'You’re Taking Our Homes': Ben Carson Shouted Down by Angry Chicago Residents

News & Politics

Frustrated by government inaction in addressing the nation’s growing housing crisis, protestors interrupted Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson’s visit to the department’s Chicago offices on Monday. One protestor, Debra Miller, interrupted Carson’s speech during a morning meeting, shouting at the secretary: “You’re taking homes from people like me!”

Miller and her husband, Jimmy, currently live in Section 8 housing in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. Having been homeless in the past several years, the two joined the Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a Chicago-based senior housing advocacy group, to challenge the government’s attacks on housing access. After Carson refused to talk directly about these issues, Miller rose from her seat, demanding to know why the government continues to cut resources for affordable housing.

“Talk to me about a fully funded HUD, [and] how you’re going to help seniors, my friends, get housing,” Miller said. “I know people who are homeless. Talk to me about that.”

In the Trump administration’s 2018 budget, HUD funding was slashed by $6.2 billion—shrinking the department by more than 22 percent to just under $24 billion, according to the calculations of Affordable Housing Online. Budget cuts will shrink funding to a program that helps more than a million families with rent subsidization in public housing—and will entirely eliminate the HOME Investment Partners Program, which helps low-income families seek home ownership. As the government continues to shrink its obligation to address people’s housing needs, a recent study by mortgage company Freddie Mac found that the number of affordable units available on the market for very low-income families (those making less than half the area’s median income) fell from 11.2 to 4.3 percent between 2010 and 2016.

In another troubling action, the Trump administration announced last Friday that it is freezing an Obama-era HUD policy that would require cities to submit detailed proposals to reverse entrenched housing segregation before receiving federal funding for housing projects. Although the measure has technically only been suspended, left unenforced until 2020, advocates expect that the administration will seek further attacks on the department. Combined with budget cuts and increasing market pressures, housing advocates worry that HUD is failing its historic mission to ensure all Americans have access to housing.

“We can look in Chicago, and it’s not actually that different in the disparities in housing quality and access that people of color have today as fifty years ago,” said Leah Levinger, executive director of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of ten Chicago housing rights organizations. “Essentially, what [Friday’s] announcement did was to tell cities that they have a free pass to stay the deeply divided, deeply unequal jurisdictions that they’ve been over the past several decades, and the federal government will do nothing about it.”

HUD was created in 1965 as one of the Johnson administration’s “Great Society” programs. Established to foster affordable housing access and address entrenched housing segregation, the organization has been steadily eroded since its inception, frequently victim to budget cuts that have led to dramatic rises in homelessness and housing instability. According to Western Regional Advocacy Project, a grassroots coalition of homeless people’s advocacy groups, HUD has faced repeated cuts since the Carter administration.

Carson has defended a limited role for the government in the past, citing his rise from poverty to a position as one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons as proof of the unimportance of government assistance. Calling poverty a “state of mind,” Carson told a radio program last May, “You take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world (and) they'll work their way right back down to the bottom.” Carson has acknowledged the significant impact that government intervention can have in the lives of U.S. citizens, promoting a HUD-sponsored lead abatement program. However, he’s still insisted that “entrusting the government to get [housing policy] right can prove downright dangerous.”

In spite of the difficult climate for housing justice organizing, ordinary people aren’t resting on the sidelines. After approximately 20 protestors chanted outside Carson’s first event, another group coalesced at a HUD resource center on the city’s South Side in the afternoon, where he was scheduled to host a press conference. After gathering outside, CHA officials informed the group that the secretary had cancelled the press conference, seemingly in response to the threat of further disruption.

One protestor present at both events, Honni Harris, got involved in neighborhood organization ONE Northside last June. Harris has dealt with housing insecurity her entire life, struggling to keep a roof over her head while taking care of her two sons and five nephews. Constantly living under the threat of eviction, she continues to organize, knowing how significant housing issues are in people’s daily life.

“My boys were never at the same schools—they transferred so much, because we were never in a place for more than a year,” Harris said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about it, speaking up for those who can’t speak up for themselves and giving people the tools to speak up. We speak up for such craziness, why can’t we speak up for things that really matter?”

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