The Kensington Welfare Rights Union takes its complaints to the U.N.
This week nearly 50 exhausted crew members aboard the Kensington Welfare Rights Union's (KWRU) latest Freedom Bus Tour pulled into New York City--the final stop of their 27-city journey into some of America's most troubled neighborhoods.
This past Tuesday group members testified in New York before the Economic Human Rights Truth Commission, a U.N. panel of national and international commissioners required under oath to report to their respective communities any of their findings on economic human rights.
Some of the testimony the commission heard included complaints the KWRU gathered from local Philadelphians last Wednesday, when the bus tour made a pit stop at the Evangelistic Temple Church of God in Christ on Sixth Street. Nearly 300 community members attended the meeting with KWRU and explained how they find it difficult to cope with the city's lack of affordable housing.
But as KWRU director and national spokesperson for the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign Cheri Honkala told PW from the road last week, the trip to New York was just the tip of a very large iceberg, one that has changed the group forever.
"The trip always takes a toll on everyone, mentally and physically, because a lot of traveling is involved," says Honkala. "My newborn has a double-ear infection, and another girl was stricken with pneumonia."
Additionally, almost every morning crew members woke up around 5 a.m. to reload gear on the bus and clean up the spot where they stayed the night before, whether it was a church, a hostel or someone's home.
But perhaps the tour's biggest challenge was meeting with the poor during the holiday season, she explains, when crew members, many of whom were either ill or homeless, found it especially difficult to witness others without shelter.
"Kansas really sticks out in my mind because we continuously heard stories about farmers who committed suicide or were forced to foreclose on family land because of their deteriorating economic situation," she says. "At another point we heard from members of the deaf community speaking about their lack of basic medication."
In 1998 KWRU launched its first bus tour and has watched the event increase in size ever since. This year advocates from El Salvador to France participated in the journey, some of them hoping to return to their countries with a more realistic understanding of the "land of opportunity."
"There's a contradiction between what I see on the road and what this country promises to the world," says 28-year-old Brazilian Andrea Borges, a member of the Brazilian-based Landless Workers Movement, speaking through a translator from the road. "It's very important to talk about [our findings] to other countries because the government of the U.S. really tries to sell this false image of their country."
The impending war with Iraq makes it even harder for the group to stress the domestic atrocities America's poor are now suffering, says Honkala, who says the national media should steer away from covering foreign conflict for a moment to concentrate on local horrors.
"We're seeing stuff that's front-page news, and since we're also hearing about the war against Iraq, people's stories here are becoming invisible."
The average Hollywood writer wouldn’t understand Philly. A run-of-the-mill, fast-talking, Botox-ed hack wouldn’t appreciate the nuances of our city, a place so easily maligned and yet one with soul, pride and unconventional beauty. It takes a local to capture the essence of our attitude– libertarian to the core but annoyed about how everyone else’s freedoms obstruct our own. Mark Webber gets it.
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