How a Chicago Mom Liberated a Foreclosure and Got a Home for Her Four Kids

Displaced by foreclosure, this family took direct action—and got a place to live.
Justice Photo by Brent Lewis

Justice Smith, 8, stands in the backyard of her liberated home. Martha Biggs chose the name Justice for her daughter meaning, “It’s justice that I will never be homeless again.” Photo by Brent Lewis.

Ten million people in the United States have been displaced from their homes since the real estate crash of 2007. The financial consequences of the crash are well known, and the impacts on communities—vacant, vandalized properties that attract crime—are visible.

In A Dream Foreclosed, Laura Gottesdiener focuses on the human cost of predatory lending and foreclosure and the people who fight back. One example is the Biggs family in Chicago. Evicted from her childhood home when Cabrini Green public housing was demolished, Martha Biggs was evicted again from rental apartments that were in foreclosure. Over years of homelessness—moving around, staying in shelters, with relatives, and in her van—Biggs raised four children, sent them to school, worked to support them, and struggled to keep her family together.

After she and her children were evicted from their rented West Side apartment when it was foreclosed, Martha promised her children that things would get better, but they just got worse. The family moved into another foreclosed building, and then, finally, into their old white minivan.

Surrounded by her kids and captured on television, Martha declared the house liberated.

Martha’s oldest daughter, Jajuanna, who was in sixth grade at the time, remembers how the entire family—she and her mother, sisters Jimmya and Justice, and little brother Davion, slept in the van. “My mom and I got the front seats, so we’d let the seats down all the way back. But my legs would hurt in the front so sometimes I’d lie down all the way in the back seat and Jimmya would switch with me in the front. Davion and Justice would take the seats right behind the driver.”

Jajuanna hated that she couldn’t stretch out her legs, but everyone adapted as best they could. They learned that they had to stop giving Davion water after 7:00 p.m.; otherwise, he’d pee all over himself and the car at night. Martha stored golf clubs and baseball bats in the car, just in case. The rest of the family’s larger belongings she stored with friends or family members, who sometimes kept the possessions they liked best, such as Jajuanna’s and Jimmya’s bikes.

At night, Jajuanna watched her mother cry. “She tried to hide it, and I acted like I didn’t see anything. If I was laying down in the car and I saw her in the mirror, I’d just act like I was asleep. She always put her hands on her face,” she said. As the oldest, Jajuanna felt increasing pressure and responsibility for her family’s situation.

Her younger siblings were too little to understand. They’d often cry to their mother that they wanted to go home, pleas that Martha didn’t know how to answer. “I saw my momma struggle more than anyone,” said Jajuanna. “And making it worse was that she had all of us, and that she couldn’t go anywhere because she didn’t trust people around us. Mom just kept moving. We just kept moving.”

Finally, one night when Jajuanna was in seventh grade, she cracked. She took box cutters to her hands and wrists, making shallow slices in her skin. She’d heard about cutting from other girls at school, but she didn’t really know how it worked. She was aiming for a vein, she said later, but she missed. The next day, in the bathroom at school, she tried again. “It was because of all the things we were going through. I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I thought it would be better if I were gone,” Jajuanna remembers.

Martha understood what had happened—and why.

“My daughter Jajuanna damn near tried to kill herself,” she said years later. “She’s got welts on her forearm because she thought it was her fault.”

Jajuanna began getting counseling at school. She also began to write, filling notebooks upon notebooks with poetry, song lyrics, and journal entries, which she shared with her teachers and principal, who wrote notes back to her. But the emotional support didn’t change the daily reality.

Unlike the vacant houses, these people are not symbols; they are our neighbors, friends, family members, and classmates.

A year passed with little change. The Biggses continued sleeping in the car until someone called Department of Child and Family Services to report seeing children sleeping in a white minivan. Martha knew the kids had to be split up again. They went to live with their fathers or grandparents. One afternoon, Martha confided in her friend Patricia Hill, a retired police officer who worked with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. Martha knew all about the Campaign; she’d grown up with the group’s founder, J.R. Fleming, in Cabrini Green. She’d heard that the group had saved Hill’s house from foreclosure, so Martha told Hill about the car, about DCFS, told her she needed to do something. Anything.

“How much do you want to do something?” Patricia asked her friend. The Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign had been talking about a strategy to deal with all these families without homes and all these empty houses, a way to solve two problems at the same time—and take back some control of the neighborhood.

“Enough to not be sleeping in my car,” Martha replied. Hill stared at Martha hard for a moment and handed her a set of keys.

Her mother was here! Jajuanna rushed to greet Martha, who had come to visit her oldest daughter. It was June 17, 2011, and Jajuanna had just graduated middle school. She’d been living with her father since the threat of intervention by the Department of Child and Family Services forced Martha to split the kids up. But today, her mother was here—and she came with a surprise. “We got a home,” Jajuanna remembers Martha telling her. The information didn’t immediately register. “What? We got a home?” Jajuanna asked.

“Yeah, we got a home,” Martha repeated in her typical straightforward manner. “You wanna come see it?”

There was, indeed, a house: a 101-year-old two-family home built with red bricks. It had a front porch, a backyard, and a pretty second-floor balcony supported by pillars and ringed by a short, wrought-iron railing. It looked like a lot of the neighboring houses on South Prairie Avenue. Inside, the house was clean and simple, with newly polished hardwood floors and freshly painted caramel-colored walls.

