By Nick Carey
(Reuters) - Mercedes Robinson-Duvallon turned 83 in February, but there was little time for celebration.
On her birthday, as she sat in a wheelchair recovering from surgery, sheriffs' deputies arrived to evict her from the Miami home where she has lived since 1966. A year earlier her property had moved into foreclosure after she defaulted on a refinanced loan.
Robinson-Duvallon says she would be homeless now but for the intervention of about 40 members of Occupy Fort Lauderdale, a Florida branch of the national movement that is protesting income inequality and corporate greed. The group took over her lawn and house and even baked her a birthday cake.
The deputies decided to let her stay.
"I owe the Occupy people," said Robinson-Duvallon, who is now challenging the eviction in court. "This has all been so horrible, I can't tell you how many times I've cried and cried."
What happened in Miami is also occurring in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, as local Occupy groups pursue an issue they believe has emotional resonance among America's struggling lower and middle classes.
Fighting foreclosures and evictions, activists say, gives the disparate movement a unifying focus and embodies its anti-Wall Street message. It also has offered a way for Occupy - up till now a largely white, middle-class movement - to broaden its reach to minorities.
Interviews with Occupy activists in 11 states show groups from coast to coast have taken up foreclosure fights through rallies, home occupations and court appearances. Matt Browner Hamlin of occupyourhomes.org, a national group focused on this cause, counts "more than 100 Occupy groups" that have taken direct action or formed foreclosure working groups.
Cheryl Aichele of Occupy Los Angeles said activists there have helped a dozen homeowners thus far and have many more requests. "This cause," she said, "brings together everything that we are fighting against - corporate greed, bank bail outs, a corrupt judiciary and corrupt government."
There is little evidence that the banking industry is taking notice, however.
Robert Davis, executive vice president of an industry lobby group, the American Bankers Association, said, "It is unlikely that protests are going to have any bearing on the court process" where foreclosures often are challenged.
He said banks rely on law enforcement to quash eviction protests that constitute "unlawful occupation of a property ... They need to be removed so the property can be sold."
In Cincinnati, a group called Occupy the Hood has found the issue a rallying point in the city's East Price Hill neighborhood, an ethnically mixed, working-class area hard hit by the economic downturn. Average neighborhood home values have fallen 41 percent since 2002.
Amid chants of "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out," Rigel Behrens and other activists in Cincinnati recently conducted a "foreclosure tour," visiting seven boarded-up homes. "Abandoned homes are the most obvious, physical manifestation of what is wrong with our system," said Behrens. Those who have watched the Occupy movement since its September beginnings say the foreclosure focus may help it recover from a slump that followed forced shutdowns of encampments in New York, Washington and other cities. "The Occupy movement seems to have lost some of its punch," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. "Focusing on an issue that affects the working class and leaves people feeling alienated is potentially a good strategy. If they can make it work."
FINDING COMMON GROUND Activists in Cincinnati and elsewhere say foreclosures are a serious political issue in minority neighborhoods, where the five-year-old housing crisis cast a long shadow.
Housing counseling groups have cataloged how black Americans and Hispanics - even those with good credit - were more likely to end up victims of predatory lenders.
Millions of Americans lost their homes in the downturn and around one in four American homeowners is "under water" -- owing more than their homes are worth.
Again, minorities suffered disproportionately, studies show. A recent study by the non-profit Woodstock Institute, examining properties in six Chicago area counties, showed 17 percent of those located in predominantly white areas were under water. In predominantly black and Hispanic areas, the number soared above 40 percent.
In Minneapolis, Anthony Newby, a black housing counselor, appealed to the Occupy group to take on the case of struggling black homeowner Monique White. "It was very much a conscious decision to approach the Occupy movement," said Newby, now a member of Occupy Homes MN. "The African-American community has been dealing with hardship for decades. But it was new for those white kids on the plaza who were falling out of the middle class for the first time." In Atlanta, Occupiers say fighting evictions began as an impromptu battle that became a long-term strategy. "This is a strategy to generate tangible wins and build a broader base for the movement," said Tim Franzen of Occupy Atlanta. "You don't have to go to a park downtown to make a difference. You can go two doors down and help your neighbor."
"BANKS DON'T LIKE BAD PRESS" Evan Rosen, a lawyer in southern Florida, said the interest of Occupy Fort Lauderdale helped in a foreclosure case he was handling. Occupiers showed up in court to back his client, which he believes influenced the judge's favorable ruling. "I am not a religious man, but it felt like divine intervention," said Rosen, who asked that his client's name be withheld while negotiations with the lender continue. Jeff Weinberger of Occupy Fort Lauderdale said the group has helped four homeowners avoid eviction. "The banks really don't like bad press," he said. "So when we show up with the local TV station, it has an effect." But Bobby Hull says the Occupy movement can only do so much; the rest depends on homeowners themselves. "Occupy is a movement and the best they can do is to help us organize our communities," he said. "That's what it takes to win." Hull, 57, faced eviction in Minneapolis when his health failed and his contracting business tanked. Occupiers rallied for him in December, and he renegotiated his Bank of America mortgage, though he says he is under a gag order and cannot discuss his loan terms. A Bank of America spokesman confirmed a loan modification is underway.
Now, Hull and his neighbors have formed an "eviction-free zone" to fight foreclosures. Occupy groups claim the response they get is overwhelmingly positive. The first home on the "foreclosure tour" in East Price Hill was sold off in foreclosure for $1,347. It lost its roof and mildew is eating through the walls. "It's truly great that these folks are doing something," said Ron Etter, nodding toward the Occupiers as they approached the next house on the tour. "No one else is."
(Reporting By Nick Carey; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Philip Barbara)