Advocates: Homeless Still Fighting for Civil Rights
ED GORDON, host:
Joining us now from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. is Maria Foscarinis. She's founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Welcome to the program.
Ms. MARIA FOSCARINIS (Executive Director, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty): Nice to be here, Ed.
GORDON: We should note that, as Mr. Peck said in the end, these are issues not just of feeding the homeless, but the indigent people have a struggle against human rights violations in this country in terms of housing, religion, education and many other aspects that come into play. And we should note, disproportionately, race comes into play. It's reported that about 40 percent of the homeless in this country are African-Americans.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Absolutely. I think that this is a very important point to note, that when we talk about homelessness, we're really talking about extreme poverty, and poverty is on the increase in our country. And it affects disproportionate numbers of minorities. Primarily African-Americans, people of Hispanic origin - are disproportionately represented, and that's also reflected in the homeless population. A disproportionate number are African-American or of Hispanic origin.
Interestingly, this is a human rights issue and it is something that is increasingly perceived as a human rights issue. And interestingly, the human rights committee in Geneva, the UN body responsible for monitoring human rights violations, chastised the United States. And this was the first time it drew attention to the issue of homelessness in the United States.
And it specifically focused on the disproportionate racial impact. And…
GORDON: Is it possible, Ms. Foscarinis, to find the happy medium, if you will. Because as altruistic as people want to believe themselves to be, often it becomes a not in my backyard situation as well.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Exactly. Well, that's true. I think there is a happy medium, and I think the happy medium - we reach that by focusing on solutions. And I think that's exactly what Las Vegas is not doing. It and other cities around the country are trying simply to sweep homeless people away, to sweep poor people away, to sweep away any evidence of poverty in America. And I think that's exactly the wrong way to go.
It's understandable that cities and neighbors do not like to see poor people, do not like horribly impoverished people living in their backyards or in their neighborhoods or in their city streets. Nobody wants that. We don't want that. The people themselves don't want that. But the solution is not to make it a crime. It's not to sweep them away. The solution is to work for, to address the causes. Why are people in these extreme and these dire circumstances?
We've got to talk about affordable housing, we've got to talk about living wage jobs, we've got to talk about safety net programs - healthcare, mental healthcare. Those are the solutions. That's what we're working for.
GORDON: We should note, as you suggested, as poverty grows across this country, we're starting to see these fights grow hand-in-hand. This is not just happening in Orlando and Las Vegas. We're seeing these fights, quite frankly, across the country.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Exactly. And I think we've got to - we really have to focus on this as a national issue, and we've got to look at it as a human rights issue. It's embarrassing. It's a violation of basic human rights, of standards that the world community have agreed to about basic rights of human beings. And in a country as rich as ours, I think we can do much, much better.
And that's why I think it's very significant that the UN has now drawn attention to this issue. So our country is now up on a world stage being criticized for its treatment of poor and homeless people, and especially for the disproportionate impact on racial minorities.
GORDON: We should note that we're going to see some conferences, including a conference on September 24th - or 21st I should say - a forum for the homeless and housing rights activists. But we should also note that this is beyond just a poverty question. This really is a civil and human rights issue, is it not?
Ms. FOSCARINIS: It is a civil rights issue, and it's a human rights issue. Certainly as we see in Las Vegas, the civil rights - and I think the ACLU representative was very right to point this out - we're seeing people being discriminated against based on their economic status. We're seeing also, people being - at least de facto - being discriminated against based on race. It may not be intentional, but it's a reality that the large proportion - 40 percent - of homeless people are African-Americans. And it may not be explicitly stated as an intentional discrimination, but that is the reality. And there's a reason for that, and it's all of the reasons of economic injustice in our country that disproportionately affect racial minorities.
And so it is an issue of civil rights. It's an issue of human rights because the world community has said that there is a human right to housing, and that's not honored in our country. Even though the United States itself has also said, you know, over 50 years ago made a commitment to provide a decent home for every American. In federal legislation - the 1949 Housing Act - and that is a commitment that has been broken over and over again.
Funding for housing programs has been cut repeatedly. And that means that people who are poor and who can't afford to find a place - to pay for a place to live without assistance are really being squeezed out.
GORDON: Well, it's more than important to keep this issue in the fore. Maria Foscarinis, she's the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. We thank you for joining us today. Appreciate it.
Ms. FOSCARINIS: Thank you so much.
GORDON: Coming up, Israel and Lebanon have agreed to a cease-fire in the Middle East, but will it last? And a Dallas school is accused of crossing the line to increase white student enrollment. We'll discuss these topics and more on our roundtable.
This is NPR News.
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