Most people would agree that the Federal government has abandoned any pretense of its responsibility to “ensure safe, decent and affordable” (Housing Act, 1937) housing for the poorest people in our country as it committed to do in 1937 when what is now HUD was formed. After years of funding cuts, neglect and demolitions, the 1998 Congress went so far as to say “the federal government can not be held accountable to ensure housing for even a majority of its citizens” (Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, 1998). While they may have ignored their legislative mandate from 1937, they have with great conviction, adhered to the 1998 (lack of) responsibility.
Year after year we hear of yet another series of funding cuts, of Section 8 units being converted to market rate, of additional Public Housing units being demolished with no intention of ever replacing them, and of yet even more tightening of eligibility criteria so as to exclude people from even being able to apply for housing assistance.
Couple this with the loss of factory jobs through corporate tax credits for relocation overseas, ever shrinking time limits on welfare assistance, foreclosures, the rising cost of healthcare and the increasing disparity between rich and poor, absolutely, no wonder that homelessness has stayed with us for the past 30 years. In fact, it would be a miracle if it hadn’t.
Since 1983, local governments have been expected to manage this crisis with nothing more from the Feds than a miniscule amount of funding for emergency shelters, social workers, and a very small number of transitional housing units. In true Washington DC fashion, local communities are being faced with more and more reporting requirements, more and more information systems programs to comply with, and of course the ever evolving plans they are required to write with the concurrent, and completely useless, oversight commissions they are required to create.
The federal government has effectively transferred responsibility for nationwide, multifaceted, broad-based systemic poverty and homelessness directly onto the backs of local governments and local communities. And for the past 15 years, those local communities have been fighting back with a vengeance. Rather than fight the feds however, they are putting their energies into attacking poor and homeless people. Unfortunately like the kids who get bullied at school and then bully the kids smaller than them, the fighting that is happening isn’t coming close to addressing what has everyone so freaked out in the first place – poor and homeless people being forced to live on the street.
The Feds deprive the state and local governments, the state deprives the county and city governments, and in a sure sign of exasperation after years of abuse and neglect, all of them turn around and attack the poor and homeless people who are trying to live out their lives in spite of having no roof over their head.
We have been here before as a country (see Depression). It is a darker side of ourselves we prefer to keep hidden in the crevices where our fears reside. We wish it weren’t true or are ashamed of what we are doing, so we pretend it’s not really happening. “Anti-Okie would never happen today” or “Sun Down Towns are a relic of our past” we tell ourselves, and maybe even think it might be true. But, deep down, we know it’s not.
With sleeping, sitting, and standing again being criminal offenses, California has officially revived an ugly part of its history. We are again using our “criminal justice” systems coupled with the power of our governmental institutions and media networks in order to demonize, dehumanize, and ultimately criminalize the people who represent to us a reality we don’t want to see or face.
If the United States Government doesn’t care about “these” people then why the hell should Menifee, California or Santa Cruz or LA? If we can’t get (or even expect to receive) the funding restored that would have allowed us to not have the deepening crisis of homelessness that has been evolving since 1983, well then we give up! Quick call the cops, strictly enforce sitting on the sidewalk laws, loitering laws, being in the parks laws, sleeping in a vehicle laws, anti food distribution laws, and of course the tried and true panhandling laws. If we make it so they can’t sit, sleep, stand still, or ask for alms -- then maybe, we try to convince ourselves, they will leave. And if they don’t leave, well we always have that brand new jail we were able to get federal funding to help us build.
It is well past time for us to unite our local governments and our local communities. Fighting with each other over whether life sustaining acts such as sleeping, resting, or eating, are or are not crimes is never ever going to generate the focus and attention on what matters. We need to speak to our federal government with one voice. We need to say that when millions of people are sleeping in our streets and shelters every year and when over 1 million children who go to our public schools everyday don’t have a home to go to that night, it is a national crisis that demands a federal response. When we are so clearly able to document the cause and effect of federal housing assistance cuts in the early 1980’s with the advent of mass contemporary homeless across the country, it is a national crisis that demands a federal response.
California’s Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights and Fairness Act (AB 5) authored by assemblymember Tom Ammiano is an attempt to get the State of California to differentiate between criminal acts that a person might commit (regardless of their housing status) and life sustaining acts we all perform but become criminal offenses when those without housing commit them. Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut and Missouri are joining California in calling for a Homeless Bill of Rights. This signifies a growing dissatisfaction with the current tools and strategies available to localities to address our growing economic disparities that result in human rights abuses.
AB 5 is a bill that says to local governments that regardless of whether or not you are frustrated and angry that the federal government has abandoned your needs, it is not ok for you to take that anger out on people who are less powerful than you. The bullied child need not become the teenage bully.
If we truly embrace its principles, AB 5 is a bill that can unite us all and get us working together for a government that affirms that a healthy, housed and educated people is a righteous responsibility for governments to undertake.