The February 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Top 20 Meanest Cities in U.S.

Hate Crimes in Fort Lauderdale

Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poor People

Housing Authority's Kafka-Style Interrogation

Bay Area Transit: Separate and Unequal

Lawsuit on Behalf of East Bay Bus Riders

MLK Would Tell Congress to Value Workers

Art, Music for Homeless Kids

Mercy: A Story

The Birdman of Berkeley

Resisting Unjust Corporate Power

President Bush Speaks His Mind

Street Spirit Poetry


ARCHIVES

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.

Housing Authority Interrogation Is Right Out of Kafka

by Lynda Carson

Art by Osha Neumann. In such masterpieces as The Trial and In the Penal Colony, Franz Kafka portrayed the nightmarish machinery of a cruel legal system that persecutes innocent people for crimes they knew nothing about.

The venomous sting of the Housing Authority's interrogation spins your head for a loop. "This is Kafkaesque," you think. "I'm forced to prove my innocence, before I am even charged with a crime or wrongdoing!"

Oakland's poor have been targeted by the Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) for a massive investigation that uses unlawful practices in violation of federal law. As this article goes to press, an injunction has been filed in federal court in an effort to stop the OHA from violating federal law in this manner.

Housing officials have been threatening to evict tenants from public housing and the Section 8 program if they fail to participate in the latest interrogation techniques now being administered by the Oakland Housing Authority.

The OHA owns or provides rental assistance for around 14,450 units, many of those filled with low-income families.

Among other things, tenants are being forced to prove their citizenship, even though many have been in these public housing programs for years and were born in this country. This is being done despite HUD's "one time" verification policy, and in spite of OHA's own Administrative Plan under the section known as the "Frequency Of Obtaining Verification."

As this section mandates: "For each family member, citizenship/eligible noncitizen status will only be verified once. This verification will be obtained prior to admission. If the status of any family member was not determined prior to admission, verification of their status will be obtained at the next regular reexamination. Prior to a new member joining the family, their status will be verified.

"For each family member age 6 and above, verification of Social Security Number will be obtained only once. This verification will be accomplished prior to admission. When a family member who did not have a Social Security Number at admission receives a Social Security Number, that number will be verified at the next regular reexamination. Likewise, when a child turns six, their verification will be obtained at the next regular reexamination."

Under federal law, the Housing Authority is only allowed to force tenants to prove their citizenship or verify their Social Security numbers one time while they're in a federally funded housing assistance program -- one time only.

In defiance of federal law, and without self-restraint or probable cause of wrongdoing, the Oakland Housing Authority has been going back and forcing thousands of U.S. citizens to verify their citizenship and Social Security numbers all over again.

Civil rights attorney Bill Simpich is alarmed by what is happening in Oakland. He said, "It's hard to tell just where the push to secretly cut the poorest tenants from the Section 8 program ends and the push to spy on Americans by Homeland Security begins."

In recent months, Oakland public housing tenants have been receiving interrogation packets that imply there must be some kind of criminal activity occurring in the nation's housing programs. Under this new policy, everyone is being forced to prove their innocence or make a declaration of "no wrongdoing," before they are even charged with a crime or malfeasance.
Making matters worse, tenants may be charged with wrongdoing if they fail to fill out the interrogation forms properly, even though they were not trained to do so.

Tenants are being scrutinized like never before, and investigations are taking place all over the nation.

Recently, HUD conducted a six-month investigation in Portland, Maine, with the cooperation of the Portland Housing Authority. The Housing Authority owns around 1,000 units in the city, and also administers about 1,700 rental vouchers to the poor. Using a newly available database to identify possible fraud, investigators matched wage information that clients sent in to the state with information given to the Housing Authority.

These investigations collect way more information than is necessary, and documents reveal they are collecting data that is actually excluded from the verification process needed to verify an individual's income or assets.

Descending like a thief in the night, on the swift wings of a federal mail courier, an interrogation packet silently is slipped into the slot of a door, waiting to be opened by an unsuspecting occupant.

The thick, official-looking packet beckons you to open it, whereupon you will be forced into making a "Personal Declaration" about matters you had no intention of ever declaring. When opened, the packet asks for a photo ID from you, immediately demands that you must prove your citizenship, coerces you into verifying your Social Security number again, and then wants to know if you have been involved in any criminal activity during the past three years.

You can feel the right hand of darkness slipping its way further into your cognizance, seeking more answers, always probing ever deeper into the essence of your being, demanding to know everything. The horror of it all unfolds right before your very eyes. "Answer the questions, or face the threat of homelessness," says the packet impatiently.

