Robert Warren and Eugene Sanford discussing the Right to Housing campaign proposal.

When you start looking around, you notice equal signs are everywhere. Now when I see an equal sign it makes me think: should there be some sort of right when it comes to housing the homeless?
“Promises to Keep” is the title of a documentary film that tells the story of the battle for the Federal City Shelter. As I watched the program, I began to see that human rights — particularly when they are related to housing — face many challenges.

In the 1980’s, when homelessness was on the rise, activist Mitch Snyder, a leader of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), decided to raise public consciousness. But he had to overcome some major resistance in getting people to understand the problem as the human tragedy it was. Jerry Jones, now executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), worked with Snyder in those days. He remembers the attitudes the CCNV had to overcome.

“The issue of homelessness became a public nuisance issue in the eyes of the public. There had been a lot of sympathy and public will to address the problem … then, as the public recognized that this was going to be a major aspect of urban life, folks got desensitized to seeing people living outdoors, got tired of people panhandling.”

But through marches and protests, Snyder, Jones and other advocates within CCNV emerged as key players in what became a movement for the homeless, and for housing as a human right.

They scored a major victory on Nov. 6, 1984 when Initiative 17 (I-17) became law in the District. It was the first bill in the country to guarantee the right to overnight shelter. Even though it was hailed as a breakthrough, advocates had originally hoped for more.

“We were looking at a right to housing law, when we passed I-17, but realized that we wouldn’t get that … so we changed it to right to shelter,” said Carol Fennelly, who served at Snyder’s right hand as the spokeswoman of CCNV.

And after the law was passed, there were major problems with implementation.

“The city did a really crappy job of making I-17 work,” said Fennelly. “As a result we were able to sue the city repeatedly, and they lost repeatedly.” In 1989, after a long trial, Superior Court Judge Harriet Taylor found the city in clear violation of the law, ruling that the shelters were “virtual hell-holes.”

But instead of fixing the shelters, the city council amended I-17, gutting the right to shelter law in mid-1990. Mitch Snyder committed suicide in July of that year. His fellow advocates fought back. Michael Stoops, who had protested and slept on the sidewalks with Snyder to raise awareness thought homeless advocates would win back the law, in Snyder’s memory.

But their attempt to reverse the repeal of the right-to-shelter law failed when Referendum 005 lost in the general election. “We lost,” Stoops recalled.

They kept working. But some of the magic was gone. The homeless advocacy movement has changed dramatically since then, he said.

“People were willing to risk their lives. Today our movement has become so professional that people’s idea of working on the homelessness cause is going to some conference at a fancy hotel where there’s no homeless people at all, so it really has changed. There’s some good to professionalism, I don’t disagree with that, [but] I think it is not working at ending homelessness in this country,” said Stoops.

In 2005, the city’s Homeless Services Reform Act was signed into law. It requires the District to provide shelter to individuals and families in severe weather. But just like in the old days, there have been battles over implementation.

Earlier this year, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless released a report recounting some of the challenges families confronted getting beds last winter.

The title of the report speaks volumes: “Should D.C. Residents Need a Lawyer to Access Emergency Shelter? Report on Violations of the Legal and Human Right to Shelter in the First Half of Winter Season: 2012-2013.”

For five years I have been selling Street Sense and working as an independent advocate for the homeless. Now that I have unfortunately returned to homelessness, I joined People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) and serve as its sergeant at arms.

I have become convinced there is a human right to housing and I am part of a new generation that can learn from the successes and mistakes of the past to push for legal recognition of housing as a human right.

Through my work at PFFC I have gotten to know others who feel the same way, including Robert Warren. He decided that homeless services in Washington need to change when he saw the struggles at the shelter where he was staying: 801 East. That was when he got involved with PFFC and began doing outreach work.

“We actually had seven vets and were able to get the help they need,” Warren said. He started attending meetings of the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness. Then, in 2010 he attended a talk that further focused his advocacy.

“A presenter from the United Nations talked about housing being a human right and that prompted me to start advocating to make housing a human right in the District of Columbia,” Warren said.
He sees himself as picking up where Mitch Snyder left off. Warren has proposed a one-quarter rule for affordable housing in which the federal government, the local government, and the individual would each pay 25 percent of the rent, and the property managers or landlords would take a 25 percent cut.
“I thought about everyone having some skin in the game,” Warren said, “I think the federal government should allot district residents who earn $0 – $40,000 a year a way to a obtain housing.”

I feel hopeful when I think about Warren and his rule.

I also see how I can be more involved in the struggle for human rights. I believe that the whole world should find the best way to provide for everyone, whether they need a little, no help or constant care. There needs to be a system that will give D.C.’s historical population a boost when it comes to housing. With nearly 70,000 names on the city waiting list for affordable housing, it is essential we do something.

I worry that current officials are more interested in gentrification than in ending homelessness or recognizing a human right to housing. But just as in the old days, when Mitch Snyder and his friends in CCNV faced an unsympathetic Reagan Administration, I believe we can win change.

It is time for us to unite and say “What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now! “ We are part of this city, its culture, its history and are its future. Until that is recognized, we, the citizens of the District of Columbia, will not stop until we accomplish our goal.

In doing interviews for the CCNV project, I asked Carol Fennelly for some advice about going forward.

She recommended patience, and working incrementally.

“It’s almost impossible to get there in one leap and because the movement stopped at that leap in the last 20 years,” she said. “You’re gonna have to basically start all over again.”

Also read “Keep the Promise,” from Reginald Black.