Issue #135, May/June 2004


Economic Rights are Human Rights


Families with nowhere else to go often wind up staying at a modest row house on a side street off Kensington Avenue, a downtrodden, drug-ridden thoroughfare that gives this section of North Philadelphia its name. Carolyn Caesar, a 44-year-old single mother and grandmother who fled an abusive boyfriend in New Jersey, moved into the front bedroom with Nicki, her 13-year-old, and four young grandchildren. Luis Montez and Elizabeth Melendez, a young couple who lost their room when they lost their jobs, sleep in another bedroom. Before they arrived here, Montez and Melendez spent their nights outdoors, sometimes sleeping under a playground slide. The abandoned row house, which belongs, at least nominally, to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (acquired in a mortgage foreclosure) has been an emergency shelter for dozens of families for nearly two years. But it is not part of any government program. “America has more empty houses than homeless people,” says Cheri Honkala, the executive director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), an organization of poor people fighting poverty. Honkala counts more than 25,000 vacant structures in Philadelphia, which has more abandoned housing in its old, now-bereft working-class neighborhoods than almost any city in the United States. “We take them over so the people who need them can use them,” she says.

The house off Kensington Avenue offers less than luxurious accommodations. With little money for maintenance, and even less incentive to invest in a property they do not own, KWRU has improvised repairs and trusted the new residents to improve their own environment. A skein of extension cords delivers power to the upstairs bedrooms from the live electrical outlets on the ground floor. Neither of the two electric stoves in the kitchen works. Caesar found a hot-plate at a thrift store. She managed to stop the toilet from leaking, and when she gets $19 for a replacement part she will make it flush without a bucket. She repaired a television she found on the street, and bought a collection of second-hand stuffed animals to brighten the bedroom. “It beats the street,” she reasons. From here, she says, she will go to a local welfare office to apply for housing assistance so she can go back to work.

KWRU’s sheltering of needy families is part of a much more ambitious effort to help those who are fighting to end poverty. These actions have at times led to confrontations with the authorities, but the 40 volunteers who form the core of KWRU argue that many advances in civil rights and civil liberties started with civil disobedience.

“Stealing slaves out of captivity was against the law,” Honkala says. “But it was right. Sometimes the law is wrong. Sometimes you have to appeal to a higher authority.” Honkala sees her work in a long tradition of civil disobedience and, in keeping with the principles of that tradition, is willing to accept the consequences. When the government tries to recover a house in KWRU’s control, they sometimes call a demonstration on the spot, using the conflict to demand city or federal help for the homeless families inside.

“It takes courage to call attention to these vacant houses,” says Lawrence Curry, 68, who represents an affluent suburban Philadelphia county in the Pennsylvania state legislature. “Cheri asks the hard questions, like why does it take 10 years to get people into one of these empty government properties.” Curry, who demonstrated with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and Montgomery in 1965, believes Honkala is heir to King’s poverty agenda. “Martin Luther King moved from racial concerns to the Poor People’s Campaign near the end of his life,” he remembers. “Cheri ended up where King was going.”

The higher authority to which KWRU appeals is international human rights law. The leaders argue that some U.S. laws, such as the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, which limits the amount of time a family can receive federal assistance, violate Articles 23, 25 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those articles guarantee, respectively, the right to work for a living wage under humane conditions; the right to adequate food, housing, medical care and social security; and the right to education.

U.S. social activists are only just beginning to cite these as human rights. The Universal Declaration was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady. The United States frequently uses the Universal Declaration to criticize the behavior of other governments in regard to civil and political rights. But it has resisted the application of human rights law dealing with economic and social rights in the United States.

“Kensington is the American organization that has been most successful in linking the activism of the civil rights movement to the legal human rights framework,” says Roger Normand, executive director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, an international organization based in Brooklyn, NY. The Center promotes human rights through legal advocacy, research, education and partnerships with grassroots organizations like KWRU. “It is hard to get international human rights groups to focus on domestic issues like housing, health care and workers’ rights,” he adds.

But a domestic human rights movement is taking hold in the United States and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union is playing a major role. In 1998 KWRU summoned activists from around the country to meetings at Temple University to form the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, the first national coalition of groups explicitly committed to invoking human rights principles in their campaign against poverty. The same year, Mary Robinson, then U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, publicly commended KWRU for its outstanding human rights work in the United States. Over the past four years, the campaign has grown from roughly 30 to nearly 100 poor people’s organizations, from public housing residents facing forced relocation in Chicago to migrant workers subsisting on poverty wages in Florida.

In Pennsylvania, KWRU and the National Association of Social Workers have joined forces with state representative Curry to introduce resolutions in the state legislature calling for a study on ways to integrate economic human rights into the laws and policies of Pennsylvania.

KWRU’s commitment to economic human rights may be fairly new to American activism, but another core principle is not. “We believe that the poor have to organize themselves,” says Willie Baptist, KWRU’s education director. “Women have the right to vote today because women fought for it. If poor people want economic human rights, we will have to fight for them ourselves.” To that end, KWRU has established a “University of the Poor” on the Internet (www.universityofthepoor.org) to train young people, labor and religious leaders and other activists in the principles of economic human rights.

KWRU recruits rank and file members from the bottom, one homeless or hungry family at a time. The pattern dates to the early 1990’s, when Honkala, newly divorced and homeless, lived with her older son in borrowed houses, a car and a tent on Kensington Avenue. She met other single mothers in the neighborhood who were struggling with similar problems. She and five others decided that they could find work if they solved their childcare problems. They took over a vacant building owned by the city, converted it into a community center and formed the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. The city shut them down, but not before KWRU began to win recognition within the community. A 1996 march to Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, to protest changes to state welfare laws resulting from the federal Welfare Reform Act, put the Kensington Welfare Rights Union on the radar of the state’s media. During the Republican National Convention in 2000, they mustered 10,000 demonstrators to march up Broad Street after the city denied them a permit, and made the national network news. In August 2003, the organization took a leading role in the Poor People’s March for Economic Human Rights, retracing much of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s March from Marks, MS, to Washington, DC. (A chronicle of the August march can be found at www.kwru.org.)

