Monday, May 21, 2012

Audaciously claiming water/sanitation as a right

Old news, but new to me: how Sacramento activists reframed their local discussion of homelessness by invoking United Nations standards.

Last year the "SafeGround Sacramento" movement sought, and obtained, a United Nations fact-finding visit to their time-honored but unauthorized camping area along the American River. This stable makeshift community, of people classified as "homeless" in the U.S., claimed Sacramento public officials were violating their human rights by denying them clean water and sanitation. The visiting special rapporteur agreed.

There's a great article about the effort in last fall's Clearinghouse Review by Mona Tawatao and Colin Bailey. Both are attorneys with Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC), which helped arrange the rapporteur's visit and later filed a formal complaint with the U.N. (Article found via the Public Interest Law Project, where Tawatao is a board member.)

Since the article appeared, as of February 2012, Catarina de Albuquerque, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, has issued a report on U.S. violations of water and sanitation rights that, among much else, backs the Sacramento campers. Here's the Sacramento Bee writeup. Her press statement is here, full PDF report here, her stern letter to the city's mayor here.

The odd part is, despite having argued for years that campers and vehicular residents ought to have water, sewer and trash pickup service, I catch myself having to push past a sense of shock at saying it's a right. It feels audacious for people to claim a right if they're unauthorized squatters, if they don't pay their way...

On reflection, though...

My own hesitation is a reminder how easy it is to accept the idea that citizenship requires property qualifications. Blogger Anton Steinpilz put the problem well in his 2009 post, "Life or Something Like It: Homeownership and Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception," protesting against
"the ideology behind the “ownership society,” which to my mind is simply a permutation of the ideology of consumer society in general. This ideology imposes greater conditions on full participation in society than simply having been born or naturalized in the United States, paying taxes, and avoiding brushes with the Law. It’s similar to when President Bush exhorted citizens shortly after 9/11 to express their patriotism by shopping: participation in civic life has been conflated with participation in the economy."
Apart from the conditioning of material rights on property rights, there's the American official habit, also easily picked up, of pretending that people in unauthorized encampments live there by choice -- that they're just stubbornly playing at autonomy -- as though it were obvious that campers had rejected other, more rationally acceptable choices out of illogical stubbornness. It's easiest, officially, to deny that American shantytowns are economically inevitable and therefore to try to stamp them out. Because to admit their normality would be giving up on the exceptionalist claim to uniform "First World" prosperity.

By contrast, the U.N. rapporteur's position is simple and just: the people who live along the river are in effect forced to be there. They have a right to basic necessities where they are. Implicitly, she accepts that encampments are a kind of long-term housing, in United States as elsewhere.

The LSNC article says something else significant:
"The empowering effect of this validation from a human rights monitor who had investigated water and sanitation conditions in Africa, India and other parts of the developing world was palpable."
There it is. A distinguished official saw the residents of the American River camp in the same light as residents of any other unauthorized long-term camp anywhere else in the world.

By the way, this is the same area and circumstance described by William Vollmann in his February 2011 Harper's feature. The problem is still the same flatly anti-homeless city enforcement policy whose effects Vollmann discussed there. (I wrote a little about the article a while ago here. A direct link to the paywalled article itself is here.) 

It looks like the venerable Loaves and Fishes organization is still campaigning to establish an authorized living site with shelters and basic utilities. Also, looks like the police raids and other harassment have worsened since the initial complaint to the U.N.

One bit of good news in it all: Tim Buckley, the much-praised "sanitation engineer" of the Safe Ground camp, has apparently gotten indoors. That's something.

Now, about everyone else?

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