Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 91 this week. He left behind a lasting legacy of how to fight for justice. He graced countless freedom fights with his words, which have since become guiding of our movement. One of his many lessons is that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As an ever-growing local, state, and national network of formerly incarcerated leaders, we can’t stay silent. Instead, we help people from all walks of life understand our experience, especially as public support for justice reform grows.
MLK is the reason we have classes of people that are protected against housing discrimination today. In 1968, one week after MLK was assassinated, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Federal Fair Housing Act into law. This made it unlawful for any private or public landlord to discriminate on the basis of: color, disability, familial status (i.e., having children under 18 in a household, including pregnant women), national origin, race, religion, or sex. While this has had a tremendously positive impact in ensuring the human rights of many, the fruits of MLK’s labor have not yet been fully realized. These laws have not included people with convictions like us.
Because we are not yet considered a protected class, the 7 million Americans with a record can be legally denied housing based on their conviction history.
VOTE’s Fair Housing Now! Campaign, led by our Housing Justice Organizer Kiana Calloway, seeks to rectify this. As the above introductory video explains, our goal is to ban the box (i.e. remove the question about conviction history) from all private and public rental applications in both Orleans and Jefferson Parish. We hope to do this by the end of 2020.
Like all of our work, the campaign operates from a coalition model that seeks to involve as many players as possible. When the campaign began last year, most of our partners were fellow non-profit organizations working for housing justice, as well as concerned citizens and community activists. This year, we’re seeking to expand our reach to include policymakers at every tier of government, all types of businesses from small mom-and-pop shops to national corporations, and--perhaps the toughest audience--private landlords.
“We need to open up the hearts and minds of not only our local leaders, but also the private landlords who have a heavy hand in playing out this discrimination,” says Calloway.
In addition to fighting for policy changes, we’re focused on shifting the cultural perceptions of people with convictions.
“We need a shift to where it becomes almost childish for someone to view me simply as a formerly incarcerated person [FIP] instead of a stand-up man in my community,” Calloway continues. “If they can’t view [formerly incarcerated people] as productive members of our community, then we’ll never be in agreement. What we’re really fighting for is safe, healthy and stable families. Who is really going to be against families? It’s not a good look for them.”
As the people in the above video explain, getting a job and finding housing as a returning citizen is not as easy as it sounds, even though these two things have been proven crucial in order to break the cycle of recidivism. Legal discrimination from property owners, combined with a lack of affordable rentals, push FIP out of the housing market. The same kind of discrimination from employers pushes them out of the job market. As a result, FIP are ten times more likely to be homeless than non-FIP.
Calloway is one of the few FIP he knows that has been gainfully and steadily employed since coming home. Despite this, he still has a hard time finding stable housing. This is one of the many reasons he’s on the frontlines of our campaign.
“The public needs to know that even those of us that have a decent education, a good job and cash in hand still face massive discrimination, exclusion and predation when trying to find a place to live.”
He reminds us that many reentry programs are not created and informed by FIP, and as such do not successfully help participants find a house and a job. “It is my duty to expose the ridiculousness of so-called reentry support programs that simultaneously exclude FIP from civil and economic life once they complete the programs. The current reentry mechanisms have no real bottom, so people continue to fall through.”
With the presidential election in November, justice reform--including housing justice for people with convictions--must be put into the national spotlight as the crisis that it is.
We begin to do that by starting right where we are. Last week, Calloway organized a rapid-fire action in which more than 70 New Orleanians used their lunch break to call their city councilmembers and demand that they push forward our work to ban the box. And this action is just the beginning, with more forums, rallies and meetings coming up soon.
“We win when the majority of our city councilmembers can say comfortably that New Orleans has 100,000 people with criminal records--which means that over half of our city’s families are dealing with a lifetime of punishment,” Calloway explains. “We win when they publicly acknowledge that these families are suffering in silence, and when they commit to doing something about it.”
Help us carry forth MLK’s legacy by getting involved in this fight today. Email Kiana directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.