Cori Bush knows the violence that can stem from homelessness – and how it so often begins with deportation. Local surveys have found that from 12% to almost half of people living on the streets blame the eviction for their homelessness. Bush, who is now the Democratic Representative of the United States from Missouri, lived in a Ford Explorer with her then husband and two young children for three months after the family was deported in 2001.
It considers the right to housing to be a central principle of environmental justice. Homelessness and housing insecurity, she argued, hamper families’ ability to access the resources – clean water, fresh food, heating and air conditioning – needed to survive. The past year has been particularly deadly for homeless people, as relentless heat waves, poor COVID-19 precautions and unhealthy air quality levels exacerbated by wildfires and pollution have made life on the streets even more dangerous. At the same time, cities across the country have decided to criminalize housing settlements and limit the rights of the homeless.
“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I’ve been through, ever,” Bush told The Associated Press. So when the White House said last week it couldn’t extend the federal moratorium on evictions – which has banned evictions since March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 – by possibly letting it expire, it took the fight in hand. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that 11.4 million adult renters were on the verge of eviction.
For four nights, Bush slept outside the United States Capitol, demanding that President Joe Biden extend the moratorium. In the end, she and her congressional allies won. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, issued a new moratorium on evictions that will last until October 3. which would cover areas where 90 percent of the US population lives. The CDC’s new moratorium comes after the Biden administration claimed it did not have the power to extend the eviction ban – and after some localities have already started resuming evictions. (Despite the moratorium, declining state protections and inadequate legal services have led to at least 450,000 evictions during the pandemic, according to the Princeton University Eviction Lab.)
In a column for Time last week, Bush denounced the “consequences of our government’s failure to provide the basic necessities that people need to survive.” On the same day, she introduced a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which calls on Congress to end homelessness in the United States for good by 2025 by investing in affordable housing, universal housing vouchers and social services for people most likely to live on the streets.
While many environmental activists, including the Sunrise movement, have called the new moratorium a victory for climate justice, Bush and other housing advocates argue that protection is one of many that must be instituted to ensure housing and environmental justice for America’s most vulnerable .
Julian Gonzalez, a water policy lobbyist with nonprofit group Earthjustice, says issues such as unaffordable public services are another front in the fight to ensure housing security. (Disclosure: Earthjustice is a Grist advertiser.)
“The affordability of utilities, especially the affordability of water, is a big part of the housing crisis and environmental justice,” Gonzalez told Grist. “Eventually the moratorium on evictions is going to be lifted and people are going to be grappling with bills, and they are going to have their water and electricity cut off – with that comes displacement and eviction.”
This is especially important, according to Gonzalez, because while there are state and national programs to provide assistance for energy bills, there are none for water. Households across the country face billions of dollars in utility debt, and hundreds of thousands of homes face utility cuts. Earthjustice and other organizations across the country are calling for the inclusion of water and utility assistance programs in the next congressional infrastructure bill, which in its current version only includes a pilot low-income rural water assistance program in 40 towns without authorized funding.
Courtney McKinney, director of communications at the nonprofit Western Center on Law and Poverty, said the United States should create a system that permanently limits the prevalence of evictions. The center is working to create state-based legal aid funds, dubbed the “homelessness prevention fund”. Across the country, only 10 percent of tenants who go through eviction proceedings have legal representation, compared to 90 percent of landlords.
The eviction creates an endless cycle of substandard housing, McKinney argues. According to Princeton’s Eviction Lab, 70% of evicted tenants experience serious quality-of-life issues in the next home they move into.
“Across the country, the climate is making the situation even more dire,” McKinney told Grist. “In the West, in particular, climate change, substandard housing and homelessness are a deadly reality in the future.”