MRT on Point

When a right to housing intersects a right to choose

By Mark Ridley-Thomas, PhD

Praxis | July 1, 2022


I’ve expressed for the past few weeks here in the PRAXIS Newsletter and elsewhere that homelessness is a potent “intersectional” issue. Nowhere could this be more revealing than that of the convergence of a right to housing and a woman’s right to choose.

The term “intersectional” was coined by UCLA Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how the intersection of race and gender was being inadequately considered in legal matters or by public policy experts. Academics such as USC Professor Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro have applied an “intersectional” approach to research on major safety net subjects examining various challenging aspects of poverty, housing and education.

Homelessness as a policy focus is a site of intersectionality, a point of convergence for fields such as religion, politics, sociology, medicine, economics, ethics. Solutions to homelessness will inevitably draw on a range of disciplines and practices. From a social ethics framework, policy-makers, theologians, physicians, and economists must ask themselves brave questions. Who has the right to “land, labor and lodging” in Los Angeles and elsewhere? Who has the right to a roof over their heads to protect themselves from the elements, and a right to a door to safeguard their belongings? And whose duty or responsibility is it to uphold, protect and honor these rights?

 In light of the earth shattering Supreme Court decision last week to overturn Roe v Wade the impacts on “the least of these”, often women, particularly women of color, must be examined. At the intersection of a right to housing and a right to choose, we repeat our challenging question: Whose duty or responsibility is it to uphold, protect and honor these rights? The fulfillment of such rights is not vanquished under these trying circumstances— no absence of agency, no denial of dignity can be countenanced.

 Being better informed is, at least a part of the answer, and we cannot be afraid of what the data are telling us. For example, according to a very important research project conducted by UCSF’s Bixby Center, “People experiencing homelessness and housing instability often have worse reproductive health outcomes. They have a higher likelihood of poor pregnancy outcomes such as higher rates of preterm birth, low birth-weight infants, and longer infant hospital stays. However, little is known about abortion outcomes in people without access to stable housing.”

But there is more! “Reviewing records from the clinic, the researchers found that nineteen percent of abortions were found to be among people experiencing homelessness or housing instability.” In order words, these are they who are most disproportionately likely to be at risk of poor quality of life and even life threatening circumstances for mother and child. Add to that the multidimensional familial and community consequences, eg domestic violence.

 Complementary to the research above, multiple studies have demonstrated that stable housing, a living wage, and strong social safety net individually and collectively lead to better outcomes for infants and children. As women’s rights are being actively eroded, it becomes even more important that we stay the course and even accelerate our efforts to achieve the safeguards of a right to housing, if future generations are to inherit something more than the promise of dignity and wellbeing.

 Dealing with homelessness was already tough to contend with but in the face of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, the defining moral crisis of our time—homelessness, has just gotten more profound.

 Lighting City Hall up in pink lights may be a noteworthy act of solidarity on choice. But making the appropriate connections between a right to housing and a right to choose is where the real work is. We must demand dignity and defend autonomy. No time to fret. It is a moment of praxis: time for reflection and action.  

Resources At a Glance:  Housing for Health   Downtown Women’s Center   Jenesse Center  Joshua House Health Center  St. Anne’s Family Services  Planned Parenthood