Monday, April 30, 2007

This Is Not A Swingset

Yesterday the girls and I went to Seattle's sculpture park. With a sweeping view of Puget Sound, a small but perfect rocky beach, and long walkways where you could let four year-olds run without worrying too much, it was much cooler and more kid-friendly than I'd imagined. Except for all the annoying "Do not touch" signs.

Because what will any normal kid do when confronted with a 30 foot high cherry red industrial steel structure that vaguely resembles a crane? Or a huge series of rusted steel walls? I mean, I get "Do not climb." Or "Do not sit or lean." But "Do not touch?" For an outdoor sculpture park filled with industrial art and small children, that seems a bit much.

Apparently others thought so too. While we were there, a bit of commotion arose over a guerrilla installation of a pure white, basic steel backyard swing set. It was surrounded by large "Do Not Touch" signs imploring us to "help the art survive." A discreet ground mounted plaque read "Leci n'est pas une swingset." Twin B, who loves swings, ran to the installation and the artist gently explained that this was "art" and not to be touched. Genius. She took it really well, as did the other kids. I guess they were used to it.

We went down to the beach and climbed rocks for a while. By the time we returned less than an hour later, security had already cleared the smart-ass agitators away. The powers that be at the Sculpture park don't take well to being mocked.

This Is Not Repressive Desublimation

For the last month or so, I've been a little bit obsessed with thinking about the federal goverment's insistence that they are out to end homelessness by encouraging municipalities to adopt Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness. This while they systematically create poverty and increased inequality in all other arenas. This obsession has recently shaded into an obsession with capitalism itself, and how it works as an organized system of power and control.

When I was in college, I read Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man about five times. This was a text that describes capitalism is Freudian-Marxist terms as a system of social control, and sees America as the highest expression of that system. Being a Social Thought and Political Economy major who gravitated to the most radical professors I could find, I had numerous instructors who apparently felt this was an essential text to master. It occurs to me that the Ten Year Plan could be understood in Marcusian terms. A summary of One Dimensional Man I found online contained the following:

"Language, Marcuse thought, was becoming one-dimensional and was contrived to manipulate thinking, indeed, to limit thinking. Questions are posed only in ways that permit specific ways of searching for answers; political choices are constrained to arenas in which no really thoughtful choice is empowered; and standard vocabularies (in the military, for instance) are designed to inhibit any thought about value or morality.

The second means of insidious domination was what Marcuse called "repressive desublimation," again an amalgamation of Freud and Marx. Sublimation, recall, is where instinctual energy gets deflected from its natural expression and appears, instead, in some other form of expression or satisfaction. "Desublimation," then, is a system that permits some degree of natural expression or satisfaction of instinctual energy. Desublimation is obviously so powerful that even a small dose can succeed in capturing us. We will return repetitively to satisfy ourselves even in small ways. As an example, something like Playboy magazine could be allowed to feed men a measure of unusual --- that is, formerly tabooed --- sexual satisfaction, but this would happen only by becoming a regular buying customer. When one turned to look at American society of the 60s, it was clear that sexuality was being desublimated in a variety of ways so long as people were ready to consume the right things. Thus, people were actually being repressed anew to the specific advantages of capitalist producers."

I've always thought of repressive desublimation in broader terms than this. It's not just the commodification of desire. It is also the commodification of dissent.

This is why everyone in the New York Times fashion section manages to look like some version of a revolutionary or a junky while they wear clothing ensembles that cost more than my car. Every cultural form of rebellion is eventually co-opted and commodified. Form trumps content pretty much every time. Repressive desublimation, then, acts as a safety valve of sorts by providing the form of taking political action without offering the content. One campaign, for example, asks people to wear a wristband to end global poverty.

Yeah. That'll work.

This Is Not A Fascist Coup

An important article by Naomi Wolf was posted on Alternet today describing how everything necessary to the lightening fast transformation of America into a fascist state is already in place. Author Chris Hedges recently wrote a book making a similar case. You can read the Real Change interview with Hedges here.

Since I have fighting poverty on the brain lately, I immediately related this news to my own favorite obsession.

It strikes me that Americans are feeling more economically vulnerable as a whole than we have since the depression, and with good reason. There is mostly a vacuum where the effort and resources to organize should be. This is not only appallingly shortsighted; it is dangerous.

Times of economic crisis do not augur well for the future in proto-fascist states. In the absence of a concerted progressive effort to get ahead of the times in which we live, the inevitable economic downturn which we face is much more likely to trigger authoritarian repression than a movement toward progressive reform.

Something to think about.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ashtray Fucking Heart

Captain Beefheart. He's the shit. Ashtray Heart. On Letterman. From 1980.

You used me like an ashtray heart
Case of the punks
Right from the start
I feel like a glass shrimp in a pink panty
With a saccharine chaperone
Make invalids out of supermen
Call in a "shrink"
And pick you up in a girdle
You used me like an ashtray heart
Right from the start
Case of the punks
Another day, another way
Somebody's had too much to think
Open up another case of the punks
Each pillow is touted like a rock
The mother / father figure
Somebody's had too much to think
Send your mother home your navel
Case of the punks
New hearts to the dining rooms
Violet heart cake
Dissolve in new cards, boards, throats, underwear
Ashtray heart
You picked me out, brushed me off
Crushed me while I was burning out
Then you picked me out
Like an ashtray heart
Hid behind the curtain
Waited for me to go out
A man on a porcupine fence
Used me for an ashtray heart
Hit me where the lover hangs out
Stood behind the curtain
While they crushed me out
You used me for an ashtray heart
You looked in the window when I went out
You used me like an ashtray heart.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

American Prospect Special Issue on Poverty

The American Prospect has a special issue on poverty that was put together in time for a philanthropy conference in Seattle this weekend. Anyone who cares about these issues should take a look. I've made a PDF of this remarkable edition available for download here. Online subscriptions are just $15.

The capstone article is the Center for Law and Poverty's Mark Greenberg on why Americans are beginning to focus more on this issue, and the possibilities that exist now for meaningfully addressing poverty. It's remarkable to me that this article, and as far as I can tell in glancing it over quickly, the entire special issue, does not deal with homelessness per se at all. While numerous recent anti-poverty initiatives are mentioned by name, the drive to create Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness goes completely unmentioned.

Curious. While there is a glaring gap in this collection of articles in that there is no analysis of the criminal justice system, the expansion of the prison system, and the role that this plays in creating and maintaining racially disproportionate poverty, the magazine focuses entirely on structural solutions to poverty that help to rebuild a strong middle class.

Greenberg says the revival of interest in poverty stems from a number of sources: Katrina, and the spotlight that this placed on deep, persistent poverty in America; the growing awareness of globalization and what it means for the future, and increasing awareness of deepening inequality.
" In 2005, the top 20 percent of American households had 50.4 percent of the nation's income, while the bottom 20 percent had 3.4 percent -- the largest margin between top and bottom since this data series began, in 1967. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that between 2003 and 2004, the post-tax income of the bottom fifth rose by $200 a year, while that of the top fifth rose by $11,600, and post-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by $145,500. And the wealth gap is far more extreme, with the top 1 percent of households holding one-third of the nation's net worth, while the bottom 40 percent have less than one percent of the nation's net worth. This is the widest gap since the 1920s."

