PPEHRC Travels to Washington DC for Hearing at IACHR of the OAS

Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign Travels to Washington DC for Hearing at Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS)

thanks to Rafi Rom and Noah Leavitt for contributions to this report
hotographs by Mario Lopez

In a historic hearing, on Friday, March 4th, the Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) on the violation of the human right to housing in the United States, Canada and Brazil.

In the morning before the hearing, members of the PPEHRC took advantage of being in Washington DC to talk to members of the Senate to oppose the recently proposed 2006 federal budget, which involves drastic cuts to funding for medical care, housing, education, and heating assistance. PPEHRC members visited the chair of the Senate Budget Committee and other senators, passing out flyers with PPEHRC's position on the budget and telling them of the deathly impact these cuts will have on our families and communities across the country. We raised the issue that while funding is being cut from programs that keep millions of people alive across the country, the Bush administration is proposing $80 billion more in funding for the war in Iraq.

Before the hearing, we held a press conference and rally outside the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS). At the rally were currently and formerly homeless families and public housing residents from Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia and elsewhere who are being threatened with mass eviction. Signs said "USA: House your People," "Housing is a Human Right," and "Thanks, OAS for Listening." In addition to hundreds of representatives of the PPEHRC, including the Coalition to Protect Public Housing (CPPH) from Chicago, Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) and New Jerusalem Laura from Philadelphia, and Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg from Washington DC, several members of the PPEHRC legal committee, and various community members and supporters were also present.

Speakers at the rally/press conference included Carol Steele, President of the Coalition to Protect Public Housing and Debra Frazier of Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg. To remind us of the life and death nature of poverty and homelessness in the United States, Cheri Honkala, national coordinator of the PPEHRC and founder of the KWRU, dedicated the day to Mia, a month-old homeless baby from the KWRU in Philadelphia who died in January.

Historic Hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In an historic hearing, on Friday March 4th, the Poor Peoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) on the violation of the human right to housing in the United States, Canada and Brazil. Although the IACHR has existed for forty years, Friday was the first time petitioners have raised the issue of housing as a human right in a regional context.

This effort grew out of a meeting of members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in 1999 with Peter Weiss, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Peter's personal commitment, along with the persistent efforts and dedication of Jennifer Green, also of CCR, Catherine Albisa of the National and Economic and Social Rights Initiative, Rhonda Copelon of the International Womens Human Rights Clinic of CUNY School of Law , Cynthia Sooho of the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University Law School, Jonathan Blazer of the National Immigration Law Center, Noah Leavitt, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Rafi Rom, Community Legal Services Philadelphia, and Cecilia Perry, Washington DC attorney, made this effort successful. In addition, Maria Foscarinis, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Laurene Heybach, Law Project-- Chicago Coalition of the Homeless and Bruce Porter, Social Rights Advocacy Centre in Canada provided excellent preparation, input and testimony at the hearing. Finally, PPEHRC Counsel Tara Melish joined the effort recently and provided expert testimony at the hearing on the legal framework for the right to adequate housing in theAmericas, in the Human Rights System.

The PPEHRC and its counsel insisted that under international law, governments are not only obligated to respect one's home, but they are also required to ensure everyone has adequate--i.e. safe, clean and permanent housing They then described how certain countries in the hemisphere, including the United States, are falling far short of this standard.

The campaign and their legal team testified before the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body recognized by almost all countries in the Western Hemisphere including the US, as a place where human rights abuses by governments are investigated and evaluated. The Commission is not only focusing on the US but will also investigate housing rights violations across the Americas. (Bruce Porter offered testimony on Canada's policy, and the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions --COHRE -- submitted written documentation of housing rights violations in Brazil.)

At the hearing, Carole Steele, president of the Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing, testified that the federal government's withdrawal of a commitment to public housing has been a disaster in her city. "The facts tell a horrible story," said Steele. "Sixteen thousand units of public housing demolished, with less than 1,500 replacement units for families built." Steele has firsthand knowledge of housing rights violations, as a lifetime resident of the famous Cabrini-Green Project. Like many other projects in Chicago and across the U.S., most of the complex is slated for demolition, financed in part by the federally-funded program, HOPE VI.

According to Steele's testimony and recent reports on Chicago's demolition plan, the Chicago Housing Authority is systematically demolishing homes and not building anywhere near the number of new units needed as replacements. Of the 23 buildings that once comprised the Robert Taylor Homes, the city has demolished 21, and very few of the former residents have received new "mixed-income" housing, as had been promised by CHA. Most "mixed-income" housing is offered on the open housing market, leaving very few units available to those who have been displaced. Instead low-income residents are being re-segregated in other poor often-minority neighborhoods, live in transitional housing limbo, or are left completely homeless.

The housing crisis Steele described in Chicago is a nationwide phenomenon. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported in January 2005 that nearly 95 million people in the US have trouble affording adequate housing. A recent study looking at affordable housing in Philadelphia found that 60,000 people were in need of adequate housing. According to some estimates, about the same number of houses lies empty due to forced evictions. Moreover, the Bush administration budget proposes slashing more than 10% of the HUD budget for the coming year.

Based on a close reading of international law, PPEHRC demonstrated that forced evictions from public housing, "sweeps" of homeless people, inadequate housing, and racially segregated access to housing are all considered human rights violations - all of which are taking place in the United States on a regular basis.

At the hearing the Commissioners were engaged seemed ready to begin incorporating housing rights in their investigations, including investigating violations of the human right to housing in the United States, Canada and Brazil. The Commissioners raised several issues at the hearing, and the legal team of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign will respond to their questions and suggestions. After the hearing, PPEHRC sent a formal invitation to the Commissioners for a site visit to the Cabrini Green Housing Complex in Chicago, and also to Philadelphia where the Kensington Welfare Rights Union has a long history of confronting violations of the right to housing by setting up encampments of homeless families in vacant lots.

At a post-hearing reception at the Service Employee's International Union (SEIU) headquarters, we exchanged updates from the hearing, stories of the struggles in each of our communities and plans for action in the movement for economic human rights in the Americas. We closed with a prayer led by Sister Goretti, who came with the group from New Jerusalem in Philadelphia and the singing of the campaign's song, "Rich Man's House"