As if that is not enough, the packet then asks you for your full legal name, date of birth, and suddenly asks if anyone gives you money or pays your bills. "Yes or no," the packet demands.
Like another slap in the face, the packet then asks, "Have you or any person in your household ever used any names or Social Security numbers other than the one listed on the Personal Declaration?" You feel yourself shudder from the intensity of it all. "Yes or no," the packet wants to know, and you must reply.

The housing officials already know that you've been in Oakland's Section 8 program for the last 15 years, and that your name is still the same as when you joined the program so many years ago; but the venomous sting of the interrogation spins your head for a loop, as you wonder why you are being treated like a criminal. "This is Kafkaesque," you think. "I am being forced to prove my innocence, before I am even charged with a crime or wrongdoing!"

Are they looking for terrorists, you wonder? Illegal people or undocumented immigrants? You suddenly recall a study explaining why so many Americans have been deprived of government assistance because they lack a photo ID or birth certificate, and you wonder if you're next in line to get screwed by the system.

But, you're not sure what really is going on. Wake up, says the packet, as it shakes you from your thoughts: "Are you or any person in the household subject to a lifetime registration requirement under any state's sex offender program?" "Have you or any person in the household been arrested or convicted for the manufacturing of methamphetamines," the packet demands to know in a menacing tone.

As the sweat starts to drip from your brow, the packet suddenly twists your arm sharply behind your back and demands that you must sign the Declaration of 214 Status, in which it states that you certify under penalty of perjury that, to the best of your knowledge, you are lawfully in the United States because you are a citizen by birth, a naturalized citizen or a national of the United States.

By now, you are feeling thoroughly worked over as it starts to sink in that things are just starting to warm up, because there are still another 11 full pages of demands and questions to go before this interrogation has reached a conclusion.

Never before have you felt worked over like this, as you wonder how many more times you will have to sign a statement under the penalty of perjury, to proclaim your citizenship to the nation that has no allegiance to you or your family.

The clock is ticking, and you have been ordered to fill out the interrogation packet before your friendly Housing Representative comes by to pick it up. You can't stop thinking that if you give a wrong answer or fail to prove your citizenship to the satisfaction of the Housing Rep., you just might be tossed out onto the streets as a homeless person.

It sears into your mind that, in signing this "Personal Declaration" being forced upon you, you also are subject to the following clause: " Section 1001 of Title 18 of the United States Code makes it a criminal offense to make willful, false statements or misrepresentations to any department or agency of the United States as to any matter within its jurisdiction."

You suddenly realize that you feel like you are skydiving without a parachute, and everything is moving real fast, as the horror of what is happening to you takes your breath away.
The above questions are only a few that are in the actual interrogation packet sent out to Oakland's tenants. Under threat of losing their housing assistance, the low-income tenants are required to answer the above questions, or else.

Vivian Hain lives with her family in East Oakland, and received one of the interrogation packets in her mail that demanded everyone in her family must prove their citizenship. Hain resides in an eight-unit public housing building, and everyone in the building was forced to prove their citizenship.

The people were outraged, said Hain. "This caught everyone by surprise," she said, "and we had a time limit placed on us to dig up all the documentation the Housing Authority wanted from us -- pronto."

Hain found the process very unsettling. "I couldn't find birth certificates for two of my children, and had to pay $35 dollars each for new certified copies of the originals, which ended up taking food from our table because we are so poor," she said. "It was a real hardship to go through this, and I still have a letter from the Housing Authority that threatens to evict me and my family from public housing if I failed to come up with the birth certificates."

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in California it may take 10 to 12 weeks to obtain a birth certificate from the county where the birth occurred. And if you submit the wrong information while trying to get a birth certificate, it may take as long as six to eight months.

The Oakland Housing Authority barely gave its tenants five to six weeks to come up with all the documentation being requested and to fill out all the paperwork the tenants were not trained to fill out.

About six million adoptees live in the United States, and most of them have been deprived of ever being able to get their hands on their original birth certificates. One study found that more than three million children have been born in the U.S. from undocumented parents, and many of them also may not have birth certificates as a result.

Another study points out that many people have never been issued birth certificates because they were born at home and their birth was never officially recorded. It's even been estimated that around one in five African-Americans (20 percent), born around 1939 through 1940, were not born in hospitals because of racial discrimination that kept their mothers from giving birth inside a hospital.

It's a fact that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizenship at birth to almost everyone born in the United States or in U.S. jurisdictions, according to the principle of jus soli. So why are petty bureaucrats threatening to kick U.S. citizens out of their housing if they fail to prove their citizenship?