Greenberg points to a number of reasons for inaction, including the war, which has distracted us from focusing on a domestic agenda; our tendency to characterize poverty as being about "the other," and a racist tendency to be unconcerned with poverty among people of color and to engage in victim blaming; and finally, this, which called out our tendency to focus on the technical solutions as opposed to the big picture:
"At the same time, a single-minded focus on who is above or below the poverty line misses the bigger story of what is happening in the U.S. economy, and leads to focusing on how to "fix" the poor -- instead of asking why our social and economic institutions result in millions of workers and their families living paycheck to paycheck, or worse."

Our renewed national commitment to ending poverty, says Greenberg, would focus on "an increased minimum wage, more income-support measures such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, a renewed focus on unionization, a framework of lifelong learning, health-care reform, child-care assistance for all who need it, comprehensive immigration reform, initiatives to help underemployed groups get in or back into the workforce, and strategies to promote asset building, among others."

Numerous other authors suggest a similar list of priorities.

Robert Kuttner reminds us that "programs for the poor are poor programs" and advocates for a universal approach to solving poverty that addresses the concerns of the broad middle. Social security delivers for everyone and as a result is politically protected. Programs that follow in this mold that should be broadened include Medicare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Headstart and universal prekindergarten.
"The children of the working middle class may not face the same profound risks as the children of the poor. But there has not been a time since the Great Depression when the American middle class had more economic vulnerabilities in common with the poor. Politically, the way to find the resources to alleviate poverty is to create a broad coalition of all Americans who are a few paychecks away from poverty, with good social investments that are universal. To end poverty, we need to imagine a middle-class America, where to work is to earn a decent living, and to be born is to have decent life chances."
In Redeeming Public Remedy, Michael Lipsky and Dianne Stewart say that the ideal of minimal government intervention with no taxes is on the decline, and that as the pendulum swings back from the right, Americans are looking for a greater government role in reducing poverty. Activists, they say, need to challenge the idea of limited government being the best government, because the time is right and people are open to an expanded role. Government should mitigate the excesses of the market and create institutions that work toward the common good.

"Our research findings are just words on the page until leaders not only embrace a more complete understanding of the role of government in national development but also incorporate that understanding into their communications. Community leaders need to locate their particular issues within a broad perspective on government and the public interest. Over time, the incorporation of these insights in political language will increase popular receptivity to public initiatives.

This may be easier said than done, however. Leaders with commitments to particular policies or institutions have to abandon the "silo" approach of seeking support for their particular policy areas, and they have to work with others to expand resources for a broad range of programs, not just their own. ... Policy experts must truly communicate with citizens who have little interest in policy minutiae, and who instead want to know where to locate a subject in their hierarchy of values."

In Wages and the Social Contract, Thomas Kochan says that the social contract that provided a fair day's pay for a fair day's work broke down after the 70s. This excellent historic analysis holds that while deindustrialization and so forth have played a role in the decline of wages, the larger factors have been government collusion in undermining the bargaining power of labor, the breakdown of "equity norms" that has allowed the ratio of worker to CEO compensation to reach absurd levels, and government deregulation leading to destructive price competition.

Kochan calls for a significant boost in the minimum wage, a resurgence of labor, and for New Deal Like policies to increase employment and productivity
"Steady progress requires engaging government, business, and labor efforts to build a new social contract tailored to today's economy and workforce. The greater instability of today's job market requires more social protections, not fewer. At the heart of a new social contract that fights poverty and raises wages is a national strategy to reconnect rising productivity, rising wages, and norms of fairness inside the corporation."
Tamara Draut, Author of Strapped: Why America's 20 and 30-somethings Can't Get Ahead, writes about how the deregulation of lending markets has led to a bonanza of high interest loans to low and middle income people, and how the debt trap for both has become increasingly similar.
"The unleashing of exorbitantly priced credit coincided with two other important trends: the steady decline in earnings power of low-income households and the shredding of our public safety net. As already strapped low-income households found themselves falling further behind, they also found their mailboxes stuffed with rescue offers of easy and fast credit. And in low-income neighborhoods, storefronts selling fast and expensive loans are now as plentiful as McDonalds selling fast and cheap food."
While we need to target this lending industry for reform with increased scrutiny and demands for more responsible practices, she says, that must coincide with other changes as well:

The deeper cure for debt as a safety net is to increase earnings and social benefits for the working poor, so that low-income families have the opportunity to move beyond mere subsistence living. That means raising the minimum wage, tearing down barriers to union organizing, providing universal health care, and creating more incentives in the tax code to help these families save and build wealth."

In another truly remarkable article on charity, justice, and the role of faith communities, Ernesto Cortés Jr. the Southwest regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, describes the role of faith communities in his area in creating structural change. While the role of the federal government must be altered he says,

"... given the massive deficits generated by the Bush administration's tax cuts, the financial markets are unlikely to allow any Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- to come to the rescue in any meaningful way anytime soon. To change that reality, we need to create powerful local and statewide constituencies for both programs at the community level and national policy changes to make possible the resurgence of a genuine middle class."

The role of the faith community in this is clear, and it goes far beyond the simple delivery of charity. This deserves to be quoted at length:
"Notwithstanding the importance of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked as we are challenged to do in Matthew 25, the church has a far more prophetic and transformative role to play in the larger social order today. Historically the role of congregation and church has been to create communities of obligation, participation, and transformation -- of konia (the formation of community and fellow feeling through participation).

The challenge of our faith traditions is to understand that our moral universe cannot include only those who look like us, talk like us, or live like us. When our institutions of faith are at their best, they help people get inside one another's moral universe by sharing stories and experiences -- and by so doing, beginning to develop political friendships, or philia.

Developing philia enables people to understand that developing and sustaining their own self-interest requires them to be concerned with the self-interest of others. This doesn't happen naturally, but only through institutions that develop the relational context in which people begin to understand that what's needed is a public-education system that enables their children and other people's children to succeed alike."

Another article of particular interest in this issue in Alan Jenkins' treatment of race and poverty in America, the widening gap, the reasons it exists, and the interest that we all share in addressing these issues. One especially interesting idea is that development and community impact needs to be firmly linked.

"Finally, we must begin planning for opportunity in the way we design metropolitan regions, transportation systems, housing, hospitals, and schools. That means, for example, creating incentives for mixed-income neighborhoods that are well-publicized and truly open to people of all races and backgrounds.

A particularly promising approach involves requiring an "opportunity impact statement" when public funds are to be used for development projects. The statement would explain, for example, whether a new highway will connect low-income communities to good jobs and schools, or serve only affluent communities. It would detail where and how job opportunities would flow from the project, and whether different communities would share the burden of environmental and other effects (rather than having the project reinforce traditional patterns of inequality). It would measure not only a project's expected effect on poverty but on opportunity for all."
There's plenty more. This issue of The American Prospect, once again, available for PDF download here, is required reading for anyone concerned with these issues.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Plight of the Barely Affluent

Today I was thinking about how few people in the United States are really making it. Between the ridiculous cost of housing, energy prices, the price of childcare and education, and a medical system that has become completely irrational, nearly everyone is challenged to make ends meet.

My own household is a case in point.

We do better than most. We're both college educated. Forty-six and forty-three. My wife has a Master's Degree in Social work. She works for the county and has excellent family benefits. I've headed the same non-profit for 13 years, and earn exactly the median income for Seattle, which is $52K. Last year, between our primary work and some minor side income, we earned $111,401. We paid 8.72% of our income to the federal government in taxes.

