Even compared to Death Row, my visit to Sacramento, California was distressing. I’ve known Charlotte Delgado for about ten years and she’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. She’s devoted much of her life to helping others, particularly campaigning for tenants’ rights and decent housing for all as the Chair of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT). Her personal story includes the loss of three (yes, three) sons in Vietnam, but as she approaches her 80s, Charlotte isn’t bitter or self-pitying, just angry with a system that destroys lives for profit. Despite her age and some health problems, Charlotte was still fighting for the homes of others when she lost her own.
Charlotte had lived in her rented apartment in central Sacramento for nearly 30 years. She fought and won to keep rents affordable for her and her low-income neighbours. When the latest speculative property boom hit the city, Charlotte was a marked woman. Her building was ‘flipped’ three times in three years, each increasing a sense of threat and vulnerability. New owners made offers to Charlotte – including outright bribes – in the hope she’d leave quietly and enable them to get rid of low-income tenants and charge market rents. Charlotte refused.
In early May Charlotte received an eviction order based on spurious grounds relating to the behaviour of her younger son who is chronically ill and mentally unstable. One day Charlotte returned home from visiting a sick neighbour she cared for to find the building manager and sheriff changing the locks. She had to demand the return of her walking frame and purse. At the age of 79, Charlotte was homeless and alone. She says she spent the rest of the day in a daze, walking around the city until she couldn’t walk any more. This wouldn’t attract attention in Sacramento because there are thousands of homeless people, to the point where there’s a dedicated school for homeless children and the local ‘Tent City’ has elected its own Mayor! Charlotte had spent years volunteering at a homeless shelter, but never imagined she’d need its help. She recalled that another thing she’d never considered is where homeless women go to the toilet when, like her, they have no place to go.
Fortunately, at least some of Charlotte’s contribution to society has been repaid and she was offered emergency shelter so she didn’t literally have to sleep on the streets. She’s now in good temporary accommodation provided by a Catholic charity while she tries to find a permanent home, but it’s miles out of town away from the neighbourhood she knows, as though Charlotte’s been exiled. The public housing authority has been useless, but there’s a chance Charlotte’s Section 8 voucher (similar to Housing Benefit) will be accepted by a special needs, non-profit landlord. Others are not so lucky, like Charlotte’s older son Pat. He’d been living with his mum and acting as her carer. He’d retired after working for the city as a gardener for 25 years. Prior to that he’d been in the army. He’s now on the streets, along with his younger brother who Charlotte thinks may have stomach cancer. She related a recent occasion when she went with him to the chemist and asked how many of the 11 prescriptions he needs she could afford with her welfare cheque of $110. The answer was ‘none’.
The hardest thing for Charlotte in telling me her story (and for me listening to it) is that she feels ashamed. Like other activists I’ve known, Charlotte is much better at fighting for others than herself. Given all she’s done to help other people and the affection she’s held in, it’s possible Charlotte could have avoided this situation, but not certain. The key feature of American society in general and its housing crisis in particular, is its brutality. The fact that Charlotte Delgado is elderly, disabled, poor and has made huge contributions to and sacrifices for her country, including paying taxes for 65 years, matters not a jot. When the forces of corporate finance, property developers and their political lackies want to make money, nothing else matters.
If California was a country, it would be the 7th wealthiest on earth. Who should be ashamed?
‘Dumpster Diving’ (i.e. eating out of rubbish bins) in Sacramento, a scene I’ve seen all over the USA.