Our Executive Director, Audrey Lyon (pictured below), was featured at a special Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration at Adas Israel Congregation in D.C. Based on her many years of experience working to rebuild urban neighborhoods by repairing homes, nonprofit facilities and storefronts, she addressed this year’s commemoration theme, “The Crises in Homelessness in the District .”
Past Community Builders Bash honorees, Nancy and Alan Bubes (pictured below receiving the Rabbi Joseph P. Weinberg Community Builders Award at Yachad’s Community Builders Bash in 2011 ) were honored at the event.
Read Audrey’s remarks below:
When I was first asked to present remarks tonight, I was uncertain of my response. It was after a national election during which the word “poverty” was never spoken and in some circles viewed as a taboo subject. I was hesitant because of my concern that larger, more dire issues faced us all and a talk about the lack of affordable housing wasn’t the headline of the day. However being the committed housing activist that I am, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to speak on a subject that I’ve devoted my professional life to addressing. So I agreed and began to work on my remarks.
Then the horrible shooting in Newtown occurred. I wrote to Rabbi Feinberg and gave him the okay to bump me for another speaker to discuss the issue of gun violence—this is an epidemic in our inner cities as much as it is a horrific tragedy in Newtown. Either scenario is intolerable and must be addressed now. However, Rabbi Feinberg wrote me back and assured me that Adas Israel planned to dedicate this weekend to the issue of affordable housing and the rise in homelessness. And that, yes, I should still prepare my remarks.
So here I am tonight to speak to you about a subject I have been passionate about for a long time but has, let’s be honest about it, lost its urgency as a social concern.
As we gather here on the eve of Martin Luther King’s birthday and the inauguration weekend of Barak Obama, I am reminded of quotes from two great sages. The first is a very familiar quote from Rabbi Hillel , who wrote in Pirkei Avot; If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And If I am only for me, what am I? And if not now, when? And then, of course, there are the words of the man we’re honoring tonight, Martin Luther King, who wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
These statements ring ever more true to me over these past few weeks when fighting for economic justice in housing and the work place is either not spoken about or is relegated to the periphery of our leaders’ concerns. Even I was guilty of passing up this opportunity to speak out of respect for the latest tragedy.
However thanks to a recent New York Times editorial, our current crisis in affordable housing didn’t disappear entirely from public view. In early December the paper ran the first of several pieces on the Affordable Housing Crisis and what President Obama and Congress should tackle over the next four years. The numbers are startling.
According to the editorial, nearly nine million households are teetering on the verge of homelessness. The main federal programs designed to hold back the tide of homelessness are traditional public housing, for which the government provides operating expenses, plus federal Section 8 programs, which subsidizes rents in privately owned properties. The total inventory of units is dwindling as growing numbers of private landlords remove their properties from the Section 8 program. Recent data shows that more than 200,000 units have been removed from subsidy programs in recent years. Faced with weak federal support and no money for repairs, the local housing authorities have boarded up or torn down more than 150,000 units. According to Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would take about $26 billion to repair the public housing developments that shelter more than two million of the nation’s most vulnerable people.
The deteriorating and substandard conditions in privately-owned housing for low-income families aren’t any better, and in many cases worse. I know this because I’ve seen it. Less than 20 minutes away from where we are here, in our nation’s capital, poor families are living in overcrowded houses whose roofs leak into bedrooms and onto dining room tables through lighting fixtures and through drywall. Electricity comes from one extension cord snaked through the house. Open stoves are often the only source of heat during the winter, and residents have to fill up buckets of water just to flush their toilets. Again, I’m talking about Washington, D.C., not some underdeveloped society thousands of miles from here.
For those who live in these conditions every day, often for many years, this is not just a “social problem”, it’s a personal crisis. For too long, the message they’ve gotten, implicitly and explicitly, is that the time is not yet right for our community or our nation to tackle this crisis. Someday, when the conditions are right, the message goes, we’ll get to it, but not right now. But when will the conditions be right? Will our leaders even know it when they are? And will they seize that moment when it magically appears? To invoke the words of Rabbi Hillel again, , “If not now, when?
Those who face this crisis every day simply can’t be expected to wait any longer for a meaningful federal response, or even an overly effective state or local response.
–We must act now and continue to do the work that many of us here tonight have passionately devoted ourselves to addressing. There are grassroots efforts, nonprofit organizations, churches and synagogues that have worked tirelessly and continuously to creatively and directly transform our neighbors’ lives and their right to live in decent and safe communities and in housing that families can be proud to call home.
As the Executive Director of Yachad, a nonprofit housing and community redevelopment organization, I along with hundreds of dedicated volunteers have worked for more than 20 years in the D.C. area to provide direct services to low-income families who are living in overcrowded, dangerous and substandard housing.
At Yachad, we offer opportunities for skilled and unskilled volunteers to work alongside these families to repair untenable living conditions. Most of our clients are one roof problem, one electrical or plumbing failure away from being homeless. And, even as they hang valiantly on to a dwelling that’s crumbling around them, their existence isn’t even close to what we in this room would consider normal and nurturing. These families are often providing housing to their children and grandchildren. The aging and deteriorating housing stock they live in is the last bastion of “affordable” housing in the region. Losing these units would pose another serious threat to the dwindling supply of housing available to low- and even moderate-income families.
Yachad’s value and work is made possible because of and through the generosity of people willing to step up and not wait any longer. Our Call to Action is happening with donations– large and small, and through volunteers—skilled and unskilled who are acting now. Many of these donors and volunteers are here tonight. In particular, Alan and Nancy Bubes and their children have over the past several years helped one family after another repair their home through their generous donation of time and money. David and Harriet have tirelessly helped to raise dollars and awareness for Yachad’s work. Adas Israel has also been a generous source of funding and hard working volunteers.
It’s tempting to look at the crisis of homelessness and affordable house and to throw up our hands because the problem seems so big, so futile to manage. But I’ve seen over the years that each one of us can in ways, big and small, do more, say more and engage more in solving these persistent issues. Grassroots action is as important now as ever before. Of course, we can’t do this alone, nor would all the efforts of private groups ever be able to adequately address the need to provide decent and affordable housing for the millions who need it. We need the help of our federal and local governments. But our efforts are making a difference, especially when they’re coupled with greater public funding and meaningful legislation.
When that kind of macro and micro cooperation happens in tandem, perhaps then we will be satisfied. Maybe we’ll see some progress. BUT NOT YET. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Reverend King writes; “there is a tragic misconception of time, from a strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitable cure all ills. Actually time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”