This places us well inside the top quintile of family income in the United States, which begins at $88,030. Having two income earners makes us typical of those households in the top two quintiles. We have twin four year olds, making us a 4 person family. The graphic at left shows U.S. income distribution represented as a 30 story building. Our household would live somewhere around the 28th floor.

Those next two floors must be real doozies.

We have what we need. Healthcare. Housing. Enough food. Broadband internet, a gym membership at Bally's, and a subscription to Netflix. The graphic at right represents income distribution in the United States as a peanut butter sandwich. We have scaled the US class ladder to what are dizzying heights. And yet, it doesn't seem like quite enough.

Everyday, for example, lunch at work is the same grilled chicken and bell pepper with kashi grains microwave dinner from Costco. Sometimes I go for the teriyaki bowl. They cost around $2.30 each. With two four-year-olds and both parents working, who has time to cook?

The girls are in a Montessori daycare, which costs close to $1,700 a month. We skip the frills like dance and swim lessons, and buy all their clothes at thrift stores. We leave the Gymboree bullshit to those higher on the peanut butter pinnacle than ourselves.

Our beige carpet is more of a mottled brown. Renting a steam vac runs about $50 a pop, so I try and only do it around three times a year.

We have no cable TV. The girls watch cartoons on PBS, and I watch Lawrence Welk on Saturdays. Despite the allure of James Taylor, Roy Orbison, and the Mamas and the Papas, we do not contribute to public television.

We have a 19 year old cat who pees on our bed once or twice a week. We'd have him put down, but we don't have the $200, so instead, we wait.

The 97 Accord wagon isn't seeming quite as new as it did a few years ago.

Our second car, a '94 Toyota Corolla, just got its third cracked front windshield this year. We're unlucky that way. That'll be $200. We also need to fix the brakes and flush the transmission. The maintenance will cost more than the car is worth. We'll do it anyway, because at least it's paid for.

These are the sorts of things that put us another $500 or so in credit card debt each month. This is where the tax return goes. This year we got about $1,500 off our taxes for being homeowners, and another $1,200 in daycare credit. We'll get about $3,700 back, bringing the debt down to a manageable $2-3K.

Each week, I get around 3-4 offers to refinance the house, and another 2-3 loan offers for $30-50K at attractive interest rates. Apparently, bankers see our relatively low income-to-debt ratio and see great untapped potential.

We have no savings. At 46, I have no retirement plan. My first 35 years or so were more or less spent in poverty, so social security isn't looking too lucrative just yet. Our 1,080 square foot house, which we bought in Shoreline two years ago for $252,000, should be paid off in 2035. I'll be 70.

Zillow says our house is worth $306,000 now. That's a bit better than 10% appreciation a year. We should probably feel like we made a wise investment, but I mostly feel like I'm shoveling money to a mortgage broker. Most of what we pay each month is interest.

At this rate, by the time I'm 70, our little '52 rambler of a house will be worth well over $1,000,000, and I'll achieve my lifelong dream of retiring as a millionaire. If, instead, the housing market crashes, we'll be debt slaves like everyone else. Woo-hoo!

And this is the view from the 28th floor. I hate to whine, but seriously, if this is affluence, it kind of sucks.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Fuck neutrality. I love everything Sherman Alexie writes. I’ve got eight and a half inches of Sherman, not including the poetry, sitting right on my top shelf. Nelson Algren lives next to him. He was a prose poet too, before his writing went all to hell in a puddle of scotch. Algren's career spans just seven and three-quarters inches.

But Sherman's sober. Before he’s done, I’m hoping for a good ‘nother foot.

Flight is Alexie’s second novel, the first in more than a decade. Indian Killer came out in ‘96, and I loved that one too.

Lots of people didn’t. I gave it to my mother-in-law and it freaked her out. Novels about guys who scalp people aren't for everyone. Sherman’s issues were less resolved in those days. Since then, his work has grown.

Shockingly, I loved Flight too. When Sherman read the first chapter at Town Hall, I heard why. He writes for the ear. He inhabits the lines. He’s what happens when a natural poet who possesses a deep understanding of the spoken word decides to do prose. It lands as poetry. Words remind us that life is beautiful.

Many of Flight’s reviewers sound like my mother-in-law before she’s had her coffee. The Village Voice calls it a simplistic teen novel. The Seattle Times deems it “self-important.” The LA Times whines that Flight is “thin and disappointing.” Our good friends at the Seattle Weekly say it “barely deserves to be called a novel.”

The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Review of Books liked it just fine. They’re smart. Let’s hear it for east coast elitism!

Who can explain? Maybe it’s just garden-variety literary bitchiness. Or maybe they just don’t get it.

By happy accident, I’d reread Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five just months before. Flight inspired me to re-reread Slaughterhouse, and then return once more to Flight. And then Vonnegut died. So it goes.

Flight pays homage to Vonnegut’s masterpiece by giving us the awkward outsider’s view of a world that is both awful and sublime. While Alexie’s touch is grounded in his trademark humor and appreciation for the absurd, the material, like Vonnegut’s treatment of the bombing of Dresden, is deadly serious, and never lapses into cynical farce. Flight’s protagonist careens through time and space to participate in the various highs and lows of which humans are capable, and in the end finds a version of acceptance and peace.

Alexie is, first and foremost, a storyteller, and the time traveling format allows him to piece together a variety of vignettes, any one of which could have developed into a short story of its own. In some ways, this novel isn’t so far off from Ten Little Indians, his last collection of stories. We have a range of characters who hop across class and race and, now, time itself, to offer multiple points of view on the human condition.

We are reminded that, yes, people suck, but at the same time, love transcends. There are a thousand instances of horrible cruelty in any given moment, but there are also epic acts of love and kindness between strangers. There is abandonment and heartbreak, but we also see everyday rituals of affection and the eternal possibilities of redemption.

The climactic scene, which involves a drunken Indian, a harried professional, and a parboiled parakeet, is top shelf Alexie, pulling the best of which we are capable from the wreckage of everyday failure and disappointment. Flight may not, like Slaughterhouse-Five, be an enduring work of genius. But it’s a damn good book, worth reading at least twice.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It's Increasing Inequality, Stupid!

When I wrote the Director's Corner for today's Real Change, I thought it would take maybe twenty minutes. I'd been circling around these ideas for several weeks, so getting it down to about 230 words, I thought, would be a snap. More than two hours later, I still didn't have it right. Here's where it landed as we went to print:
Homelessness has, I think, been framed as an issue in a way that deliberately excludes potential allies. This is a bigger problem than most of us realize.

It’s organizing 101. In the absence of a mobilized constituency, only the change that is acceptable to those in power gets made.

In the past several decades, homeless advocates have made many mistakes. We traded away federal funding for housing for the McKinney Act. As a result, a serious grassroots demand for housing hasn’t been raised since the late-80s. McKinney has turned homeless advocacy into an insider’s game, and steered our activism into more non-threatening avenues.

As such, taking action to “end homelessness” is of interest mainly to human service advocates, government functionaries, and a handful of church folk who have a biblical injunction to love the poor. This needs to change.

The idea that homeless people themselves should be involved in the struggle against poverty is mostly a matter of lip service. No one, really, has helped them to organize for power. The very idea sends chills down the average service provider’s spine.

Somewhere along the line, idea of aligning with other constituencies to build a powerful movement for economic justice that addresses the self-interest of the least wealthy 60-80 percent of us has gotten away from us.