That very same question was raised on November 18, 2005, when Wendell Harper of KPFA contacted OHA officials to ask if a crackdown was going on. [To hear the report on KPFA, go to http://www.kpfa.org/archives/index.php?arch=11226].

During the news report, an OHA official stated that the Housing Authority is demanding certified birth certificates from present and prospective tenants in their housing programs. Regardless of what the OHA is demanding, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has no such eligibility requirement.

HUD leaves it up to the discretion of the nation's housing agencies how they may check for proof of citizenship or eligibility. According to Larry Bush, a communications director at HUD, these things can be verified in several ways, and there is no need to force people to come up with certified copies of a birth certificate.

"People are required to show a legal identity," he said. "They are required to show a proof of age and citizenship, which may be shown through a variety of ways such as a voter registration card, or motor vehicle ID card rather than a driver's license if they do not have a driver's license."

Nothing in the Administrative Plan of the OHA says it is required for tenants to provide a photo ID to remain in housing programs; yet tenants are being forced to provide photo IDs upon demand in the interrogation packet sent out to them.

On HUD's web page, among the frequently asked questions, it asks: Does HUD require a PHA to obtain copies of government issued photo IDs, for applicants to establish legal identity/citizenship?

Answer: No. The regulations do not require this type of verification to establish legal identity/citizenship.

During the November 18 KPFA news story, Wendell Harper goes on to ask the Housing Authority official, "What's the policy regarding eligibility requirements? Are people being required to show certified birth certificates?"

"Yes, we don't accept copies of birth certificates. We look at actual birth certificates; there's so much theft of identity and we're supposed to make copies and make them a part of our tenant's files," said Sharon Harrison Coffey, the deputy executive director at the Oakland Housing Authority. "It's required by the federal government, and for both public housing and Section 8, it is a federal registry requirement that's codified in Section 24 CFR 5.508F and 5.502.

"This has been going on for years. Congress required that we do this for all of our new admissions, and that we go back and we verify everyone who is on the program, and, you know, verify Social Security numbers as well."

With a trick of words, Coffey failed to mention the section in the OHA's own Administrative Plan that clearly states that tenants only have to verify their citizenship and Social Security number once, because of the "ONE TIME POLICY" under the section known as the "FREQUENCY OF OBTAINING VERIFICATION."

Not only is there an abuse of discretion going on that forces tenants to provide a certified copy of a birth certificate when unnecessary; but, in addition, the OHA is clearly in violation of its own policies as well as federal law by forcing people to prove their citizenship over and over again to the satisfaction of some sadistic functionary in the Oakland Housing Authority.

This is not about fraud, or undocumented people. It is all about breaking the trust of its tenants by breaching OHA's own administration policies as well as federal law that prohibits such activity. It is all about the lack of self-restraint on the part of the OHA to abide by federal law, and the lack of probable cause showing that the tenant is engaged in any kind of wrongdoing.

It is clearly a hardship for all the tenants in Oakland's public housing and Section 8 program to continually be harassed into proving their citizenship under the threat of losing their housing if they fail to do so -- especially the elderly and chronically ill.

Making matters worse for tenants is the heavy-handed interrogation packet that makes everyone feel like they are being forced to prove their innocence, despite the fact that no one is being charged with a crime or wrongdoing.

Also, in violation of federal law, tenants in Oakland are being forced to sign a release/consent form that fails to meet the minimum standards under 24 CFR 5.230.

In the consent form that fails to meet minimum standards under federal law, the OHA claims the right to release just about any information they want from the tenant's files to other federal, state or local agencies, including collection agencies and the Department of Defense.

With so much theft of information going on in the collection agencies, this is not the type of information that Oakland tenants want to see being extracted from them, only to be handed over to someone that sells it later for a profit. And with all the illegal spying going on in this country by the federal government, one can only wonder why the OHA wants the power to hand over all of the tenant's secrets to the Department of Defense.

On December 15, 2005, a lawsuit was filed against the Oakland Housing Authority. The plaintiff, a citizen of the United States, filed the suit against OHA charging it with "abuse of discretion" and with violations of the "constitutional right to privacy," the Privacy Act of 1974, and the Right to Financial Privacy Act.

The suit also seeks injunctive and declaratory relief to halt the demands for photo IDs and birth certificates, and to sign the releases as presently drafted.

Bill Simpich, a civil rights attorney, may be reached at (510) 444-0226 or by e-mail at billsimpich@yahoo.com. Lynda Carson may be reached at (510) 763-1085 or e-mail at tenantsrule@yahoo.com


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