The Choices We Make
The headlines screamed of “a national disgrace.” It was a report on the growing encampments of persons experiencing homelessness in one of several cities in California. The stress in the article was not so much on the aggregate of human suffering represented by the hundreds of persons in such a desperate situation. It was on the outrage of local communities “fighting back” against being “overrun” by human waste, needles, and other trash. Subsequent reports on the clean-up of the encampment highlighted the hundreds of pounds of trash and feces collected.
“Homeless.” “Trash.” “Needles.” “Waste.” A powerful use of words that can evoke fear and disgust. We’ve seen this in the past: Waves of negative media that contribute to public demonizing of “the homeless” as practically sub-human and certainly a public nuisance.
Do these articles – and similar articles reporting on other cities – portend a new wave of hardening attitudes towards our sisters and brothers struggling with homelessness, addiction, and mental illness? It would only fit into a dangerous pattern in this country of “othering” – demeaning those “not like us,” such as immigrants, Muslims, or other groups who, it is insinuated, threaten our public order.
Here in Philadelphia, Project HOME is working with many groups in the city to address our own issues of encampments of persons, largely in the Kensington neighborhood, who are caught up in the horrific opioid crisis. City officials and nonprofit groups acknowledge that this is a health and safety crisis not only to the people living there but also to the surrounding neighborhoods. There are serious community concerns, and solutions are urgently needed, core to which are treatment options and housing – solutions which will ultimately help everyone.
The large encampments of persons with no place to live, wherever they occur, are in fact a national disgrace. But a central issue is the affordable housing crisis in the United States. As we reported in our last newsletter, the stock of affordable housing nationwide has plummeted, leaving low- and modest-income Americans with fewer options for a safe place to live. It is not only those who are homeless: Increasingly, the people who park our cars, who pour our coffee, who work in our hospitals and schools cannot afford a safe place to call home.
In this mix of out-of-reach housing costs and hardening attitudes, we must all come together to create the solutions. The federal government is a critical partner in this effort.
We were grateful when, in March, Congress passed an omnibus spending package for the remainder of fiscal year 2018 that actually increased funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But the proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2019 includes cuts of almost $9 billion in funds for – over 18 percent of the current HUD budget – and well over $3 trillion over ten years from basic needs programs. Such cuts would worsen the affordable housing crisis, with a devastating impact on poor and low-income Americans, as well as on cities and towns across the country. This comes at a time when recent federal tax reform will create a windfall for huge corporations and the wealthiest Americans.
On Monday, April 9, a Congressional delegation including Representatives Bob Brady, Brendan Boyle, and Dwight Evans, along with local elected officials, came to Project HOME’s Ruth Williams House to highlight the urgent need for federal funding to support including affordable housing and other critical safety net programs that would face severe cuts in the proposed budget. Thanks in large part to federal investment, 88 persons have a safe, affordable, permanent home at Ruth Williams House – not far from some of the worst encampments in Kensington where hundreds of persons struggle with addiction and homelessness.
It’s a stark portrait of the choice we face as a nation. We must continue to urge our elected officials to do their share to solve the national disgrace of poverty and homelessness – just as we continue our efforts at the grass roots. We do not want to see more large encampments on our city streets while other Americans reap millions of dollars in tax cuts. It’s up to us what kind of nation we want to be.
The proposed FY2019 federal budget contains drastic cuts that could worsen the affordable housing crisis – and could severely impact our work at Project HOME. Please reach out to your elected officials and tell them we need affordable housing for all Americans.