Maxine Waters: “It’s going to be expensive to end homelessness. Let’s put a price on it.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Reginald Black

Rodney Choice

Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been an outspoken Democrat in Congress since she was elected in 1990. She has been re-elected consistently to represent California’s 29th Congressional District and is the longest-serving Black woman in the House of Representatives.

Waters has a well-earned reputation for unfaltering candidness. She has made headlines repeatedly for frank criticisms of President Trump, referring to him as a “crook” and a “liar,” and to his staff as the “Kremlin Klan.” Her outspoken opinions on the Trump administration have made her a viral sensation among folks on both sides of the aisle, who frequently refer to her as “Auntie Waters” on social media.

Throughout her political career, Waters has been a steadfast advocate for ending homelessness in the United States. Two years ago she introduced the pioneering Ending Homelessness Act of 2016. The bill would provide $13.27 billion in funding over five years for federal initiatives to help the thousands of Americans currently facing homelessness. She reintroduced the bill in 2017, but it was not passed.

Street Sense Media writer and vendor Reginald Black requested an interview with Waters because of that bill, her outspoken views and her position on the House Financial Services Committee.

Reginald Black: I was born in 1985, about 20 years after we got things like the Fair Housing Act passed. I’m curious to hear what your own experience was during the Civil Rights Movement.

Maxine Waters: My history as it relates to civil rights is not that deep or that broad. During the height of the movement I was a housewife, raising a couple of kids. I got involved a little bit with the NAACP first in Los Angeles, and then got involved with what is known as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. I became interested in Fannie Lou Hamer, and we started to do some things in Los Angeles to support the work of the MFDP by getting clothing and other kinds of supports that we could send out to Mississippi. After that, it really transitioned into politics. We were supporting Fannie Lou Hamer and the Democratic Party and opening the Democratic Party to delegates who come from the community and were not just being chosen by the establishment. I’ve been involved with Jesse Jackson and marching and protesting, but, unfortunately, I was not in the South when some of the MLK stuff was going on — with John Lewis for example.

[Read more: John Lewis believes the American people have been too quiet]

In D.C. I’ve noticed most of our homeless community are African Americans. Do you see that in your home state of California?

Waters: Increasingly. This business of homelessness, which is now almost predominantly African American, has evolved a lot over the last 15 years or so. It has to do with public policy, the cost of housing, decisions that politicians make about whether or not they’re going to support the ability of people to afford rent, whether or not we’re going to build more housing, and whether or not we’re going to have policies that support people in public housing rather than putting people out of public housing. It has to do with joblessness, discrimination, and the lack of ability to easily get a job.

All of that has had negative impacts on the African American community. And when you go into cities, even in downtown L.A., you will see Black men and increasingly Black families and women. Drugs played an important part. In the ’80s, when crack cocaine became prevalent, like in South Central Los Angeles, people got addicted. Some lost jobs, some were never able to apply for jobs, and some went to jail or prison, came back, could not get jobs, and ended up on the street. So it became a combination of things that have had negative impacts on the African American community. You know this better than I do.

What work is being done to specifically stop the cycle of African Americans becoming homeless?

Waters: In Los Angeles, it has gone on so long that it’s a crisis. Now, the city of Los Angeles and the county are passing legislation to raise tremendous amounts of dollars to do something about homelessness. They have a problem because they don’t really know how to spend the money. A lot of Los Angeles is landlocked, so acquiring the property and packaging it in ways that developers are interested in, and making sure you have enough subsidies for developers to want to do some low-income housing — it has just not come together. L.A. is really being criticized for not having a strong plan to spend all of this money.

We know that simply having shelters won’t solve the problem; we need supportive services to go along with them, even if we’re able to develop the housing. This means that sometimes the people who have been on the street for a long time need more than just a [housing] unit. They need some help, whether it is how to go about getting a job, maybe mental health care, or other kinds of things. So supportive services, along with the development of low-income housing, is very important.

Photo by Rodney Choice

In D.C. we have reports that say we’ve lost over 40,000 African American residents due to displacement and gentrification. Is that something that’s happening in California too?

Waters: Oh yeah, gentrification is real. As a matter of fact, public policymakers have not resolved the attempts to do economic development and understand what that means in terms of displacement. For example, in one of my cities, Inglewood, we have tremendous economic development going on with the Rams moving in, and they’re going to have the Clippers moving in as well. They will have not only the sports arena but concerts too.

Because of that economic growth, the landlords can see that it is becoming a very desirable place to live, and they’re increasing the rent. And we have people on fixed income who don’t have any additional money to pay for rent, so they are basically evicted folks. The eviction issue is becoming a big issue in this country because of gentrification. So, our cities have kind of been working on these issues in tandem. Have we already overcome any hurdles in fighting homelessness?

