Issue 276


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The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist

Brave new world

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Homeless people may be pushed to the margins but they do not disappear - David Ransom finds out where they have gone and what they are doing.

'It is possible to live in economic poverty where there is love, but not in emotional poverty where there is no affection.' Bruce Harris is talking about the 5,000 or so street children who come every year to Casa Alianza, a project he works for in Guatemala City.1

The children's story really began before they were born, at least 40 years ago, with a CIA-inspired military coup, followed by a genocidal civil war. As so often in Latin America, the issue at stake in Guatemala was land. The reforms proposed by President Arbenz would have given to the majority indigenous peoples at least some legal title to land they had farmed for centuries. After the coup they found it being distributed by the military to its sympathizers. Displaced people, among them thousands of children, ended up in crude shacks around Guatemala City. Many of the children then fled the shacks to live on the city streets. They are still doing so now.

'Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of these children's "home",' continues Harris, 'is not so much the physical infrastructure as the almost total lack of affection. The children can find friends on the street who will care about them, though the material environment is not much different from the cardboard shack. They form surrogate families which society calls "gangs". The street becomes their home. In the material sense they are homeless but in an affective sense they have more of a home on the streets than they did in their shack... I guess what I am trying to say is that for the street children a "home" is more of a concept than a material space.'

The meaning of this concept is not hard to grasp. All children crave a sense of belonging and human warmth. To take it away from them by making their families homeless is the worst kind of abuse. Children do not 'become' homeless - they are made so. That there are millions of children around the world who have, in this fuller sense, been made homeless is nothing less than shameful.

It is no less shameful, however, that this should happen to anyone else. And, make no mistake, there is nowhere in the world, from St Petersburg to São Paulo, from Wellington to Washington, where this is not happening to someone. It can even happen at the centre of world attention, around the venues for the Olympic Games.

Scott Leckie, a lawyer working with the Habitat International Coalition, complains that 'only scant attention was paid to more than 720,000 low-income residents of Seoul who were forcibly removed from their homes in anticipation of the 1988 Olympic Games. Even less coverage has been given to the mass displacement now occurring in Atlanta, Georgia, as officials "spruce up" the city prior to the 1996 Olympic Games. Atlanta shows notorious contempt for the homeless. A growing number of the already large homeless population once lived on sites recently developed into Olympic venues. Local agencies claim that anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people have lost their homes thus far.'2

This amounts to what might best be called 'the politics of exclusion'.3 Put very crudely, such politics promotes a studied indifference to anyone without money. In the North they are in a minority, and so exclusion can be conducted in the name of democracy. It takes on changing guises, most of them economic; in the US it is 'deficit reduction', in Britain 'privatization', in Aotearoa/New Zealand 'Rogernomics'. In the South there's just one, universal and essentially meaningless form, and it's called 'structural adjustment'. The moneyless here are often in a majority and so more reliance must be placed on enforcement. But everywhere the aim is the same, to promote the 'realism' of global free-market economics and minimize democratic influence.

Anyone who lived through the economic chaos of the 1930s, when similar prejudices prevailed, must be watching this turn of events in utter disbelief. The destitution that was visited on millions of people in the North then has its parallel in the South now. What is usually referred to as 'housing' in the North has a particularly important part to play in maintaining these prejudices. As a commodity it is the place where we 'invest' our lives in the workings of the market, the focus for most of our private dreams of satisfaction.

[image, unknown] What has recently happened to housing - and therefore to the homeless - in Britain illustrates the folly of it all extremely well. From 1979 the Thatcher Government promoted what it liked to term a 'property-owning democracy' on the back of massive government subsidies. The result was feverish speculation, a scramble up the rungs of the 'property ladder'. House prices shot up. At one point home owners - in reality mere debtors to financial institutions - were spending more on credit raised against the notional increase in the money value of their homes than was being produced by the whole of British industry. Then, in 1989, the ladder slipped and fell away. Interest rates soared and house prices slumped. Some two million households found themselves stuck with houses worth less than they'd borrowed to pay for them: a predicament described without the slightest hint of irony as 'negative equity'. Thatcher's home-owning democracy vanished in the puff of negative equity it had always been.

