Down the Dark Alley for Human Rights

Originally posted on Operation Welcome Home’s Site, November 11, 2014

We walked up the ramp to Madison’s City County Building and each step was a reminder that I’d gone most of the day without eating. It’s something that I’ve been meaning to work on in my effort to build muscle – a true struggle in the midst of my work in the struggle to help end the root causes of homelessness. Operation Welcome Home (OWH) is an organization of homeless, formerly homeless and their allies fighting for human rights and to end homelessness. When I was homeless, my struggle wasn’t eating enough; it was eating at all. As we approached the doors of the building, I was reminded: Human beings, bags for sleeping, bags for clothes and invisibly clear lines separating “living spaces” crowding the entrance. A man lying in his bed greeted my company. I smiled mechanically, “Hi. How are you?” I felt insensitive for asking. He replied in the same manner, “Fine, thank you.”

As we entered room 351, it was 5:31 PM. The thick exhaustion from a room full of individually long days raised the temperature more than a few degrees. I was to speak to the Personnel and Finance Committee on behalf of OWH in support of a budget amendment that would designate $8M for affordable housing. The amendment was proposed by County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner in an effort to balance the $8M proposed for the jail. This was one of many line items up for discussion, including police uniform cameras, funding for human services, a homeless youth shelter and others. The silence was heated with the passions of those in attendance, fighting for good causes to attain very limited resources.

A review of the issues to be addressed was followed by testimony from those presenting each issue. People, doing all that they can do with the little they have, pleaded with a board doing all they can to meet the overwhelming public need. We were all there trying to do something to benefit our society, and sometimes those intentions were in opposition. In one case a small pool of funding would go to Briarpatch Youth Services or the YMCA. Both organizations serving the youth respectfully competed; but their interaction was a metaphor for what we see across the community: few resources and great need.

Once we’d heard from the individuals presenting subjects, it was time for public testimony. Of all the testimonies, I recall most vividly Al, an older black man who had been experiencing homelessness for years. He addressed the board with a question – asking, “What do you mean when you write, ‘a vulnerable or at risk’ population?” He was referring to the description of people who were homeless, asking why – if this is the thinking of the board and his lived experience – there is any debate on addressing their needs. He showed a picture of him wearing a neck tie at the office making $22.50/hr in the housing authority in Chicago, and told about how he was dragged into familial crime, losing his job, house, car, and later, his wife to a homeless winter last year. Now with a criminal record he is constantly denied for positions he’s well qualified for, and although he wants to be independent, searching for employment is his only job. Al is always in need of services and he is one of many underserved. His was a story not unlike many that we encounter in our work: a criminal record, barriers to income and lost income, lost housing and barriers to housing. When I approached the speaker phone it was well after 8:00 PM. I greeted and thanked the attendees for their presence and work and asked everyone to use their imagination.

I asked them to imagine for a second that they’ve been poisoned, and they see the antidote in clear sight. It just so happens to be on the other side of a shaky bridge in a dark alley and they could fall to their doom; but they knew that if they made it, they would live. This was the state of emergency that many of us are in and for some of us the antidote is food or services, etc. For me, it was rent money.

dark alley

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Several years ago I was a sophomore in college with my own one bedroom apartment. I couldn’t afford it. I couldn’t call home for help. Mom and Dad needed help with the house just as much as I did. I had 12 course credits and a 5 day eviction notice. At the end of my alley was a stack of fake cash from some friends. I crossed without fear; and without thinking twice, I was passing fake bills for change to eat and hopefully have a place to go home to after classes. When I was arrested, I had zero experience with the criminal justice system and negative dollars for a lawyer. My public defender got me a deal to reduce the felony counterfeit charges to misdemeanors of “theft by false representation” under the condition that I not seek expungement and live with the charges on my record indefinitely. Being young, I thought avoiding prison time was a good deal; but little did I know, I’d agreed to imprison myself in a box labeled “Non-eligible Job Candidate.” Years would pass and many employment opportunities would pass along with them while I was continuously told that my criminal background was like a blockade to flow of earned income.

As I told my story I made clear the connection: an affordable housing or assistance program would likely have prevented my eviction notice and with it my need to cross that dark alley. I made clear that without human services and affordable housing initiatives, I might have ventured back to that alley. Lastly, I appealed to selfish nature, explaining that these issues were not just mine, but all those privileged enough to think these issues don’t affect them as well – those privileged with the thought that other “Als” won’t slip back into crime at their expense.  I urged the Board not to delay in supporting the human services and affordable housing amendments, as one day, their loved ones or belongings may become the antidote at the end of someone’s dark alley and serve to perpetuate a cycle that plays a major role in the rate of homelessness in Dane County.

I thanked the community for their time and took my seat for the duration of the meeting which ended a little after 9:00 PM. On our way out a villager at home on the steps said, “Thank you.” To which I habitually replied, “You have a good night.”

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