KWRU’s other core constituency is college students, who work long days organizing everything from food distributions to demonstrations. Campus groups at various schools, including Swarthmore, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Pennsylvania and Notre Dame, send interns for a week, a summer or sometimes longer. A few return to volunteer full time after graduation. “The students bring energy and resources,” Honkala says, including expertise in the Internet, their own laptop computers, and sometimes their parents’ automobiles. The demonstrations they have helped organize over the last 12 years recall the civil rights protests of the 1960s: sit-ins, marches and bus tours around the country. Last July they staged one of their signature protests less than a mile from their storefront office: a tent city to dramatize homelessness.

The routine is similar for every tent city. Honkala drove around the neighborhood the afternoon before, locating second- and third-choice vacant lots in case the police chased them away from their favored location. She checked with a friend at a city office to make sure the lots were public property and made a mental inventory of building materials in the neighborhood, such as discarded shipping pallets, milk crates, cardboard and furniture. The next day, a small army of Kensington volunteers descended on the vacant lot, cleared out the trash, and tipped the crew of a city garbage truck to make an extra pick-up and haul it away. In a neighborhood where burned-out apartment buildings are as common as livable homes, they tramped down the weeds, built a kitchen lean-to, raised tarps and pitched a few nylon tents. A painted bed sheet read: “Welcome America’s Poor.”

The homeless encampment attracted about 50 supporters, including Montez and Melendez who shared a tent with Caesar and her family. The floor was a platform of shipping pallets, the roof a nylon tarp suspended on aluminum poles. They slept on donated mattresses and ate at a communal kitchen that served donated food. Bathrooms were down the street at a friendly bar.

President George W. Bush was scheduled to appear at the Constitution Center with all of the living former U.S. presidents, and the Kensington activists hoped to greet him with a demonstration and a petition to amend the U.S. Constitution to include economic human rights. The first day at the tent city was devoted to the right to medical care, with volunteer nurses offering blood pressure checks and other medical services.

The next day, the focus shifted to hunger. KWRU volunteers trekked to a wholesale market in Philadelphia to collect surplus vegetables. Later, they went door to door in the tent city’s neighborhood, offering residents bags of fresh cabbages, tomatoes, summer squash and peppers. When people accepted the food, the volunteers asked them to fill out surveys about their housing and health care. The data would later be used to bolster KWRU’s arguments that the city fails to offer adequate services to the poor.

“We are trying to give people a political education, not just a meal or a place to stay,” said Honkala, who usually had her year-old son, Guillermo, on her shoulder and a cell phone in her hand. “The tent city brings us together. It builds our community.” Activists from around the Northeast joined the group. Some turn up for every demonstration. A half dozen from Poor People United, a fledgling economic rights organization in Rochester, NY, came to learn how KWRU finds housing. “Homelessness is our main issue,” said Mike Carey, 41, a divorced and disabled veteran who spent last winter in a lean-to he built in the woods outside Rochester. “We want to know about getting houses. That and how to expand our organization.”

July 3, the day before the big demonstration, was the final day of the tent city. Under the biggest canopy, residents crowded together on discarded sofas and easy chairs. Led by KWRU’s education committee, one of the organization’s largest with 10 assistant directors, they discussed techniques of community organizing and the effects on poor people of free-trade treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Kensington was once a major manufacturing center. In 1903, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones led her famous March of the Mill Children from Kensington to the summer retreat of President Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to protest child-labor abuses. Today, most of the area’s factories are burned-out shells, and the unemployment rate hovers in the teens.

“A century ago the problem was child labor,” one participant at the teach-in observed. “Now the jobs have been sent overseas.”

Poor people are unlikely activists. The sheer effort to survive from day to day leaves little time for protest. Even so, KWRU wins hearts and minds by sending poor people to talk to other poor people, and by offering them the simple courtesies and services the welfare system often fails to. “The shelters won’t let us stay together,” explained Luis Montez when asked why he and Elizabeth Melendez chose to live outdoors. The unmarried couple has been together for three years, but the city would have sent them to separate men’s and women’s shelters. Kensington gave them a room together. In return for services, KWRU asks only the willingness to participate in its advocacy campaigns, something many could not have imagined. Carolyn Caesar, who worked for 10 years as a cashiers’ supervisor at discount stores in New Jersey, never saw herself as part of a grassroots organization. But sudden poverty opened the door to activism, if only a crack. “I don’t have much left to lose,” said Caesar. “I might as well give this a try.”

On July 4, KWRU broke camp at dawn. Everyone got ready to march. By now, it was clear that President Bush was spending Independence Day on a military base, and the former presidents were not coming to Philadelphia. But the demonstration went on as planned. As they paraded to the Constitution Center later that afternoon, the group held aloft some 25 plastic mattresses they had slept on all week, each one now painted with an American flag on one side and a slogan such as “Homeless in America” or “7 Million Unemployed Poor” on the other. Almost immediately, the police arrested Honkala and Galen Tyler, a member of KWRU’s 13-member board. The two went quietly. Chanting “Hey, ho, poverty has got to go!” Elizabeth Melendez and Carolyn Caesar locked arms with the college students. There was pushing and shoving, and the KWRU protestors landed on the ground several times but got up again. In the end, the group circled the building, marching past television cameras and tourists. They left a demand for economic human rights at the center’s gate. “It was really scary,” Caesar said later. “But this is a strong group and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Ron Feemster is a freelance writer based in New York City.