Jean-Louis Peta Ikambana has been passionate about the right to decent, affordable housing ever since he came to the United States in 1995.
Growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jean-Louis was accustomed to seeing poverty. Chronic economic mismanagement and internal conflict plagued his homeland. He did not expect to see such hardship when he moved to the United States. Yet Jean-Louis, director of the D.C. Peace and Economic Justice program, came face to face with a large homeless population in Washington, D.C. – and some of the people actually lived on his office doorstep.
Jean-Louis first addressed his concern in 2005, as he worked with Sidwell Friends School student volunteers to meet and interview twelve homeless individuals. The students also collected food and clothing for local recipients.
"I knew even then," Jean-Louis said, "that aid to a few people was not enough. I knew that the system needed to be changed."
Today the D.C. program is leading the D.C. Human Rights People’s Movement – a diverse coalition of individuals and organizations promoting human rights for all people. The steering committee has decided to take action by addressing the shelter capacity crisis facing Washington, D.C. They began their campaign to change the system with a series of community meetings.
The group is up against some formidable obstacles. The city has a history of failed housing policies. Meanwhile, homelessness is on the rise, and the current shelter system is not able to accommodate the increased numbers. Like so many other cities, Washington is facing a budget crunch, so money does not always follow policy enactment.
The D.C. Peace and Economic Justice Program is not going to give up the fight. The campaign principle is: a safe, secure, affordable home is necessary for community members to have equal health care, employment, education and proper nutrition. Housing is not a commodity; housing is a basic human right. It is fundamental to a just and inclusive community.
The stories of those affected are poignant. One elderly woman reported at a community meeting that she was turned away from shelter on a rainy evening and consequently spent the remainder of the night huddling in fear. Another woman expressed guilt about being the last admitted into a shelter when there was a line of at least a dozen women trailing behind her.
"How can we let this continue?" Jean-Louis asks. "D.C. is a Human Rights City, the first in the United States. We need to become a model for the country as well as the world. We must demonstrate how a human rights framework, when known by residents and applied to the decision making process in the city, can fulfill the aspirations of its people to be free from fear and free from need. We must work to make D.C. a genuine human rights city."