Persons Experiencing Homelessness Have Their Say at UN

by | Feb 20, 2020 | News, Vincentian Family at the U.N.

A tangible energy pervaded the United Nations in New York during the recent 58th Commission for Social Development. The 10-day event concluded yesterday and had focused upon “Affordable Housing and Social Protection for All to End Homelessness.” Vincentian Family representatives awaited a resolution which was to be finalized Wednesday. It is hoped the document contains a definition of homelessness and a call to count persons experiencing homelessness, so that progress can be monitored.

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Energy was stirred by voices of persons experiencing homelessness and by the sense of collaboration among civil society, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and nations in focusing upon a specific issue.

“It went from ‘engaging’ to ‘moving’ quickly,” commented one observer of a Friday panel in which persons experiencing homelessness told their stories. In some cases, the panelists were made homeless because of abuse.   In a role reversal, panelists, who normally answer questions, asked them of the audience, encouraging those at the Commission to move from rhetoric to action.

“What about the commodification of housing?,” asked Liz Madden, who experienced homelessness in Ireland.   Her reference was to the shift in housing from a place of social formation, safety, and nurturance, to one of profit-making, with houses improved, flipped, and sold at a premium, destroying neighborhoods and putting housing out of reach for many.

“What are YOU going to do?,” asked another panelist of the audience in Conference Room 4.

It was clear that services for persons facing homelessness ought not be “one size fits all” because each individual’s experience is different.  And that persons experiencing homelessness, understandably, want to be involved in decisions which affect them.  “Nothing about us without us,” could be heard echoing from the room.

Earlier in the week, on a panel moderated by Mark McGreevy, James Abro offered his points of view about homelessness in New York.   Changes in social values and economic practices are leading to spikes in income inequality, homelessness, and unrest, he said.

“Let’s get this one thing straight right now,” said Abro.  “There is no such thing as the homelessness.  There are only individuals experiencing housing displacement and the reason they are doing so are as unique and varied as there are stars in the sky.”

Abro became homeless after taking care of a parent.  Once he achieved housing stabilization, he wrote about his experiences of displacement, noting that the very concept and function of home had changed dramatically.

Most displaced persons he encountered were younger by a generation or more, said Abro. “The concept of home that I and others of my generation enjoyed– a safe, stable place to grow up in– had not been available to them,” he observed.   “Youth had parents with low paying jobs, sometimes more than one.  Houses were no longer valued as stable places for family to grow in; they were now commodities to be bought and sold in a purposely volatile housing market.”

“When you flip houses for quick profiteering, you also flip people and their families, creating long term human deficits,” Abro said.

Panelist Chris Gardner, whose experiences on the street were portrayed in the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, made reference to immigrants, noting that 2 percent of the entire population is on the move, from conflicts, revolution, climate change, drugs, and war.

“I know what it means to grab your child, everything that you can carry, and run for your life,” said Gardner, recalling a childhood experience during which his mother, sister, and he quickly gathered their personal belongings and escaped domestic violence by fleeing to another home.

Gardner said that hearts get hardened, senses get numbed, and empathy becomes nonexistent.  “That will never change until we as global citizens, leaders, stakeholders, and policy makers ‘add the power of one,’” he said.

“It is added,” said Gardner, “if we all asked ourselves a simple question, ‘what if that was me and my family?  What if that was my mother?  My father? What if that was my sister, my brother, my son, my daughter?’”

“When you ask that question, you add humanity to the globalization equation,” Gardner commented. “And if we all ask ourselves at every policy meeting, every planning session, every town hall and fireside chat, that question could get infused, ignite and inject the power of one into the globalization equation.”

Gardner said that we must include working women among those who are at risk of becoming homeless. There are parts of the US where working women who are already paid less than their male colleagues, have a very quiet fear –“What if something happens. What if I lost my job?  What if my husband lost his job?”

The Commission For Social Development is a primary way civil society can impact policies related to social issues.  The Vincentian Family was very present, with Dame Louise Casey and Mark McGreevy, of the Institute of Global Homelessness (IGH), leading or speaking on multiple panels. Roseanne Haggerty, also a member of IGH, shared good practices on a Friday panel.  Freek Spinnewijn, a member of the Vincentian Family Homeless Alliance, provided a brief history of homelessness issues at the UN.  Fr. Guillermo Campuzano moderated a panel of speakers related to the launch of the book entitled, Street Homelessness and Catholic Theological Ethics.

Sr. Margaret O’Dwyer, DC, participated on panels with regard to street children in Ghana and women and homelessness.  The Daughters of Charity and International Confederation of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul collaborated with others to organize a panel related to homelessness and inequalities.  Mary Ann Dantuono, of the International Association of Charity, had diligently worked with other NGOs to develop some of the documents for the Commission and Civil Society Forum.  The Sisters of Charity Federation, including their representative, Teresa Kotturan, SCN, were also very present. The Federation, like other Vincentian Family organizations, cosponsored several events as members of the Working Group to End Homelessness.

Let’s keep striving to ensure that everyone has a place to call home; not just a structure, but a place of belonging, security, nurturance, and love.


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