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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupy Home: The Mason Family’s Eviction and Occupy Philly's Pledge to Help

I recently met a woman whose family was illegally evicted from their home at the behest of a landlord who'd refused to make repairs. An article about their situation and their struggle to regain the home follows.

Occupy Home: The Mason Family’s Eviction and Occupy Philly's Pledge to Help

Fri, 11/25

When Florence Mason and her children were evicted from their Mount Airy home on October 15th, after multiple evictions in the previous two months resulted in their return to the house on legal grounds still knowing it might happen again, she found herself with nowhere to turn—except for Occupy Philly. On November 17th, Mason came to the General Assembly and began telling her story: the police assault on her children, the landlady who trashed her home and stole her furniture, her own steadfast litigation. The General Assembly of more than 200 people that night unanimously passed a proposal to help the Mason family get their home back and defend it.
On the inside of the Masons’ front door is an ugly, fluorescent orange poster stuck on with glue and half torn off, declaring the home unfit for human habitation. Beginning in 2004, when the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) found dangerous levels of lead paint, through February of this year, when the notice was posted on the door due to lack of heat, Mason says, “PHA told [the owners] the house was in ill repairs.” The owners’ Section 8 housing assistance payments contract was terminated in June 2010, according to a letter Mason obtained.
“When the landlord has an L&I violation, they cannot do an eviction. It’s illegal. The tenant has the right to abate rent until they fix any problems in the house,” she says. “They failed to do the work, and they kept failing the inspection. Then they decided to go into municipal court and say that I stopped paying the rent.”
When Mason attempted to get a Section 8 voucher to relocate, she says, PHA told her that because her husband’s name is on the lease, she wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place – despite his granting her power of attorney when he moved out. A Court of Common Pleas decision in July tossed out the landlady’s case, but the family’s troubles had only just begun.
“I still have nightmares about that day”

On the morning of September 1st, the police arrived, then left shortly afterward. This was not uncommon, Florence Mason’s 13-year-old son Clifton says. “It’s been a lot of times they came and harassed us, and every time we had our papers.” But that day, Florence Mason left the house to go to court, and the police returned.

“My brother [20-year-old Vincent, Jr.] was like, ‘What are you trying to do? Why are you here again?’ so they said to get off the porch,” Clifton Mason says. “So we all got off the porch, and they started to put handcuffs on us. My brother Vincent said if they were to take him, he was going to go by himself – and just leave us alone. After that, they hit him, they slammed him in the car, and they started beating him. He wasn’t doing anything.”

A neighbor, Lillian Smith, asked the police to let her take the two youngest children until their mother could get home. “They were going to take them to juvenile hall—that was what the captain said, because they were loud. They were upset.”

Smith was also concerned for Vincent, Jr: “I witnessed that the cuffs were a little bit tight, and when they were putting the young man in the van, his head got hit. I just don’t like to see anybody’s head get hit, because that’s where – he’s going to be a doctor or a lawyer or something, and you hurt that child.”

“They were just slamming him against the car,” says Smith’s granddaughter, Lisa Bailey, 15. “The older girl, Crystal [who is 18], got really upset, because they were throwing her older brother in there, so she started to flip out also. So they threw her on the floor and handcuffed her ankles and her arms.”

“The police were very rough with them,” adds a third neighbor, who does not want her name to be used. “Just like you see with Occupy Wall Street, you know, they were very rough with these kids.”

“The lady [cop] came over and tripped my sister, so she’s on the ground,” Clifton Mason says. “My 11-year-old sister [Sherriah]. She was crying. They were saying they were going to call the Department of Human Services DHS.”

“They threw the young girl [Sherriah] down in the street and handcuffed her,” the third neighbor says. “I got a paper towel to wipe her face off, and they told me to get back. She was so traumatized. She was just staring off into space with tears running down her face. They also got a moving van to take the stuff out of the house. The street was filled with cops. Everybody up and down the street was upset. One neighbor at the end of the block came out of the shower with shampoo in her hair. The police were out here constantly. They would always intimidate these kids, and they always come when the mother’s not there.”