Waters: Some. I visited a homeless center here in D.C. called N. Street Village. It was fabulous. Centers like it not only provide residential support, but training and development to help people become more independent. We didn’t have anything like that 10 years ago. But the numbers of people who are still on the street, who are still sleeping on grates… It’s shameful. It’s unconscionable. And money will help to take care of the problem. We must produce the resources to not only build the units but to have supportive services and to have some policies that will discourage displacement and keep people in their homes.

What hurdles do you see us approaching as we invest more and try to produce more permanent housing?

Waters: We have been slow in really producing the dollars that are needed to deal with producing this permanent housing. I introduced a piece of legislation called “Ending Homelessness,” and it calls for $13.8 billion. We did that knowing it would be extremely difficult. But at some point, you have to say what it’s going to cost and the amount of resources that it’s going to take.

Will we get that done with Ben Carson now in HUD and this president in the White House? That’s going to set us back. They’re not really interested in helping poor people. Ben Carson’s philosophy in general is that if you’re poor, you’re responsible for it; it’s not the government’s responsibility. So, one of the main focuses that we must have is changing this administration and fighting to resist this president for all the reasons that you know: He’s a liar. He’s a crook. He’s a con man. He’s not a friend to poor people. He’s not a friend to the average person.

When I talk about — when you talk about — homelessness and what can be done, the first thing we have to recognize is it’s going to cost money. And the United States must be responsible for allocating the dollars that are needed, not only for the building of low-income housing, but the supportive services and the permanency that you’re talking about. It’s going to take a real commitment from people who care about it. I think what has happened is, even with the Democrats, they didn’t move fast enough or recognize this problem in a way that made them really dedicate more resources to it.

[Read more: United Nations report: The U.S. has the wealth to end homelessness and chooses not to]

The Republicans have talked about keeping down the cost of the budget, and whenever you talk about helping poor people and allocating money, they start to talk about how the government should reduce the amount of money that it spends and that it shouldn’t cost the taxpayers to have to spend more money, and on and on and on. But we have seen, just since [Trump]’s been here, that the way they have done the budget and the way that they have done tax reform, they’ve created a bigger deficit themselves! So, when you go back to look at what they have said and what they have actually done, you can see that they were just liars. When they got in charge, they spent the money. Democrats should’ve done it too. We should’ve spent way more money and pushed harder to get more money for the resources that are needed for poor people and for homelessness.

So, I do believe when we take back this government — and we’re gonna do it — that there will be a great emphasis on homelessness and spending the money that’s necessary to create more [housing] units. We’ve got to do several things: We’ve got to maintain public housing, and we’ve got to invest the money in public housing to fix it up and to make it safe, secure and livable. We cannot let anybody turn that into privatization. We’ve got to change the policies that basically kick people out of public housing simply because they think you’ve been in violation with drugs or that you have a background where you’ve been in prison or jail. I think we’ve got to change those policies and we’ve got to be more understanding and more lenient. And we’ve got to have more counseling and supportive services. The only way that we’re gonna get this stuff done is if progressive-thinking legislators, who really care about people having a decent and safe place to live, are willing to step up to the plate, step outside of the box, fight for the money and not be ashamed to do.

Photo by Rodney Choice 

What has gotten in the way of passing your Ending Homelessness Act? Has any other legislation taken ideas from your bill or piggy-backed on it?

Waters: Not really, no. We were fortunate that we didn’t get a reduction in the budget this time. We were worried about that, because this administration was so focused on money for defense. This administration is not gonna do anything to substantially increase the resources that are needed in order to create more [housing] units and to have supportive services and permanency. I think the best thing that we could do now is try to make our shelters work a little bit better.

If people are on the street in tents and what have you, we’ve got to provide some security. Women who are out there, who can’t find a bed for the night, they must have some protection. [Not like] what they do in L.A., gathering up people’s things and throwing them away and talking about keeping the streets clean.

Some of that police power needs to be used to help people be more secure so they can sleep at least at night and not have fear of rape or robbery. Too much of that goes on in our homeless community because there are people who do nothing but take advantage. We have [drug dealers] in Los Angeles who only want to know whether or not people are on general welfare, so they can get some of that money by peddling drugs to them. And many of our people who are on the streets will spend some of that money to buy drugs because of hopelessness.

If every community had assigned to them [specialists to help] get hooked up with real healthcare, mental healthcare, jobs, training, all of that — just dedicated to that section [of] maybe a few hundred people — it’d be wonderful! But even with some of the resources, elected officials aren’t always as wise as you think they are. Sometimes the homeless people need to tell elected officials what they think is needed in order to not only help them in the situation that they’re in, but to help them get out of that situation.

Our readers are mostly District residents and people who visit D.C. What would you say to them about solutions they could start engaging in right now?

Waters: For cities like D.C., they should have a database of every vacant lot in the city that could be built on. They should use the money that we send, including the Community Development [Block] Grant money, to support developers who wanna do low-income housing.

If the city could acquire all of the lots, it would be cheaper for the developers to develop low-income housing. They probably could attract more developers who might want to do that. Many of the developers just say, “Nah, you cost us too much, we can’t make enough money by doing low-income housing.” So, I think that the cities are gonna have to be more generous. Not only with how they use whatever funds they have to offset the cost of low-income development, but also [acquiring] empty buildings.

