UPDATED 8/20/13 at 9 a.m.: Last Friday, NBC Philadelphia reported that Indiegogo reinstated Meyers‘ campaign as it “is indeed in compliance with Indiegogo’s terms of service,” according to a statement issued to the media outlet. According to Meyers, the crowdsourcing site only returned donations made through PayPal to both campaigns, totaling about $1,500, and waived all fees associated with the fundraiser. “I’m happy, but frustrated, it took them 20 days to respond and I do not get all the donations I lost,” she told West Philly Local.
7/29/13: A week ago, Jessica Meyers went from squatter to homeowner.
The 28-year-old Syracuse native landed the winning bid for her makeshift West Philly home at 52nd and Funston Streets during Philadelphia Housing Authority’s July 16 auction. The legally abandoned PHA-owned site was one of 196 properties the housing authority was selling off at First District Plaza, 3801 Market Street, and there was no way she’d let possible ownership slip through the cracks. After all, Meyers has squatted in that house for eight years, and has spent countless time and energy refurbishing it into a livable space shared with friends and traveling punks.
In order to get into the auction, though, Meyers had to throw down $2,500—an entry fee-turn-future down payment loaned to her by friend and semi-employer Amira Dovah. Prior to last Tuesday, Meyers opened an initial Indiegogo campaign, set to close 10 days after the auction, in an effort to raise donations to repay Dovah. She also launched a second Indiegogo fundraiser to cover the remaining costs on the Mill Creek property—$5,500 plus $1,800 in buyer’s fees, and another $1,000 or so in future renovations. (This expense, much like the $2,500, would be covered by Dovah and another friend if Meyers is unable to gather enough cash before the 60-day closing date.)
Together, Meyers raised over $4,000 as of Wednesday night. As of Thursday morning, about three quarters of those donations disappeared.
According to Indiegogo, someone reported Meyers for violating its terms and conditions by using it to acquire real estate, which is prohibited under its General Rules of Use. All credit card donations from both campaigns were refunded to the donors.
“I was so elated. I was like, ‘Wow, people really care and we’re doing really well, it looks like this might actually happen.’ Then Indiegogo messages me with their punch in the face,” Meyers told West Philly Local, a slight sound of defeat cradling her voice.
Without missing a step, Meyers started a new fundraising campaign that same day—this time on GoGetFunding, a considerably smaller, less-funded crowdsourcing site based in London. She’s already drawn $2,245 since launching it Thursday and has 48 days to reach 100 percent funded. “All new funds are from the old funders. It makes me ecstatic,” said Meyers. “I’m hoping everyone else who donated goes and donates again, and hopefully some new ones.”
Technically, though, Meyers wasn’t actually buying real estate with the Indiegogo campaigns. The $2,500 loan she placed on her winning bid secured her homeownership, and she’s already signed the Agreement of Sale for the PHA unit. Instead, the donations from the first campaign, which would have closed and transferred to her account yesterday, was always earmarked for refurbishing the homestead and paying back Dovah.
“She knows everything about me. She knows I’ve been a squatter, she knows…I’m sorry, I’m getting worked up,” Meyers said of the woman she’s worked for for five years and accompanied Meyers at the auction. Her voice cracks on the other end of the phone and, by her own admission, she’s started crying. “She knows my whole situation and she basically became my fairy godmother….I really don’t want to have to call her because she’s already done so much for me.”
Indiegogo also informed Meyers that she must return all PayPal donations—something she says is not currently possible because she’s already transferred those monies into her bank account, and she has yet to hear back from Indiegogo as to how to proceed. Due to the PayPal donations living in a sort of limbo, both campaigns still show contributions—nearly $900 and over $600, respectively. Meyers set the second campaign back to “live” in a panic after seeing it set to draft on Thursday morning—and before knowing the deal—but she doesn’t want anyone donating through it.
As for who actually reported the campaign, Meyers has no idea but “can only imagine.” Since putting her property on Craiglist to invite people to tour the space and having her story in the news, Meyers said she’s received a heap of hate mail (comments on the NBC Philadelphia/NewsWorks piece are less than savory).