Let’s get real. “Ending Homelessness” means challenging inequality. Anything less is really about something else.
When I showed this to our editor, he mentioned that one of our Advisory Board members had already expressed some concern about where I seemed to be taking things. There is only so much energy to go around, he said. There is barely a constituency for homelessness. Were we to broaden our lens to include other issues, he argued, we would lose focus and accomplish nothing.

Anitra Freeman has a different reaction. She's been talking to one of Seattle's labor movement elders who told her that back in her day, organized labor made common cause with the homeless, and together they won unemployment insurance. This single issue segregation, she thought, was bad for everyone.

The recently concluded legislative session in Olympia is instructive. An increase to the State Housing Trust Fund passed. Good news. But mild legislation that would have slowed the rate of condo-conversions and strengthened the rights of tenants died. Healthcare and schools won big, but predatory lenders got through unscathed.

Fear of over-reach blowback next election cycle is part of the explanation, but Democrats did act boldly in some areas, so that's not all that this was about.

The pattern, I think, is this: broad constituencies with powerful backing prevailed. But when a poor people's issue that affects a narrower band of folks goes up against a powerful, well-funded lobby, we lose. Even when Democrats hold two-thirds of the seats, there's a large budget surplus, and it's not an election year.

Either we find a way to broaden our base and build for power, or we simply accept that any anti-poverty legislation that threatens someone elses right to make a buck however they can is pretty much DOA.

Rents in Seattle are at their highest level in 20 years. A person of average income here ($52K annually) only earns about half of what they need to enter the housing market as a buyer. Homelessness, says the United Way, is people's number three issue, after schools and traffic.

It seems like there is probably broad agreement that increased inequality is bad for most of us. I think it's time to try something new.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Another Day At Which I Marvel

Astonishing Occurrence #1: I step in for sick staff and do vendor orientation yesterday morning for the first time in a few years. It's like riding a bike. There are three people in attendance: a really nice hippy-chick who has temporarily dropped out of the middle class for reasons I'll never know; a charismatic hobo guy who, having learned that I started the paper, keeps repeating "Dude, you've done an amazing thing." His wife, a hard drinking good hearted woman of "a certain age," is moved to tears during the Real Change video. She smiles and cries throughout the orientation.

Astonishing Occurrence #2: One of our volunteers shows me a paper that was published by a group of 50 academics in Los Angeles that bills itself as a "reality-based approach to ending homelessness." They lead with supporting fair wages and creating employment and protecting and expanding housing stock, and call for an end to the deplorable treatment of homeless people in LA. Southern California increasingly looks like the front lines of the war on the homeless, and people are fighting back in very interesting ways. This is encouraging.

Astonishing Occurrence #3: Sherman Alexie reads from his new book at Town Hall to benefit Real Change. He has a sense of timing and an ability to work a crowd that blows my mind, modulating through various moods (levity, wonderment, solemnity, anger, hope) with a facility I have never really seen in another speaker. He does stand-up comedy that looks and feels completely conversational and natural. His technique is so well honed it never looks remotely like technique. He is masterful. He advises white liberals to consider voting with people of color instead of pursuing "romantic bullshit." We could destroy the Republican party for decades to come this next election, he says, if stupid liberals can just once refrain from fucking things up. "Vote to destroy," he says. He trashes The Weekly up one side and down the other for their dumbshit Real Change article. "I'd just like to say Fuck the Seattle Weekly," he says. The crowd goes wild.

Monday, April 23, 2007

What Would Jonah Do?

I'm finding that the more I think about ending homelessness the more confused I become. On the one hand, we have the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness set of solutions, emanating from the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Bush administration's United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. This strategy, in an echo of Baudrillard's idea of the simulacrum, seems more geared to promoting the idea of ending homelessness than to ending homelessness itself.

On the other hand, we have those who insist that an end to homelessness can only come from homeless people themselves, who alone have the experience and motivation to organize against their own oppression. The history of homeless-led organizing has been dismal, and the past twenty or more years offer few examples of successful or sustainable models. While not everyone admits it, homeless identity-based politics has been discredited as a strategy and is another organizing dead end.

A number of years ago, I came across an excellent ethnography of various types of homeless organizing called Checkerboard Square. In this, several organizations were profiled that represented the options at hand. The homeless only group was basically this guy who claimed to be representing "the homeless" but had no real following. I have to say I've seen numerous variations of this phenomenon, both in Seattle and Boston. Then, there were the advocates, who mostly acted without regard for the actual experience of homeless people themselves. They were well-intentioned, but didn't really understand organizing. The most interesting organization was a day center which operated on a cross-class model that combined the empowerment of poor people with the stability offered by middle class allies. This held, I believe, the most promise for what organizing around homelessness should look like, and was part of the inspiration for the Real Change model.

I still believe that this is where the future is. Somehow, we need to reinvent a model of organizing that exposes the realities of extreme poverty within an affluent society and harnesses the political clout of the middle class. We need to bring the very poor out of their political and social isolation, and find where our mutual self interest is. The middle class should see action on homelessness as a means of creating the sort of society in which we would all rather live. Acting to end homelessness shouldn't be seen as merely something that we do out of altruism for others, but rather as something we do in our mutual self-interest.

But how all of this actually works is far from clear

And so, I fall back on biblical metaphor. Mythology is full of heroes who grope their way through confusion before arriving at a point of clarity and conviction. Jonah comes to mind. God says "Go to Ninevah," and Jonah says, "Fuck that!" and heads the other way to Tarshish. But he gets swallowed by a whale, and is eventually delivered to his reluctant destiny. The whale symbolizes the creative confusion that comes of not knowing the answers but still being on the journey. Sometimes, I think, not knowing is just where one needs to begin.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Gone to Church

The incomparable Dr. Wes Browning shot this with the cheapest video camera in the world last month during the unveiling ceremony for the new King County logo. The ceremony at Mount Zion Baptist Church featured musical tributes by DaNell Daymon & Royalty.

On February 24, 1986, the King County Council passed Council Motion 6461, "setting forth the historical basis for the renaming' of King County in honor of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King County was originally named by the Oregon Territorial Legislature in 1852 after Vice President William Rufus Devane King, a slave owner from Alabama who died of tuberculosis the next year.

Because only the state can charter counties, this change was not made official until April 19, 2005, when Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5332 into law. The County Council voted on February 27, 2006 to change the county's logo from a royal crown to an image of King's face. On March 12, 2007, the new logo was unveiled.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

On Sophistication

I was talking to a friend last week about the 1988 Neutralizing Homelessness article by Peter Marcuse, which, to me, is the Rosetta Stone for understanding federal policy on homelessness. I said the Ten Year Plan approach is an incredibly sophisticated means of defining the issue and controlling the way it gets discussed.

Most of us think of sophistication as an uptown Cole Porter kind of thing, but that's only when the word is used as a noun. When employed as a verb, as in to sophisticate, things get more interesting.

My friend said it came from the 16th century, and describes a process where hops and barley were replaced in beer with inferior ingredients, and that it means, basically, to weaken or water down. I said that it must come from the Greek, sophistes. These were the guys that Socrates liked to debate, and of which Aristophanes made fun, who were agile in rhetoric and able to make the true false and the false true. So, in this sense, I guessed, to sophisticate would be to cloud something in complication.

