Watching people’s homes crushed to the ground is a horrible experience.
Two years ago I saw police officers assemble in a nearby slum. I walked inside to find bulldozers obliterating brick and stick dwellings. Families were crying while a line of 50+ heavily armed officers blocked anyone who might attempt to stop them.
I felt helpless. I walked along the line of officers, looking each one in the eye, but said nothing. What could I say? I phoned a friend who then called a lawyer, he did his best but nothing went forward. Every home was flattened and the rubble sold for scrap. Rumor had it a friend of the local politician has some enterprise planned for the lot.
You could track my slum life by the demolitions. I was called to this service when watching a slum demolition in progress. The first slum I ever stayed in was slated for demolition, which was completed two years later. Our current slum has received demolition notices from government employees going door to door, their warnings echoed in local papers. The slum I teach in has also been told that they will be demolished, with several announced dates hanging over their heads.
The fear of demolition is the final key that makes slum life significantly different from life anywhere else. Four months ago I posted the UN Habitat definition of a slum. Let’s revisit the criteria:
an urban area which lacks one or more of the following:
Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions.
As I wrote in House made of straw, wood, brick, or…?, that’s a mixed bag in our community. Most people have solid, semi-permanent homes, but lack of protection from rain and heat is a major issue.
Sufficient living space which means not more than three people sharing the same room.
As I wrote in How much land does a family need?, our rooms that are far too small with too many people crammed into each one.
Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price.
In Water, water everywhere, who gets a drop to drink?, you can see that safety and availability of water are continuing problems.
Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.
And that’s what I have shared today. Security of tenure is not assured.
Some of these issues may get better over time. It’s possible to improve water and electricity access, and housing construction is already improving. Yet a few problems appear more intractable. How will the overcrowding of the slums ever be reversed? The rich keep land away from the poor and often demolish even the land that they do have. How will the social capital shortcomings ever be addressed? The overcrowding ensures that slums will always be an undesirable place to live and segregation is getting worse, not better. Air quality keeps getting worse. And with so many people so close together, disease will always spread more easily here.
I’ve come to believe that the slums as we know them can’t be satisfactory places for human beings to live, no matter what we do to try to make them better.
So how can we build a world where people don’t have to live in slums anymore?
1. Make rural areas more livable.
The main factor behind slum growth is migration from rural areas to urban. The inability of family farmers to compete with agribusiness, stealing of land from the poor, the lack of modern services, and the allure of cash on hand and false promises of city life are all part of the problem. Many of my neighbors have suggested that they liked rural life better, but couldn’t afford to remain there. This is both a policy issue (government policies favor big business over small farmers and favor urban services over rural) as well as a cultural issue (modern culture turns city life and cash jobs into an idol).
2. Respect adequate housing as a human right.
In Property Rights, Property Wrongs, I shared how God’s plan for the community of Israel was that each of them would have their own land. Owning your own piece of the land, no matter what misfortune or mistakes had befallen your ancestors, was a fundamental right of being part of the nation of Israel. And even when Israel fell and the people of God no longer had political control of land distribution, the Christian community under Jesus’s ethic did everything possible to make sure that all of their assets, including property, were shared fairly by the entire community.
I believe we should fight for the same right today. There is more than enough land for everyone, the only question is whether some people should be allowed to own 1000 acres (or 100,000) while others own nothing at all. Remember, the land was made by God, we did not put it there nor do any of us have a fundamentally greater right to it. Would there be any significant harm if every family had a small plot of land upon which to build a home and call their own? Would there not be gain?
3. Integrate our lives with others
It is human nature to value that which is close to us more than that we do not know. So long as the poor are far from us, they will lack adequate resources. And it is impossible that the poor will enjoy the same social capital that we do until we join our lives with theirs. If we wish for slums to stop existing, if we wish for the lives of the poor to improve, we have to become part of their lives in real ways.
In Matthew 26:11, Jesus tells the disciples, “The poor you will always have with you.” He is evoking Deuteronomy 15:7-11, which states:
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Jesus was stating that it was okay for the woman not to donate her ointment to the poor at that moment because his expectation was that they would ALWAYS be with the poor, that they would ALWAYS be working to meet their needs.
Are the poor with you or not? Are you helping them meet their needs, or are they struggling on without your help? Is your land their land, or have you segregated/outsourced poverty to places you never have to go?
No one should have to live in a slum. I will celebrate the day when every family has adequate housing and the needs of the poor are met. I will celebrate the day when every slum is replaced with fair, adequate housing for all. Slums are meant to be destroyed.
But until that day happens, I will express my hatred of slums by living in solidarity with those who have no other choice.