Charlotte Delgado, PRESENTE!

It was with a heavy heart and teary eye that I read this email today from Michael Kane, director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), sister organisation of Defend Council Housing (DCH) in the US:

Hello all, yesterday I received the sad news that long-time NAHT Board leader and former President Charlotte Delgado passed away peacefully, on Tuesday afternoon, in a hospice in Stockton, California.

Kathryn Buller-Melton, Charlotte’s stalwart friend and neighbor, had a long talk with Charlotte on Sunday. Kathryn asked Charlotte how she would like to be remembered. Charlotte replied, that she was a little soldier for all the little soldiers, fighting so that everyone can have a safe and decent place to live.

Charlotte needn’t worry—we will always remember her tenacious, boundless energy; her beautiful and well-placed anger; and her inspiring leadership in the struggle for tenants rights and housing justice.

Charlotte Delgado, Presente!

As my own small tribute, below is the extract about Charlotte from my book.

American Tragedy

Charlotte Delgado has lived in Sacramento for 30 years, but in 2015 found that she didn’t have a home there.  Charlotte moved to her rented apartment in the city centre in 1985.  Soon after, she became a tenant activist when she led a successful battle to keep rents affordable for herself and her fellow low-income neighbours.  This was a life-changing moment for Charlotte because it led her to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), a national, tenant-led organisation that campaigns to preserve and protect affordable housing, particularly in the private rented sector.  Charlotte has been a NAHT Board member ever since and had been the organisation’s national chairperson for several years until her own housing situation destabilised her life.

When the latest speculative property boom hit Sacramento, Charlotte’s building was “flipped” three times in three years, each time increasing a sense of threat and vulnerability.  Charlotte was a marked woman because the owners knew her reputation and that she would organise to resist any attempt to hike rents or evict low income tenants.  They made Charlotte various offers – including outright bribes – in the hope she’d leave quietly.  She refused.  In early May 2015 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 the sheriff changing the locks.  She had to demand the return of her walking frame and purse before she was told to leave the building.  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 people in a similar plight.  The local homeless encampment has elected its own Mayor and there’s a dedicated school for homeless children.  Charlotte had spent years volunteering at a 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 (literally) have no place to go.

Fortunately, at least some of Charlotte’s contribution to society was repaid and she was offered emergency shelter so she didn’t have to sleep on the street.  She was then provided with temporary accommodation by a Catholic charity, while she tried to find a permanent home.  Although she was now in a comfortable, caring environment, the hostel was in the suburbs, a one hour train and bus ride from the neighbourhood she knows.  It was as though Charlotte had been banished from the city for daring to challenge the property barons.  She tried to get help from the public housing authority, but despite her age and physical frailty, they weren’t interested.  Instead Charlotte had to hope that her housing voucher would be honoured by a new private landlord, but this was in some doubt because technically, Charlotte had been evicted for breaching her tenancy conditions.  In early August, after three months of dislocated limbo, Charlotte found an apartment in a complex for older people, but her uncertainty was not over yet.  A month later, the housing authority, which administers the voucher system, had not released the funding to pay the landlord.  So Charlotte had a bed and a roof over her head, but her furniture was still in storage because she wanted to be certain that she wasn’t going to be made homeless again.

In the context of a flimsy, porous social welfare system, Charlotte has been relatively fortunate to be rehoused.  Others, like Charlotte’s older son, are not so lucky.  After serving in the US Army, he worked as a gardener for the city for 25 years and had been living with his mum and acting as her carer before her eviction.  He ended up on the streets, along with his younger brother who Charlotte thinks may have stomach cancer, because he keeps vomiting blood.  Referring to another aspect of America’s relentless war on the poor, Charlotte relates an occasion when she went to the chemist with her younger son and asked how many of the 11 drugs he needed she could afford with the $55 she had in her purse. The answer was “none”.  The cheapest prescription was $110.

 American Hero

It’s one thing to witness and try to describe the experience of those affected by America’s housing crisis, another when one of its victims is a personal friend.  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 with NAHT for tenants’ rights and decent homes for all.  But Charlotte’s story is about much more than housing.  She defied potential racist prejudice by marrying a Mexican, became a fluent Spanish speaker, spent many years working in the hotel industry, fostered and adopted abandoned children, is an active church member, a cancer survivor, but still chain-smokes the cigarettes she calls “coffin nails”.  Charlotte’s politics aren’t formulated through theory or party affiliation, but an innate sense of social justice and class solidarity that is distinctively American.  This is also reflected in her patriotism which, most remarkably, is undimmed by the loss of three (yes, three) sons in the Vietnam War.  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.  She’s already told NAHT that once she’s settled in her new home she’ll organise a tenants association![1]

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 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 the situation she found herself in when she lost her home, but not certain.  A 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, it seems nothing else matters.  If California was a country, it would be the seventh wealthiest on earth. Who should be ashamed?

Speaking at NAHT conference in 2014, Charlotte said:

The government is trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and poorest – women, veterans and the disabled.  They’re cutting programmes for affordable housing, but there are no cuts in the military budget. I’m a mother of seven veterans, including three who are over on the wall.[1]  Our veterans need to be looked after by bringing them home.  We need to make sure that big corporations like Apple and Bank of America pay their fair share of taxes.  I pay mine.  We’re here because the government needs to see the faces of the people their cuts affect.  We need a government that recognises decent housing as a basic human right. 

[1] A reference to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

[1] Since 2015, Charlotte’s housing situation has stabilised.  She’s been able to settle in a new apartment in central Sacramento, sharing with her older son.

Charlotte leads NAHT members to speak truth to power on Capitol Hill (DC, June 2016)

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