How to Frame the Issue of Homelessness Politically
Homeless advocates tried for years to increase public awareness of the issue of homelessness, to defeat stereotypes and to put the issue on the political agenda. Then Barack Obama won the presidency and many of us saw a ray of hope. So, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2009, dozens of homeless advocates (including representatives from Picture the Homeless in New York City) gathered at the D.C. office of the National Coalition for the Homeless to formalize their demands and eventually deliver them to the Obama administration. That was the last I heard of the effort. It would seem that other domestic issues are of greater importance to the homeless-advocate-in-chief.
Many feel that Obama is a progressive president and that we should use his years in office to advance our agenda instead of voicing our discontent with the machine of government. The point was made by a participant during the recent D.C. Conference of the Network of Spiritual Progressives that presidents of the 50’s and 60’s came into office with the Civil Rights Movement already in full swing and were immediately inundated with the people’s demands. However, in the case of the present administration, Obama took office first and now various progressive entities are scrambling to organize under him so as to make the most of his presidency. But some would rather operate apart from government rather than with it.
On June 22nd, I will travel to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit (where city officials would much rather tear down whole blocks of houses than allow the homeless to live in them) to network with over 10,000 others who are organizing for change — among them my friends from the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, National People’s Action, Take Back the Land, the People’s Tribune and many more. (Not to mention the many homeless people living on the streets we’ll pass as we head toward the exhibition center.) With the present housing crisis, it’s no wonder that so many social justice organizations have made ending homelessness one of their priorities.
Let’s face it. Even as all roads lead to Rome, all societal ills lead to homelessness — lack of a living wage, affordable housing or healthcare as well as unemployment, domestic violence and ill-preparedness for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
Then, that giant octopus of homelessness spreads its ugly tentacles outward so as to touch so many aspects of a person’s life, holding him in its death grip. Of course, being homeless exacerbates various health problems and makes it more difficult to find and keep a job. (Ironically, a homeless person can receive free medical care in D.C., often after having been made homeless by medical bankruptcy.) Someone ends up with bad credit after having his house foreclosed on and then may find that no landlord wants to rent to him. Thus, homelessness is the result of many different problems and the cause of many more.
That brings us back to the matter at hand — how best to frame the issue of homelessness so that it is given sufficient consideration in the halls of Congress, in the human rights and right-to-housing movements and in the United Nations, as well as other pertinent organizations. Social service agencies in many cities use the “Housing First” approach, which basically assumes that housing someone first will better equip that person to deal with the problems that made him homeless and the ones that developed as a result of becoming homeless. There is a lesson in that for our national leaders. It would seem that dealing with the nation’s housing crisis first would cause other aspects of Americans’ lives and the economy to fall into place.
At any rate, we have Obama in office rather than John McCain (who might’ve dropped dead from the excitement, leaving us with Sarah Palin — God forbid). UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Raquel Rolnik has given her recommendations (pdf) to the U.S. government. The human rights and right-to-housing movements are growing in size and power, with many of their members using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its assertion that housing is a human right as the framework for what they do. Let’s see what will come of people’s many efforts. And don’t just be a spectator; be a part of the action.
Photo credit: BoneDaddy.P7