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Human Rights Day--Here at Home

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Human Rights Day--Here at Home
Maria Foscarinis
National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

December 10 was Human Rights Day, a worldwide commemoration of basic principles of human dignity adopted by the world community. They are more relevant now than ever--yet too often forgotten or ignored. Consider these recent true stories:

A ragged man, Oscar, sits on a curb in the blighted downtown of a large city, smoking a cigarette. Police officers sit across the street from him, watching. As the cigarette burns, the column of ashes lengthens, finally falling into the street. The officers get up, walk over and fine the man for littering.

Rev. Bill struggles to feed poor and hungry residents of another large city. Part of his ministry is to offer food outdoors to any and all in need. But the authorities have told him he must stop, and passed a law to prohibit such offerings.

The Moore family has lost its home and taken refuge with a group of churches that take turns offering shelter to those in need. But the school authorities say that because the family moves among different churches, their child does not belong in any school district. The Moore's child is kept out of school, compounding the impact of his homelessness.

These stories are playing out not in some distant third world country, but right here in the United States.

If they were happening somewhere else, perhaps in Africa, some might view them as the unfortunate but inevitable result of underdevelopment. Others might say they that even under those conditions, people should be treated better. A few of us might try to help.

But deprivation is happening right here, in the midst of what is still the wealthiest country on earth. It is happening in a country that can afford to spend billions on bailouts of banks headed by individuals who earn millions. It is happening in a country that has the means to feed, clothe and house its citizens--but does not do so.

This is what human rights deprivations look like here at home:

路 Each year, an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 million people--men, women and children--are literally homeless, sleeping on the street, in parks, or in shelters.
路 Each month, 40% of homeless people go for at least one whole day without eating.
路 Last year, 106 homeless people were victimized by violent attacks on the streets, 27 of them lethal.

These statistics reflect the present day reality of what Michael Harrington called "The Other America" in 1962. They are the pre-recession statistics, before the crisis began to spread beyond those already desperately poor. Now, the reality is much worse for them and, increasingly, for the formerly middle class.

路 Communities across the country are reporting increases in homelessness as high as 59%, due to the combined effects of the recession and the foreclosure crisis.
路 In cities like Sacramento, Reno and Nashville, tent cities are going up as shelters overflow.
路 One out of four American children is now on Food Stamps.

In 1948, driven in large part by U.S. leadership, the world community adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This statement of core values includes these basic principles:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The idea seems basic: If for reasons beyond your control you find yourself in need--unable to meet your or your family's basic needs--your fellow human beings will help. Your elected government representatives will make sure of this. A safety net will be there for you in time of need.

Increasing numbers of Americans are falling through the now gaping holes of that net. Let's honor our own commitment to human rights norms here at home--and commit to take action to remedy the gaping holes in those promises.

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