Activism isn't a hobby or even a job for Shabnam Bashiri. It's her life.
Since May, the 28-year-old has lived and worked at the Occupy Our Homes Atlanta headquarters in southwest Atlanta's Pittsburgh neighborhood. Along with a handful of other full-time "staffers," Bashiri is dedicated to helping families and communities in the Southeast and around the country fight looming foreclosures and eviction.
The tight-knit coalition has stood up to big banks around the country by, among other things, setting up tents in the front yards of homes facing foreclosure and partnering with nonprofits to help provide housing for those in need. In the last year, Occupy Our Homes Atlanta has helped halt the foreclosure of U.S. Army veteran Brigitte Walker's Riverdale home, and continues to fight for retired Atlanta Police officer Jacqueline Barber's in Fayetteville.
Most recently, the group helped move a family of four into a bank-owned home near OOHA's Pittsburgh offices. The immediate goal was to give the family a place to live, and open up lines of communication with the so-far unresponsive owners, M&T Bank. Police moved in less than a week later, arresting four — including two of the residents — who refused to leave the property.
Are OOHA's tactics controversial? Sure. But Bashiri says the experiences of the 15 families the organization has helped stay in their homes in the past year speak for themselves.
The organization's actions, and nearly everything OOHA has accomplished, are made possible by a tight and growing network of activists, many of whom connected during 2011's nationwide Occupy movement. When some protesters emerged from trampled Occupy tents in parks around the country, including downtown's Woodruff Park, where Bashiri camped with protestors, they chose to focus on mounting a national anti-foreclosure movement. While Occupy captured people's attention, groups like OOHA are effecting change. Now, she says, "there's work happening that's producing real, tangible results."
The Alpharetta native and ex-keyboardist for Atlanta band the Constellations averages more than 70 hours each week huddled over her laptop or glued to a phone fighting evictions in Atlanta and across the country. Bashiri helped collect 20,000 signatures and rally supporters for Barber when she traveled to protest outside U.S. Bank's Minneapolis headquarters late last year. The move led to negotiations with the mortgage company, and Barber is now in talks to repurchase her home.
Bashiri and other OOHA activists want to spotlight the impact that foreclosures have had on Atlanta families and communities — especially in hard-hit neighborhoods like Pittsburgh, where home values have plummeted and vacant properties outnumber households — and convince banks to donate unoccupied houses to local nonprofits. It'd be a tax write-off for the financial institutions, she argues, and the first step in changing how America thinks about housing.
"Housing is a human right," Bashiri says. "The underlying goal for us is to take housing out of the speculator's market and change the way we look at housing as a commodity."
OOHA has already started forming its own nonprofit, which it hopes will develop alternative housing options that could work on a larger scale. Exactly what that looks like, Bashiri is still not sure. She tosses around phrases like "co-op" and "community land trust." In addition, Bashiri and the organization are working on policies to prevent Wall Street firms from buying up and sitting on vacant homes. Considering that the number of vacant properties still outnumbers occupied ones in some Atlanta neighborhoods, it's clear Bashiri's work is far from over.