Homelessness is no longer front page news. Housing is too complicated a problem to tackle especially in this era of small government and big defense. Homeless people and those who realize that the housing crisis is a national disgrace lost one of the few champions on Capital Hill with the death of Senator Paul Wellstone.
Often the lone voice in the Senate to champion proposals that would benefit disenfranchised populations. The words “principled” and “deep convictions” were thrown around by the President and his Senate colleagues. Some of Wellstone’s most strident opponents in the Senate seemed to be using those words to mean “wrong” and “deeply flawed.”
He was one of the few Senators who used long forgotten and unpopular words like homelessness and affordable housing. He was one of the last elected officials to follow in the footsteps of Robert Kennedy and the idealism of Camelot and the 1960s. He even retraced the steps of Kennedy through Appalachia, Chicago and Los Angeles public housing properties to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Kennedy poverty tour. While not receiving near the attention of American royalty walking among the peasants of 1967, he did call attention to lack of progress in addressing poverty in America in the last thirty years. He did not just have a fond recollection of Kennedy, but lived the values and pushed the idealism into his legislation.
He was an outcast even within his own party as homeless people are often outcasts in their own neighborhoods. He was the lone dissent on the war resolution against Iraq. He was a leader of the Progressive Caucus, and often told audiences that we need to focus on “good education, good health care, and good jobs in America.” He was the only Senator up for re-election coming off his “no” vote on welfare reform. He was a critic of President Bill Clinton for talking about high minded social justice issues, but providing little money to back his rhetoric.
He did not always follow the progressive vote having voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, and the terrorism bill that was passed in the days after the September 11 attack on the United States. His importance to homeless people was not that he voted the liberal party line, but that he was one of the few Senators that even spoke about the issues of poverty. Homeless people and housing activists could take comfort in the fact that he was there acting in our interests. We all could feel that at least someone in the Senate cared about our issues, and it was not hopeless. We felt that maybe the lack of affordable housing would be taken up by our government if at least someone was talking about the issues.
The sad reality is that most homeless people and most low income people do not vote. They do not see anyone serving their interests, and so what is the point. There is no one who talks about exploitation by banks, temporary labor companies, and medical insurance companies because we all know who pays the tabs on re-election—banks, temp. companies and insurance companies. Paul Wellstone was the exception to what we have all grown to accept—politicians are beholden to big business and corporate interests.
Wellstone gave us all hope that someday our issues would be heard and we could realize the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern. He proved that a radical grassroots organizer could be elected. He was the counterbalance to the hate filled, war mongering, and scape goating that so often drives elections these days. He stood in stark contrast to the Clinton mantra of moving toward the center in order to attract voters
We all hope for another decent politician to come forward in the most exclusive club in the United States who will talk about homelessness and affordable housing. We hope that the people of Minnesota send forth another son or daughter to be a leading voice on progressive issues in the United States Senate. And we hope that the improvement of education, universal health care, universal living wage, and a right to safe decent housing becomes a reality and we remember Senator Paul Wellstone as a founding father of this progressive agenda.
Published by the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio November 2002 Issue 57