Jay's World of Abstracts

Jay's World of Abstracts 00026

Housing Is a Human Right

by Ken Smith, Director of the Delaware Housing Coalition

[Standard disclaimer: The nature of abstracts are that they are pieces of something larger. Not everyone is going to be happy with my choice of abstracts from any larger work, so if you are dissatisfied, I would refer you to the original document, which should be able to be found on the Internet. I encourage others to make their own abstracts to satisfy their needs. I would be happy to publish them here.

Jay's Introduction

I often abstract ideas that I don't agree with, such as most of what Ken Smith advocates for in this article. I do think there is great value in knowing the issues around poverty if you hope to really help the poor, which ends up being one of our main target groups. Many problems that affect the quality of life for our citizens come from the financial cost of just living in America and how well we can either meet those costs or live without some things. Mr. Smith is pretty much presenting the stock "liberal" view of the housing problem and proposed solutions.

I produced this abstract using time paid for by the Quay County Maternal Child and Community Health Council with funds from the New Mexico Department of Health.


Two recent reports by the National Coalition for the Homeless point to this deterioration of the national discussion and treatment of the homeless.

The Homeless Among Us

The first, Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States focuses on the possible responses to the problem of criminalizing homeless people for performing ordinary acts in public because they have no homes in which to carry them out. The report (available in full at www.nationalhomeless.org ) is published by the Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. It reflects the growing concern and activity of both organizations about the civil rights of the homeless. One of the major recommendations is the inclusion of socio-economic status as a protected class under the Fair Housing Act.

Its Executive Summary reads: "Across the nation, there are few homeless men, women and children, who don't have to fear being criminalized for their poverty. Cities are exacerbating homelessness under the pretense of "revitalizing their neighborhoods." Local governments are creating a national trend of scapegoating homeless and poor people instead of providing permanent exits from homelessness and poverty, such as affordable housing, health services and a living wage. Worse still, the increasingly-profitable private prison industry uses homeless people as grist for the labor mill that replaces the predatory labor pools."

The United States has been a signatory to such historic documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Concluding Document of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which recognize, in the words of the latter, that "promotion of economic, social, cultural rights as well as of civil and political rights is of paramount importance for human dignity and for the attainment of the legitimate aspirations of every individual."

Seen from this vantage point, the imperative to address the civil rights of the poor and homeless is simply a demand to live up to our own values. A permanent class of excluded families and individuals has become an accepted reality of American life. Until socio-economic equality is addressed, the need to ensure the civil rights of those excluded from the ability to perform ordinary daily activities of living is not just a token requirement. We have moved from intolerance of homelessness to intolerance of the presence of the homeless.

The Discussion of Homelessness

The other is Poverty Versus Pathology: What's "Chronic" About Homelessness. It raised questions about the current terminological vogue for discussion of "chronic" homelessness. It is a term which usually conjures up images of mental illness, addiction, and the repeated episodes of homelessness. NCH also objects to the term because it has been inserted as a categorical preference into the Continuum of Care funding process, which is supposed to be driven by local needs and priorities. The most important objection to the use of the term "chronic homelessness" is that it leads us away from a clearer examination of the nature and causes of homelessness. The term "chronic homeless" treats homelessness with the same language, and in the same fashion, as a medical condition or disease, rather than an experience caused fundamentally by poverty and lack of affordable housing. This move to pathologize homelessness via a new, stigmatizing terminology ignores the history and causes, which are fundamentally economic and not medical in nature. It also disregards current social and economic trends, and is especially misguided at a time when the affordable housing gap is at a record high, the economic recession is forcing many people out of work, and many families are struggling to meet welfare requirements in the face of impending time limits.

Some Ways Forward
Defend Human Rights: There either exists a right to housing and a minimum income or there does not. And if not, it follows that the right to be poor and homeless and still not be mistreated does exist.
Organize: Find ways to work with and among the homeless. Identify and address the causes and the concerns of those most directly affected.
Welcome Their Presence: We are fortunate to be stopped by one asking for change or see one seeking shelter in the bus stop enclosure next to us. If not, we would be living in a way that is out of touch with reality as whole.
Resist Efforts to Filter: language can create mis-impressions. The National Coalition of the Homeless objects to the use of the term "chronic homeless" - implies we don't need to care as much. The term "continuum of care " implies that everything is under control. Institutions and programs can mediate our relationship to the poor and the homeless, filtering out its reality.

Avoid False Charity: Homelessness is the result of an unjust social order. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire made the distinction between false charity (which distinguishes between the helper and the helped and can increase and perpetuate the divide between them) and true generosity. "True generosity," which Freire juxtaposed with false charity, "consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the 'rejects of life,' to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands - whether of individuals or of entire peoples - need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands with work ... [to] transform the world."

Build the Permanent Housing Continuum: The Low Income Housing Tax Credit program creates too few units (still not affordable to the most vulnerable). Assisted housing contracts are expiring. Public housing authorities are looking for ways to divest themselves of older properties. In Delaware there appears to be less room for the poor except in temporary, rent-burdened, substandard, and precarious housing situations.

Promote a Living Wage: If we have indeed entered a new world where everyone works, then the issue of a wage that sustains a person in the cheapest housing available is an unavoidable discussion. Today, an efficiency apartment living wage in Delaware should be slightly over $9.00 an hour. JWA Home