Before police allowed Lillian Smith to take Sherriah and Clifton into her home, Clifton was sitting handcuffed in a police car. “I was like, ‘Why you all got me in here?” he says. “[The police officer] was like, ‘I’ll take off my badge and fight you.’” Clifton asked what would happen to the family dog, a German Shepherd named Sam, and the police told him not to worry—they would take care of her, he says.

Meanwhile, Florence Mason rushed home after receiving a call from Crystal. “Just imagine being on the phone and hearing your kids screaming, and you can’t do anything to help,” she says. “It still hurts me. I have nightmares about that day, hearing my children hollering, ‘Mommy, they’re arresting us!’ and my daughter’s heart-wrenching scream."

Two days later, while the family was trying to locate Sam, the police Animal Control Unit put the dog to sleep.

“They ransacked everything”

Crystal and Vincent were released, their charges were dropped, and the Masons returned to their family home. But on October 14th, they were evicted again—and this time, the family sought refuge with relatives.
On October 14th, Clifton Mason says, “there were moving trucks. They took the TVs and beds to make it very uncomfortable, because they knew that we were going to come back in the house. They sawed off the pipe inside the house so we couldn’t have water. They unplugged the gas wires and everything. They made it impossible for us to live inside the house.”

Florence Mason says, “When the chief or captain was out here, he let the landlord go through the basement, and while he was standing out there fussing with me, they were cutting the pipes and pulling out the wires to the heaters and the hot water heater. They just ransacked everything, and they took TVs, my laptops, my dishes, and my dining room set. They took my dresser drawers and threw them on the floor, and now there’s mice stuff all in there.

“We were out in the pouring rain that day. Half of us had no jackets on. And we were directly across the street. The car was right there and the police officer was just sitting there, and I went over to her to show my paperwork. She said, ‘You ain’t showing me nothing.’ So as I was walking back, the landlady comes over to her, and the guys from the moving trucks are sitting in the truck, and she’s talking to her. While I’m turning my back, my son and them start screaming, ‘Oh no, we ain’t see that! How many denominations is that?’

“I said, ‘What do you mean, denomination?’ So he’s like, ‘Mom, she just gave the cop money.’ Then all of them jumped in the car and pulled off.”

Clifton Mason says, “After they took our stuff, the owner of the house went to the front of the car, and she walked over to the window, and she came out with money out of her pocket, and she gave it to her. The cop lady rolled down the window, and she gave it to her. In front of neighbors—we all saw her. She gave the cop the money. And the cop was like, ‘I didn’t see anything. Nobody told me to do anything.’”

He adds, “If you’re going to bribe somebody, why would you do it in front of everybody?”

“This happened on October 14th, and we got back in the house, and we stayed until that morning, the 15th,” Florence Mason says. “And then the cops came, because I reported the bribe on a 911 call.”

And then, Florence Mason was arrested. She spent two weeks in the county jail.

A fourth neighbor, who didn’t want his name to be used, says that he has since seen signs of life in the house—unfortunately, however, not signs the Masons had anything to do with.

“About a week ago, while I’m out cleaning the leaves up in the back, I notice a ladder and a window open to this house,” he says. “A couple nights, I come home from work, it’s dark, and I could see a TV set or something, through the blinds. I said, ‘Wait a minute, nobody’s supposed to be there, as far as I know.’

“They’re a quiet family,” he adds. “They cause no trouble around the neighborhood. They’re a happy family.”
Florence Mason expects her next court date, in December, to confirm her right to keep her home, but until then, she doesn’t believe the house is a safe place for her children to stay—not just because it is unfit for habitation until repairs are made, but also because of the police. “I don’t want my children to go through that again,” she says. “I don’t care how many walks I have to do to county, but I don’t want them experiencing that in their young life at all.”

But she’s proud of the example she’s made for her children by advocating for her rights and theirs. And she’s determined to return to her family’s only home, despite everything she has been through. “I don’t care how much you do to me, I’m going to eventually, one way or another, find a way back.”

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