In front of the FederalBuilding we assembled. Banners waving in the wind saying, "Stop the criminalization of homelessness. Being poor is not a crime. Housing Justice For all!
At noon on Tuesday November 14th, in front of the Federal Building a press conference was held as part of the release of the Western Regional Advocacy Project's (WRAP) report called, "Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness, and Policy Failures." In seven cities across the country similar press conferences were held, including ones in Seattle, Washington, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The speakers, who along with WRAP representatives came from a Bay Area wide coalition of poverty justice organizers including The Coalition on Homelessness and POOR Magazine, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency and American Friends Service Committee reiterated the need for systemic change to end homelessness. The report includes many harsh statistics on the cuts in federal funding for affordable housing and its direct connection to homelessness all over the nation
WRAP's report is a call to action. The report is an example of a group of people, who are directly affected by federal and local policies around poverty and homelessness, taking charge to determine and affect those policies.
As Paul Boden, from WRAP, said, "the report is meant to be used as an organizing and training tool." Boden also described how WRAP was formed and what their vision for the report is.
He said, "WRAP was formed by many organizations and individuals coming together out of frustration, and out of a commitment to social justice. We are folks who come from the streets. We are bright and talented, and we don't need people's charity..The government blames us for being homeless and for being poor. If the government doesn't respond to you, the government is wrong. The government should be serving us. And what is happening is the rich are getting richer while homeless folks, and poor folks, we get life skills training. We can train each other. We need to pull the weed out by the roots. Do our own. our own message."
The report documents federal funding for affordable housing over the past twenty five years. Specifically the report looks at the cuts in funding toward the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as well as rural affordable housing administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The government, and the people of this country, who are in positions of power are benefiting from a system of myth-making. WRAP's report highlights some of these myths and the ways these myths are causing more homelessness. One of the myths the report calls out is the myth that poor people and homeless people are the ones to blame for their situations.
The report says, "..public policy debates and media representations rarely address the systemic causes of homelessness; instead they often portray homelessness as a problem with homeless individuals.." It is a systematic problem that is forcing more and more people onto the streets. WRAP's report says, "..we focus primarily on what we consider to be one of the most important-- if not the most important-- factor in explaining why so many families, single adults, and youth are homeless in the United States today: the cutbacks to and eventual near elimination of the federal government's commitment to building, maintaining, and subsidizing affordable housing."
"The report should be re-titled, I accuse the federal government," Terry Messman, editor of Street Spirit began to speak to the crowd, " I indite this nation.. Gilbert Estrada died on the street less than three weeks ago. I indite this country for leaving Gilbert Estrada.. and for leaving children and elders on the street. I accuse the federal government for allowing thousands of people to live homeless. There is massive homelessness. It is a direct act of theft..This government lets people die on the streets. Homelessness and deaths will continue until we get affordable housing. I accuse."
According to an Urban Institute study as many as 3.5 million people, including 1.35 million children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year. However, one of the main points of the report is that federal policy has directed large dollars into counting and categorizing the numbers of homeless. This is money that would be better spent on actual housing, and to add insult to injury, we don't even have real numbers. For example, according to HUD and ICH, there are currently 600,000 homeless persons nationwide, yet the Dept. of Education has identified 600,000 homeless students just in our public schools
The report is an accusation and a testament to the lack of federal money being put into affordable housing. The report is a testament to the denial of the federal government to recognize homelessness as an issue. The report is a testament to resistance, and to exposing the government for the wrongs being committed against poor people and people who are homeless in this country.
As the U.S. government continues to send warplanes to Iraq in the name of democracy and human rights, people in this country are still demanding that democracy and human rights be recognized here. The report shows the breakdown of federal money going towards The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the money being spent on military. One "Future Fleet" Destroyer cost the federal government 3.3 billion dollars, which is more than all the money spent on public housing capital in 2005.
As the report says, "There is no lack of resources to ensure universal housing; what is lacking is the political will to undertake this task." On Tuesday the speakers demanded, as the WRAP report demands, for the human right to housing.
As Wanda Remmers, from Housing Rights Inc., said, "Housing is assumed to be a Human Right. But in our country it is not a legal right.The government is ignoring their responsibility to make sure everyone has a home..People in this country have a right to housing. Government policies are ignoring people's rights to housing. The government is replacing low-income housing with rich people housing. Forced evictions. Internationally this is a crime. Right to housing should be real. We can make that happen."
