Squatting in foreclosed homes and the slippery slope argument
On Monday I wrote about the recent decision by Operation Welcome Home to move a homeless family into an empty, foreclosed home in Madison. Since then, the person who owns/owned the house has filed an official trespassing complaint, and many people have chimed in with what they think about the entire situation.
I still come out on the "good idea, flawed execution" side of things (if you can call such a fence sit-y position an actual side), but developments since my original piece on this have inspired me to come back to the issue for a more in-depth look.
I think most of us can acknowledge that homelessness in this country is a serious problem worthy of equally serious discussion and solutions. According to the most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):
About 1.6 million people were homeless in emergency shelters or transitional housing at some point during the year between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2008. The nation's sheltered homeless population over a year's time included approximately 1,092,600 individuals (68 percent) and 516,700 persons in families (32 percent).
I can only imagine that things have gotten considerably worse since the housing and economic downturn. It's no good that anyone in the world should have to deal with a lack of proper housing, but the fact is that it becomes all the more appalling (or should, if you're paying attention) when you consider that it's happening in country's that can full-well afford to fix the problem.
The United States, for instance.
But back to this particular situation. I applaud Operation Welcome Home for being dedicated to working with homeless people to re-enfranchise them and, ideally, eradicate homelessness itself. I even applaud them for this particularly bold action.
I still think it's deeply flawed and risks putting this particular family at even greater risk than they were before. At best, doing this helps focus a much needed spotlight on the issue. At worst, it places an already vulnerable family in a dangerous position where they will almost certainly be evicted (possibly even forcefully). There's also a good chance of raising the ire of neighbors who aren't familiar with the situation, and I have no idea what kind of fines they might face for the technically illegal occupation. All of this and there are children involved who have to deal with all of this, too.
Which isn't to say that their situation before squatting was all that great, but I'm not sure this was the best solution for improving it, either. I agree that it's shit to have so many bank-owned properties sitting empty when there are plenty of people who need housing. Like I said before:
If a house has gone unlived in for a certain period of time -- say a year -- then maybe there should be a system in place that would match it up with people in real need of a home. They could apply with and be vetted by responsible organizations so as to help ensure that, once in the building, they wouldn't be likely to do structural damage or create a dangerous environment in the neighborhood.
Since the bank, or whoever owns the house, isn't making any money on it anyway, allowing the family to live rent-free for a time shouldn't be a problem. At very least, rent should be set extremely low until such time as the people are able to get on their feet and find different, more permanent housing. Simply having an address can go a long way toward helping someone get a job. And that can be the other stipulation: the people "squatting" must be actively seeking employment, and local job training and hunting groups could help them achieve that goal.
So let it be clear that I'm not 100% supportive of this action. Let it also be clear that I think the arguments being made by some who are against the squatting have largely been crap.
For instance, Derek Rivers over at Caffeinated Politics, who I have found myself generally in agreement with in the past, missed the mark so completely that he's wandered off into territory more typically occupied by those on the far right:
Does that mean then, if one takes this absurdity to the next level, (and absurdity always grows) that the graduate student who lives a few blocks away from me, and travels to Africa for 9 months, but pays his rent even though the place is empty, might find squatters in his bed when he makes it back to the Isthmus? Does that mean that the couple that goes on a sabbatical but wishes not to have a 'house-sitter' are at risk of Operation Welcome Home moving a single mom into the building and setting up residence?
That's a little something called the slippery slope argument, and there are times when it has its place. Unfortunately for Derek, however, the examples he gives are nothing at all like the thing he's arguing against. The squatters moved into a home that was both unoccupied and foreclosed upon, meaning it hadn't simply been left while someone went on vacation. The home is in the process of being taken over by a bank, no one's been taking care of or watching over it, and in this market it's entirely like that it will be difficult to find a new buyer.
It's a crucial difference, and I'm honestly surprised that he failed so completely to see it. I suspect, though, that he's not alone in that failure. It's easy to be offended by the idea of people coming into your home and taking over-harder, then, to think about what might be the right thing to do when a house does not and is not going to have occupants at all.
All of this is part of a much larger discussion about poverty in Madison that, as Palmer at Fearful Symmetries rightly put it, tends "to get press only when the middle class don't want to see them panhandling on State Street and when a co-ed gets murdered."
And the sad fact is that "Madison's poverty rate is climbing--rising nine times faster than the rate of other U.S. cities, according to a new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution." This isn't something we can afford to ignore or write off or even half-ass. The well being of everyone in our community relates to and influences the well being of everyone else. That's just how it works when you live in a population of more than one.
In the post I linked above, Palmer went on to point out something that was said on a recent episode of Here On Earth by Helen Hazelmare, the Goodman Community Center's current Food Pantry Coordinator that I think addresses the central stumbling block when it comes to dealing with poverty:
It's something that no one wants to really address. I mean that's like homelessness. And also, where's the profit? Unfortunately you have to give of yourself without asking for anything back. And that's the tough part - is you have to be able to give and understand it's simply the right thing to do.
But I'm going to leave you with what Stacy Harbaugh (Community Advocate for the Madison chapter of the ACLU) wrote to me about the matter, since I think she raises some very interesting and important points about what value an action like this can have. Because we may disagree somewhat about this particular instance, but I think she hits the nail on the head in terms of its greater significance.
"I've read some really distasteful and even violent rhetoric posted on newspapers' comments section in reaction to the squatters' acts of civil disobedience and I think critics are quick to downplay this as a 'stunt.'" she said. "But the fact is that all public protests are stunts. Lunch counter sit-ins for desegregation, flash mob brass bands for fair pay, even the Boston Tea Party was a stunt. The real history is made through the reactions to these 'stunts' of the public, the police and the politicians. It's this rich history of protest, both constitutionally protected and civilly disobedient, that makes our country great."
This is just depressing
According to a new poll out from the Pew Research Center, around 73% of Americans support the new Arizona law that requires people to produce legal documents proving their residency/immigration status if the police ask for them.
If the poll is at all accurate, I am not afraid to say that the majority is dead wrong. And dangerously wrong.
Madison is dealing with its own immigration issues, of course. I'll be writing more about this in the near future, but in the mean time I encourage all those interested to attend the Immigration Task Force's public hearing on the sheriff's current policy of reporting all arrested, undocumented people to I.C.E. It's tonight (Thursday) at 6:30 p.m. in room 210 of the City County Building at 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.