What if you had no home to return to this evening, or the next, or the next? What would you feel if you realized you could no longer afford the roof over your child’s head?
In recent weeks, Americans watched as an estimated 30,000 individuals and families turned out for housing voucher applications at the Section 8 Housing Authority in Atlanta. We watched as a nation and learned how hundreds, perhaps a thousand, sought shelter in the tunnels under the Las Vegas strip.
These images served as a reminder that disparities in access to housing are among the greatest economic and social injustices of our time.
With Atlanta’s East Point public housing units full, more than 400 Section 8 housing vouchers already in use, and a recession that has pushed millions further into poverty throughout the country, the Housing Authority handed out more than 13,000 applications. Instead, a crowd that was three times what they anticipated endured the heat and time away from work for the chance to make it on the waiting list.
Just as BP executives and engineers of the New Orleans levees received most of the public reprimand in the most recent Gulf Coast disasters, Atlanta’s Housing Authority will face the same public humiliation because the politics of blame almost always overrides concern for the health and well-being of those directly burdened with the damages. The greater injustice behind all of this should not be overlooked: namely, our country’s lack of foresight and care for the most vulnerable.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina surfaced what our country has long ignored or dismissed as an inevitable side effect of a free market society. Katrina thrust the intersecting realities of poverty and race into the public eye, opening the door to another opportunity for Americans to re-evaluate our commitment to the most vulnerable in our society. The oil spill in the Gulf also offered a glimpse into how years of economic setbacks and racial discrimination have entrenched many individuals and families in poverty.
What transpired at the Section 8 Housing Authority should give us pause as we refocus on the question of how many thousands of America’s working poor standing in line or seeking housing in urban tunnels does it take for a moral reawakening to economic and racial injustice.
As Ronda Racha Penrice observed in a recent opinion piece, considering the “wealth gap” among African-Americans and whites in Atlanta and throughout the country, the images of the East Point turnout were powerful reminders of the check that “has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’” referenced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech.
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In this election season, we have been hit with a barrage of promises about job creation and shoring up the economy while the need for basic shelter, housing and asset development throughout the country has seemingly lost its place in line for public attention.
Approximately 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness in a given year in the United States. The number of people on waiting lists for housing in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago and Atlanta combined is in the hundreds of thousands with no guarantee of receiving vouchers. Finding affordable housing is clearly a priority for millions of Americans.
News anchor Ed Schultz, in response to the thousands that turned out to receive applications in Section 8, said: “…I think we have to ask ourselves the moral question, aren’t we better than this?” Yes, Mr. Schultz, we can and must do better.
Housing justice is an essential part of the larger landscape of economic and social justice. Housing justice does not merely culminate in unencumbered access to shelter and housing for all, but in the real and equal opportunity to have a safe and stable place to call “home.”
Now is a critical time for us to recommit to God’s ideal vision for humanity set forth by the Prophet Isaiah and later affirmed by Jesus. Isaiah proclaims, “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress … They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat” (Isaiah 65:19-22).
This vision is reiterated by Jesus when he reads from the scroll of the prophet proclaiming that God has “anointed” him “to bring good news to the poor,” sending him “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:14-21).
The call for justice and service to the vulnerable proclaimed here applies to the whole of life. Ensuring no one is without a safe, stable place to call home is a critical building block in the pursuit of the beloved community.
Rebecca Lenn, a Presbyterian, is a 2010 fellow at The Eleison Group in Arlington, Va., and a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she earned her master of arts in religion degree in ethics.