“Of course there’s going to be people who don’t understand what I’ve been doing and are going to call me a junkie or say they want to firebomb my house with her in it,” she said, frustration building in her voice. “It could have been any one of those right wing people who are just very angry that I got to live some place, in their eyes, for free for eight years. But it’s just really a lot of work to be there. It’s not like we just kicked back and relaxed.”
When asked to put a value on the work she’s performed to revamp the property, Meyers offered about $6,000. That number, she said, accounts for time, labor and materials acquired through donations, scouting Craigslist, and from houses demoed by friends. Since moving in almost a decade ago, Meyers claimed she’s also help alleviate drug and crime activity on block—a fact she says her neighbors could and have attested to, particularly in the nearly 200 signatures they’ve offered for her 2005 and 2010 petitions asking the PHA and local council members to allow her to own the home. She also has a number of contractor friends contact her recently and offer to donate their services in fixing up the Mill Creek croft.
Before putting her name on the title this week, Meyers’ home was one of the city’s 40,000 vacant or abandoned properties and, according to the squatter-cum-homeowner, also one of over 4,000 PHA “Scattered Sites”—a phrase used to described low and moderate-income public housing units dispersed throughout the city, blended in communities of private renters and homeowners. If true, that means in the eight years Meyers has squatted at the site, PHA officials should have used funds to renovate and rent out the knowingly abandoned space to a “Scattered Site” applicant of low income instead of selling it at auction. And it’s not the first time they’ve sold off supposedly Scattered Site homes—they auctioned 100 individual properties during their first auction in 2011. (West Philly Local did not hear back from PHA at the time of publication.)
“PHA never gave us the opportunity to buy the property, so it’s like I’m going to spend my actual cash money to fix the property and, at this point, they were going to put in an auction and someone can just buy, come in and take away all the work that I’ve done,” said Meyers. “If I don’t own this [house], it’s going to sit there and it’s going to be abandoned. There are other properties on this block that have been owned by PHA, or even other people, and they sit there and they rot away.”
The Origins of Meyers
By her own account, Meyers has had a rough life. Her parents, divorced when she was a baby, fought over custody rights and, at three-years-old, she was kidnapped by her dad. (“It was just a whole manipulative thing with me in the middle of it,” she said.) As for her mom, Meyers claimed she used her own mother’s suicide as “an ill-advantage to her life.”
“I heard when I was like 6-, 7-, 8-years-old tell me, ‘I don’t know how to give a child love. I never got motherly love. My mom killed herself,’ which is not something you say to a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old. Not at all,” she recalled. “I mean, my parents care about me. They’re just not equipped to be there.”
Then, around 14- or 15-years-old, Meyers was thrown out of her father’s house because his girlfriend “didn’t like” her—he always chose her over his daughter, she alleged. So she lived with her best friend for a year until her dad shipped her to her aunt’s Long Island home before he moved to Korea. It didn’t last long with her aunt, either—according to Meyers, her aunt also kicked her out after about a year. That’s when the new homeowner found herself couch surfing until meeting her boyfriend and transplanting to West Philly 10 years ago. She lived in squatter haven, Paradise City, at 48th and Spruce streets for two years before moving to 52nd and Funston.
That relationship ended last summer after Meyers learned about “all these horrible things” and he took off.
“This whole year that just went by has been like a knock down, drag out fight for me. It really has,” she said, again choking up. “Everything happens for reason. I know I deserve this. It’s going to come my way, so I have to keep positive.”
Due to the conditions of the Agreement of Sale, which all auction buyers have to adhere, Meyers is back sleeping on her friend’s couches—but this time, with a future home in sight. Until she pays off the property, the Syracuse native is not allowed to reside in the home–and while she admits to “theoretically” living there illegally “this whole time,” she doesn’t want to create “anymore obstacles” by continuing to stay before the closing date.
In addition to the revamped fundraising campaign, Meyers is organizing a community-based car wash fundraiser, hopefully to be held next Friday. She also plans on launching a website, popasquat.org, this weekend with the help of a friend, and is working a festival in Connecticut to also procure monies to go towards the remaining fees.
“[Being a homeowner] would validate everything I’ve done there,” said Meyers. “Helping me own this house is helping hundreds of other kids and people like me have a home because I’ve shared this place for eight years with countless people.”