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A Time to Remember and Help the Least Among Us

As the giving holidays remind us, too many Americans must work for paltry wages and face high costs of housing or homelessness. Elected officials need to pay attention to the real needs of the people who can’t shower them with campaign contributions.

An Atlanta Nonprofit Brings Medical Care And Connection To The Homeless
Joy Fernandez de Narayan, who runs Mercy Care's Street Medicine and Community Health Outreach programs, talks with Danielle Storms about her health and treatment outside the Atlanta Day Shelter for Women and Children.
(Chris Ryan at Once Films/TNS)
Elisabeth Omilami, actress and daughter of the late civil rights activist Hosea Williams, was speaking at the funeral last month for longtime Atlanta community activist Michael Langford. “You got to be willing not to be ashamed to let your clothes be stained with the tears of the homeless,” she said. Pointing to where Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mayor-Elect Andre Dickens were seated, Omilami added, “You have to not allow yourself to be put off by the smell of those who might not ever get to sit on the front row.”

Omilami succinctly communicated in her remarks the challenge for public officials to hear the cries and respond to the needs of the least of these, borrowing a phrase from the New Testament. It is not easy to become the voice for those who are often silenced, marginalized, don’t have roofs over their heads and don't know from whence their next meals will come. It takes grit and ingenuity; it requires aligning political commitments with the machinery of government to implement progressive change. Above all, it requires integrity, truth telling and hiring staff who share these values.

It's a message that’s always relevant, but particularly now, when Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and other holiday celebrations constitute the season of giving and doing more for our most fragile citizens. Let us remember the story about a Hebrew baby who was born homeless in a manger. We may also recall in the Gospel of Matthew the passage that summons us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned.

Elected officials take an oath of office to execute their duties and cast their votes in the public interest. Still, too many find it easier to favor big developers, corporate and business leaders, and other well-connected residents — the "muckety-mucks," I used to call them. I believe public officials should serve all constituents regardless of their walk of life. But too often those who make large campaign contributions have more access to and influence with public officials than do ordinary citizens. And too often when politicians show courage and strongly advocate for middle- and working-class residents, along with those who are just plain down and out, they pay a huge price come re-election time.

Two examples from the West Coast are Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs, who advocated for guaranteed minimum income and programs for the homeless and was defeated in his bid for re-election (after becoming the victim of a venomous blog and sketchy social media campaign), and Seattle’s socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. She advocated for a “working people's” agenda but faced a tough recall vote in Seattle last week, although she may have squeaked by in a vote too close for comfort. Working- and middle-class voters say they desire social reforms like rent control and higher minimum wages for which elected officials will often face backlash from conservatives at the polls.

Constituents desiring social change that benefits vulnerable members in their communities must be willing to fully support public officials who champion those causes. And there is no bigger fight needed today than for workers to be paid a sustainable wage so they can live with dignity. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, but shamefully too many states fail to build on that with higher minimums. These policies are inhumane and result in employees spending 40 hours or more a week on their jobs while still living in poverty. Some workers spend half or more of their monthly income on housing that is often unsanitary, dangerous and located in food deserts.

The need for each American to have a sustainable-wage job and safe, decent and affordable housing should be considered a human right. But in the city of Atlanta, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an individual would have to earn at least $19 per hour on average to afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. The average cost of a house in Atlanta is $400,000, and average rent is $1,723 a month. In San Francisco, the average rent is $3,680 and in Washington, D.C., it is $2,235. The cost of housing in Atlanta has increased by 65 percent since 2010, and in Seattle and Denver it has gone up by 77 percent and 85 percent, respectively.

The high cost of housing notwithstanding, public officials face another hurdle of finding private developers who are willing to build affordable housing: They want huge financial incentives, tax breaks and concessions for density. Sad as this may be, it does open a window for local governments to partner with nonprofits to address the need, and while they are at it to also address the related problem of homelessness, spoken passionately about by Omilami in her stirring comments.

Public officials could pursue strategies that incentivize nonprofit housing developers to build on publicly-owned land as well as parcels that have been donated to land banks. In some parts of the country these inventories constitute large quantities of vacant land owned by cities, school systems and housing authorities just waiting to be developed. Building on the successes of the HUD Hope VI programs of over a decade ago, local governments could encourage public-private partnerships to build mixed-income and mixed-use housing on this vacant land.

As I listened repeatedly to Omilami’s admonition during the Langford funeral, I couldn’t get the verses of Matthew out of my head. Omilami was speaking to me, to public officials in the room, and those across the nation who think we could do better for the least among us: “I want to be a friend of the city if the city is a friend of the ones living in the [extended stay] hotels, if the city is the friend of the homeless mother living behind the gas station, if the city is the friend of affordable housing that is not $1,500 monthly. We have to have a heart that bleeds for those that he died for.”

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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