The Right to Housing, the Right to Shelter & Combating HIV/AIDS

On December 1st, World AIDS Day, journalist Pete Tucker gave the following speech, connecting homlessness, the lack of affordable housing and economic injustice with the spread of HIV & AIDS.

Full text of speech below the embedded video.

Mayor Adrian Fenty closed Franklin Shelter just a month before the beginning of the hypothermia season, a little more than two years ago. Fenty closed this desperately needed downtown shelter at time when not only was the temperature getting cold, but the economy as well. It was chilly all around. And for the 300 men who depended on the imperfect warmth of Franklin Shelter to help them survive, it was about to get worse.

Days after Franklin’s closure, Charles Davis, a senior citizen, ended up in the hospital. Lou Cannao, also a Franklin resident and a senior citizen, found housing, in his car. Sebastian also found shelter, at a local laundromat. DJuan, Eric, Tommy, Orlando and others ended up at the 801 East shelter, on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, east of the Anacostia River, out of sight and out of mind.

Thomas Ashley never stayed at Franklin. There were no beds available the night he tried. Fortunately, he found a bed at the NY Avenue Shelter. But the night Franklin closed, NY Avenue filled up and Thomas, a U.S. veteran, was forced to sleep in the streets.

And then there’s Phil. In the weeks following Franklin’s closure, he continued performing the task he’d been given, to clean the front steps of the shelter. What Phil didn’t know, and what he wasn’t able to comprehend, was that no matter how well he cleaned, the doors to his home would not be reopened.

Neither Mayor Fenty nor the Washington Post cared to learn the stories of Phil or Thomas or Charles or the others. Who needs facts when you’ve got ideology on your side? Fenty pronounced that Franklin’s closure was a good thing because there was a new program that was going to make huge strides towards ending homelessness.

Housing First is its name and it provides housing to the most vulnerable without forcing them to first meet certain criteria, such as obtaining a job, becoming sober or other hurtles which can be all but impossible for individuals in the most difficult of situations. While there is much to applaud about Housing First, it should be lost on no one that Fenty rolled it out in conjunction with closing Franklin. Housing First was used as a justification for taking a life-saving downtown shelter away from the poorest District residents.

Fenty claimed the issue was simple: Quality housing or run-down shelters? Which is better? Which do you prefer? But this is a false (and deadly) choice. In the District of Columbia there are tens of thousands of residents who have been on the waiting list for affordable housing for years. Even if the District brought online many affordable housing units, which it should, it would in no way obviate the need for shelters, particularly downtown shelter which allows for easier access to food, jobs and services.

I am honored to spend this World AIDS Day with activists who have done so much to raise awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the District of Columbia. I only wish the city’s leading newspaper, and the rest of the press corps, including myself, would do a better job of giving this issue the serious attention it deserves.

To its credit, the Washington Post has done great reporting on the epidemic, but then just as quickly the paper seems to have moved on to the next issue. But for too many, like Larry Bryant, an activist and native Washingtonian, there is no moving on to the next thing because HIV is not an interesting subject, but a daily reality. I had the priviledge of interviewing Larry recently. He explained that HIV and AIDS is not so much a health issue, as it is an issue of social justice.

He said, “We could find a vaccine tomorrow that will eliminate all new infections by this weekend. We could use that vaccine to inject people who are currently HIV positive, the million and half plus that we know of in the States. And by this time next week there are no more people living with HIV in the city and no more coming. But if we don’t address those fundamental issues within the social structure that allow people to sleep in front of the White House 365 days in a year; [if] we don’t put in place the services that protect women, that protect girls from being beaten and raped and basically dying in silence; [if] we don’t put in place policies that allow homophobia and racism and sexism to just run rampant; if we don’t put these fixes in place in the entirety of the social system, we’re just waiting for the next epidemic. HIV will be gone. Something else will take its place… [W]e need to start addressing those foundation[al] flaws if we hope to end this epidemic and get a leg up on anything that’s coming down the pipe.” Those are the words of activist and native Washingtonian, Larry Bryant.

Let me end where I began, with Franklin Shelter. Why was it closed? Is there really no longer a need in the District of Columbia for shelter, particularly downtown shelter? Jane Zara, a lawyer and tireless activist, and Patty Mullahy Fugere of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, are among those who have called for Franklin Shelter to be reopened. This World AIDS Day seems an appropriate time to join them in their call to reopen this desperately needed downtown shelter.

If we don’t deal with housing and other socal inequities, then not only are we not addressing HIV and AIDS, but we are ushering in the next epidemic. This madness must stop. World AIDS Day, it seems to me, might also be called World Justice Day, because we can’t make any serious progress on HIV and AIDS if we’re not also deadly serious about addressing injustice.

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