MINNEAPOLIS -- There's a very unorthodox renovation project underway in south Minneapolis, at a home that was built 113 years ago.
The people doing the work, as well as the woman who lives in the house, are all uninvited guests of Wells Fargo Bank. They are squatters.
They're trying to make a point about homelessness and the impact of vacant homes on the city's neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates. They've found a novel -- and most likely illegal -- method to push a broader political agenda.
"This is more than just me and my family quite frankly," Jessica English told KARE.
"This is about the thousands of families who have had to leave their homes."
English, a college student and single mother of four girls, became homeless in late December. She said she could not find affordable rental housing for her family of five, on her minimum wage income.
"My financial world entirely collapsed. I had reached the point where I couldn't borrow any more money from my family and friends and my church," she explained.
English decided to move into the vacant, rundown home as part of a protest action by Occupy Homes MN, a group that uses demonstrations and civil disobedience to pressure banks to work with homeowners.
Wells Fargo foreclosed on the house last year, and eventually repurchased it at a sheriff's foreclosure sale. But the bank couldn't take possession of the title immediately or resell the property because there's a six-month redemption period after a sheriff's sale.
That's a period in Minnesota law during which the original homeowner can redeem the mortgage from the loan company that buys it at the sheriff's sale.
"In this case she was a resident of the property before Wells Fargo had taken possession of the home," Nick Espinosa of Occupy Homes MN told KARE, noting that English posted a public notice on the front door that she is residing there.
"Our understanding of Minnesota law is that Wells Fargo would have to get a court order to evict Jessica, because you can't force someone to leave a home during the redemption period."
He said his organization's objective is to convince Wells Fargo to donate the vacant home to a community group so that it can be used for affordable housing.
"There's actually 18 million vacant houses across the US right now. With three and a half million homeless people it just seems like a common sense solution."
English temporarily ceded main custody of her daughter to her ex-husband so they'd have a place to stay during the week. She has the girls on weekends, and they've spent those nights in motels or with friends.
"When your five-year-old daughter says to you, 'Mom, I'm concerned we're not spending enough time together' it eats your soul out."
The two-story wood framed American foursquare house, built in 1900, was in disrepair when English moved in. She took photos of dead rats, broken glass, and moldy furniture left behind by the previous residents.
Since January English and her friends have repainted and cleaned up parts of the house, and gotten the water working again in the main bathroom.
It's not clear exactly why, but the home still has electricity and heat. She speculated it's the bank's doing, as a means of guarding against pipes bursting and causing further damage.
Neighbors joined English and her friends for a "house warming" party in late February.
"It was really great to see the kids playing outside in the front yard, making snow angels and snow men with their neighbor friends. You can't do that in a motel," English remarked.
Members of Occupy MN have been arrested on several occasions during demonstrations and attempts to occupy other foreclosed homes. Thirteen members of the group were taken into custody in late February for blocking the street in front of Wells Fargo Mortgage headquarters.
And Jessica English clearly expects to be arrested at some point if she continues living at the home without permission.
"This is work I'm willing to do to shine the spotlight on homeless families," she said, citing a recent report that found homelessness has reached an all-time high in Hennepin County.
English, who is taking classes at Normandale College and hopes to become a teacher, says she believes the plight of the homeless has faded from the public consciousness.
"The largest demographic of homeless people in this country are children."
Employees of a property management company have entered the back of the house twice while English was at work and changed the locks, in an effort to keep her out. Both times she found a way back into the house, and changed the locks.
Since then Occupy Homes MN volunteers are staffing the house in shifts whenever English is away at her job. They've helped with the renovation too while posted on "guard duty."
On Thursday four Minneapolis police officers asked the occupiers to leave the home. The officers left, according to Espinosa, when informed they needed a court order or a warrant for their arrests for trespassing.
"We're hoping that this doesn't come to a conflict and that we can find a resolution that works for the bank because they've actually be able to write this off as a tax donation."
A Wells Fargo spokesperson issued the following statement to KARE on behalf of the bank:
"The trespassing at this property is counterproductive to addressing real housing issues. The property lacks running water and there are a number of other hazards, making it unfit for habitation by anyone, especially children."
The bank had this to say about ongoing efforts to work with communities, such as Minneapolis, that have experienced high rates of foreclosure:
"We've given $10 million annually to Minnesota nonprofit organizations, community groups and local schools. In 2011 alone, Wells Fargo provided $71.9 million in community development loans and investments for affordable housing in Minnesota."
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