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January 5, 2010

America's newly homeless women

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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The testimony of American women who recently joined the ranks of the homeless following the collapse of the housing credit market, is a wakeup call to Canadians: Resist any Americanization of Canada by the Harper government - even better, defeat it in the next election!

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryThe testimony of American women who recently joined the ranks of the homeless following the collapse of the housing credit market, is a wakeup call to Canadians: Resist any Americanization of Canada by the Harper government - even better, defeat it in the next election!

One cannot overstress the vulnerability, the exclusion and the lack of voice of poor people, especially poor women.

Poverty is defined as a development deficit, violation of human rights, lack of basic social services and opportunities due to discriminatory practices, and misguided social and economical policies.

However, the World Bank, the international voice of the rich and powerful, does not see increasing income as part of poverty reduction. It stresses that its objective is very different: encouraging empowerment, voice and opportunity. They say whether this leads to income generation is entirely in the hands of poor people themselves. They have to be willing to grasp the opportunity created by the liberal market forces.

With this ideology in place, it’s not a surprise that in many rich countries, including Canada and the U.S., it is politically acceptable that the ranks of the poor and the homeless would but increase.

The example of Deanne Weakly, a 51-year-old real estate agent in Los Angeles, shows how fast a person can go from affluence to homelessness.

As reported in the Guardian, Weakly was making $80,000 a year in commissions until a couple of years ago. Following the credit crisis, she lost her house and ended up on the streets.

She was harassed by the police and sexually assaulted. When she asked city and California state governments for help, “No one wanted to listen. They blame you for being homeless in the first place.”

Weakly’s testimony was one of many that United Nations special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik heard as she traveled recently to New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles to talk with the homeless, both new and old:

“We have a new face of homelessness—people who had homes, were not living in public housing, were not living in assisted housing, but now are in a position of asking for assistance because they're homeless. But the public housing has been destroyed,” the Guardian reported.

Rolnik blames the new homelessness on a housing policy that promoted home ownership to those who had never owned property and never had banks extend them credit to buy a home. It didn’t work for the poor.

Most troubling about the testimonies Rolnik heard is this: in the U.S., the most powerful country in the world, there is no respect for certain basic human rights: public shelter when you’re homeless; public health care when you’re sick; employment when you’re jobless; and assisted care when you’re old.

In America, it seems that people only have rights when they are young, healthy, employable, and have money. It’s an underdeveloped view of what being human is all about.

When focusing on the new American homeless one also notices that many women, including professionals, are joining the ranks. This is an irony in a country that preaches women rights in far away countries like Afghanistan.

From its early days, the UN has played a central role in the promotion of women’s rights, but with the wrong emphasis.

Women were granted equal rights, not because they are equal human beings, but mainly because their equality was said to be beneficial to all, and that allowing women to work would also be for the benefit of all—“Full opportunity for women to take equal part in social life…implies full opportunity of fulfilling their duties toward society…” (UN Report, 1947.)

This attitude has led to poor women being equal to poor men, but not really equal to non-poor women.

Rolnik said she could only bring the problem of poor and homeless Americans to the attention of their governments, and also warn people in other countries of the dangers: “The U.S. has exported an economic model with the idea that everyone can organize themselves under that model. It’s very important for the rest of the world to know who fits in to this model and who is excluded.”

Here is a lesson for Canadians: What Canada needs now before the next federal election is a solidarity movement among women groups, native groups, and marginalized minorities to defeat the Harper government. The time is now.

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at  

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