The Communities that Congress Could Create
By Diane Randall on 12/29/2011 @ 12:49 PM
Maybe it's our heightened awareness during the holiday season of those who are less fortunate or maybe it's the lobbying work I did for many years on behalf of initiatives to end homelessness, but I was taken aback last week to see a young mom with a baby and toddler sitting on the cold ground outside my local Target store, begging for spare change. And in the short walk to my home, I saw two more people who were homeless-men sleeping at 3 o'clock in the afternoon in the local park, the signature shopping cart overstuffed with belongings nearby. These could have been scenes in any impoverished neighborhood, except that I live in Washington, DC, a metropolitan area that has actually gotten richer as the economic crisis has hit other cities and towns hard.
The news this week that the wealth of members of Congress has grown dramatically relative to the people who elect them may come as no surprise, but the economic gap between those who make decisions about the federal budget and policies that govern our country is unsettling. I hope that during this break when elected officials visit soup kitchens or public housing for the elderly, they make the link between their votes in Congress and how the programs funded through federal dollars serve their constituents. Despite the anti-government program rhetoric that is bandied about in election season, federal funding makes a difference in the lives of millions of our neighbors and in the quality of life in the communities where we live.
Take the case of veterans who are homeless: two years ago as a commitment to end homelessness, several federal agencies came together to launch a plan to end homelessness in 10 years. Led by a federal interagency council that includes the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Labor, and others, one of the first goals was to end homelessness among veterans in five years. Turns out that the relatively modest federal funds going into this program for rental vouchers and support services are giving hope and opportunity in the lives of men and women who have fought in the recent U.S. wars of Iraq Afghanistan-almost 20,000 vets from those two wars have experienced homelessness. As reported by the Washington Post this week, supportive housing--the combination of social services, linked to an affordable apartment--creates conditions for the medical care and job assistance for many veterans who are dealing with PTSD and addiction need.
A significant goal of our lobbying at FCNL this past year was focused on the federal budget--Our Nation's Checkbook--working to promote a balance that assures people who are vulnerable-children, the elderly, people who are disabled-along with the rest of us are able to live in "communities where every person's potential may be fulfilled." These are communities where education is available to all children, where hunger is eliminated, where adults have job opportunities and where everyone has a home. They are the communities that every member of Congress should be working to help create through their public service in the coming year.
Achieving these communities will require strong moral leadership that is willing to curtail Pentagon spending, that is willing to examine our national priorities through the experiences of everyone they represent--from the homeless veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the mom begging on the streets of our nation's capital to the millions of unemployed people who long for work. The solutions that can create a better world are within our capacity; hundreds of thousands of people are laboring locally toward this goal; our elected members of Congress can do much to help.