This article was originally published in the Oct. 5, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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This is the second in a two-part report chronicling several days in the lives of the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team, a nonprofit grassroots organization that advocates and provides support for residents facing eviction and tries to help those people stay in their homes while untangling the often complicated legality of their situations.
The team in action
It is not the “oppressive” day the morning weather report called for, but by 10:45 a.m. the mercury has risen far beyond what could be considered comfortable, as WAFT petitioners assemble in a neighboring carpark to challenge a recent eviction notice.
Parked on the curb of a short one-way street not far from downtown is a Subaru Outback, a tarp of hastily bundled goods straddling the roof, and its hatchback filled with what was once cluttering the home in question.
Neither Donna Berrios nor her husband, Rafael Mejias, have been inside the home since the eviction notice was issued five days before. Their son, A.J., not similarly barred by the sometimes ambiguous foreclosure laws, carries out a large textbook, and places it on the hood of the car.
“I’m just glad that he got my bible out,” said Berrios, a cross hanging from her neck. She is smoking — something to ease the stress, she says — while watching her son bring a fire extinguisher from the house.
Berrios paces much of the morning, waiting for the constable to leave his car, the three movers to descend from the cab of their truck, and the work to remove the rest of her goods from her house to be done.
Just after 11 a.m., when the eviction is to officially take place, the cars begin moving. The moving truck drives up the street, while the constable’s car drives down. A moment’s pause, then both truck and car leave.
“I really don’t know what’s going on,” said Berrios at the sight, while individuals from WAFT stand or sit under trees, holding signs and conversation.
Before all of this began, and before anyone had arrived at the house, Grace Ross had been driving much of the morning, working to formulate a successful appeal that would give Berrios and family more time in their home.
“I’m still waiting for one thing to come,” Ross signaled to the group earlier that morning, citing cross-judicial rulings from the Massachusetts Appeals Court and Worcester Housing Court. In turn, the petitioners will wait with Berrios.
It is on streets like these, on mornings like these, that one will find the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team, founded by Ross in 2008. It is outside of auctions, and outside of evictions that its members regularly arrive, carrying signs, good spirit and a critical eye to all those who have been granted the legal authority to execute foreclosure procedures.
“We call it ‘mutual aid,’ but it’s more than that,” said Lori Cairns, the team’s chief organizer and only paid employee. “People come in and they’re suicidal, they’re depressed, and we’re not counselors but when you’ve been there yourself, you know the stress.”
“Common-sense things, once you get into the details, are enough for people to realize that what has happened could not possibly be legal,” added Ross.
Listen to Grace Ross on WICN’s Business Beat with Steve Jones-D’Agostino
Ross recounts a member coming to her, many days after an auction had been recorded at the member’s home, and only after the member had herself been exposed to the auctions at others’ houses.
“She said to me, ‘You know Grace, no one was at the auction at my house,’ ” Ross recalled, to this day a bit in disbelief. “We talk to everybody about a million different things … [but] it didn’t occur to me to say, ‘Oh, by the way, did they actually show up?’ ”
“Legally” said Ross, “they can’t have an auction if they don’t show up.”
It is for this reason, that along with signs and shoulders to lean on, WAFT brings cameras to their protest events. With this, Ross and Cairns believe WAFT’s presence is not only oversight of those executing foreclosures on the frontlines, but those unseen characters.
“We need to tell the banks and their agents that someone’s watching,” said Ross. “They never could have gotten away with this if they followed the laws.”
“This has decimated our neighborhoods,” Ross continued, pointing to a day when WAFT petitioned five auctions, and to its weekly door-knocking campaigns to inform more residents of foreclosed properties about their options before they flee their homes unnecessarily.
“Fifty percent of the houses that I used to door knock, and that’s when [it was] 80-100 houses a month, fifty percent of them were gone, even before the auction,” Ross said. “If there is one thing that we could insert into the brains of individuals facing foreclosures, it’s ‘Stay in the home. Stay in the home. Stay in the home.’ ”
It’s noon, and with no word on the movers or constable or court orders, all members of WAFT remain. Donna Berrios walks off to the side of the carpark to place a phone call to one of her employers.
“My day job has been very considerate,” she said.
Along with her job at Wal-Mart, Berrios has taken up working in a nursing home in the city. Still, with the foreclosure and a week’s worth of moving and not working, she fears that she may soon be unemployed.
“It’s killing all of us,” Berrios said. “It’s heart-wrenching. All I’ve been doing for the last few days [is] crying.”
For an outsider, this house on Oak Street amid the tightly packed neighborhoods behind Becker College — with its chipping blue paint, slightly unkempt lawn and warning sign against trespassers — seems unremarkable, and to some, maybe even not warranting the attention.
“We know this house needs work, but it’s home,” said Berrios, who had lived there since its purchase in 2002.