The house hadn’t always looked this way. When Martha first visited it, the day after Patricia Hill handed her the keys, it was a typical vacant house in the neighborhood. Deutsche Bank claimed to own it and had foreclosed on the owner, Patricia’s daughter Stacy, in 2009. The bank, however, failed to assume ownership because its own law firm reported that the foreclosure documents had been altered or fabricated.

In the spring of 2011, while Martha was sleeping in a car, the court halted Hill’s foreclosure proceeding, as well as nearly 2,000 others. As the house sat vacant, strippers tore out the toilet, the copper wiring, the pipes, the radiator, the ceiling fans, and almost everything in the kitchen, including some cabinet doors. When Martha first entered, there were holes in the walls and trash on the floor. Still, it hadn’t been taken over by a gang; it hadn’t been set on fire; and it hadn’t been flooded. It was salvageable. Martha parked her white minivan in front of the house and began to work.

Martha Biggs photo by Brent Lewis

Martha Biggs cradles her son, Davion, on the front porch of the family’s liberated home. Photo by Brent Lewis.

What was more astonishing than the house was the scene in the front yard. As Jajuanna watched, people carrying signs and reporters shouldering heavy news cameras descended on the front lawn. Channel 2 arrived, and Channel 7, and Fox, and even a reporter from The New York Times. The grass was covered in posters reading RECLAIMED BY THE COMMUNITY and STOP FORECLOSURE! Members of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign arrived clad in the group’s black T-shirts. Reporters set up a podium of microphones. The Biggs family had lived in plenty of foreclosed houses over the last decade. But this was something different. This was not just a house. It was a stage.

As the houses sit vacant, there are millions of Americans who have nowhere to live.

The crowd began shouting, “Fight! Fight! Fight! ’Cause Housing Is a Human Right!” Justice, Jimmya, and Davion took up the chant with their sing-song voices as they played tag on the front porch.

Suddenly, all eyes were on Martha and her children.

“Martha! Martha! Martha!” the crowd chanted as she stepped up to the microphones. After years of silence and invisibility, the Biggs women finally had their audience.

“Hello. My name is Martha Biggs, and I’m from Cabrini Green,” Martha began. She clutched Justice’s head to her waist, and her daughter shyly buried her face in Martha’s side. Jajuanna and Jimmya stood behind their mother’s right shoulder.

Jajuanna was almost as tall as Martha, and with her hair swept back and her face set, she looked older than her 15 years. “I’ve been there since I was like two years old,” continued Martha. “I was evicted. Homeless. On the street. Nowhere to go. Got a job. Worked hard to support my kids. Was homeless again because the building I moved into was in foreclosure. So therefore me and my family had to take another journey to be homeless again. To sleep in our cars. To go to different units, different family members’ houses. To run around. No place to go.”

The crowd was silent except for the snapping of the reporters’ cameras.

“We came up with a conclusion not to give up. Always fight. Never sit down. Keep it moving. Keep it working. This is what happens when you never sit down. This is what you accomplish—stuff like this here.”

Martha continued.

“It’s for the future of my kids. They ain’t got to worry about where they going to sleep. Where they going to go to wash up at. Or where their next pair of shoes or socks going to get cleaned at. They ain’t got to worry about that anymore. They ain’t got to worry about any of those things because I never gave up, never stopped trying,” she said. Then, surrounded by her kids and captured on television, Martha declared the house liberated.

The idea of home liberation is simple. Currently, there are millions of vacant, bank-owned houses across the country dragging down property values, bankrupting cities, fueling crime, and creating an almost irreconcilable rupture in the theory of supply and demand. In well-off suburban areas, these vacant houses are symbols of the United States’ seemingly limitless ability to produce excess.

In poorer areas like the South Side of Chicago, they symbolize a darker characteristic of America’s capitalist business culture: the ability to allow those with staggering excess to coexist alongside, and prey upon, those in desperate need. As the houses sit vacant, there are millions of Americans, like the Biggses, who have nowhere to live and fight through life each day as capitalism’s refugees. Some were evicted from their homes through foreclosure; others didn’t even have the luxury of owning a detached house to begin with.

What they share is a desire to survive through conditions so difficult that getting through each day should be celebrated as a triumph of will. But unlike the vacant houses, these people are not symbols; they are our neighbors, friends, family members, and classmates. And they have had enough of living as refugees—or perhaps exiles—in their own country simply because they can’t afford the price of a place to call home.

Martha’s was the first publicized home liberation in Chicago and one of the first in the country since the economic collapse began. Nearly everyone from the land reclamation movement was there. It was an emotional day for organizers, who rarely saw home liberations actually happen—especially in such a public manner.

Rob Robinson of the New York City chapter of a group called Take Back the Land remembers watching Martha’s daughter Justice run out of the house with a piece of plywood on which she’d scrawled in her 8-year-old handwriting: THANK YOU EVERYONE.

“I just started to tear up,” Robinson recalls.

For Martha’s children, the day was something they’d only dreamed of.

“I never thought we’d be here,” said Jajuanna.

In the years since Martha’s home liberation she has grown into one of the most prominent housing organizers in the country. As of publication, she and her children were still living in the house on South Prairie Avenue.