Written by Graham Pruss, Project Coordinator, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness
On May 21 and 22, 2014, Yakima hosted the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance’s 24th Annual Conference on Ending Homelessness, a dynamic combination of speakers and workgroups attended by more than 600 service providers, non-profit organizers and advocates for low-income people. I attended the Conference with colleagues from Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness, and because of my own research around income inequality, direct outreach, vehicle residency, advocacy and service provision. This was my second year at the CoEH and my first not presenting, allowing the time and lack of pressure to appreciate the Conference fully. I was looking forward to participating in workshops such as “Does Class Matter In Homeless Advocacy?,” “Reduction In Federal Affordable Housing Funding & The Re-Emergence Of Contemporary Homelessness,” and “Finding The Forgotten: Engaging The Chronically Homeless.”
I arrived at the Conference excited to see friends, colleagues and acquaintances from throughout Washington state. After lunch, we broke into workshops prepared by the Conference – all were very well organized, with clear goals and information to take home and follow up on. In particular, Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) Executive Director Paul Boden’s presentation on the “Reduction in Federal Affordable Housing Funding” was an eye-opening experience for the packed room. Boden spent an hour and a half frenetically describing the effect of reallocating housing funding from established U.S. community cornerstones such as the departments of Veterans Administration (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to general “homeless” services such as the current McKinney-Vento federally funded programs. On this, Boden remarked, “The impact of de-funding housing was that ‘poor’ people became ‘homeless’ people. But, they’re still people. Housing, health care and education are not homeless issues, they are social justice issues.”
Boden detailed this “impact,” referencing the U.S. Department of Agriculture investment in housing over the last 35 years, when 38,650 affordable housing units were built in 1979; the number plummeted to 763 in 2011, and has reduced to zero since 2012. Additionally, Single Rate Occupancy (SRO) motel rooms, used by many people as emergency and/or long-term ‘transitional’ housing while they avoid or rise out of ‘street-level homelessness,’ have been redeveloped into mid- to high-cost condominiums: “SROs are gutted, occupants – families – are displaced, the buildings are renovated, the ‘chronically homeless’ are temporarily housed and we consider homelessness ‘fixed.’ But we don’t count the people displaced or the emergency housing we’ve lost.”
Boden said that with the HEARTH Act of 2009, many people have been disregarded in federal statistics, and therefore funding, of “homelessness” because individuals and families in SROs or “doubling up” (staying with friends or family) have been removed from the federal definition. Moreover, the HEARTH Act puts the onus of services for a national unsheltered population on local communities that are struggling to support existing programs. According to WRAP’s 2010 publication Without Housing; Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures:
In the End, HEARTH continues to pit one portion of people experiencing homelessness against another and drives providers to create services within the new federal regulations, even if those services do not address the most significant way people are experiencing homelessness in that community. (33)
Workshops at the Conference showed the challenges that communities face when addressing wealth inequality, landlessness, and the subjective needs of people who experience daily trauma through unsheltered living. But it was not all “gloom and doom”; there was always a light seen at the end of the tunnel, shining in the eyes of those locked on a commitment to end homelessness. We saw this positive drive in the actions of the presenters and keynote speakers, several of whom worked closely with people who experience living without a permanent home and had personally experienced these same traumatic events.
In 2011, Rex Holbein began his local advocacy work that intends to break through the invisible barriers of “homelessness,” and the image of poverty which allows people to see what they will not admit exists. Holbein, a successful architect with high-income clients, had moved his office to a location in the Fremont area of Seattle near a spot where many unsheltered people slept or congregated. Rex developed relationships with some of these people, inviting one man to live on his property and produce beautiful paintings.
Knowing this artwork was special, Rex created a website and Facebook presence for the artist, eventually leading to his reunion with his ten-year estranged family. Inspired by this experience, Rex began his Facebook site Homeless in Seattle to document the lives and personal needs of the people who survive on the streets surrounding his office. As a keynote speaker at the Conference, Holbein stirred the audience with heartfelt accounts of his experiences, accompanied by his incredible photographs of the people he works alongside. I admit that I teared up several times as I saw faces I also knew in his beautiful pictures, some now departed, some now in housing, and some exactly where they were when he created his image years ago.
My most memorable experiences came from the voices of people who were the subject of the Conference, not from the policy, advocate, data and service speakers common to these events. While we need to know this crucial information to effect change in our communities, the power to balance inequalities comes from the hearts of those who can make change, the passion to work for a different future. This passion is inspired by the voices of those who personally understand the daily traumas experienced while living without a stable home, connected to the data and figures used to correlate masses of people experiencing different forms of wealth inequality.
Many enter the social justice field because of their personal experiences with these traumas, and many because they accepted a position with an organization that happens to do this work. Unfortunately, social service provider jobs often don’t pay enough for a person to pursue an advanced degree in time to begin a career which leads to social justice policy shaping; this is particularly true for people who have struggled to overcome obstacles in their childhood and young-adult years. To provide ourselves the opportunity to hear these voices, we need to find ways to use our resources that empower those who have experienced what social justice advocates fight for, so historically and personally marginalized people can join that fight as generals with experience.