J20 action and WRAP demands from the Obama team…

“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.” — Barack Obama

On Nov. 4, 2008, an unprecedented number of US citizens cast their ballots for one candidate. This was not like the previous election, which took place in the shadows 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. We learned in short order that change was not just a promise: it could come very quickly indeed: More than $700 billion in taxpayer money 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 bail-outs. Our change is still rattling around in the bottoms of our cups.

Nearly 40 million people now live below the poverty live — 43 percent of them in “deep” poverty — a 26-year-high unemployment rate, 46.3 million people without health insurance, and 49 million people who 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 has actively demolished run-down public housing in the hopes of replacing it with more vibrant communities. But these programs have more 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 the “new Federalism” that relieved the federal government of the fiscal burden of social-service programs by shifting the tab to states and municipalities. There was no way that even the country’s largest cities could afford public housing the way that Washington had been able to. 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 by local police departments.

The use of criminalization rather than housing continues to be one of the primary solutions that local governments use for 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 resting in public spaces. 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 apparently causes to the aesthetics of those who have the ears of local legislators and mayors.

This myth of individual personal issues as a major cause of homelessness is severely misleading. Yet, it has misdirected the miniscule funding that our federal government now allocates to homelessness away from urgently-needed housing construction and allocated it to the creation of a massive service-focused shelter system, mandated service provider “coordination and collaboration,” mixed-use developments that often do not target the truly low-income families and individuals, and myriad federally mandated plans to end homelessness.

To move people into housing quickly, a large quantity of new affordable housing is needed and existing housing need to be maintained. If housing construction from the ’60s and ’70s had continued into the ’80s, we never would have seen the ongoing and massive homelessness of the ’90s and this decade.

Assisting homeless people to address whatever particular personal challenges they may face is an appropriate task for social workers and health care professionals. But our federal and state policy-makers have an obligation to fix the social and structural conditions that have given rise — and continue to give rise — to mass homelessness. Affordable housing is the No. one most important solution to ending homelessness.

Divide and Founder

The obvious necessity of this solution is obscured by the ways that policy-makers 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 and on and on and on. 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 whose West Coast economies depend on for 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 and service providers have recognized for years that the perpetuation of homelessness in America relies on an approach that:

(1) Regards homelessness as separate apolitical crises, and so keeps us stuck in isolated defensive stances, never moving forward;

(2) Engages in standard forms of inside the beltway advocacy, emphasizing narrowly professionalized forms of expertise, completely missing the winning strategy: building mass power;

(3) Helps marginalize civil rights work as a “leftist” distraction, and turns a blind eye to (and tacitly supports) oppression.

Organizing around issues and taking the time and effort to build relationships that cross class, race, and religion — 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

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.

To kick off that movement, the West Coast grassroots members of the Western Regional Advocacy Project are converging in San Francisco on Jan. 20, the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of our vote for change.

Our Demands, On Housing:

— 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 program.

— 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.

On Civil Rights:

— 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.

— Call for the Department of Justice to respond to the Los Angeles community request for investigation of discriminatory police enforcement under the Safer Cities Initiative that targets low-income and vulnerable community residents.

— 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, healthcare, emergency shelter or services.

By the Western Regional Advocacy Project

Sign the petition in support!

To join and get more information, contact the Western Regional Advocacy Project at 415-621-2533 or by e-mail at wrap@wraphome.org. More information is available at http://www.wraphome.org

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