Truth Commission Shines A Light on Poverty

By Kevin E. Cleary

   On July 15th, a massive gathering of people assembled in Lincoln Park in Tremont to kick off three days of the National Truth Commission in Cleveland.  Modeled on Winnie Mandela’s commission in South Africa, the Truth Commission called impoverished individuals from across the country to testify about violations of their economic human rights.

   One of the goals of the  event was to “put aside the statistics” and put a human face to the trials and tribulations impoverished people suffer each day, according to Cheri Honkala, national spokesperson for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and one of the event’s chief organizers.

   “There’s going to be a lot of crying in this room,” said Honkala.

   Given the length of the event, and the number of people giving testimony, speakers were asked to adhere strictly to their submitted testimonies.  Some speakers chose to ignore this request and spoke more extemporaneously; urging the audience to participate in hymns or to express themselves through clapping or dancing.

   The earliest speakers came from a variety of backgrounds and regions.  One individual, Mailon Ellison, spoke about his upbringing as an African American male on the streets of Philadelphia.  He shared stories of his personal tragedies and how these had made his recovery from addiction more difficult.       

“Addiction is caused by poverty,” said Ellison.

   Ellison went on to discuss his difficulties in getting medical treatment for his addiction and for some of his other ailments, including narcolepsy, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and more.  Indeed, disrespect from medical practitioners was a recurring theme in many of the testimonies. 

   A woman who called herself “Amanda” discussed in written testimony how her doctor had ignored her complications after giving birth and she had nearly bled to death.  Adding to her troubles, the Department of Human Services had taken away her children because of her medical emergency.  According to Amanda’s written testimony, DHS in Portland, Maine placed her children in foster care while she was being rushed to the hospital to receive an emergency blood transfusion. 

   Now missing a leg and in a wheelchair, she has since had her Disability benefits revoked, was kicked out of public housing after her children were removed, and has become homeless.  She described her new situation in a written statement as, “the ultimate catch-22: [Public] Housing says I must have custody of my children before I’m eligible for a large enough apartment, and DHS says I must have a large enough apartment before I’m eligible to have custody of my children.”

   One speaker, Muliaga Togo, talked about coming to New York after having served in the military.  He had never been to the continental US before, and said “I was shocked to find out there were homeless people in America.”

   Every effort was made to accommodate the diversity of the attendants.  Interpreters from Deaf and Deaf Blind Committee on Human Rights were on hand to assist those with hearing or visual disabilities, and translators were asked to help those for whom English was not their primary language.    Green Party members attended the event, as well as several residents of Tremont who were attracted to the Truth Commission’s political and artistic aspects, said Stewart Robinson, one of the event’s local organizers.

   Another organizer, Arnold Shurn, described the Truth Commission as “a time to take into consideration the plight of how the other side lives.”

   All who attended the event were invited to share their stories with the Truth Commission.  Individuals wearing “Human Rights Monitor” shirts were present to record personal stories and help “put poverty on trial.”

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio Issue 77 August 2006