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What America's Most Vulnerable Need: A Bill of Rights for the Homeless

Paul Boden, a homeless rights advocate for 30 years, is helping groups around the country draft legislation to help the homeless.

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I’ll never forget HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) doing a two-year, $4 million study that found that families that had Section 8 vouchers where they could afford a place to live--98 percent were in that housing two years later. Duh! This is not rocket science.

We’re 27 years, 30 years, into our homeless programs -- that’s disgusting. That is absolutely disgusting ... because we know the cause and effects.

Nieves: Why do you believe there is still so much homelessness?

Boden: The massive $54 billion a year -- a year! -- in cuts in affordable housing programs; the 30,000 to 100,000 units a year of rural housing that are no longer being developed; the mortgaging off of our public housing stock; the demolition of our public housing stock; the 900,000 units of Section 8 housing that have disappeared. These are cause and effect. When you take funding away, when you take units off the market from people that are incredibly poor, you are going to create homelessness. It is as true as any recipe you could ever get from any cookbook. That’s the recipe for homelessness. That is cause and effect. This started in 1979 and the cuts really came in 1982, and the spring of 1983 is when we started building homeless shelters in this country. Cause and effect. It’s clear.

Nieves: Why isn’t the focus on building or creating affordable housing?

Boden: You’ll hear: "Oh we can’t afford it, we can’t afford an entitlement." But we’re allowing $120 billion a year in homeowner mortgage deductions. So we can afford it. We can make it equitable, we can make sure that we add housing as a right, and we choose not to do that.  

Nieves: You co-created the Western Regional Advocacy Project -- WRAP -- seven years ago after leading the San Francisco Coalition for the Homeless for nearly 20 years. Why?

Boden:WRAP was an attempt by a bunch of local organizations on the West Coast--we were going to be one of several regional offices of a national endeavor to combat homelessness. The national endeavor didn’t play out, but the West Coast groups said to hell with it, we want to create a voice that speaks to our issues ... and that speaks to what we see is the simplicity and the directness of what the alternatives are. 

If we can make it so that local governments lose the option of merely finding punitive and criminal programs in order to get rid of homeless people, we can begin working with them on solutions. But so long as we allow local governments to use the police to use outreach teams connected to punitive programs, to use business improvement districts that have “ambassadors” to remove homeless people, nothing will get done. Right now, how we’re approaching it in this country is to say if we can make it disappear, we’ve solved the problem. And we say this is inhumane, unconscionable.

This Homeless Bill of Rights will not eliminate homelessness, it will eliminate one arm--the policing, punitive aspect of dealing with the problem.

Rhode Island’s version of the Homeless Bill of Rights does not stop the criminalization. It has important pieces. But they did not go into the depth of eliminating the punitive laws in order to shepherd that bill through. We have the first version which is almost identical to ours, and as it got amended as it got watered down. 

We’re now talking with 20 groups throughout Massachusetts to talk about doing a bill there. Oregon is already working with us. By the end, we’ll have something all the states can use. The bills will be different. Hopefully our messaging and our outreach will get tighter and tighter as we go from state to state.

Nieves: Do you find a lack of urgency about homelessness when you travel the country?

Boden: The assessment of homelessness on a broad scale is that it’s worse than it has ever been and the sense of urgency that this is a crisis is gone. It’s become a welfare problem. I don’t think that the sense or urgency is gone from the organizing side. WRAP is seven years old. We’ve got over 800 downloads of our organizing tool-kit, we’re educating statewide housing groups. I don’t see that the organizers have any less sense of urgency. But I think that for whatever reason there is a locked in assumption on the local government level that the days that government might actually expend money on solutions are gone. Government should want people to be educated and healthy and housed. Why wouldn’t government say we’re only as healthy as the weakest person in our community?

Every day the shelters are full. Every day 300 people got to the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center to get a bed. People start lining up at 2 in the morning. That’s how much people are trying to get some kind of assistance.

San Francisco’s homeless program started in 1982. Hey dude, it’s been 30 years! The idea that 30 years later all these homeless people don’t want to access these services that keep turning people away are just lame excuses. Everybody can point to somebody who doesn’t access services because they’d like to make it about the individual. But those who refuse are the exceptions.

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