The report and the voices of those who spoke demand that the government take responsibility for housing and that the government take responsibility for the crisis of homelessness in this country.
Sara Shortt from the Housing Rights Committee gave the perspective from what the federal government is doing. She said, "There is a big, big emergency. In 2006, HUD's funding was cut. In Philadelphia HUD is threatening to lay off three hundred to five hundred people. In Salt Lake City, they are disposing of HUD units all together. Crime issues are on the rise in public housing. When staff is cut, security goes, repair maintenance goes. In San Francisco four million dollars were cut from HUD itself. San Francisco was the tenth hardest hit in the nation. New York City took the top." Her voice cried above the tall shadow of the federal building. She continued on to call out government officials, she said, "Homelessness still exists despite what politicians say. Congress can fix this. This might be a brighter day. Nancy Pelosi is in a greater position. But I have yet to hear her talk of housing. Bernie Sanders is in a good position, stepping up with new legislation with the Housing Trust Fund Bill. We have some good advocates. But we need to make them better."
Nancy Pelosi was supposed to speak at the press conference. But she did not show up.
"Criminals of Poverty
Welfare wanna punish we
Media they lie on we
Struggle with punitive poli-ceeeeees >
Cannot find a home-
But then. we rise up- Speak up -
Own our superbabymama-Ness
Our power , our truths
As welfareQUEENS in
Excerpt from The welfareQUEENS play and media activism project)
Poverty Scholars, Laure McElroy, Joseph Bolden and Tiny, from POOR Magazine began their comments with a chant excerpted from the welfareQUEENS play at POOR Magazine and then one by one they responded to the WRAP findings,
"Due to the massive cuts to housing and housing subsidies that this study has uncovered coupled with extremely harmful welfare deform legislation, and the growing corporatization of US cities - a growing number of American families and individuals are being housed in another kind of shelter; JAIL. Contrary to corporate media-based mythologies it is much cheaper to build housing for poor people than warehouse them in jail," Tiny, welfareQUEEN, co-editor of POOR Magazine and author of the upcoming memoir, Criminal of Poverty; Growing up Homeless in America called out to the looming federal tower we huddled beneath.
Laure, digital resistor, welfareQUEEN and POOR staff writer continued, "Like the WRAP study, poverty scholars at POOR have long been studying the root causes of poverty, homelessness and racism in America- with shocking results; homeless people weren't born that way, we aren't a tribe of people walking the earth, we used to housed, we used to homeful and then we were un-housed and de-stabilized due to several factors, one of the main ones being that our housing, poor people housing, suffered severe cuts," Laure concluded.
"So we came up with a solution," Tiny continued where Laure left off, " The Homefulness Project- a multi-generational, multi-cultural sweat-equity co-housing project for homeless families which includes an on-site school, a café and community space and gives the one thing to homeless families that separates them from Homefulness; equity.but ours is just an example of several REAL answers to housing cuts that poverty scholars and advocates are creating everyday .. so politicians busily making up policies for more harmful cuts and criminalizing legislations, listen to the poverty scholars, listen to the hard data found in this study, listen to us about our solutions."
After the POOR Magazine scholars finished we were all led in a chant by Juan Prada, emcee for the event and director of The Coalition on Homelessness,
"What do we want?
When do we want it? Now!"
The WRAP report which includes national and international voices and data from California to Puerto Rico documents what the speakers on Tuesday exclaimed in their own words. The report will continue to be an accusation and a call for action until the federal government addresses its responsibility to provide affordable housing and to address the root causes of homelessness.
Julie Leadbetter from the Housing Justice Coalition said, "It's not enough. Not enough putting poor folks in SRO's (Single Room Occupancies) and getting rid of services for poor folks. Not enough. Join with other cities to tell the federal government, even what San Francisco can do its not enough. We need more housing available."
Let this be a call to action on the part of politicians at both the federal and local government. The report is coming from people who have lived on the streets. Let this report be a reminder that, in this country, the US of A, people are still struggling for democracy and for basic human rights, like the right to be housed.
The report can be found for free on WRAP's website, www.wraphome.org. The report is meant to create and facilitate dialogue and action. For more journalism on issues of poverty and racism go on-line to www.poormagazine.org