Tag Archives: housing

The Entitled Homeless

16 Apr

The number of people experiencing homelessness is growing exponentially as we watch and witness homeless camps popping up in both urban and rural areas across the United States. The entitlement I see with this community is astonishing! I’ve noticed that people experiencing homelessness have the audacity to want to be treated as human beings and want access to food, shelter, clothing, and access to hygiene and the ability to just go to the bathroom. There is an expectation that they be recognized, seen as human beings, perhaps even deign to make eye contact.

Sadly, the culture that is well established here is that we have created a narrative that not only vilifies people who are homeless, but we have managed to vilify poverty and to create insurmountable barriers for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. I also want to acknowledge the disproportionality of targeted communities that intersect with being homeless–the overrepresentation of the LGBTQ community and people of color.

What prompted me to write this article was a string of recent events I witnessed. On my way back from Medford, Oregon where I was doing an equity and inclusion workshop, I stopped at the Burger King to grab a bite to eat before heading back to Portland. While sitting in the restaurant eating my lunch, I saw a young man enter the building and go directly to the bathroom. (I had just used the bathroom and it only accommodates one person at a time, so one has to lock the door) Behind me, there was a man that I would guess was in his mid 50’s, white, heterosexual, cisgender, with a shirt that said “Jesus loves me.” This man threw a fit that the young man got to the bathroom before him. He threw such a tantrum that he started banging on the bathroom door and demanded the young man get out. He then proceeded to demand to see the manager of the restaurant where he went into a rage that was so loud everyone could hear him. He screamed at the manager: “There’s some homeless kid that ran into the bathroom and now he has locked himself in there–he has no business being in there and you need to get him out!”

Of course, this sparked my own rage and the need to intercede. As I watched the manager and now two other employees banging on the bathroom door, I approached the manager and explained that first, the man throwing the tantrum does not know if the young man is homeless or not, and that secondly and more importantly, he has the right to use the bathroom regardless. Homeless people have the right to go to the bathroom! I would love to say that the manager and the two employees heard me and backed away to allow this person to use the bathroom with a modicum of dignity. Most unfortunately, they did not.

Last week, I was doing an equity workshop in downtown Eugene, Oregon. I went to get a coffee at the Starbucks. There are a critical number of homeless people around this particular Starbucks. I needed to use the bathroom and — quite disturbing to me — one has to have a code to use the bathroom. It is very clear that this now common practice of putting coded locks on bathroom facilities is to prevent people who are homeless from having access. I must confess, this whole absurd barrier is more than just mind boggling for me, for it speaks to the ugliness of just how awful humans can be. Even more tragically, these painful examples relate to just one key challenge faced by those experiencing homelessness. Our nation’s apparent intent to dehumanize them fully adds burden after burden.

More disturbing is that because of the recent overhaul of the social structuring of the United States in the grotesque guise called the Tax Cuts, we can certainly expect the homeless population to increase. All of this begs the question of how do we care for our communities? How do we address systems that create such horrific disparities in wealth and the hoarding of wealth? How painfully ironic that Paul Ryan, one of the chief architects of the Tax Cuts/Reform, has announced that he will retire at the age of 48 after stealing safe retirement from millions, compounding the homelessness crisis. Until we can purge the inhumane from the halls of government, how can we hope to treat all people with humanity? How do we assert our individual and collective voices to remind those who work in government are civil servants–just a side note–the ship has sailed on Scott Pruitt, Paul Ryan, and most of the GOP in their understanding the notion what it means to be a civil servant.

Take Action: There are things all of us can do. Find a way to get involved with a shelter that provides services without conditions. Donate money to some of the following organizations: Sisters of the Road, Street Roots, and Central City Concern.

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Celebrating the Fair Housing Act

11 Apr
LBJ expands his powerful legacy

LBJ expands his powerful legacy

On this date 46 years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This important piece of legislation is better known as the Fair Housing Act. Its core purpose is to prohibit discrimination in housing — whether for lease or for sale. The law makes it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone … by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Sadly, even with the landmark civil rights legislation already passed, housing discrimination was rampant in the United States, particularly in urban areas. This blatant discrimination — including redlining, social steering, and other heinous practices — was not restricted to the South. Even though there was 100-year-old legislation (the Civil Rights Act of 1866) that implied the rights of property, the lack of a strong enforcement mechanism allowed many nasty practices to grow over time.

As the civil rights movement grew and the first major laws were passed — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act — activists began focusing on housing. The Chicago Open Housing Movement was a trailblazing effort and federal legislation was drafted based on the successful aspects of that movement. Unfortunately, Congress had lost some momentum and many members felt that civil rights had been sufficiently covered — a view afforded to those with white privilege. The draft law languished.

Then tragedy struck. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out and racial tensions rose again across the nation. Never one to miss an opportunity to take bold action, LBJ decided the time was right to re-energize the Fair Housing Act. He wrote personal letters to Congressional leaders demanding immediate action. As was often the case, he was sufficiently persuasive. One week after King’s death, he signed the Act into law.

