Have We Set Our Bars Too Low For Our Advocacy?

Commentary by Theresa Arant

As a housing advocate, I was invited to sit on a committee whose goal is to determine how to access affordable, stable housing for people with AIDS (PWAs). Also attending this meeting were many "advocates" for PWAs and universal health care.

The state homeless coalition estimates that nearly 450 homeless people are also infected with HIV in Cuyahoga County. Bearing this estimation in mind, I suggested that the committee’s goal be to secure fifty (50) safe, affordable and stable housing units for PWAs by the end of our work together. Understanding that 50 housing units only accommodates a little more than 10% of the targeted population, I thought the criticism I would receive would be that I was leaving too many qualified people out. Much to my surprise, however, an advocate for PWAs told me that this goal was unattainable and unrealistic. Although a minority few of the committee members agreed with me, the general consensus was that this committee could not achieve a compromised goal of housing 10% of its targeted population, but that six or seven percent was more realistic.

Since I’ve become more involved in housing advocacy in this past year, I’ve been constantly questioning the definition of advocacy. Given the opportunity to ask a panel of respected advocates at the Community Shares Kick-Off this fall, I did so: how should this community define advocacy? Their answer was vague. They said that action is more important than definition; if we tirelessly act on behalf of our clients, then we are advocates. At the time, this definition was not satisfying and, in fact, it was frustrating. I wanted to hear a concrete answer that I could repeat to people who ask me the very same question.

Since then, I’ve experienced many instances such as the one described above, where self-described "advocates" slight the work that could be done for their community in an effort to meet the goals that they set for themselves. Advocacy groups appear successful if they meet the goals that they set for themselves. What would happen, however, if the communities for which they are advocating set the bar? What would the goals be then? Would 7%, or even 10%, of housing for the homeless PWA population be enough, or would the remaining unhoused 90% fire those advocates who left them out of their goals? Are advocates doing enough if 10% is too much?

I can imagine the argument from these self-described advocates. They would say that they have learned to only bite off what they can chew, so to speak; that making promises to their communities that cannot be met is unfair. My question is: why can’t their high goals be met? What barriers exist that prevent housing for everyone? And, if that answer can be identified, why can it not be dealt with? Excuses can be made or solutions can be made. The choice is in the hands of the advocates. If they choose to make excuses for why anyone is without housing and also choose to give in to those excuses, then they should have the courage to tell homeless people that they are not working for them.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #46 -2001