Community & Editorial
Where’s our change?
West Coast activists are gathering in SF Jan. 20 to ask one question:
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
—President Barack Obama
On November 4, 2008, an unprecedented number of United States citizens cast their ballots for one candidate. This was not like the previous election, which took place in the yellow belly of the “War on Terror”: our people did not vote for temerity; they did not vote for a continuation of the policies of an incumbent who that same year had received the lowest approval rating ever recorded. They voted for change.
Our new president took office on Jan. 20 of the following year. We learned in short order that change was not just a promise: It could come very quickly indeed: Over $700 billion in taxpayer dollars went to bail out corporations because a financial crisis was imminent and the response was immediate.
But what about the tens of millions of us in human crisis? $1.5 billion in Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing funds. A fifth of a percent of what went to bank bailouts. Our change is still rattling around in the bottoms of our cups.
About 39.8 million people now live below the poverty line—43 percent of them in “deep” poverty. There’s a 26-year high unemployment rate, 46.3 million people are living without health insurance, and 49 million people face food insecurity. Homelessness is up 12 percent in cities across the country.
At the same time, economic and social injustice are pushing people into homelessness through the loss of living wage jobs, health care crises, foreclosures, release from prisons without support to become self-sufficient, and the return of soldiers with serious physical and mental health problems from two wars.
More and more of us are being squeezed from both ends. If ever this country has seen a time in need of change, it’s now.
How Did We Get Here?
Beginning in 1978, the Federal government so radically reduced its support for affordable housing that within five years emergency shelters were opening in cities nationwide. These cutbacks were and continue to be the primary cause of homelessness. Cuts to funding led to cuts in services—not only was the government failing to construct new units, but very quickly, existing housing became uninhabitable due to maintenance failures.
From the 1990s on, the federal policy actively demolished run-down public housing in the hopes of replacing it with more vibrant communities. But these programs have most frequently rebuilt fewer units than were destroyed, and usually subsidized costs by creating “mixed income” developments—that is, they replace the majority of low-income apartments or rooms with less affordable equivalents, raising the income bar necessary to access this housing, and pushing the poorest of us out.
Local governments quickly found that they didn’t have the funds to sustain formerly federal services. There was no way that even the country’s largest cities could afford public housing the way that Washington D.C. had been doing. Stuck without real solutions for the burgeoning homelessness that was quickly becoming one of the country’s biggest social problems, local politicians across the states took the time-honored tack of blaming the victim. Throughout the ‘80s, new anti-homeless legislation was passed and old anti-vagrancy laws were resuscitated.
The use of criminalization rather than housing continues to be the primary solution to the housing crisis today. From Seattle to San Diego, local governments have enacted laws against sleeping outside and panhandling. In the Bay Area, over a score of private organizations have sprung up to privatize public space and to keep homeless people out (“Business Improvement Districts” or “Community Benefits Districts”), while San Francisco has created a new court which segregates homeless defendants from the mainstream court process and denies them full access to defense representation. In Berkeley, new laws attempt to push homeless people out of public space. In Portland, months of organizing were required to see the end of an unconstitutional law that prohibited homeless people from even existing in public space. The Los Angeles Police Department has spent literally millions of dollars to crack down on jaywalking and sleeping in the low-income Skid Row neighborhood—far more than is spent on shelter or other services for the same population. The situation became so brutal that Los Angeles community organizations requested a Department of Justice investigation of policing tactics.
These draconian anti-poor measures are all rooted in the twisted belief that the victims of the housing crisis are somehow responsible for the offense their existence causes.
Divide and Flounder
The obvious necessity of this solution is obscured by the ways that policymakers continue to divide and subdivide homeless people: We now have programs for “chronically homeless” people, for homeless families, for homeless school children, for homeless youth, for homeless domestic violence survivors, for homeless veterans.
This intellectual culture of division has led to some truly horrifying segregationist policies. As mentioned above, San Francisco is sending homeless defendants to a separate court. Many school districts are pushing homeless students into separate schools from their housed peers. And those of us who work in West Coast economies dependent on our labor, but whom governmental funders consider not “American” enough for assistance, are frequently denied access to social services because of their immigration status. Each time we break people apart by irrelevant personal characteristics, it clouds our ability to recognize the common denominator shared by all: the inability to afford housing.
Social justice community organizers have recognized for years that the perpetuation of homelessness in America, the acceptance of 10-year plans in “chronic homeless” initiatives, relies on an approach by professional charity organizations that
(1) regard homelessness as separate apolitical crises, and so keep us stuck in isolated defensive stances, never moving forward;
(2) engage in standard forms of “inside the beltway” advocacy, emphasizing narrowly professionalized forms of expertise, completely missing the winning strategy: building mass power;
(3) help marginalize civil rights work as a “leftist” distraction, and turn a blind eye to (and tacitly supports) oppression.
Organizing around issues and taking the time and effort to build relationships that cross class, race, religion, and all our other petty differences—relationships that value our mutual humanity, life experience, and self-interest: This is the true definition of what it means to build a movement. And a movement is what we need if we want to see real change that stands a chance of ending homelessness.
A Change Is Going to Come
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
The West Coast grassroots members of the Western Regional Advocacy Project are converging in San Francisco on January 20, 2010: the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of our vote for change.
* Immediately restore all Federal affordable housing program funding to comparable 1978 allocation levels—with an emphasis on HUD’s Public Housing and Project-based Section 8, USDA new unit construction, and the National Housing Trust Fund.
* Enact a moratorium on the demolition, conversion, or destruction of any publicly funded units until Federal law guarantees one-for-one replacement at existing affordability rates.
* Ensure adequate funding for operations of public housing to prevent unit loss, high vacancy rates, and substandard living conditions.
* Stop police and business improvement zone programs that enforce “nuisance” or “quality of life” crimes. These programs criminalize and remove homeless people, poor people, people of color, and disabled members of our communities.
* Ensure that the more than one million homeless children in our public schools are able to stay at their “home schools,”—the schools they attended prior to homelessness, are fully integrated with their housed peers, and are provided the support they need to learn and thrive.
* Stop any and all questions regarding a person’s immigration status when they are requesting housing, health care, emergency shelter or services.
The only way to effect real system change is to maintain unity and focus on both specific immediate and broader long-term goals. We as a people need more affordable housing. We need health care for all. We need quality education and living wage jobs. We need our government to protect our civil rights. This is the movement we are trying to build.
On Monday, September 21st, appointment participants approved alfresco of Senator Barbara Boxer
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