On Thursday, many New Orleanians were captivated and alarmed by the story of Richard Scearce, 59, who apparently turned suicidal when faced with eviction from his apartment. "I'm old, fat and crippled," he told a Times-Picayune reporter. "I'm not going out on the streets to live. Let them come get me." Scearce had apparently rented from landlord Craig Tolbert since 2005, but had fallen behind this month and was facing an impending eviction. Instead of leaving, Scearce barricaded himself in his apartment, started a small fire, and repeatedly fired an assault rifle into his neighborhood.
While the background and many details of Scearce's story remain unclear, the incident comes at a time of continued job loss and economic instability. Evictions around the US are still increasing, and anxiety about housing is everywhere.
In New Orleans, rents are now more than 50% higher than before Katrina, more than 65,000 residential addresses remain empty or unlivable, and the city's homeless population is estimated at about 12,000. This means that more than 3% of the city's population has no place to live. If New York City had a similar percentage, the equivalent proportion would add up to a quarter million people. It's for exactly this reason that our city hosted United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing Raquel Rolnik last weekend. We are in a crisis, locally and nationally.
In cities around the country, people are turning to direct action. The US Human Rights Network has formed The Land and Housing Action Group, with "an ambitious campaign to house tens of thousands displaced by the destruction of public housing, foreclosures, and other means of forced eviction." According to organizers, "the overall objective of this campaign is to compel the United States government to recognize that housing is a fundamental human right and to meet its obligations under international law." Organizations like Take Back The Land in Miami have already taken the lead, moving homeless families into empty homes in defiance of banks and local sheriff's departments, and have received wide support from their community.
Hopefully, the combination of grassroots action and international pressure will result in real change for those who need it the most.