Sandra Paritz: Housing Must Be Recognized as a Basic Human Right

This commentary is by attorney Sandra Paritz, who directs the Poverty Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid.

Years ago, when my 3-year-old son first saw someone sleeping in the doorway of a building in the cold, he asked: Why is he sleeping there? Won’t he be too cold? Why doesn’t he have a home? Why doesn’t someone help him? Why are we not helping him?

I always tried to answer my children’s questions honestly. So I said: He does not have a home. Yes, it is too cold. There is no good reason for him not to have a home; it is wrong. Someone should help him. We should help him.

My son would not stop asking questions. He was crying. He could not keep walking down the street as if nothing happened. How could I?

What are the stories that we learn to tell ourselves to keep walking? We do not say them out loud, but maybe they are something like, “This is someone who wasn’t able to follow the rules, someone who did not manage their money well, or maybe they committed a crime that led them to this place.”

Of course, when we say these things out loud, we often know those stories are incomplete and our reasons inadequate. The stories we tell ourselves shouldn’t allow us to ignore people’s humanity.

I work at Vermont Legal Aid, where we represent people experiencing homelessness or at imminent risk of homelessness. I sometimes find myself advising people who, like me, are working hard to care for their children, pay their bills, and do all the normal things I do every day. But unlike me, they may not have a home to return to at night.

There is no way to justify this reality. It is what keeps those of us who work with housing-insecure people awake at night. Once you know the real story behind a person who is homeless, you cannot tell yourself the false and simplified narratives that allow you to just keep walking.

According to a January 2019 Vermont Legal Aid report, about 70 percent of evictions happen because tenants simply cannot afford to pay their rent. Vermont ranks fifth in the nation for having the largest housing affordability gap, and that problem is getting worse in the current housing market.

No one deserves to be homeless — regardless of how they got there. We all know what any 3-year-old would tell you: It is just horrifically wrong that a human being is sleeping on the street, and no one is helping them.

In ”A Dry White Season,” Marlon Brando said the law and justice can be described as distant cousins. Sometimes, when I see that the law regularly allows people to be evicted into homelessness, often for no reason, that statement rings true. But I think it is more accurate to say that the law reflects our culture, and sometimes it takes time and political courage for our culture to evolve.

In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the prohibition on same-sex marriage violated the Vermont Constitution. The Legislature’s efforts to fix it culminated in emotionally charged debates that finally resulted in the civil union statute in 2000.

Nine years later, when the Legislature took up same-sex marriage, there were enough votes to override the governor’s veto and to make the right to same-sex marriage into law. With advocacy and commitment from our political leaders, our culture had evolved to the understanding that recognizing same-sex marriage was simply the right thing to do.

Similarly, our cultural understanding of homelessness is evolving. For many years, those who witnessed people becoming homeless have argued that housing is a basic human right; that to build healthy, thriving communities, housing for all must be our top priority.

But historically, many who did not live or work in proximity to people experiencing homelessness did not share that view. The pandemic has begun to change that. Just recently, President Biden declared that housing should be a right, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge has urged that “housing is infrastructure.” Gov. Scott has characterized his housing budget as “the greatest investment in housing in the history of Vermont.”

Vermont’s efforts to house all who were homeless during the pandemic allowed us to have one of the lowest infection rates before vaccines became available. Numerous studies show that housing is essential to health, and that homelessness causes and exacerbates trauma, mental illness, chronic health conditions and substance use disorders.

We have the tools to address these problems. It is time for the law to reflect what we now know to be true — that housing for all must be recognized as a basic human right.