National Day of Action for Housing in Tallahassee

by Julie Matheney, Organizer with the Florida Homelessness Action Coalition

I know you’re busy. There are so many things competing for your attention, and it’s hard to keep up with all of the things happening in the world right now.

Trust me. I get it.

Since the election, I’ve felt really overwhelmed. I’ve kept busy with community organizing, petitions, calling representatives, and going to every demonstration I could. I’m encouraged to see so many people taking up new fights and continuing old battles … but there’s one underlying issue that’s not getting enough attention.

After organizing a rally for the National Day of Action for Housing last week, I’ve come to the conclusion that homeless advocacy isn’t “sexy” and affordable housing even less so.

About 30 people gathered at the Governor’s Mansion on April 1 to share our experiences of being without a home. We talked about why affordable housing funds are important to us. We ate bowls of beans and rice lovingly prepared by Tallahassee’s volunteer-run Food Not Bombs and sported signs with slogans like “Housing = Healthcare” and “House Keys Not Handcuffs.”

The majority of people there were currently homeless or have been homeless at some point in their lives. After months of work organizing the rally and contacting more than 100 organizations around the state, I was amazed to find affordable housing had simply fallen off the radar for so many groups.

Given the Trump administration’s plans to cut $6B from HUD and the Governor’s raid of our state’s affordable housing funds, I hoped that these massive cuts would rally support not only from the agencies who rely on these funds, but also the newly formed groups dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda. Boy, was I wrong.

In talking to community organizers, I was met with silence or “there’s just too much going on right now” to get involved in a rally dedicated to affordable housing.

Why is that?

Why didn’t homeless agencies who rely on state and federal funding participate? Why didn’t activist groups get involved?  

The need for affordable housing underlies every other social issue. What’s the point of welcoming refugees if they can’t afford to live here? What good is a $15 minimum wage if people still don’t have enough to pay rent or ever buy a house? Why aren’t feminists fighting beyond reproductive rights when women endure domestic violence because alternative housing options don’t exist? What about women who risk rape without access to shelter? What about the disproportionate number of people of color on the streets? Why are we silent when developers gentrify our low income neighborhoods and force people out of their homes? Why are there more than 10 empty homes for every homeless person in our city? People are literally dying on the streets. Homelessness is not normal. It’s not acceptable and we can do better.

In 1989, over 40,000 marched in DC to protest the shortage of affordable housing. Some of those who gathered walked over 200 miles from New York City. successful because so many organizations joined together on this common issue.

I am a 1st generation Cuban-American woman who has experienced homelessness 3 times. My partner is the director of operations at GRACE, a one-stop homeless services campus where my sister also works as an advocate. Affordable housing is extremely important to me and my family because it touches our lives and the lives of people we’re trying to help every day.

Homelessness is a symptom of many broken systems: racism, broken health care, a lack of mental health care and substance abuse treatment, and most obviously: a lack of affordable housing. Florida ranks 49th in the nation for mental health care spending and in the last decade we’ve diverted $1.3 billion of our state’s affordable housing funds for other things. Homeless shelters are important, but they’re just band-aids for the bigger problem.

When will we prioritize basic human needs?

Somehow, we accept homelessness as part of the American fabric. I want my kids to know that homelessness is not normal. I want my community to look up at the systems responsible instead of looking down on homeless individuals. But, until the millions of people working on all of these other issues acknowledge that access to housing is a fundamental piece of every social justice movement, we’re only solving a small part of the puzzle.

Please call your representatives and demand that we make affordable housing a priority in our state.

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