LBJ has a complicated legacy, but he was a powerful, convincing leader whose passion for civil rights and equality cannot be questioned. No president before or since has done more to create legal protections for oppressed and targeted people. The Fair Housing Act created strict guidelines and penalties. It also established an enforcement agency, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The NAACP and ACLU have successfully pressed cases that have expanded the protections to include urban renewal planning. People with disabilities and families with children were added to the protection umbrella as subsequent legislation was passed over the years.

While this law was critical and made a real difference, housing discrimination is still a significant problem. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates approximately two million cases of discrimination every single year. Imagine what the problem would be like without a law in place! As with most federal protections, Fair Housing still does not carry protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states and localities have created protections, but without cohesive federal standards this piecemeal approach is not enough.

Call to Action: We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Given the current Supreme Court’s fondness for gutting rights laws and the blatant violations that still exist, we must be vigilant to ensure that the enforcement, protection, and punishment mechanisms that are in place remain strong. We must also work to include all people in this protection, demanding strong federal protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Hero of the Week Award: March 15, Perween Rahman

15 Mar
Hero of the Week

Hero of the Week

This week’s hero is a sad example of how great work often goes unnoticed until it is eclipsed by tragedy. Perween Rahman was a Pakistani architect. She left her potentially lucrative career at a young age to join the Orangi Pilot Project, a group founded in the 1980s to address sanitation, health, and housing issues in Karachi.

The largest city in Pakistan, Karachi has boomed from under 500,000 to over 18 MILLION people in five decades. Much of that insane growth has been the rise of slums and squatter villages. Unscrupulous developers, capitalizing on the rising value of property, would sell small plots to poor families. This land had no structures and no connection to basic infrastructure. As a result, most of the city lives in horrific conditions–thank you, neoliberalism.

The Oragni Pilot was established as a local power program, using microfinance and local organizing to get residents to create innovative solutions to their own problems–good social work. It has been enormously successful in raising the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis. Over time, it has expanded to apply its model to rural health and sanitation and other research and application projects. After several years of work with Orangi, Perween Rahman became its director.

Sadly, this great humanitarian work ran against powerful developer interests and crime cartels that profited from property turnover and sales scams. Rahman and her colleagues frequently received threats but carried on for the greater good. On March 13, at the age of 54, Perween Rahman was shot four times in the chest and neck; she died on the way to the hospital. This woman dedicated her life — literally — to improving conditions for others against great odds. We should all celebrate her work and honor her sacrifice, taking it as an inspiration in our lives.

Happy Birthday, Octavia Hill

3 Dec
Urban living pioneer

Urban living pioneer

On this date in 1838 a British pioneer in housing reform, urban space, and social reform was born. Octavia Hill was the ninth child of a merchant banker and his third wife, an educator. Shortly after her birth, her father went bankrupt and the family began to rely on her maternal grandfather’s support. She ended her education at 12 and at 13 was accepted into a guild program for “distressed gentlewomen” –don’t you just love that phrase and the implications? When the guild expanded its program a year later, Octavia was put in charge of the children in the workroom.

She was so distressed by the poverty from which her charges came that she began to study the problem of urban slums. She also took on part-time work as a copyist for critic and philanthropist John Ruskin, and passionately shared her concerns with him. By her mid-20s she had become an expert on the laws Parliament had passed to reform living conditions for the poor and was convinced that the only way to change things was to create a new model for landlords. Ruskin purchased three cottages and put her in charge of the to implement her ideas.

In exchange for reasonable rent in a well-maintained building, tenants agreed not to overcrowd the home and to ensure that their children were educated and well cared for. Hill provided access to a number of after-school clubs and activities for the children. Her program included a weekly rent collection visit, during which her staff got to know the tenants, ensured that the building was in good condition, and verified that the rent conditions were met. Although she had a narrow view of social good that did not allow for self-determination, her true concern for the conditions of the working poor and regular visits to ensure the success of the next generation were an early form of social work.  While not perfect, I think it is worth noting how we see the early start of social work.

Recognizing the need for open spaces, she also advocated for protection of urban parks and green space. Her work in this area, combined with her pioneering ideas about housing reform, set the stage for great improvements in England that served as models elsewhere. She helped to found the National Trust and the organization that grew into the modern charity Family Action. Hill recognized that her work was a starting place. She famously noted,

When I am gone, I hope my friends will not try to carry out any special system, or to follow blindly in the track which I have trodden. New circumstances require various efforts, and it is the spirit, not the dead form, that should be perpetuated. … [more important will be] the quick eye to see, the true soul to measure, the large hope to grasp the mighty issues of the new and better days to come – greater ideals, greater hope, and patience to realize both.

Very much the voice of a social worker!  Today, I hope all of us that are social workers respect self-determination while looking at the intersections of oppression.

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