Building the Political Will to End Homelessness

“Ending homelessness” has become something of a watchword in Washington, yet it is utterly bereft of meaning. The nation’s poor are facing the country’s biggest job and housing crisis since the Great Depression. Housing costs have skyrocketed and millions of full time jobs have been lost. The current economic downturn has put even more working Americans one paycheck, one illness or one rent hike away from homelessness. “Today, a worker making minimum wage cannot afford housing at fair market rent anywhere in the United States,” says Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH).

Despite these developments, there have been few serious attempts to mobilize advocates around a broad anti-poverty, social justice message. Instead, in recent years we have witnessed rampant incrementalism pulling on the talents and purse strings of policy makers, foundations and advocacy organizations alike. The once grand promise of “housing for all” that characterized the homelessness movement has been replaced by defensiveness and cynicism. Marches on Washington, hunger strikes, direct action and grassroots mobilizing have been replaced by inside-the-beltway deal making, flat funding of the HUD budget and an over-reliance on a small set of homeless assistance programs, like HUD and McKinney-Vento.

The Bringing America Home Campaign was launched in response to these developments and trends, and seeks to create the political will necessary to secure housing rights for all people. Key elements of the campaign were formulated last December at an organizing meeting hosted by the Service Employees Industrial Union. The campaign was formally launched at the NCH annual conference in Washington, DC, which featured speakers Jim Wallis of Call to Renewal, Stewart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s director of organizing, Rep. Julia Carson (D-IN), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Kim Gandy from NOW and Martin Luther King III of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

By addressing the need for affordable housing, livable incomes, healthcare, education and civil rights protection, the campaign invokes historical touchstones such as the New Deal, the GI Bill and the Housing Act of 1949. Important elements of the campaign include support for the Bringing America Home Act (H.R. 2897), the National Housing Trust Fund Act (H.R. 1102) and the Day Labor Fairness and Protection Act (H.R. 2870). Campaign partners include organized labor, the Universal Health Care Action Network and the Universal Living Wage Campaign.

The Bringing America Home Act was introduced by Rep. Carson in July and forms the centerpiece of the larger campaign sharing the same name. The bill has 27 cosponsors and includes housing, health, income and civil rights components, such as authorizing a National Housing Trust Fund to build and preserve 1.5 million affordable homes over the next ten years. The National Housing Trust Fund Campaign, which is pushing stand-alone legislation mirroring the trust fund provision within the bill, has already been endorsed by over 4,500 national, state and local organizations, including the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust.

If passed, the Bringing America Home Act would provide affordable housing, job training and apprenticeship programs, vouchers for public transportation, emergency funds for families facing eviction, increased access to health care and Congressional support for living incomes. The act has already garnered wide support: The US Conference of Mayors passed a resolution urging Congress to pass the Bringing America Home Act, and several city and county councils, from Providence, RI, to Lakewood, OH, have also passed supportive resolutions. Other supporters include NETWORK-A Catholic Social Justice Lobby, the National Housing Trust Fund Campaign, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Child Welfare League of America and the National Organization for Women.

“This legislation is crucial to assisting people who are homeless or are near homelessness,” says Whitehead. “It would end the disgrace of the worst form of poverty in the richest nation in the world. It’s time for Americans to take a stand to help our most vulnerable citizens. It’s time to Bring America Home.”

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