Homeless advocates get promise from HUD to hear grievances


A protest of government policies that concern, among other things, how the homeless population in America is calculated, has generated a written promise from feds to attend an airing of issues by representatives of those in Minneapolis who have lost or are in imminent danger of losing their homes.

During a planned “living room” demonstration by members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, activists were able to obtain a signed statement from U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Field Director Dexter Sydney that he would attend a “truth commission” to be held at the Sabathani Community Center on Aug. 30.

About a dozen human rights advocates arranged a sofa, chairs and handmade cardboard signs in front of downtown HUD offices on the morning of July 15. The act was devised to raise public awareness of how local citizens are being kept outdoors without a decent place to live because of economic hardships and what homeless advocates charge is government’s lack of concern or alternately, its narrow definition of homelessness.

Minnesota branch HUD offices are housed in the Minneapolis International Centre, a block of office towers encompassed by Marquette and 2nd Avenues from 9th to 10th Streets that is also home to several of the largest real estate developers in the Midwest.

“Nowdays they’ve relocated their offices inside places where it’s harder to carry out public demonstrations—because of all the private property issues,” said human rights organizer Cheri Honkala. “It’s too bad that we have to do things like set up house on the avenue,” Honkala said. “But we don’t have any choice because our elected officials really don’t care about these issues—especially in the summer,” she said.

During morning business hours, with people passing on their way to work, the mostly young, college-age activists, distributed flyers, answered questions and collected stories from Minneapolis residents who have experienced economic human rights violations, like a lack of affordable housing, health care and food. They distributed food items to those in need, including building employees.

“This is everyone’s struggle,” said Christopher Rotondo, a human rights activist who is working with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign as part of studies in a political economy program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “When it comes to who shows any interest in what we’re saying here, it depends on who they are,” Rotondo said.

Ann Patterson is one who lives near Powderhorn Park, who said that she and her family are in danger of being put out on the street for good if their balancing act between staying employed and paying bills takes another sideways hit. An employee at Abbott Northwestern Hospital for the past 16 years, Patterson said she had successfully weathered five or six layoffs. But when her husband lost his job some seven months ago they had to rely on credit cards to pay for some of their basic needs, forcing them to refinance their home to consolidate debt. Now, according to Patterson, her mortgage payments are so big, any more strain on her family’s already stretched resources would send them into foreclosure.

Tristan Hunter, who lives near the Bancroft Neighborhood, is also worried that he, his girlfriend and young daughter may be forced to move out of their apartment. His girlfriend was recently laid off and because she and their daughter both suffer from asthma, making sure that they receive proper health care while taking care of the rest of his financial obligations is a constant concern. Hunter, who says he feels that he is just working to work, surviving by neglecting one bill to pay another, says the alternatives are far from desirable.

“As a black man growing up on the Southside I saw the guys on the corner making their money and having the cars and the stereos and the gold—all the things that the TV says a young black man should have,” said Hunter. “I’m 21. There’s times that I wake up and just want to die,” Hunter said.

Heather Harding, a native Objibwe, has been a human rights organizer for seven months. The $400 a month she makes does not allow her a place by herself, so she lives with her mother. But the experience of working with the Poor People’s Campaign has provided her with a new perspective on local life.
“The people I work with are more like family that my own family,” said Harding, who recently obtained her high school diploma. “They’ve shown me a different side of Minneapolis that I never knew existed. Now I want to help others as well as myself,” she said.

“I think the people on the street understand the issues better than those they’ve elected to office,” said Honkala. According to information released by the Poor People’s Campaign, HUD’s definition of homelessness is restricted to those living in shelters or on the street. It does not include children and families who have lost their homes but are temporarily staying in motels or with relatives or friends because a shelter was not available or appropriate.

According to homeless advocates, this means that nearly 600,000 children and youth nationwide—60 percent of the students identified by public schools as homeless—are ineligible for HUD Homeless Assistance.

“This has been a big embarrassment for HUD,” said Honkala, who pointed to a HUD report from last year that claimed the chronically homeless population nationwide had been decreased by 12 percent.

At August’s truth commission, HUD Field Director Sydney will hear testimony from individuals from across Minnesota detailing their experiences of homelessness in the growing foreclosure crisis.

“We are asking people in Minneapolis and St. Paul to come by our office and drop off their stories or join us at the Minnesota Truth Commission. Our voices are important and need to be heard,” said Honkala.

The Poor Peoples’ Campaign will also be hosting “March For Our Lives,” a convergence of poor people from Minnesota and across the nation on the Republican National Convention in St. Paul on Sept. 2.