Click here to go to the Home Page "It's a Matter of Life or Death" By Dr. Mei-Ling Malone, PhD, Guest Commentator

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I open with a quote I took from a sixth grade science lesson plan on �Human Needs�.  �Human beings have certain basic needs. We must have food, water, air, and shelter to survive. If any one of these basic needs is not met, then humans cannot survive.�(1)

You see, shelter is a must have for all people.  It is a matter of life or death. Housing cannot only be granted to privileged people with wealth and resources.  Every human being needs a roof over his or her head, especially those who are most vulnerable in our society: the poor and the sick, who many times tend to also be people who served time in jail or prison.

No amount of studying poverty and social inequality could have prepared me for my new job as a Housing Advocate for formerly incarcerated women in Watts, California.  My doctorate degree from UCLA is practically meaningless in my quest to find decent housing for women who are demonized and despised by society and consequently discriminated against everywhere they turn.

In the short time I have been doing this work, I have learned some of the unimaginable and profound suffering people endure when born into poverty.  Learning the stories of the women I serve has been heartbreaking.  These women had hard lives well before entering jail and prison, and continue to endure an unforgiving reality after being released.  It pained me to learn that many of our women served long and harsh sentences for drug related offenses.  It is well documented that people of all races everywhere equally engage in drug use and sales, and yet, those convicted are overwhelming black and poor. (2) But regardless of the offense, I find it disturbing to think about all the time that these women, all of whom had serious unmet needs, were kept in captivity behind metal bars instead of receiving treatment and care.

I also learned that nationwide, Public Housing Authorities willfully elect to routinely exclude people with criminal backgrounds from obtaining affordable housing - taking away the one and only available option desperately needed by those trapped in poverty.  This legal form of discrimination leaves many formerly incarcerated people no other choice but homelessness. (3)

It is also clear that many formerly incarcerated people and other marginalized communities are not receiving a livable wage for the hard work they do- day in and day out.  This too leaves people unable to afford rent, even places considered �cheaper apartments�.  And for formerly incarcerated people who are denied employment opportunities on the basis of their background or do not have the physical or mental capacity to work- they are also left with zero possibility of obtaining housing.

Do not get me wrong- there are agencies that work to provide underserved people with housing.  Unfortunately the need far exceeds the services that are available.  I took a client to one such agency and was told that the waiting list was closed.  �How long until the waiting list will open again?� I asked.  The answer- �hopefully in five years�.  But what will happen to my client and millions of other people like her who need housing today?  This is not a rhetorical question. This is a real, desperate and urgent question.

With housing being a basic human need, essential for survival � society cannot continue to slam the door shut on peoples� basic need for decent shelter.  This practice is nothing short of inhumane.

The good news is you can and should do something about this.  You have the power to work with us to ensure that all people have a right to decent housing.  You can bring awareness to this dire need and promote policies and practices that work to address all basic human needs.  And so we thank you in advance for your recognition and help, and we eagerly await to see the results of your hard work to ensure that everybody has a place to call home. Guest Commentator Dr. Mei-Ling Malone, PhD is a Housing Advocate at A New Way of Life Reentry Project, a non profit located in South Central Los Angeles that provides direct services to women coming out of jails and prisons. Click here to contact Dr. Malone.

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Oct 6, 2011 - Issue 444
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