Without Housing, Without Rights
Near Canal Street and South Peters, New Orleans. This building is home
to fi ve men.
PHOTO /new OrleanS marJOrie maTTHewS www.ilOVeeVelyn.OrG
By Paul Boden
In 1933, when over a million Americans were homeless, President RooseveltÌs New Deal made their economic and social well-being a federal responsibility. In 2008, an estimated 3.5 million Americans will live without housing; homeless children in school number more than 900,000 according to the Department of Education. Ironically, in this election year Ò which marks the 75th anniversary of the New Deal Ò neither major party nor presidential candidate has acknowledged a federal responsibility. It is time that they do so.›
The federal government created the contemporary crisis of mass homelessness by cutting and refusing to restore billions and billions of dollars in funding for affordable housing programs. Since 1982, every federal plan to address homelessness has failed because every plan has been based on the assumption that something was wrong with the people who were finding themselves without housing. Every plan has focused on individuals; FEMA emergency shelter plans, HUD Continuum of Care plans and 10-Year Plans to End Homelessness as spearheaded by the Bush administrationÌs Interagency Council on Homelessness all identify homeless people as Ïthe problemÓ that needs fixing.
The reemergence of massive homelessness is unrelated to any lack of outreach or case management. The simple fact is that homelessness reappeared because funding for federal affordable housing programs has been cut by $54 billion a year (in 2004 constant dollars) since 1978. The number of people without housing has increased steadily since then.
As local governments have become more and more hard-pressed to shelter Ò much less house Ò this ever-increasing homeless population, many have turned to draconian measures to solve their Ïhomeless problems.Ó The most common public space and activity restrictions are those aimed at camping, sitting, lying or trespassing on either public or private land, panhandling, sleeping, blocking the sidewalk, jaywalking and possessing "stolen property" (shopping carts and milk crates) Ò›to name just a few. Just like anti-Okie and Jim Crow laws of the past, local government programs designed to remove ÏundesirableÓ people from their communities violate civil and human rights.
This nationwide practice has escaped Civil Rights protections because on their face, these programs are not clearly discriminatory. Local laws are often drafted in such a way as to appear to apply equally to all people in a community. In fact, however, enforcement is very much impacted by skin color, disability or appearance.
2008 marks the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. FDR used the power of his office to marshal the resources of the federal government to address the housing, health care, educational and economic security needs of poor and homeless people. He lobbied for Ïdecent homes for which there is a distressing need among [those] of our population [who are] ill-housed.Ó Our current presidential candidates must be urged to do no less.
Paul Boden is the Executive Director of Western Regional Advocacy Project. www.wraphome.org
This article originated in the People's Tribune
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