It turns out that my friend's beer definition comes from Nathanial Knott's Advice of a Seaman, published in 1634. "The brewers have gotten the art to sophisticate beer with broom instead of hops, and ashes instead of malt, and (to make it look the more lively) to pickle it with salt water, so that whilst it is new, it shall seemingly be worthy of praise, but in one month wax worse than stinking water." This was a tongue in cheek description of the terrible beer that was the general fare on long sea voyages.

So one of the meanings of the word is to alter and make impure, as with the intention to deceive, as in adulterate. It also means to cause to become less simple or straightforward; to, once again, mislead or deceive. The archaic meaning, says Merriam-Webster, is to corrupt, through sophistry.

So to say that something, like federal policy on homelessness for example, is sophisticated, isn't always to pay a compliment.

Friday, April 20, 2007

One More Reason It Sucks To Be Poor

For nearly twenty years now, I've been lucky enough to mostly have work that I love, but it hasn't always been that way. I've landscaped and I've dug ditches in clay with jackhammer, pick, and shovel. I've worked in a potato chip factory and in an auto parts warehouse. I started food service work when I was fourteen and worked in three different restaurants washing dishes or busing tables. I've shined shoes and delivered papers. I've done farm work. I've performed data entry and I've been a telemarketer. I've worked in a factory building mobile home rafters. All of these paid around minimum wage or less.

But worst of all was a 3 month temp assignment at Boston's University Hospital. Pallets of supplies would come in and I'd put them away. I'd fill orders and stock supply carts. It was independent work and no one bothered me much. I'd certainly worked harder in other jobs, and gotten much dirtier. But for pure humiliation, being on the bottom of the food chain at a hospital is tough to beat.

Once the supply carts were stocked, part of my job was to deliver them around the facility. That's when I'd become the lowest of the low. My invisibility was my superpower. I had a new BA in Social Thought and Political Economy, and thought that this somehow made me worthy of respect. I was alone in this assessment. No one else knew or cared.

It's interesting that other low-status work didn't really bother me. Everyone else was low-status as well, so I had company. But not there. I was beneath the notice of pretty much everyone.

I thought about this again half a dozen years later, when I spoke to a group of SEIU members at Boston City Hospital.

I'd been hired to help stop the privatization of the hospital by uniting the three unions there with the low-income communities the hospital served in Dorchester and Roxbury. The SEIU workers were on the bottom of the hierarchy and pushed the carts, made the beds, and cleaned the messes. I'd come off of a number of years of homeless organizing, and as I looked at the room, I saw poor people. The faces in that SEIU meeting, lined by work and trouble, looked just like any room of homeless folks I'd ever seen.

In that moment, I understood that the line between the working poor and the homeless is largely in our imaginations. It's a revolving door of hard times and vulnerability. People who work hard for their money deserve better.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Various Communists I Have Known

A few days ago I ran across this 1986 article on the Union of the Homeless and their pressure campaign to get the City of Boston to deed them an abandoned building. The National Union of the Homeless was founded that same year, and claimed 15,000 homeless members. This was, of course, total bullshit, but they had locals in LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, New York, and Boston.

I wasn't around for the Boston campaign, but heard about it when I moved there the next year. The Union of the Homeless had held an organizing conference and claimed to have signed up over a thousand homeless members.

"Membership" meant little more than signing a card, but still, it was an impressive feat. They held a high-profile City Hall speak-out before things fizzled. I would see Boston chapter President Savina Martin at various meetings representing the Union of the Homeless, but there was no evidence she had an organization behind her.

Chris Sprowal, the charismatic President and organizer of the National Union of the homeless, flamed out by the late 80s when his coke addiction went out of control. I didn't know him, but I did get to know Savina. She was a smart, committed, effective leader, but wrestled with similar issues. This was a secret to be kept within the family. She later formed another organization for homeless women, the Women's Institute for New Growth and Support (WINGS). Her habit and the pressures of leadership got the better of her in the end, and the organization collapsed.

The National Union of the Homeless was vehement that only the poor, the homeless in particular, could build a movement of homeless people. It was, perhaps, an inevitable reaction to the dehumanization people often undergo within the emergency shelter system and the condescension of middle-class advocates. Over the 80s, the emergency shelter system tripled and quadrupled in size.

I worked at an organization called Boston Jobs with Peace, which was tucked into a small room in their National Office at 76 Summer Street, about four blocks east of the Boston Common and four blocks north of the "combat zone." My days were spent in organizing homeless people to take various forms of direct action while making connections to federal budget priorities. We excelled at getting in the papers, which made us look much bigger than we actually were.

There was some relationship between JwP, the Communist Labor Party (CLP), and the Union of the Homeless that was very unclear. The CLP had its strength in California and Chicago, and believed that the lumpen-proletariat was the revolutionary vanguard. There was a Boston contingent, and they found me.

I was in my mid-20s, naive, and largely oblivious, and, since their members were only out to various degrees, was never really clear on who was CLP and who was not. I had between two and four of them on my 11 person board.

Their theoretician Bruce Parry, who wrote for the People's Tribune, would always show up at the national conferences with dense papers describing how fallout from increased technology was the core problem poor people faced.

I found an online People's Tribune archive where he calls for 95% taxation on incomes of over $100,000. Amazing.

As Boston Jobs with Peace went into crisis over the problems of homeless empowerment organizing going sideways, the CLP folks formed a bloc. They didn't have enough people to prevail, but they definitely made things a lot harder. When CLP influence on the National became an issue during a nightmare strategic planning process in around 1991, Parry delivered a position paper describing the CLP's role in holding JwP accountable. It wasn't well received.

With the Union of the Homeless, it was equally unclear where the CLP fell on the initiator-supporter-co-opter continuum. You would just notice a lot of the same folks being involved. There was more than 80% overlap in cities with Union of the Homeless chapters and Jobs with Peace chapters. They had a role the National Welfare Rights Union too, which was active in the same cities.

The CLP dissolved in 1993 to eventally reform as the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, which backed Nader in 2000 to their detriment. Apparently there isn't much left.

The NWRU and the Union of the Homeless were pretty much ground zero for the once dominant idea that the anti-poverty movement needs to be exclusively of and by the poor. While this idea has lost some of its shine, it still persists, despite the limited evidence that this movement building model actually works.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Utne Reader Says We're "Uptown!"

This must be my week to be annoyed by reporters.

Fresh on the heels of Seattle Weekly's probing, "Can Real Change vendors be too successful" article of last week, comes a companion piece in the May/June issue of the Utne Reader, asking the same question about streetpapers themselves.

This story, by Jake Thomas, a Portland freelancer, asks if writing about topics other than homelessness, having staff, being more than a few pages long, and caring about layout, has put some members of the streetpaper movement on the road to watered down entertainment journalism for the middle class.

The answer is a resounding "maybe." "For some papers," says Kevin Howley, an associate professor of media studies at DePauw University, "this means a move away from grassroots participatory medium and the 'professionalization' of the sector."

If you're anything like me, you're asking yourself now, "Who the fuck is Kevin Howley, and what does he know about anything?"

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we can find out. Here he is talking to the Chicago Tribune about how "celebrities help us to fill the vacuum of identity" brought on by modernity. Here's Howley again being quoted on the You Tube/Google deal in the Christian Science Monitor. "Can the Utube ethos survive in a commercial context?" he asks. Good question. My guess is that a company that was sold for $1.65 billion was probably already operating in a commercial context, but what do I know? And here he is again, in the Philadelphia Enquirer, discussing America's "historical amnesia." That pretty much exhausts his press clips, but, wow, is there anything this guy doesn't know?

