Sure, as college students we may survive houses with sagging floor boards or loud neighbors. While these conflicts are certainly trying, imagine for a moment living without clean water, breathable air and even the constant threat of eviction. "Some 900 million slum-dwellers the world over inhale the foul air and walk through the narrow lanes whose surface is splattered with fetid fluids and littered with plastic bags," reports Namarita Talwar in an article for the UN Chronicle. All across the world, people struggle with issues of adequate housing, and the problem grows more severe daily.
Roughly one billion people throughout the world currently live in slums and inadequate housing, the United Nations estimates. Indeed, with World Habitat Day taking place last Monday, now is a vital time to focus on this ever-increasing problem.
Sponsored by the United Nations and UN-HABITAT, World Habitat Day this year has had a special focus on the issue of urban housing crises, a rapidly growing issue for cities around the globe. With half of humanity living in cities, the UN stated in a recent publication that "the global slum population has already risen by more than 75 million" since 2000. As many relocate from rural communities in hopes of being part of the prosperities of globalization, they are often finding themselves stuck in low paying jobs, inadequate or temporary housing, and unhealthy conditions in their new neighborhoods.
"The build-up of slums and informal settlements occurs in large part because of policies and exclusionary practices that deny public services and basic facilities – including water, sanitation, health and education," notes UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a recent message in honor of World Habitat Day. "Moreover, community-based efforts to redress such problems often face political and bureaucratic obstacles."
Annan points to the rash of evictions carried out by many governments as they attempt to repair the problem of slums by simply demolishing them. Leaving people homeless in such conditions and with little support, Annan rightly says, is not the proper thing to do and indeed worsens the situation for most everyone. "We must have a pro-poor, participatory urban development in which women and men are empowered to manage their communities, and where development is carried out with respect for human rights and in accordance with international law," Annan asserts. And indeed, his suggestions seem useful in addressing the issue of housing.
This consideration for the rights of those living in slums does not always occur – Rasna Warah in the UN Chronicle reports that in Nairobi, for example, "the authorities often failed to inform the residents of the plans for their areas, which led to violence and protests, and even riots in which some people were killed."
Recent observations by UN-HABITAT in places such as Africa, Latin America and Asia found that involving those who live in the slum areas in addressing issues of construction, rehabilitation and community planning appeared much more useful than simply clearing and relocating the people who lived in such places.
Issues of housing and poor urban conditions are not just issues for other countries, however – the issue is a severe and growing one here in America as well, and even in our own state. In the United States, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports 14.4 million families had critical housing issues in 2003, a number that has likely grown. Currently, in order for a worker or a family to afford a two-bedroom apartment, they must be earning 316 percent of the minimum wage, or work at least 127 hours a week at minimum wage here in Colorado, as the National Low Housing Coalition reports.
We as students and community members can offer our help in housing. "There are many opportunities in the Fort Collins area for volunteering," offers Jamie Balliet of Housing Colorado (www.housingcolorado.org). "A few include the Larimer County Health and Human Services Program, the Neighbor to Neighbor Program, Care Housing (a local non-profit) and the Larimer County Housing Authority."
A global and local issue, safe, adequate and secure housing is something everyone in the world should have a right to and the disturbing crisis in housing is something we should definitely take note of during this time of observing World Habitat Day.
Meg Burd is a graduate student in anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday.