By Albert Samaha
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It seemed appropriate that a monthlong walk of poor people that started in Washington, D.C., should end in New York City just one week after Mayor Rudy Giuliani mandated that the homeless work for shelter. At 8:00 a.m. on Monday, about 500 people began marching from Harlem to the United Nations, to demand a change in U.S. policy on poverty and welfare reform. The Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, a 35-member coalition of workers, welfare, and homeless groups, met with a UN human rights representative to deliver a report charging the United States government with violating the economic human rights of its poor, in a gesture that they hope will change the course of debate on welfare reform.
The Campaign is the only movement to come out of welfare reform that has been organized by poor people, and not their advocates. It also has a unique vision linking welfare reform and poverty to globalization. We "have surplus, abundance," says Cheri Honkala, a longtime welfare recipient who spearheads the Campaign. Her strategy in the group she founded, the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union, is to transfer that "surplus" to those who need it-whether it means taking over abandoned houses, accepting donated clothes, or collecting leftover food from restaurants, farmers, and grocery stores.
Many of the marchers worked minimum-wage factory, agriculture, or service jobs for most of their lives, and only resorted to welfare when they were laid off. They describe public assistance as providing too little for survival but exacting too high a price in personal dignity. Rene Maxwell, who came to the march in its last days straight from a protest against the demolition of the Chicago public housing project where he has lived most of his 49 years, says U.S. policy is "gonna keep hitting you upside the head-how long it gonna take before you call the police?"
On October 1, the Campaign filed a brief with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, marking the first time that the commission has been petitioned to police U.S. social policy. Catherine Albisa, a CUNY Law School teacher representing the coalition, says that there's a strong legal basis for such an appeal. "In the human rights framework, economic rights are of equal value to social and political rights-as [important] as our cherished right to expression." The commission has little power to enforce its decisions, explains Albisa, but even so, "We want to come to the international system to help make what is currently acceptable unacceptable."
According to Honkala, the concept for the human rights campaign originated on a cold October night in 1995, when at 2 a.m. blankets were removed from 60 homeless families camping out at the Pennsylvania capitol to protest their living conditions. Honkala recalls that as people covered themselves and their children with boxes and plastic bags from a convenience store, they just started saying, "We are human beings too." She continues, "The governor asked why we didn't go home. He didn't get that we didn't have homes. People decided if they're gonna freeze to death they'd rather do it in a public space." From then on, the argument was about basic human dignity, Honkala says.
Indeed, the marchers readily use the language of human rights to articulate their demands. Oliver Edwards, a 59-year-old Brooklyn-born Vietnam veteran, once worked for the telephone company and as a token booth clerk for the MTA, but today is unemployed and homeless. "I'm a human person, I have rights," says Edwards, flanked by two other homeless veterans, each impeccably groomed and standing at attention while carrying a black flag reading, "Freedom From Unemployment, Hunger and Homelessness." Edwards adds, "There's the idea they [the poor] didn't want to work or didn't care to work-that's not true-we fought. And we worked."
Lucas Benitez, who last Thursday won the prestigious $100,000 Do Something award for activism, represents Florida agricultural workers who, after a long and arduous campaign, gained their first raise in 20 years. "Every person has the right to the pursuit of happiness. We are far from that," he says, adding, "We do work, we work hard. But we are still below the poverty line."
Poor people's advocates, too, appreciate the significance of the human rights argument. "We want things like universal health care, for people to be able to eat. Housing for all," says Heidi Durow, director of the NYC Urban Justice Center's organizing project. "If you talk about those things today, a lot of people will dismiss you as overly idealistic, unrealistic." But in the human rights documents, says Durow, "those kinds of things are all right there. You can say, 'I'm not making this up. It's not me... talking crazy. These are standards and norms that are articulated in the international community.' "
Charging the U.S. in an international forum also holds American policies up to wider scrutiny. Albisa, the CUNY law professor, notes that the governor of Wisconsin recently met with European officials "to push his vision of how to deal with economic and social rights." Albisa continues, "The U.S. is very interested in pushing its model-the same one as the IMF. So it's important that other countries know the consequences."
Honkala, for her part, is sharing her views on American poverty with other countries in upcoming speaking engagements in Canada and Chile. Asked her immediate goal, Honkala says, without hesitating, "to end poverty." She issues a wry smile. "I'm serious! That's what makes me so crazy."