In all fairness, Professor Howley has a book, published in 2005, on community media, where he profiles Street Feat in Halifax, NS, as a sterling example of grassroots independent media. This is certainly one of those little papers that runs on heart. But wait! Their website looks like the most recent issue available was published a year ago!

So the ideal grassroots homeless newspaper, says associate professor Kevin Howley of DePauw University, is one that's so grassroots it's actually deep underground. As in dead.

The article really isn't so bad, and on balance it's a positive piece. It's just one of those fish riding a bicycle stories. "Look, a homeless newspaper holding reader focus groups and operating in a marginally competent manner! Should they really be doing that?"

My favorite loaded sentence: "While these changes have helped some publications achieve a modicum of economic stability, there's also a risk that, in the race to move product, streetpapers will lose their grassroots relevance ..."

Revealingly, reporter Jake Thomas' journalism blog has a listing of Portland media. Street Roots, one of the more kick-ass grassroots papers in the country, isn't listed. Conclusion? Streetpapers aren't really media. And when they start to look like they might be, it probably means they've sold out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Premature Anti-Fascist

I love Bernard Knox. And the best part is, he's not dead yet. I thought he was. This would be a reasonable expectation of anyone born in 1914, but apparently, I was wrong. Most recently, he has written the introductions to the Robert Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and now The Aeneid as well. He is, for me, everything anyone could want in an engaged intellectual.

Tonight I stumbled across this gem, entitled Premature Anti-Fascist, on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. This is a remarkable speech delivered by Knox at New York University in 1998. The term "premature anti-fascist" was code in the US military during the 40s for "communist." US soldiers in WW II who had previous experience fighting fascism were considered politically unreliable and withheld from the front lines. Somehow Knox got through. They probably figured that as a Brit, this sort of lapse was more to be expected. Besides, he was fluent in French, and they needed that.

The essay discusses the state of the world in the 30s and 40s, and reminds us that the western powers were perfectly ready to make their peace with fascism and only recognized this threat to civilization for what it was when it was nearly too late. As he says, it was already too late for many, the Jews and the Poles in particular.

Knox was wounded in Spain fighting with the POUM in 1936, emigrated from England to the US, and joined the OSS, where he was trained and sent to parachute, "in uniform, behind the Allied lines in Brittany to arm and organize French Resistance forces and hold them ready for action at the moment most useful for the Allied advance." After the war, he attended graduate school at Yale, where he would become a Professor of Classics, specializing in Virgil, Thucydides, and the Greek playwrights.

In the introduction to Essays Ancient & Modern, which covers much of the same biographical ground as his 1998 speech, he writes about finding a copy of Virgil in a ruined house in Italy. The war had yet to end and his unit was engaging the Germans in sporadic combat. He remembers the idea of the Virgilian lottery, in which one would open Virgil anywhere, and where one's finger landed was thought to be predictive. His lands on this passage from the First Georgic:
"Here right and wrong are reversed, so many wars in the world, so many faces of evil. The plow is despised and rejected; the farmers march off, the fields untended. The curving sickles are beaten straight to make swords. On one side, the East moves to war; on the other, Germany. Neighboring cities tear up their treaties and take to arms. The vicious war god rages the world over."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Neutralizing Homelessness

Several weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on an article by Columbia University's radical urban planner Peter Marcuse that ran in Christianity and Crisis in 1988. This was an abbreviated version of the influential Neutralizing Homelessness, which was published in Socialist Review in January, 1988. Finding the original took awhile, but the interlibrary copy service eventually came through, and a PDF is now posted here at my streetpaper class wiki.

Given that most people are too lazy to read a 25-page article from a socialist academic journal, however accessible, brilliant, and completely relevant that article might be, even nearly 20 years after its publication (Yes, I am taunting you to read it. DO IT NOW!) I will summarize the highlights.

Marcuse says that the widespread existence of homelessness in a society as affluent as our own is a moral outrage that challenges the legitimacy of the social and economic order itself. Homelessness, therefore, must be ideologically neutralized.

Homeless people, then, are both physically isolated from mainstream daily life and contact, and politically isolated from the larger economic context. We have the odd phenomena, therefore, of talking a great deal about homelessness, while taking no effective action to actually solve the problem.

To address the root causes of homelessness — a profit driven housing system where "those who cannot provide others with profit get no housing," a deindustrialized global economy wherein homeless people are "the surplus of the surplus" within a system based on the existence of surplus people, and a neo-conservative free-market ideology that still insists that supply side economics is in the best interest of all of us — would be, well, revolutionary.

Revolutionaries being in short supply these days, what we get instead are neo-liberal palliatives that do more to mask the problem than to solve it.

I asked my class to consider the Bush administration's advocacy for Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness even as they continue to wage war on the social programs that alleviate poverty as a zen koan: a seemingly absurd, irresolvable dilemma that, considered long enough, may offer a breakthrough to some form of enlightenment.

I feel like I'm finally beginning to understand,

"If government does not deal with homelessness," says Marcuse, "it appears illegitimate and unjust; if it does try seriously to alleviate homelessness, it breaks the link between work and reward that legitimizes wage labor. Neither horn of the dilemma is a comfortable resting place."

Solutions, therefore, are "aimed more at dealing with ordinary (housed) people's reactions to homelessness than with homelessness itself." Again, isolate the problem intellectually. Isolate the people physically.

We've seen all of the techniques Marcuse outlines:

DENY: Find creative ways to low ball the numbers. Narrow the definition so as to exclude. Minimize.

Focus public attention on the most stigmatized members of the homeless (mentally ill, addicted, alcoholic) and place the blame on character defects, as opposed to, oh, structural unemployment and unaffordable housing.

Data and subpopulations. Baffle us with bullshit. Marcuse quotes neo-conservative Thomas Mann saying solutions to homelessness should be in the form of "separate policies for separate subpopulations" rather than focusing on universals such as housing, wages, and access to social services.

Ghettoizing homeless people outside of mainstream society in shelters and such while criminalizing public displays of extreme poverty with no-sitting ordinances, forbidding public feeding, criminalizing park sleeping, etcetera, all of which are on the rise nationwide.

Sadly, his prescriptive solutions of twenty years ago didn't really take. The militant Union of the Homeless that so inspired him in 1988 pretty much flamed out within a few years. A direct-action based demand for housing mostly ended with the 1990 suicide of Mitch Snyder. The National Coalition for the Homeless, which once carried the torch for a more structural approach to homelessness, is a shadow of its former self, and has been entirely eclipsed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which operates hand in glove with the Bush administration's United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

It's time for homeless advocates, housing activists, and everyone else who is talking so much about ending homelessness these days to seriously re-examine our work. The good news is that expectations have been raised. Everyone's talking about ending homelessness. The bad news is that the strategies we've been offered won't work.

For those of us who are in the game, it's time to seriously up the ante.

March for Human, Labor, and Civil Rights

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sherman the Unexpected

This week's Real Change will feature an interview I did with Sherman Alexie last Thursday. We talked about his new book Flight, the legacy of Kurt Vonnegut, class and the declining significance of race in America, how privilege makes people stupid, and the advantages of leaving our tribalisms behind. This section, on why he no longer supports the movement to free Leonard Peltier, is excerpted from the unedited transcript that will be posted on the Real Change website.