“This whole process started when I lost my job in 2009,” Berrios said as she and her supporters continued to wait for word outside her house. She had worked at Hope Cemetery for years and lost her job as the first female superintendent of the cemetery amid mass layoffs. “I got laid off, lost my job, couldn’t find work for 3 years; got work, fought and argued with the bank to try to get a modification, [and] they just kept telling me that I didn’t make enough money and blew me off.”
About 12:25 p.m. Ross learns the eviction has been stayed. A Worcester Housing Court hearing, hastily arranged that morning by WAFT member Christopher A. Horton, was a success. “The law is not enforced unless we enforce it,” she said. “That’s why we’re activists.”
With the Subaru for once not headed to the storage facility, and her family in one place, Berrios seems resolved for the moment. “Our intentions are to spend the night in our house, in my bed,” she said.
Ross’s intentions are to keep up the fight.
“I’m still interested in hearing one thing,” she said. “So I’m still working on one thing.” Ross plans to write a motion and file it to the state Appeals Court in hopes to clarify Berrios’s standing and secure her more time on Oak Street. With 22 justices presiding, the appeals process is “sort of a lottery,” Ross admits, so her work continues.
Through the looking glass
“You’re wandering into ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ” said Ross. “Every rule, every assumption that you have just about the most basic, non-lawyer thing you have about what constitutes a legal document, none of those rules have been applied to [these] areas.”
She points to the splintering of organizations, separate documents — including tactics that allowed for the “securitization” process of bundling and selling mortgages en masse — robo-signing affidavits, or something as simple as a missing signature.
Being co-founder of MAAPL, Ross is able to rattle off with ease points within the Massachusetts General Laws, while Cairns maneuvers as a resource not only for the 100 active volunteers connected to WAFT, but as a coordinator of the court dynamics and filings.
WAFT is less of a legal a team than a jack-of-all-trades, able to execute a variety of critical jobs — finding loopholes, unsigned documents, or contracts that have been so enmeshed in the well-publicized securities problems.
For example, WAFT helped Berrios and her husband file affidavits of indigency earlier this year to allow them to proceed with court action without having to pay associated fees they cannot afford.
This is, for the group and its leaders, an important quality, having earlier been charged with practicing law without a license.
“We are nowhere near crossing a line,” asserted Ross when asked about the charges. She says the group relies on either a network of lawyers or the members themselves to appear before judges or juries pro se [on their own].
“People’s lives literally get destroyed,” she said.
A study published in 2015 by the American Economic Association Journal found spikes in foreclosures associated with “significant” increases for emergency room and other urgent care visits to hospitals. Importantly, these increases could not be accounted for along other potential influences, including unemployment, migration, or changes in overall medical care.
Meanwhile, a 2009 study appearing in the American Journal of Public Health found that communities already predisposed to poor health are further endangered when facing foreclosure, including shifting money away from personal medical care and long-term consequences due to stress, including meeting the criteria for “major depression” nearly three times more than those individuals living in poverty.
It seems to be this point that brings Ross and Cairns, and by extension the whole of the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team, to bear down upon their work day after day.
“If people aren’t [outright] winning in Worcester, they are able to spend years fighting for their rights” said Ross.
The state Appeals Court stands 38 miles to the east of Worcester County Superior Court, sandwiched between Boston’s Government Center plaza and the State House. Ornate in its grandeur, the ceiling’s intricate paintings and carvings come across as inspiring but isolating when few are in the building just before 11 a.m.
Berrios finds herself inside Courtroom Four. Seated in the back along with fellow WAFT member Laurie Endsley and Cairns, they wait for a case before them to be settled. Berrios then places herself before Associate Justice Judd J. Carhart.
The long drive was simply for an appeal for Berrios to withdraw herself from the case and transfer the matter to her husband. She attests in court that she has twice attempted to make this motion through Housing Court in Worcester, but without success.
The justice seems slightly confused by the motions from the lower courts, before stating concisely, “We accept your withdrawal.”
“I don’t give legal advice,” Carhart said to Berrios, “but your husband needs to file a motion.”
Berrios files out, whispering to those accompanying her “that was a win.”
Ross is in the hallway on the phone, speaking with another WAFT member, guiding her through complications of a legal entanglement back in Worcester. Berrios is heading to an office for more paperwork.
“They’re so much nicer” than the folks in Worcester Housing Court, Berrios noted as she continued down the hallway after engaging court staff to look into documents to proceed.
Over the course of interviews, many members of WAFT concurred with that negative assessment of their dealings in the Worcester courthouse, citing bureaucracy and conceding their own skepticism of the system.
“Our top court, the SJC, has been very good about these issues,” Ross said diplomatically.
Just before noon, it is warmer when Ross, Cairns, Berrios and Endsley leave the John Adams Courthouse than when they entered. Walking down Beacon Street — pleased with the results but moving ever forward — it is clear the weather is fitting their condition as they prepare for the drive back down the Massachusetts Turnpike to Worcester.
It is clearer still that they, and their fellow WAFT members, bring forward the belief that “when we fight, we win.”
The Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Teams meets on the first, third, and fifth Wednesdays of each month from 6-8 p.m. at the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Network Center at 301 Pleasant St.