Among virtually all religious and moral traditions, there is a strong commitment to treating housing as a human right, not just a commodity. Abraham’s radical act of hospitality in Genesis 18:1-15 provided the model for the commandment to welcome the stranger that is repeated a whopping 36 times in the Torah. Jesus was born homeless and spent most of the Gospels in that state, making it clear in Matthew 25:38 that he embodied all others who are left without a roof over their head: “I was a stranger, and you invited me in.” Muslims cite the Quran (“Hast though seen the one who denied religion? That is the one who drives away the orphan and does not urge feeding the indigent.”) as support for their clear commitment, in 1990’s Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, to the state ensuring that all basic needs are met, housing very much included.
For DSA and Religion and Socialism Working Group member Andrea Palumbo, the commitment to housing justice arises out of her Catholic faith. She spends her days giving legal advice to Minnesota tenants who are facing eviction and working with her colleagues at the nonprofit advocacy group HOME Line to push for more affordable housing and improved tenant rights. “We are trying to level the playing field, because there is usually a short timeline to eviction, tenants don’t have counsel, and it is often a very high bar for them to pull together the rent they owe,” Palumbo says. “We are working on the side of the underdog.”
That is the side of the struggle Palumbo has always been most comfortable with, a trait she traces back to her Catholic childhood in New Jersey. One of her earliest memories is her church hosting a dinner to benefit the striking United Farm Workers.
Like so many other cradle Catholics, Palumbo drifted away from the church in her young adulthood. Then, in the mid-1990’s, she learned that St. Joan of Arc parish in south Minneapolis had responded to the AIDS crisis by converting its rectory into a care and hospice home. First, Palumbo volunteered at Grace House, cooking meals and providing personal care to patients. Then she joined the St. Joan congregation.
Palumbo had wandered from the church but had never lost her belief in the mandates of Romans 13:10, love is the law, and James’s call to show our faith through deeds. The works of mercy pulled her back to Catholicism. Then, after seeing Grace House patients struggle with legal issues, they pushed her to law school.
While volunteering for a law school clinic representing women who were re-entering the community after prison, Palumbo was struck by the centrality of housing to survival and thriving. Now that it is her full-time work, she still shakes her head at how the struggle to afford housing interacts with so many other struggles of poverty. “Housing is so key. If it falls apart, so many other pieces of your life fall apart with it,” she says. “It goes the other direction, too. When I talk to people who are behind on their rent, you hear about the medical and transportation and childcare challenges that siphoned off the limited resources they had. And then there’s nothing left.”
In God’s eyes, this is an unacceptable state of affairs, Palumbo insists. She cites Catholic Social Teaching, papal encyclicals, and her liberation theology heroes Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonard Boffo, and Oscar Romero. From them, she finds support for both her direct service and her demands for systemic reform such as rent control and other remedies for the rich-get-richer U.S. approach to housing. “The Gospels give us very clear instructions for what we are supposed to do, and that includes resisting greed,” she says. “Christ showed us when he cleared the temple that He was here to shake things up. People being homeless is not God’s way, and he wants us to put a stop to it.”
DSA member Fran Quigley directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He is a member of the editorial team of the Religion and Socialism working group of the Democratic Socialists of America.For an exploration of the benefits of social housing as opposed to private real estate, see his most recent article in Commonweal and his twice-monthly newsletter at housingisahumanright.substack.com
Image credit: Twin Cities DSA