By Laird Harrison
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Anti-Wall Street protesters, seeking a new focus as cities across the country shut down two-month old Occupy encampments, launched a new wave of activism on Tuesday by rallying around homeowners as they try to resist evictions from foreclosed homes.
Protesters gathered outside a home in a depressed San Francisco neighborhood, while in nearby Oakland they took over a vacant bank-owned property and offered it as shelter to homeless people. In Los Angeles, they helped a former Marine move his belongings back into his foreclosed home.
In Philadelphia, protesters said they were moving toward a similar strategy to focus public attention on big banks and other lenders who benefited from taxpayer-funded bailouts only to turn around and foreclose on taxpayers.
The shift came after authorities in many U.S. cities, often citing health and safety conditions, moved to dismantle protest camps that sprang up as part of the Occupy movement against economic inequality and excesses of the U.S. financial system.
"People are refusing to leave," said Vivian Richardson, speaking in front of her home in a San Francisco neighborhood where she is fighting eviction. "Today is national reoccupy our homes day."
Activists announced a coordinated series of actions in several large cities across the country organized by a dozen loosely affiliated housing rights groups. A handful of earlier attempts to take over vacant or foreclosed property in the Bay area failed when protesters were evicted by police.
"These actions are part of a national kick-off for a new frontier for the occupy movement: the liberation of vacant bank-owned homes for those in need, and the defense of families under threat of foreclosure and eviction," the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment said in a statement.
Richardson called for a moratorium on foreclosures in California and a reduction of all mortgages to the current market values of the homes.
Franzo King, leader of St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, vowed to stay in his home past January 4, when it is scheduled for foreclosure sale.
"We shall not be moved," King said at the press conference. "I intend to resist."
King said he was told when he took out his loan from Wells Fargo that he would be given the opportunity to restructure it later. Instead his payment went up from $1,200 a month to $2,800 a month, which is more than he could pay, and the bank has not been willing to modify it, he said.
Wells Fargo spokesperson Vickee Adams told Reuters the loan could not be reduced to a point where King could make payments and have any income left for his other living expenses.
"We were not able to provide them with an option that could provide affordability," she said. "We're happy to reach out to him to discuss next steps."
Adams said Wells Fargo had modified more than 700,000 loans nationwide and forgiven about $4 billion in principal owed by homeowners since October 2009. But she said a foreclosure moratorium "would not support the recovery of the housing economy."
'WE WANT OUR HOUSE BACK'
Across the bay in Oakland, where some of the anti-Wall Street movement's most violent clashes with police have occurred, protesters also took part in housing actions, including taking over a home owned by government-linked lender Fannie Mae that was vacant as a result of a foreclosure.
Activists said they were offering space to homeless people and giving seminars in "foreclosure defense."
"The house was vacant yesterday and today it is providing housing and services to a community that needs it," Mell Myhand told Reuters from inside the Oakland house.
Fannie Mae did not respond to a request for comment.
In Los Angeles, former Marine Arturo de los Santos, 46, led a group of supporters in an effort to retake his home, which was foreclosed upon six months ago but remained vacant.
De los Santos, who said he has worked for 21 years in the aerospace industry, moved to a rented apartment after losing his home. But his four children were unhappy in their new school and missed their neighborhood and friends, he said.
"We want our house back. We feel it was taken wrongfully from us," he said in a telephone interview before driving a U-Haul to retake his home, along with supporters.
"We tried doing it the right way and it didn't work, now we're trying a protest," he said.
In Philadelphia, activists say they are moving toward a broader strategy by taking over vacant homes, combined with a focus on helping those who need homes.
Arturo Castillion, a member of the Radical Caucus Working Group of Occupy Philly, said efforts to help homeowners were part of a new approach to help keep the Occupy movement.
"We're trying to move into stage two, which is neighborhood based organizing," Castillion said.
(Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia and Steve Gorman and Mary Slosson in Los Angeles, Editing by Mary Slosson and Peter Bohan)