When the United Nations developed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, some rights seemed so basic that they didn’t require much debate. Article 25 includes many of those rights: the right to food, to clothing, to medical care, and to housing. But debate certainly can arise when we ask how those basic needs should be provided to people who lack them, and what constitutes adequate healthcare, food, clothing, or housing. We started Wednesday’s exploration of the right to housing trying to find agreement on some of those questions. What needs to be included in a house or other shelter to make it adequate?
After generating lots of ideas about what a shelter needs to have so that it meets basic needs, the group narrowed the list down to five: a solid structure; clean, running water; a toilet; beds; and internet access. List in hand, we set off for Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village to learn about Habitat’s work around the world and to see the types of houses that Habitat partners build in many different areas.
Our first stop after our welcome and introduction was the poverty housing neighborhood. This area simulates the kind of housing options available to people who live in very poor conditions in many places in the world. Some of these shelters had beds or a sleeping area, but nothing else from our list was available, and most obviously, the shelters lacked any sort of solid structure. It is this kind of neighborhood that Habitat seeks to replace with solid, clean, and adequately provisioned homes.
As we moved on through the village, we came to homes like those Habitat builds in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific. Campers explored each house and noted what each included and what each lacked from our list of basic needs. Some included electricity and most, but not all, running water. Toilets were present in most houses, but varied in style. All houses had a solid structure that was appropriate to the climate, weather patterns, and available materials in each country represented, and all had a sleeping area of some sort. No one was surprised that all lacked internet access — but how long will it be before this amenity, too, is considered a basic necessity?
The chance to see inadequate shelter side by side with decent housing really helped illuminate what the right to housing really means: not just a roof over one’s head, but a place where needs are met, where people can thrive, and where real community can be built. We are grateful to the work of Habitat for making decent housing a reality in so many, many places.
Back at Koinonia, we welcomed our afternoon guests to learn about the right to housing closer to home. Marshall Rancifer (whose work is highlighted in this article) and four other formerly homeless people from Atlanta graciously made the trip south to play a board game with us, a very special board game called Home Sweet Homelessness, adapted for use with this age group. In this game, players start in a neutral position and then are directed by the roll of the dice and by “challenge” and “opportunity” cards to move up the board toward home ownership or down the board toward homelessness. Each roll provides a new issue or situation to consider:
- If you lost your home, would you be able to stay at the same school? What would you tell your teachers?
- Where would you do your laundry?
- If you had to choose between paying your rent or keeping your car, which would you choose?
- If you became homeless, what would that mean for your faithful pet?
- What would you miss most about your home if you lost it?
- How would you maintain your self-esteem?
- What would you do for fun if you didn’t have a home?
Our guests acted as “game guides,” offering their own answers, perspectives, and experiences to make this more than a game, but a window into the lives that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. live every day. We are deeply grateful for this willingness to share their stories and educate us about the realities of homelessness.
But we didn’t just learn about the problem. We were also inspired by the possibility for solutions. Marshall shared with us stories from the endless work he and his fiancée Lisa do to help people secure and retain housing. One thing became very clear: honoring the human right to adequate shelter requires much more than just governmental policies. Honoring this right means challenging the status quo, demanding better housing solutions, approaching problems creatively, and seeing value in every single person who asks for assistance.
Back in the 1970s, Koinonia Farm birthed a movement that brought all of those elements together to bring about change for dozens of families in Sumter County. That movement is now making a difference the world over under the Habitat for Humanity name. It was an honor to meet at Koinonia some of today’s superstars who are also creatively defending the right each person has to live in a decent home and to be regarded as valuable.