Sherman's Town Hall reading on Monday, April 23rd, at 7 pm will be a benefit for Real Change, and will also feature readings from our own Anitra Freeman and Stan Burriss.

ALEXIE: It always bothered me, for instance, with the American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier case. I reflexively supported Leonard Peltier until very recently. Just because, you know, I am fully aware of what the FBI is capable of in this country, and has always been capable of in this country. But then I actually looked at what happened that day on the Pine Ridge Res. Two FBI agents holed up, at the compound. I have no problem believing they shot first. Whatever happened, there was a gunfight. The FBI agents were mortally wounded, defenseless, and one, two or three — depending on the stories — people, walked down the hill 100 yards, went around the cars, stood over the FBI agents, and shot them in the face. By any definition of the term, that is a crime.

RC: It’s an execution.

ALEXIE: If you believe what was happening at Pine Ridge was a war, and therefore both sides were protecting something. If you even believe AIM was practicing self-defense that day, in the context of war, still, it couldn’t be self-defense. Because the FBI agents were no longer capable of harming anybody. It was war, the FBI agents were no longer able to fight. So there was no self-defense anymore, and they were defenseless enemy combatants. So it was a war crime. So one of those moments when you realize, oh shit, I have been supporting a war criminal.

RC: Well, it’s a great example of a morally ambiguous situation, where the whole issue of being of a tribe or not affects your ability to see what’s really going on. I mean, you’re right. On the one side was GOON, which was horrible, but on the other side, AIM certainly had its totally thuggish aspects as well, which I thought certainly came across in the way that you set it up in the book.

ALEXIE: Which was the fictionalized version of seventies activism where the so called good guys, what do I call it in the book? IRON, Indigenous Rights Now. Two activists work with the FBI to kill another Indian. So two IRON guys are acting as double agents, which happened. There is evidence, anecdotal and otherwise of AIM members cooperating with the FBI. It happened with the Black Panthers. It happened with Chicano movements.

Because certain members of AIM, not all of them, a lot of them did a lot of great stuff, but because certain more violent members of AIM and I share the same ethnicity, I automatically reflexively assume that we shared the same moral system. And we don’t. I have an entirely different moral system than Leonard Peltier. Russell Means. Dennis Banks. I have a different moral system. And if you push and look, I would say that most of the people, and it’s white liberals, almost all of the white liberals who support the Free Leonard Peltier thing, if they really examined it, would realize how different their moral system, about violence and guns, is from the people they are trying to support.

RC: So, I assume then that you don’t regard the Matthiasson book then as the definitive account?


RC: Is there a source then, that …

ALEXIE: No. It’s a combination of reading this side’s version and that side’s version. One of the facts you can’t get around is that the FBI agents were shot in the face when they were defenseless. That’s a pretty hard fact.

RC: That’s a tough one to get around isn’t it?

ALEXIE: Yeah, so where do you go from there? After that, it’s all politics, and its all moral relativism. But I’m going to take the firm moral stance here that it was wrong. Regardless of why the FBI was there, what happened was that two defenseless human beings were shot in the face. And I get in trouble for it.

Q; I’ll bet you do.

ALEXIE: I’ve had people yell out, “Fuck you, Sherman!” at readings and performances, which is fun.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Building the Political Will to End Homelessness

Last week, Real Change published No End in Sight, the critique of the Ten Year Plan to end homelessness that I posted here last Monday. The editorial, which argued that the Plan lacks a grassroots strategy and ignores fundamental realities, was intended to begin a discussion of how a more bottom-up effort might look.

While there is widespread skepticism toward the Ten Year Plan's prospects for success, there is also broad support for many of the Plan's goals. We hope to begin a conversation that a.) moves beyond what has been a stifled and largely top-down dialogue to have a real discussion of homelessness and poverty in Seattle, b.) builds an organizing model that is capable of moving a broad grassroots anti-poverty agenda, and c.) supports key Ten Year Plan goals by truly building the political will to end homelessness.

Nobody disputes that the major structural issues that stand behind homelessness (A market that does not support affordable housing, an economy in which many people are surplus and many others are poorly paid, and a federal government that has mostly devolved its responsibility for services to the localities and continues to withdraw support) are extremely daunting.

We must, however, move beyond local solutions that offer no challenge to basic structures of inequality. We need to stop accepting that homelessness is a local problem, and that local and private solutions are capable of meeting the need. We need to address the market forces that eliminate affordable housing nearly as fast as new subsidized housing alternatives come on line. We need to build coalition across issues to increase the bargaining power of labor and mitigate the failures of capitalism to meet basic human needs with adequate food, shelter, and healthcare for all of us.

We need to move away from models of managing homelessness and poverty that divide poor people and their advocates into competing issues and subpopulations, and move toward ways of organizing and meeting people's needs that bring us together across barriers of race and class.

None of this happens overnight. As we all work to build grassroots political will for Ten Year Plan priorities, we need to do so in a way that builds power for the long-term and begins to address the deeper problems that create homelessness. Here are a few quick thoughts to help get people thinking in a new direction.
  • Poor and homeless people should be meaningfully involved in the process. We should avoid tokenized input. Likewise, we should avoid romanticizing "the voice of the poor." We should be respectful and realistic, and very much about listening.
  • The distance between the experience of poor and homeless people and their middle class and affluent allies needs to be bridged by opportunities for dialogue and action that reach across barriers of class.
  • The professionalization of anti-poverty and human services advocacy has left us largely without the organized base of support that we need to effectively challenge money and power. Support for ending homelessness needs to be cultivated at a neighborhood by neighborhood level. Lots of people want the same thing. We need to get a lot better at building for power.
  • We need to start challenging the idea that little can be done about market forces that decrease the availability of low-income housing. While we should support reforms like the enlargement of the State Housing Trust Fund, we also need to look at how development and zoning policies impact affordability.
  • We need to use every tool available, including the citizen's initiative, to challenge the loss of housing affordability in Seattle.
  • We need to create more opportunities to come together, learn, and discuss. In the absence of community and dialogue, we often accept paradigms for reform and action that miss the point.
  • We need to recognize that there is huge structural unemployment in our economy, and start organizing for policies that address this issue instead of simply blaming the poor.
  • We need to get a lot better at working across issues and forming strategic alliances and coalitions. We need to hold the federal government more accountable for its role in increasing poverty and homelessness.
Yes. It's overwhelming. But over the past three decades, poverty, homelessness, and inequality have increased, and our largely depoliticized efforts toward advocacy and emergency sheltering have failed. It's time to broaden the conversation, start rethinking how an anti-poverty strategy that effectively builds for power might look, and to begin taking action in new ways.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I'm OK. You Seem Like Kind of a Jerk.

Who knew that my shot across the bow of the Weekly more than a week ago would turn into this thing? This vendetta? This blood-letting and ritual sacrifice? This final act of Hamlet?

Being the most minor of minor celebrities (I mean, let's face it, I make Rick Steves look like Mick Jagger) I am always a little amazed at the kind of emotions I can dredge up in those whom I've never met.

Over the past week, perfect strangers over at The Weekly have commented freely on the state of my mental health. I've been compared to a rabid chimp, deemed an establishment liberal, and called an amazing asshole. People who have obviously never seen my car, teeth, or shoes have assumed I must somehow be in this for the money, and living in luxury off the backs of the poor (why anyone would think my job pays well is really beyond me). Since attacking Real Change turned out to ill-advised, the next best thing, apparently, is to attack me.

