LAS VEGAS — You don’t have to be a housing expert to understand the pernicious effects of homelessness. But presidential contender Julián Castro (D-TX) says his sober view of America’s dire housing crisis was gleaned after years as President Barack Obama’s housing secretary.
Castro was one of a half-dozen presidential candidates in Las Vegas, Nevada Saturday at the National Forum on Wages and Working People. Each offered a vision of how they planned to advocate for American workers and fight for greater economic justice in a nation increasingly stratified by income and class.
On Friday, Castro accompanied a team of homeless advocates on a tour of underground storm tunnels that run beneath the Las Vegas Strip. The tunnels have become a place of shelter for this city’s most destitute inhabitants, especially during its brutally hot summer days, when the high temperature can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time.
“It wasn’t lost on me or anybody else there, that underneath hotels that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in one of the places that’s known around the world as a playground for people throughout this country and the world, that you have people who are living in deep poverty — sleeping not even on the street, but in a drainage tunnel,” the former housing secretary said on Saturday, recounting his eye-opening underground tour.
“When we look up at those hotels we have so many people are working 40, 50, 60 hours in the casino or in the hotel, in the service sector industry who are not able to provide for their family and pay the rent, because we know that the rents have been going up, people paying 50, 60, 70% of their income in rent every month,” Castro said, adding, “Housing ought to be a human right.”
Today I toured the tunnels beneath Las Vegas that provide shelter to hundreds of homeless individuals escaping the desert heat. We must do more as a nation to support orgs like @helpsonv & @NHAvoice that provide housing support for these communities. #housingisahumanright pic.twitter.com/hE910231n8
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) April 27, 2019
Saturday’s forum, attended mostly by labor activists, was sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Center for American Progress Action Fund. (ThinkProgress is a project of, but editorially independent from the Center for American Progress.)
Other candidates offered an array of policy prescriptions to raise the most vulnerable Americans from poverty, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX); and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
In the months to come, the Democratic candidates hope to lock up coveted union endorsements, with which may come thousands of volunteers capable of canvassing for votes and making their chosen candidate’s case to their millions of members. This week, the candidates spent time discussing raising the minimum wage, the dignity of work, and the need for universal health and child care, among other issues.
They all drilled down on the issue of bolstering labor unions and providing more supports for workers.
Harris called for an end to so-called “right to work” arrangements that render unions less viable by making it harder to collect dues. Warren called for beefing up the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Labor. “We now live in an America where there’s concentrated money and power,” she said.
Hickenlooper called for sliding scale college tuition and training programs for underemployed workers. “Roughly 70 percent of Americans don’t have a four-year degree or are never going to get a four-year degree,” he said. “They need to have their own career — their own version of the American dream.
Castro said his time as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development gave him a more acute understanding about the challenge of providing housing for low and middle income people as cities gentrify and the cost of housing soars.
“When I was at HUD, I traveled to a hundred different communities in 39 states, and the deepest poverty that I saw, was in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” he told the crowd.
“I went to this house in Pine Ridge, and it was this very old small modest house, there were 17 or 18 people living in this little house, including two families that were living in the basement, this dirt floor basement and their room was separated by a bed sheet,” he continued.
“We need to get back to an America,” said Castro, “where everybody counts in this country.”