By Paul Boden
It is hard to cut through the never-ending news cycles that bombard us daily to deliver a message. If your organization lacks resources and political clout, it becomes even harder. If the message has anything to do with human rights and homelessness, forget about it.
In a time when many in the United States find themselves on the brink of economic collapse, individuals and families are looking out over a horizon dotted with issues that affect their very way of life, but feel absolutely powerless to do anything about it.
The media in all its forms delivers headlines by the second about natural disasters, the global economy and soldiers who die fighting for a war we barely understand. Meanwhile, in households from Peoria to Portland, the realities of daily life set in—loss of jobs, massive foreclosures and the loss of unemployment benefits. Ultimately, for hundreds of thousands of us, the loss of any safety net whatsoever. Homelessness.
In 1979, the Department of Housing and Urban Development spent $77.3 billion in today’s money developing and maintaining housing to ensure all people could afford a place to live. Yet since 1995, the federal government has done nothing while more than 500,000 of these units have been lost; another 335,000 could disappear this year.
In 2009, roughly 3.4 million families experienced foreclosures—60 percent caused by unemployment. This year, as many as 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the United States—a number that has been increasing since the Wall Street collapse, the government bailout of the banks and the Bush administration’s 10-year plan to end “chronic” homelessness. To put this into perspective, the federal budget’s discretionary military spending is at $663.8 billion.
The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a group of grassroots homeless organizations based in California and Oregon, is releasing an in-depth updated version of Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures.
This popular report was first released in 2006 and has become a staple for politicians, scholars, think tanks, poverty organizations and the general public to track the rise of modern-day homelessness. From the Ronald Reagan era in the 1980s, when the federal government dismantled the social safety net, to the present day, the report outlines the past three decades of policy failures that have led us to this point.
The new report outlines an abridged history of homelessness dating back to the 1929 stock market crash, when more than one million people found themselves with-out homes, and details the United States’ effective response to the crisis through creating both urban and rural housing programs to systemically all but end that era’s homelessness. The updated report is not only a road map into the past but also a fresh look at the present-day realities of homelessness in the United States.
By highlighting both the local and federal responses to homelessness, we see how people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues have been systematically stripped of their human rights. We also see in the report a road map for the future, and how we can effectively fight poverty by systemically changing how the system is structured.
Currently, local and state governments that are strapped, and in many cases on the verge of financial collapse due to the recession, are throwing millions of local dollars at the problem. For three decades, cities and towns across the country have been on the hook for the federal government’s dismantling of our housing safety net. Yet both Democrats and Republicans at the federal level continue to fail to deliver the necessary resources for local communities to stabilize the situation.
Local municipalities have created laws that dehumanize and criminalize the local masses, who simply have no place left to go. County jails have become this country’s largest residential mental health facilities. Policing poor people has replaced treatment, and courts are being staffed with social workers, whereas business-created “improvement” districts spend as much as 74 percent of their budgets on private security and have become proficient in the business of drafting anti-homeless laws. Shelters have become an institutionalized tier of our country’s housing stock, and social workers are expected to fix “broken” people rather than address social inequality and the lack of access to treatment. Homelessness has become institutionalized.
WRAP looks at these different quagmires and offers a grassroots approach to getting involved and possible solutions to what has become the everyday crisis we know as homelessness. We are reigniting a social justice movement and organizing for change. Millions of hard-working people without shelter are depending on it. We deserve the opportunity.
You can download a copy of the report at www.wraphome.org.