The interests of the third of the British population who were unwilling or unable to climb the property ladder were simply ignored. None of the severe problems afflicting public - 'council' - housing were addressed, other than by selling it off, sometimes in gerrymandering operations designed to improve the local Tory Party vote. In 1994 just 441 new houses were built by local councils in Britain.4

The collapse of public housing was accompanied by a doubling in the number of families with children who registered under the Homeless Persons Act, from 62,920 in 1980 to 148,250 by 1992.5 The Government's response was to talk of abolishing the Act altogether. In 1991 the sight of beggars and rough sleepers on the streets of London drove the Government to consider drastic measures. The financial health of the nation, they said, was tied to visitors - tourists and businesspeople - feeling comfortable in the capital. Yet photographs and articles by foreign visitors had started to appear in the world's press asking: how could Britain have allowed its citizens to become so abject?

Homeless people had to be removed. Politically it was impossible to drive them off the streets without a huge outcry. So the Government responded by attempting to get them out of the downtown, West End, area of London and place them in hostels away from public inspection. The most important thing was to tidy up, to remove an eyesore. It now takes a speech by Princess Diana, of all people, to get thousands of homeless young people into public consciousness at all.

Around the world there are at the very least some 1.6 billion people - almost a third of the world's population - living in what the World Health Organization describes as 'life- or health-threatening' conditions.6 The 'threat' may come from dangerous drinking water, bad sanitation, floods, landslips, pollution, overcrowding, bullets, bombs - any number of things that can make life more unsafe and unpleasant than is tolerable. The people who face such threats are homeless in the true meaning of the word; marginalized and excluded from the calculations of 'structural adjustment' that are usually responsible for making them so.

The margins or outlines of a thing, however, tell us what it looks like, what it really is and perhaps the shape of things to come. No society that discounts the value of its members is going to work for long. Any 'democracy' that sets out to exclude people as a matter of policy will end up being defined by them, driven by the very fear, insecurity and violence it has inflicted on them. A brave new world indeed.

You can see the results clearly in South Africa, where exclusion under apartheid took a very tangible form. Because people's homes are so crucial to everyday life they played an important part in the resistance to apartheid, through rent strikes and the township 'Civics' that organized them. The country is now one of the few places in the world where housing is at the top of the political agenda. But the process of creating homes where people can live in peace is still fraught with difficulty.

'To the vast majority of South Africa's poor,' says Ted Bauman of People's Dialogue on Land and Shelter, 'housing is not a "commodity". For the people who matter most and who produce the most housing - the homeless poor - it is an aspect of everyday existence, much like carrying water, obtaining fuel or cooking food. It is not an "event", as portrayed in bank mortgage-loan adverts, in the part where the bank manager hands over the keys to the smiling family. Housing is an urgent and never-ending process of shelter provision in which poor people are engaged for most of their lives.

'By focusing on housing as a product, current debate implicitly embraces the mortgage-advert view, which is of relevance only to the relatively wealthy, who can afford to purchase everything in a "market" and have lost the ability to supply their own human needs anyway. Even worse, this assumption implicitly devalues the people's housing process. Even though appropriately-supported, people-produced housing is cheaper, quicker and more suited to the needs of the poor, in South Africa it is considered "substandard" because it is not a commodity. It is therefore seen as a part of the problem, not the solution.

'The Third World is littered with the results of this kind of thinking: housing developments which either turn to slums or end up in the hands of the rich; cities in the middle of nowhere; environmental degradation. In almost every instance, these are the results of a failure not only to "consult the community", but to follow and support them in their own efforts. Conversely, where "development" has been successful - by which we mean that it results in vibrant, sustainable communities - it has been in those rare cases where people took as their starting point what communities were already doing, and concentrated on supporting them... It's never too late to learn.'7

The homeless people who make up People's Dialogue have spent a long time thinking, before building anything at all. Their thinking also includes 'dreaming': imagining the ideal home, discussing it with others, perhaps even making full-scale paper models, and then deciding what is practical. Only then do they look for land, finance, materials, all the resources necessary for homes they will eventually build for themselves.

