West Coast stands together to tackle roots of homelessness

By Israel Bayer
Executive Director, Street Roots

The Western Regional Advocacy Project or WRAP (of which both Street Roots and Sisters Of The Road are founding members) is working to build a movement to expose the root causes of homelessness; challenge unjust housing and economic development policies; and fight the criminalization of poverty.

In 2007, the organization released “Without Housing: Decades of Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures.” More than 125,000 of the reports have been downloaded at http://www.wraphome.org.

The report has become a roadmap for policy makers, organizers, homeless and affordable housing service providers, and for social work departments, explaining how modern day homelessness arrived on our doorsteps in America over the last three decades. (An updated “Without Housing” report and “Without Rights,” a new report four years in the making on the criminalization of people on the streets is due out in 2010.)

For more than 30 years, the broader public has been led to believe that homelessness is a byproduct of individual deficiencies, born out of bad choices that lead to addiction, mental health problems and hopelessness. Disregarding the reality that homelessness is actually a product of a broken system – which includes the lack of affordable housing, access to health care and civil rights.

The founder and Executive Director of Real Change (WRAP member), Tim Harris wrote last year that “mass homelessness grows out of an economic system that accepts the abandonment of the most vulnerable. Anyone who’s paying attention knows that multiple systems are deeply and profoundly broken. Homelessness, however, is often defined as a matter of broken people; not as evidence of a broken system in which some of us are regarded as “less than.” This, finally, leads to an intolerable acceptance of the logic of dehumanization, and this, I believe, is the core issue of our time.”

Because of this, Harris argues that homeless advocacy is in dire need of reinvention. Here are his views:

•           To regard homelessness as a largely depoliticized social services issue — divorced in practice from the realities of growing poverty and inequality — is to fight an unending rear-guard action in an ever-expanding theater of war on the poor.

•           To engage in forms of advocacy that privilege inside politics and value narrowly technocratic forms of expertise over movement building is to miss the point: this is about power. If we’re not building power, we’re not even in the game.

•           To treat opposing the dehumanization and criminalization of the very poor as a leftist distraction from the more important work of “ending homelessness” is to collaborate in the inhuman oppression of the least among us.

•           To narrowly pursue the empowerment of a handful of homeless people at the expense of building power across class is to misunderstand our mutual interest in broad system change. Our movement needs to amplify the realities of the street through the respectful power and clout of our allies.

•           To organize around “issues” without taking the time and effort to build relationships that value our mutual humanity, life experience, and self-interest is to embrace an empty politics that surrenders movement building to short-term expedience.

“If government does not deal with homelessness,” says the highly revered author and urban planner Peter Marcuse, “it appears illegitimate and unjust; if it does try seriously to alleviate homelessness, it breaks the link between work and reward that legitimizes wage labor. Neither horn of the dilemma is a comfortable resting place.”

According to Marcuse, the solutions, therefore, are “aimed more at dealing with ordinary (housed) people’s reactions to homelessness than with homelessness itself.”

In 1978, the federal budget for affordable housing was over $83 billion. In 2009, it is a meager $38.5 billion. In that time period millions of people have experienced homelessness on our streets, while many thousands more have died in the elements. In city after city, and rural community after rural community, affordable housing has disappeared at alarming rates.

In an attempt to correct horrific urban planning throughout the 20th century (ghettos) the federal government recreated urban America (white flight) with urban renewal efforts in an attempt to improve the quality of life. Unfortunately, this planning also dumped millions of poor people on America’s streets (and displaced millions more to the outer rings of cities) without any foresight on what to do with the throwaways.

So, who picks up the pieces? Local city governments and small grassroots non-profits that are already stressed and don’t have adequate resource. Hence the tug of war between local homeless and housing advocates, and city governments, both of whom are working towards the same goal of providing housing for its citizens.

The solution has come in the form of mixed income housing units that often times don’t even capture people most in need (0-30 percent medium income), massive shelter systems and any number of federally mandated plans to end homelessness, including the current 10-year plan to end homelessness.

The lack of adequate resources leads to the overflow of people sleeping in doorways, which in turn leads to the criminalization of people on the streets. Laws that ban sitting or lying on a sidewalk, park camping, homeless feeds, etc. are enacted because of the eyesores created when thousands of people have no place to exist due to the lack of housing. Thus, creating an environment where people on the streets become public enemy number one for local chambers of commerce and city governments — especially in times of crisis, like the modern day depression we find ourselves in today.

It’s easy to blame people on the streets for poor retail sales and lack of employment instead of looking at the root causes of these problems. The short fix is to push poor folk out of business districts by using unjust laws that target people for simply existing, again creating a climate where advocates and people on the streets are pitted against the same institutions claiming to be helping end homelessness.

In an age where large banks and corporate institutions are being bailed out for poor decision making and greed, small non-profits who are doing good work and showing results, are forced to beg, borrow and compete for measly sums to survive — it’s simply pathetic.

On Jan. 20, WRAP is coming together in San Francisco to reignite a homeless and affordable housing movement that’s been lacking on a national level for a long time.

In cities all along the West Coast — Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, etc. strong homeless advocacy exists. The goal is to bring these groups along with allies like you, together to demand affordable housing and civil rights for every human being.

We hope you will join us! For more information or to sign the petition go to http://www.wraphome.org or http://www.streetroots.org.

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