This is the battle cry of this year’s conference of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) in Washington DC. This is my fifth time at NAHT conference, but there’s an unmistakable change of mood. NAHT represents low-income tenants living in privately rented housing with some form of rent control or subsidy. You don’t get access to such housing unless you’re poor so life can be pretty hard for NAHT members, but it’s getting harder. They’re caught in a vice between massive government cuts and avaricious private landlords.
One of the things that draws me to NAHT – and America as a whole – is the powerful forms of expression. I know some accuse Americans of bastardising the English language, but whenever I’m here I’m struck by the ability of people to distill long arguments into short sentences. Here’s a sample from yesterday’s conference:
‘United we stand, divided we’re homeless.’
‘There’s plenty of money to go round, it’s just in the wrong hands.’
It’s time for Bank of America to give us our money back and pay its fair share.’
‘If you paid one dollar in tax last year, you paid more than Bank of America.’
‘If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to bitch.’
‘Some of the cuts won’t kick in until 2050. I won’t be here in 2050, but someone’s going to need my home.’
‘So we’ve got a black President – I’m over it. What now?’ (Spoken by a homeless black man.)
The scale of the issues confronting NAHT can make UK experience seem relatively small. The level of anger is driven partly by disappointment with Obama, but more specifically by the influence of Tea Party politicians over budget cuts, alongside corporate greed exemplified by the tax dodging Bank of America who, according to US Uncut, paid no tax on income of $4.4 billion in 2009. Meanwhile, housing subsidies for the poor are being cut by 8.4% next year and there will be 20% cuts across a range of public sector services that help millions of Americans keep their heads above water. It will be even worse if Mitt Romney wins the election. He’s stated his intention to abolish the entire government department (HUD) that’s responsible for administering low income and public housing, thereby abandoning poor Americans to the fates of the unregulated market that has already driven millions into homelessness. In Washington DC there are 7,000 homeless people in a population of 620,000, of which 1,014 are families and 1,600 are children, but as homeless activist Erik Sheptock told the conference ‘DC is a microcosm of the world’. Meanwhile, mortgage tax deductions to home owners costs the government $110 billion a year and the richer you are, the bigger your tax break.
This general onslaught has some grotesque particulars. In Chatannooga, Tennessee private landlords have been given the power to evict tenants who have bed bugs. Some welfare benefits have been allocated by lottery. In some states homeless families are divided, with men and women allocated to different hostels, exactly at they were in Victorian workhouses. A woman from Sacramento, California related the story of a local family who are admitted to her apartment block three times a week by sympathetic residents, so they can go ‘dumpster diving’, scavenging for empty bottles and cans that will give them an extra $25 a week.
Poetry doesn’t generally do it for me, but former DC resident Langston Hughes wrote this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?