A proposal brought last year to add homeless persons as a protected category under Broward County’s Human Rights Act moved a step closer to fruition on January 11 as October 22nd Alliance co-founders Jeff Weinberger and Rev. Craig Watts, joined by St. Thomas University Associate Professor of Law, Marc-Tizoc Gonzalez, presented a case for the amendment to the county’s Human Rights Advisory Board.
The Board will host a vetting Q&A on the proposal soon (date TBD), which may be the final step before presenting the amendment to the Broward County Board of Commissioners for a vote. The proposal unanimously passed through two committees last year to reach this point in the process: the Stakeholders and Partners Committee and the Continuum of Care Board.
Presentation to Broward Human Rights Board 1/11/16
First, greetings to board members. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today, and going forward I’ll be happy to make myself available to address any questions about the matter on which I’ll be speaking, or any issue related to human rights and ending homelessness.
While the proposal I’d brought last year to the county’s Continuum of Care Board, a proposal to amend the county’s Human Rights Act to include homeless individuals as a protected category, has not yet made it to the agenda of this board, I’m glad for the opportunity to share a brief history that led to our making this proposal, and why it’s essential that it be approved come the day that it is before you for a vote, hopefully at your next meeting in April. I’ll also note that this proposal already has received the unopposed support of both the Stakeholders and Partners Committee and the Continuum of Care Board, itself.
I’m a political organizer, and I’ve been an advocate for the homeless community going on 8 years. As co-founder of the October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness, I’m committed to this and other social justice work full time. While I work locally, I also have close ties to a network of homeless advocates across the state and across the country, as well as the support of the largest homeless and legal advocacy organizations in the country, respectively the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Both of these support our proposed amendment, and will be doing so in writing come the appropriate time.
One of those homeless advocates with whom I’m allied, Paul Boden, a former head of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and for the past 10 years the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, has rightly compared the onslaught of laws that criminalize the existence of homeless folk with Sundown Laws, Ugly Laws, Chinese Exclusion, Anti-Okie Laws and Jim Crow, all laws that codified the oppression of certain categories of human beings.
Laws which criminalize homeless individuals, like those other laws from days gone by, also have to be seen in the light of the social context in which they’re born. That context in our county, our state and across the country is one in which wages have stagnated for going on three generations, in which we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of units of affordable housing, in which more and more we see both housing and public space privatized and the interests of the poor sidelined to the interests of a developer and investment class which is more wealthy and powerful than ever. And too often the politicians do the bidding of that class as if it were written into their job description. Meanwhile they and we, who pride ourselves as good people of faith, or just good people, not only bear witness to but encourage what has become the shameful normalization of kicking people while they’re down. This reality is born out not merely anecdotally, but it’s written into how the system functions, both officially and unofficially. And it must stop.
Beyond both officially codified and unofficial discrimination against homeless folk, often in the form of prejudicial harassment based on their appearance as visibly poor, it’s also essential to note a unique feature of the BEING of homeless people which entails a difference between them and the other already Human Rights Act-protected categories of individuals and, I would argue, makes for an even more compelling case as to why their rights need to be subsumed under our county’s Human Rights Act.
Unlike those other categories under which individuals are protected based on more or less indelible features of their personhood, or their respective personal histories, homelessness is something that happens to people based on a complex conjunction of personal and social factors. The most significant of these factors is the socio-economic reality which transcends all our lives and its intersection with personal familial history. Generally people aren’t born homeless – though some sadly are – but rather that they become homeless. And some, though obviously not everyone, then become re-housed. What this really comes down to is that some folk have a better safety net than others, while those whose safety net has been sufficiently shredded become homeless.
At the same time, however, homeless individuals are stigmatized as if homelessness were somehow a permanent feature of their being.
It’s therefore incumbent on those of us who can patch that safety net back together to do so, and to remove all barriers that may block the path that leads out of homelessness. Legal protection for homeless folk in seeking public accommodation, employment and – this is a no-brainer – housing is not only both humane and fiscally sound, but it is therefore both vital and urgent.