The December 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Poor Will Perish Without Housing

We Accuse the US Government

The Works of Mercy: Thoughts on the Death of a Homeless Man

Greed Fuels Oakland Condo Conversion Law

Berkeley Food and Housing Project

Happy Holidays: Berkeley Targets the Homeless

Claire Burch Documents Life on the Streets

St. Joseph the Worker Needs Support

94 Years Old and Still Homeless

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

Stranded in the Season of Giving

Stories of Street Survival

A Criminal of Poverty

New Media Offensive for Iraq War

Poor Leonard's Almanack on Religion

AIDS & Poverty: A Deadly Link

Mysteries in Our Own Back Yard

December Poetry of the Streets


November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

We Accuse the U.S. Government of Causing a Homeless Epidemic

A national study is released proving the link between federal housing cuts and the huge rise in homelessness

by Joanna Letz

Without Housing is a new report issued by the Western Regional Advocacy Project. The cover painting by Art Hazelwood vividly shows the steep rise in homelessness.

In front of the Federal Building in San Francisco, we assembled. Banners waving in the wind declared: "Stop the criminalization of homelessness. Being poor is not a crime. Housing justice for all!"

On November 14, in front of the Federal Building, the Western Regional Advocacy Project's report, "Without Housing," was publicly released. The report was released in seven cities across the country, including Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The speakers, who came from a Bay Area-wide coalition of poverty justice organizers including The Coalition on Homelessness, POOR Magazine, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency and the 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 the rise in homelessness all over the nation

WRAP's new report is a call to action by a group of people who are directly affected by federal and local policies on poverty and homelessness, and who are taking charge to affect those policies. As Paul Boden, executive director of WRAP, said, "The report is meant to be used as an organizing and training tool."

Boden described how WRAP was formed and its vision for the report. "WRAP was formed by many organizations and individuals coming together out of frustration, and out of a commitment to social justice," he said. "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 message."

The report documents federal funding for affordable housing over the past 25 years; and it looks at the cuts in funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as rural affordable housing administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The government and people in positions of power benefit from a system of myth-making. WRAP's report highlights some of these myths and the ways they are causing more homelessness. One of the myths the report calls out is the fiction that poor and homeless people are the ones to blame for their situations.

The report states, "Public policy debates and media representations rarely address the systemic causes of homelessness; instead they often portray homelessness as a problem with homeless individuals."

The housing shortage is a systematic problem that is forcing more and more people onto the streets. WRAP's report focuses "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 retitled, 'I accuse the federal government,'" Terry Messman, editor of Street Spirit, declared to the crowd. "I indict this nation. Gilbert Estrada died on the streets of Berkeley less than three weeks ago. I indict this country for leaving Gilbert Estrada to die without housing, and for leaving children and elders on the street. I accuse the federal government of allowing thousands of people to remain homeless in the Bay Area.

"There is massive homelessness, and billions of dollars in housing cutbacks 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 WRAP report is that federal policy has directed large numbers of dollars into counting and categorizing the numbers of homeless people. 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 Department of Education has identified 600,000 homeless students just in our public schools

The WRAP report exposes the lack of federal money being put into affordable housing. The report is an accusation and testament of the failure of the federal government to recognize homelessness, and its denial of the issue. The report is a testament to resistance, as it exposes the government for the wrongs being committed against poor and homeless people.

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 WRAP report shows the drastic reduction of federal money going towards housing, and compares that to the billions spent on the military. One "Future Fleet" Destroyer cost the federal government $3.3 billion, which is more than all 2005 capital expenses for public housing.

As the report states, "There is no lack of resources to ensure universal housing; what is lacking is the political will to undertake this task." On November 14, the speakers demanded that the human right to housing be recognized.

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's housing and forced evictions. Internationally, this is a crime. The right to housing should be real. We can make that happen."

Sara Short from the Housing Rights Committee gave the perspective of how federal housing cutbacks are impacting cities across the nation. She said, "There is a big, big emergency. In 2006, HUD's funding was cut. In Philadelphia, HUD is threatening to lay off 300 to 500 people. In Salt Lake City, they are disposing of HUD units altogether. 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."

Her voice cried above the tall shadow of the Federal Building. She continued to call out government officials, saying, "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."

Rep. Pelosi was supposed to speak at the press conference, but did not show up.

Laure McElroy, Joseph Bolden and Lisa Gray-Garcia (Tiny), poverty scholars from Poor Magazine, began their comments with a chant excerpted from the welfareQUEENS play:
"Criminals of Poverty
Welfare wanna punish we
Media they lie on we
Struggle with punitive poli-ceeeeees."

Then, one by one they responded to the WRAP findings. Tiny, 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. She said, "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 U.S. 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."

Laure, digital resister, 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 lost tribe of people walking the earth. We used to be housed, we used to be homeful and then we were unhoused and destabilized due to several factors -- one of the main ones being that our housing, poor people's housing, suffered severe cuts."

"So we came up with a solution," Tiny continued where Laure left off. "The Homefulness Project -- a multigenerational, multicultural, sweat-equity co-housing project for homeless families which includes an on-site school, a cafe and community space. And it 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 every day. So, politicians busily making up policies for more harmful cuts and criminalizing legislation, listen to the poverty scholars, listen to the hard data found in this study, listen to us about our solutions."

Next, we were all led in a chant by Juan Prada, emcee for the event and director of the Coalition on Homelessness. He chanted: "What do we want? Housing Justice! When do we want it? Now!"

The WRAP 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 SROs (Single Room Occupancy hotels) and getting rid of services for poor folks. Not enough. Join with other cities to tell the federal government that even what San Francisco can do is not enough. We need more housing available."

Let this be a call to action on the part of politicians in both federal and local governments. The report comes from people who have lived on the streets. Let this report be a reminder that, in the United States of America, people are still struggling for democracy and for basic human rights, including the right to be housed.

Joanna Letz is a Poverty and Media Justice intern at POOR.

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