This is where the political battle for inclusion, rather than exclusion, really begins. Making decent homes depends on many things that individuals - even large, well-organized groups - cannot possibly achieve on their own. Clean water, sanitation and electricity have to be available; the environmental impact must be considered with care. The location must provide access to work, social networks and leisure. Affordable finance is critical too.

None of these things, in South Africa or anywhere else, can be provided without the political will. Where homes function as private property in a speculative, market-driven society this political will is notoriously absent, so the politics of exclusion flourish. But where housing is thought of simply as a tool of policy by bureaucratic state machines the resulting ghettos - exclusion in another form - are hardly much better.

What is needed is some fresh thinking and a different kind of political will. This has to begin by accepting that a decent home is a basic necessity of life, a fundamental human right. Such a right exists regardless of money - after all, no other human right is conditional on cash. Once this has been accepted, other things follow. Someone who has this right must be heard and not excluded. What makes a 'decent' home can only be judged by the people who live there, whose views are therefore the real foundations on which any useful building must rest. The public function of democratic government does not vanish. It remains to protect us from abuse and deliver essentials like public services, affordable credit, environmental protection.

If we are liberated from the dictatorship of market forces it becomes possible to imagine the unimaginable. Perhaps it would be better for everyone, in the long run, if no-one could sell their home for more than they paid for it; if people with an excess of two or three bedrooms had an obligation to take in those who have no home at all; if no-one had the right to own more than one home; if forms of ownership and finance developed that were neither state nor private but controlled by local communities; if land had no monetary value; if homeless people had a right to occupy and renovate empty 'property'.

The point of this is not that we need an unworkable wish-list to be presented to some kind of unelectable putative government. It is to free our minds from the bondage of market forces, to use our imagination and to work out for ourselves what is practical. Younger people in the North for whom good jobs and dream-homes are more of a fantasy than anything we have suggested are, here and there, beginning to do just this. But for the most part it is to the South that we must look for inspiration for a genuinely brave new world.

There is a chance to learn these lessons at the UN's Habitat II World Conference on Human Settlements - the 'City Summit' - set for Istanbul in June. Given Turkey's appalling human-rights record, Istanbul may be a curious place in which to learn them. The US Government has also been doing its utmost to stifle progress: the UN Centre for Human Settlements running the Conference has, in Scott Leckie's words, 'reduced itself to a fearful and lacklustre bystander, afraid of pursuing its mandate if this does not conform with Washington's demands'.2

But the politics of exclusion cannot endure forever. On the face of it the woman who slips the key to the dream home she can no longer afford through the letterbox of the bank and disappears into the night with her children has little in common with the woman who retrieves what she can from the ruins of a cleared slum in Manila and sets out in search of somewhere else to squat. The experience of homelessness and exclusion is, however, much the same wherever you are. Common humanity can never finally be denied.

1 Comments received directly from Bruce Harris in Guatemala City.
2 Scott Leckie is a lawyer and the author of When Push Comes to Shove: Forced Evictions and Human Rights, Habitat International Coalition, Utrecht, 1995.
3 See, for example, David Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, Routledge, London, 1995.
4 The Guardian, 30 October 1995.
5 Jill Mann and Alistair Smith, Who Says There's No Housing Problem? Shelter, London, second edition, 1993.
6 Our Planet, Our Health, Report of the WHO Commission on Health and Environment, WHO Geneva, 1992.
7 From People's Dialogue Backyard e-mail, vol 1, no 3, 20 November 1995, PO Box 34639, Groote Schuur 7937, South Africa.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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New Internationalist issue 276 magazine cover This article is from the February 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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