June 9, 2009
“By melding advocacy and direct service in one organization, we become a very powerful voice that speaks with authority on an issue.”
– Fawn Viator, Volunteer Services Director, Lafayette Habitat for Humanity
Secure land tenure is one of the priority issues chosen for Humanity International’s “Build Louder” campaign. In late May, in preparation for three days of advocacy in Washington D.C., a team of U.S. volunteers traveled to Honduras, where this key issue was brought to life. Over five days, participants visited slum communities and met with the residents, learning about secure tenure and poverty housing realities directly from the individuals who live them.
The trip was organized by Habitat for Humanity’s Government Relations and Advocacy department (GRA), and included a Global Village trip to Honduras from May 26-31, in conjunction with the Habitat on the Hill conference from June 1-3, 2009. Participants learned about how tenure security affects poverty housing in Honduras, so that they could then advocate that their political representatives co-sponsor the Shelter, Land and Urban Management (SLUM) Assistance Act during the conference on Capitol Hill.
“Having this opportunity to travel to Honduras with Habitat has been a truly extraordinary and profound experience,” says Lori Vaclavik, Director of U.S. Affiliates International Engagement with Habitat International. “Learning about the issues and challenges that so many people around the world are facing, specifically in the issue of secure tenure has deepened my understanding of, not only the challenges that Habitat faces, but the tremendous opportunity we have as an organization to impact so many people in the world.”
What is tenure security?
In basic terms, secure tenure is protection against forced eviction. In most cases, this protection takes the form of legal documentation of land ownership. In Latin America and the Caribbean, huge numbers of families reside in informal settlements and lack this security. Secure tenure is one of UN-Habitat’s seven indicators of adequate shelter. Read more on UN-Habitat’s Global Campaign for Secure Tenure .
José Quiñonez is the Director of Advocacy Capacity Building for Habitat for Humanity International, and led the team to Honduras. According to José, during Habitat on the Hill, more than 180 affiliate representatives and Habitat staff “suited up” to meet with some 475 members of U.S. Congress on issues crucial to Habitat’s ability to serve more families. Among them were the 15 participants who had traveled to Honduras to learn more about the cause.
What is the SLUM Assistance Act?
The SLUM Assistance Act directs President Obama to make adequate shelter the cornerstone to a more holistic approach to the U.S.’s foreign assistance. “During Habitat on the Hill,” José explains that, “advocates asked their senators to introduce a similar version of the bill, and told personal stories of how each program directly affects their community or Habitat’s work internationally.” The team to Honduras was particularly prepared for this task, accounting their experiences with families and individuals who lack secure tenure in Honduras.
“Before going on this trip, I was unaware of the impact that not having secure tenure had on people’s lives and on Habitat’s ability to build housing in developing countries,” explains Lynne Brown of Habitat Metro Denver. “I learned how difficult land rights are outside of the United States, and the negative impact this has on the ability of millions of people to lead a productive, healthy life—and what a traumatizing impact this lack of stability can have on children. Through the experiences on the Global Village trip I was much better prepared to discuss the SLUM Assistance Act with my congressional representatives.”
Reaching beyond houses
Habitat for Humanity Honduras, along with other national Habitat organizations in Latin America, has for some time dealt with the issue of forced eviction and informal settlements. Recently, Honduran law has changed to allow landless people to acquire some level of security after having occupied land for a period of three years or more.
“Acting as an independent entity to try to end poverty housing, Habitat for Humanity will never catch up with the need,” explains participant Anne Randall of Sea Island Habitat. “However, when we work to advocate for our needs, the dream of ending poverty housing can become a reality. The Honduras trip provided first-hand knowledge of why the SLUM Assistance Act is a necessity. It allowed us to present our legislators with a story rather than merely repeating facts and statistics.”
Participants on the trip to Honduras were selected based on their experience with international issues, interest in advocacy, enthusiasm to learn more about secure tenure and poverty housing issues in Honduras, and a readiness to participate in advocacy initiatives upon their return home.
“To achieve our mission of eliminating poverty housing, we will need a lot of patience, determination…and coffee,” says participant Fawn Viator. “The causes of poverty housing are numerous and expansive. It can be done. It takes strategy, determination, patience, focus and support, but it can be done.”
Faith, hope and conviction
Fawn explains that, during the trip, leader José Quiñonez passed around a stone that said “faith” on one side and “hope” on the other, and asked participants which of the two was their motivation for participating in this experience. A trip that began with a combination of hope and faith, for José, has ended with a conviction. “I came here with the hope that we were going to learn the issues,” says Jose. “That we were going to learn about secure tenure, and bring it to the forefront of our affiliates and our staff. I also came with the faith that we were foolish enough to believe that we can make a change. And I now believe that we are going to make that change.”
Ezra Millstein, Habitat for Humanity photographer and a participant on the trip, illustrates this story in photos. Watch 
Stephanie Banas is the Writer/Editor for Habitat for Humanity Latin America and the Caribbean.
Photos courtesy of Ezra Millstein.