and they were being denied."

Marie Bien-Amie, who works as a practical nurse, said she and her husband, a limo driver, began to struggle with their mortgage when the economy began to tank.

Though the immediate threat of foreclosure has receded, Marie Bien-Amie said, "I still fear we could lose this home. And if not for Occupy, we would be out of this house now."

For Occupy, the continuing crisis presents endless opportunities.

"We have to start getting involved, because banks and the government are not doing their jobs," Wessel said. "That's the point of Occupy. At the very least, we can make some noise so the public is aware what's going on."

mwclary@tribune.com or 954-356-4465


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