An estimated 1 billion people in the world lack adequate shelter, and a great number of the homeless are clustered in urban areas in the developing and industrialized world, according to organizers of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (IYSH). But while recognizing the enormity of the task of tackling this problem, there is a need to look beyond the traditional notion of the homeless as beggars with bowls who must be rescued and cared for through noblesse oblige, say some.
John F.C. Turner, coordinator of the Habitat International Project that is developing an action program for IYSH, says many of the solutions lie in community-based programs. And he cites two successful cases - one in the developing world and one in the developed world - as prime examples.
In Pakistan, a low-cost sewer system was built by low-income people. In Liverpool, England, citizens formed housing cooperatives - hiring and firing their own architects and planners - in the face of bureaucratic and political obstacles.
``The genuine economy depends on the proper kind of organization that enables people to negotiate the solutions to their problems, rather than being told what to do by someone else who doesn't know anything about it,'' says Mr. Turner.
``As the economy depends on the principle of autonomy ... it depends on self management, it depends on responsible control over your own life. This is the only way ... to use the resources responsibly.''
He promotes the third sector - community-based organizations rather than government or commercial - as the catalyst for this progress. In a year focusing on building better shelter for millions of people, he says it is wrong to reinforce the notion of wealthy donors having to look out for poor people dependent on charity.
Yes, he says, some people are very seriously damaged and, in a sense, incapacitated. But he says the vast majority have tremendous potential to help themselves given the opportunity.
``In some ways [hopelessness] is a more acute problem in rich countries where that feeling is deeper,'' says Turner. In the third world, the poor will get out and organize and take action more easily, even in front of machine guns. ``They've got much more courage, really got less to lose.''
In the developed world, he says, the poor expect their rights in terms of material goods and services.
``We have to learn to demand rights in terms of access to resources, the rights to make decisions, not the rights to physical good and services,'' says Turner. That's a consequence of having rights of decision and control. The demand should be, `Give us the resources and give us the tools and let us get on with the job. Don't do it for us, because you'll do the wrong thing.'''
Rather lofty sentiments when describing problems, throughout the world that result in human misery and lack of hope. But Turner turns back to the examples where he says the most progress has been made.
He turns to Tony McGann, leader of the Eldonia Community Council in Liverpool, England. Mr. McGann, a laborer who has turned into a force in the community, tells the story of a community with high unemployment rousing to make decisions about its future. After being moved by the government several times since the 1960s and seeing communities scattered in the name of progress, McGann and others began to organize and ask questions. Today, after bucking politicians, planners, and bureaucrats, their community housing cooperative has hired its own architects, money managers, and taken control of the political machine in the area.
``People were starting to smile again,'' says McGann. ``They were round the table talking again. And they were talking about things they'd never known about. It was the best adult education ... because people were planning their own futures, planning their own houses.''
In the 10 years since the local community banded together, says McGann, they have lost some battles, but are now getting funding for a new cooperative, starting initiatives for local businesses and new jobs, and watching the crime rate go down.
Groups like these, in both the third world and first world, are not the poorest of the poor, admits Turner. But these kinds of community activities begin to change the structure of the system, he says, and will also help those very poor by balancing power, so that the state and the market serve the people instead of running them.