Hard Times

Hard Times

Why we need a Homeless Bill of Rights

05/02/2013

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Most would agree that the federal government has abandoned any pretense of its responsibility to “ensure safe, decent and affordable” housing for the poorest people in our country as it committed to do in 1937’s Housing Act, from which the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was later formed. After years of funding cuts, neglect and demolitions, the 1998 Congress went so far as to say “the federal government cannot be held accountable to ensure housing for even a majority of its citizens” in that year’s Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act. While they may have ignored their legislative mandate from 1937, they have with great conviction adhered to the 1998 (lack of) responsibility.    

Year after year we hear of yet another series of funding cuts, of Section 8 units being converted to market rate, of additional public housing units being demolished with no intention of ever replacing them, and of even more tightening of eligibility criteria so as to exclude people from even being able to apply for housing assistance.

Couple this with the loss of factory jobs through corporate tax credits for relocation overseas, ever-shrinking time limits on welfare assistance, foreclosures, the rising cost of health care and the increasing disparity between rich and poor, and it’s absolutely no wonder that homelessness has stayed with us for the past 30 years. In fact, it would be a miracle if it hadn’t.

Since 1983, local governments have been expected to manage this crisis with nothing more from the feds than a miniscule amount of funding for emergency shelters, social workers and a very small number of transitional housing units. In true Washington, DC, fashion, local communities are being faced with more and more reporting requirements, more and more information systems programs to comply with and, of course, the ever-evolving plans they are required to write with the concurrent (and completely useless) oversight commissions they are required to create.

The federal government has effectively transferred responsibility for nationwide, multifaceted, broad-based systemic poverty and homelessness directly onto the backs of local governments and local communities. And for the past 15 years, those local communities have been fighting back with a vengeance. Rather than fight the feds, however, they are putting their energies into attacking poor and homeless people. Unfortunately, like the kids who get bullied at school and then bully the kids smaller than them, the fighting that is happening isn’t coming close to addressing what has everyone so freaked out in the first place — poor and homeless people being forced to live on the street.

The feds deprive the state and local governments, the state deprives the county and city governments, and in a sure sign of exasperation after years of abuse and neglect, all of them turn around and attack the poor and homeless people who are trying to live out their lives in spite of having no roofs over their heads.

We have been here before as a country (see Depression). It is a darker side of ourselves we prefer to keep hidden in the crevices where our fears reside. We wish it weren’t true or are ashamed of what we are doing, so we pretend it’s not really happening. Being anti-Okie would never happen today, or “Sundown Towns are a relic of our past,” we tell ourselves, and maybe even think it might be true. But, deep down, we know it’s not.  

With sleeping, sitting and standing again being criminal offenses, California has officially revived an ugly part of its history. We are again using our “criminal justice” systems, coupled with the power of our governmental institutions and media networks, to demonize, dehumanize and ultimately criminalize the people who represent to us a reality we don’t want to see or face.

If the US government doesn’t care about “these” people, then why the hell should Menifee or Santa Cruz or Los Angeles? If we can’t get (or even expect to receive) the funding restored that would have allowed us to not have the deepening crisis of homelessness that has been evolving since 1983, well then, we give up! Quick, call the cops, strictly enforce sitting on the sidewalk laws, loitering laws, being in the parks laws, sleeping in a vehicle laws, anti-food distribution laws and, of course, the tried and true panhandling laws. If we make it so they can’t sit, sleep, stand still or ask for alms, then maybe, we try to convince ourselves, they will leave. And if they don’t leave, well, we always have that brand new jail we were able to get federal funding to help us build.

It is well past time for us to unite our local governments and our local communities. Fighting with each other over whether life-sustaining acts such as sleeping, resting or eating are or are not crimes is never ever going to generate the focus and attention on what matters. We need to speak to our federal government with one voice. We need to say that when millions of people are sleeping in our streets and shelters every year and when more than 1 million children who go to our public schools every day don’t have a home to go to that night, it is a national crisis that demands a federal response. When we are so clearly able to document the cause and effect of federal housing assistance cuts in the early 1980s with the advent of mass contemporary homelessness across the country, it is a national crisis that demands a federal response.

California’s Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (Assembly Bill 5) authored by Assembly member Tom Ammiano of San Francisco is an attempt to get the state of California to differentiate between criminal acts that a person might commit (regardless of their housing status) and life-sustaining acts we all perform but become criminal offenses when those without housing commit them. Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut and Missouri are joining California in calling for a Homeless Bill of Rights. This signifies a growing dissatisfaction with the current tools and strategies available to localities to address our growing economic disparities that result in human rights abuses.
AB 5 is a bill that says to local governments that regardless of whether you are frustrated and angry the federal government has abandoned your needs, it is not OK for you to take that anger out on people who are less powerful than you. The bullied child need not become the teenage bully.  

If we truly embrace its principles, AB 5 is a bill that can unite us all and get us working together for a government that affirms that a healthy, housed and educated people is a righteous responsibility for governments to undertake.

Paul Boden is the organizing director at the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), which was created to expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities. This story first appeared at alternet.org.

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