Can the city acquire the buildings if they’ve been in disrepair for years and nothing is being done with them? And invest in the renovations [to] make places available for the homeless?
In L.A., they’re pretty desperate. They’re talking about things like allowing the building of small places in backyards. For years we’ve been hearing about how you can take boxcars and containers and turn them into housing, but there’s been no real investment in doing that.

How can we, as a nation, reflect the value of housing being a human right?

Waters: We have to elect officials who care about it. Voting is extremely important. This election in 2018 is very important to take back the Congress of the United States, and homeless people have got to get registered to vote. As a matter of fact, the Democratic Party should be putting some money into homeless individuals getting registered to vote.

D.C. is at a disadvantaged position because you have your local elections, and you do vote in the presidential election, but you don’t have a vote in Congress. You have to depend on the federal committees to appropriate money for D.C. Then, once the money gets into the city, you have to depend on the local elected officials to utilize it in ways that you think are important.

I don’t know what the budgets are for D.C., except I’m sure it’s not enough. And I bet your local elected officials are kind of balancing things as much as they can with whatever this Congress does. But don’t forget, we have conservatives who are in charge of the D.C. budget now because they’re in charge of the committee that oversees the money for D.C. So, it is important for us to take back the House. We have a much better chance of getting folks who would be a lot more amenable to funding the D.C. government better than perhaps we’re doing now.

Photo by Rodney Choice

I hear a lot from public housing residents that the agencies can’t conduct quality repairs on public housing in a timely manner. Some residents don’t even go to complain because they think if their house is in disrepair, then they’ll be put out. Do you think there is a solution to the issues of repairs and maintenance in public housing?

Waters: That takes some community action. We’ve been through this in Los Angeles. When we got some money for repairs and renovation, we got the young people who wanted jobs and said, “If they can’t work, nobody can work.” [Before that], developers would bring in their own [workers] from better-off counties. So we said, “No more of that. Don’t come in here bringing developers from far and wide to make the money and take it back out of the community.”

As a matter of fact, I have two guys in a housing project called Nickerson Gardens. It’s a big one in L.A., and they got hired that way about 30 years ago. They’re now retiring. They were gang members, and they got hired, and they did a good job! They stayed with the job and they raised families. I think both own houses, and they’re now retiring, all because the people came together to say “we have to have the jobs in our community.” It’s an organizing effort, and to tell you the truth, it works!

The Civil Rights Movement was about struggle. Anything you could get you had to fight for. But that’s changed. Increasingly, the people in decision-making roles are just looking for upward mobility and a career that gives them money. They’re not going to make any sacrifices. And until somebody is willing to step outside of the box and draw the people to them because they see what’s going on, nothing is gonna change.

You’ve gotta take 100 people to city hall. It’s not like you can convince them from afar and say, “This is what you guys should do.” You gotta make believers out of them. And if they turn you away, you keep going back. It’s that kind of organizing where elected officials are made to pay attention. Going to city hall is extremely powerful. Most city halls have a little space on their agenda for the public to speak. It’s not usually a lot of time, but that’s okay. When you’re organizing and you’re confronting, you don’t care nothing about other people’s time frames. If they say you got 10 minutes, you decide to take 20. And then when they say they’re gonna put you out, they can put you out.

I’ve always thought that in D.C., if people wanted voting rights, they’d come up on this hill and they’d sit down in the thousands and not move. They can’t jail everybody, you know what I’m saying? But it’s got to be that kind of determination to fight and confront. That’s the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, revisited for the times that demand it now.

I have one more question just for fun. Would you ever consider running for president?

Waters: No, I would not. Because I know who I am, what I have done and how I’m perceived. I’m perceived as a Black woman troublemaker who don’t know her place and steps all outside of the protocols and the policies. That does not a president make.
You’ve got to compromise a whole lot to get to be president. And I’ve not lived my life that way. So no, I would not consider it. What I would consider is putting every inch of time that I can into getting rid of this president. That’s it. That’s my focus right now. Because I think that he will take us backwards.

So, you would actually go for articles of impeachment on him soon?

Waters: That’s my number one focus! I want him impeached! Even to the chagrin of some of my fellow Democrats. He’s a crook, he’s a criminal, and the White House is a criminal enterprise. You see it unfolding every day. But in the final analysis, it’s gonna be Stormy that’s gonna get him.

Photo by Rodney Choice

This story is part of our contribution to the 2018 #DCHomelessCrisis news “blitz.”  Local media outlets will be reporting and discussing stories about ending homelessness in the nation’s capital all day. We are working alongside similar efforts in San Francisco, Seattle, Sacramento and Los Angeles as part of the #USHomelessProject. 

The collaborative body of work for D.C. is cataloged at

Issues |Housing|Shelters

Region |Washington DC

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.