At the end of 2011, there were 3.5 million homeless people in America and 18.5 million vacant homes, according to Amnesty International. Oakland’s Steven DeCaprio is doing his part to fix that disparity.
A musician by trade, DeCaprio toured Europe in the late ’90s. “There was a huge movement in Europe to take over abandoned buildings and use them for purposes advancing art, culture, education, and political organizing,” said DeCaprio. “Seeing these accomplishments in Europe was very inspirational.”
When DeCaprio returned to the United States, he had no choice but to make that inspirational idea a reality: “Upon my return, I was informed that there was no longer work for me at my previous employer. Soon after, I was evicted from my home so that the landlord could find tenants willing to pay more money. With no job and no housing I decided to occupy housing using the models I experienced in Europe.”
While the idea of squatting is nothing new, DeCaprio’s approach to “occupying,” as he prefers to call it, is unique. DeCaprio seeks to permanently improve and repurpose abandoned buildings for the benefit of the community at large, and within the law. To do that, he has exhaustively researched and educated himself on a widely misunderstood law called adverse possession.
Simply put, adverse possession states that anyone can legally claim an abandoned home if they establish stable residency in the space and maintain it, assuming no prior owner comes forward proving ownership within a specific period of time. The trick, of course, is dealing with law enforcement that doesn’t understand the concept and views DeCaprio and others like him as simple trespassers.
Countless run-ins with the police have motivated DeCaprio to become familiar enough with the law that he now counsels other squatters on how to successfully defend themselves from the system. He’s set up an advocacy organization called Land Action, which fights on behalf of fellow occupiers facing eviction, and he plans on taking the bar exam next year. “Once I pass the bar I intend to litigate on behalf of occupations specifically, and human rights generally,” said DeCaprio.
Though he acknowledges it hasn’t been easy, DeCaprio says the success and growing enthusiasm he’s seen keeps him motivated. “These occupations are more focused on direct action rather than symbolic action,” said DeCaprio. “I am excited by this development because I think it is a more effective model for change during a time such as this when the political processes are so compromised.”