It's interesting that in my twenty or so years of poor people's organizing and alternative journalism, I've never been seriously attacked from the right. They seem to respect the idea of helping people work. I generally get this stuff from the left, the far left, and the pseudo-left.

I don't think any of it, really, has much to do with me. I wind up being a screen on which people project what they want to see: saint, poverty pimp, egotist, nut job, whatever.

It's fine. The way I see it, if everyone likes you, you're probably not doing much of anything that's really interesting.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Why Are People So Angry? An Answer.

Is Seattle really the uptight, liberal-totalitarian, stronghold of political correctness that Huan Hsu describes in his Seattle Weekly blog post today? I don't think so. If folks at the Weekly really believe the parody that they publish each week, that's their issue. I think there's something else going on.

The top layers are the most obvious. People care about their vendors, and don't like the idea of press that might do them damage. Real Change is something that's sort of abstract. That's just an organization. But their vendors are real people. You fuck with them at your peril.

Beneath that is a sense that The Weekly isn't a Seattle paper anymore. There's anger around that. When the paper that's seen as having no loyalties or ties targets the paper that's part of what makes Seattle special, it's salt in the wound. Not a smart choice. Huan wouldn't have known this, but his editor should have.

And beneath that is the premise of the article itself, which was misguided in its assumption that Real Change is a charity rag.

When we give out of charity, there is a power relationship. I am the bestower. You are bestowed upon. I am powerful. You are grateful. The positions of giver and receiver are affirmed.

If this is what buying Real Change means to you, then it follows that the vendor should be certifiably poor. When they are not, we feel conned. We want the recipients of our charity to be abjectly wretched, not just vaguely-near-the-poverty-line poor.

It's an objectification thing. That's the lens through which Hsu's story makes sense.

That's not what Real Change is about. Most of our readers see our vendors as working people. That's why they like it. They know that we're about offering a paper people want to read. That it's not a pity purchase.

And when people work, the assumption is that they do it to make money. To ask whether that's a problem is to completely miss the point.

It's Official: We're a "Gate"

My pre-emptive Seattle Weekly: What the Fuck post of last week has escalated into a minor blogospheric event. And little Apes-ma isn't even two months old yet. I'm so proud. See the realchangegate chronology at Seattle.metblogs, and what will hopefully be the last word on this, posted this morning by David Goldstein on Horse's Ass. It wasn't. Here Huan Hsu asks "Why is everyone so mad about this?" and I try to help him understand.

A Sad Story with a Thin Ray of Hope at the End

Yesterday, I fired a guy.

Well, I didn't technically fire him, because technically he doesn't work for Real Change. Technically, he works for himself. Technically, he buys his papers from us wholesale, and retails them at a profit.

It is these sorts of technicalities that allow us to employ 250 or so people that have varied levels of employability.

This guy is homeless and sleeping in shelters. He has the mental capacity of maybe a 7 or 8-year-old and a serious anger management problem.

Not real employable.

He's a sweet guy, and mostly wants to be your friend. But when he goes off it's pretty spectacular. One time he threw his cel phone at a staff person. He has lousy aim. Another time, he splashed beer on our front windows.

That was weird.

Both times he called the police afterwards. He always does that. They generally don't respond.

This time though, he'd broken another vendors arm over a turf fight. His primary defense was that it couldn't have been him, because the police had several opportunities to arrest him and didn't.

Which was true.

If a homeless guy breaks another homeless guys arm in the woods, does anyone give a shit?

Anyway, today was his appeal. I tried to manage it in a way that would hear him out, affirm him as a person, hold our ground, and get him out the door without anyone getting hurt.

And looking over this list now, I can say we did all those things. But he still freaked out.

When the moment came, he leapt up from the table and cocked back with his chrome blue cell phone. We all thought he was going to do it.

But he didn't. Instead, he ran to the lights, and angrily glared while he frantically flipped the switch as fast as he could for 5 or 10 seconds.

It was the weirdest act of rage I've ever seen.

Then he ran from the room, slamming the door harder than it's ever been slammed.

I laughed. Craig and Danina didn't. I felt like a dick.

But it was just such a strange thing to do.

He said we'd be hearing from his lawyer. He called the police.

He grabbed something made out of glass on his way out. It might have been a jar. He smashed it on the sidewalk. And he was gone.

The police never came.

Maybe they're the father he never had, and he's still hoping they'll arrive someday

Thinking about it later — how I laughed and what a dick I am for finding such humor in his situation — it occurred to me how completely screwed this guy is.

The things that have probably happened to him over his thirty years or so. His utter misery.

And how nobody is going to rescue him. Not the police. Not the social workers. Not his family. Nobody.

Maybe that's too pessimistic.

Maybe, when all this housing for chronically homeless people gets built, some social worker somewhere will make a project of him.

It'll take her a year or two, but she'll get him on the right lists, work hard to keep in contact, make sure he doesn't flip out and ruin everything, and then maybe she'll fix it when he does.

And then maybe he'll finally get to live like a human being. And her life will have mattered to someone. A lot.

And maybe he'll be saved. It's a big maybe. But it's all he's got.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I Just Read Huan Hsu's Article

... and he pretty much wrote the snark-laden story I was expecting, although, for the most part, it was fair. Apparently, I use the word "fuck" a lot. And I talk about things in my personal blog that I give a shit about, like how much The Weekly sucks.

Guilty as charged.

Huan took on the burning issue of whether Real Change vendors are bilking the public by not always being pathetic and needy enough for his taste. And he, being some dumb-ass journalist who's thought about it for an hour or two, thinks a turf system that rewards and creates success for vendors who work hard is too capitalistic a path for an organization that's supposed to be helping people.

The Weekly found a mildly disgruntled vendor who compared our incentive system to "tax breaks for the rich," and got our star vendor, Ed McClain, who earns every fucking penny he makes, to say he doesn't feel guilty about taking people's money.

Bravo, Mr. Hsu, for uncovering the greatest injustice of our age.

Given that every internal document about Real Change that exists is open to public inspection at, he could have dug into our policies and the thinking behind them in a more nuanced and interesting way, but that would have lacked the drama and conflict he was looking for.

The article gives both sides, and is therefore "balanced." But I don't think this article will be winning any awards for the Weekly.

For that to happen, you have to write about things that matter.

Singularly Bizarre Pre-emptive Diatribe

Just returned from the Richard Buckner show at the Crocodile, and it was pretty OK, especially the last 20 minutes or so. Six Parts Seven, the band he was touring with, mostly just got in the way. Buckner's amazing. He doesn't need a band. He just needs to sit there doing his trance-like semi-autistic genius thing.

He soloed for a few songs at the end and then for an encore. I think anyone who was there would agree that's when most of the magic happened.

For those of you who don't know of him, here's a clip from UTube of Buckner doing 22, a songwriting miracle if ever there was.

Meanwhile, today the new improved Real Change comes out, along with the long awaited Seattle Weekly article. They're all all in a tizzy over there about being placed on the defensive. Apparently, the rule is that one is supposed to wait for the snarky journalist to actually publish his story before publicly questioning his angle.

I prefer calling attention to a bad story before it gets published, but I guess that's just me. Call me crazy. Or defensive. Or singularly bizarre. Or whatever else you like. I don't care.

Six months ago, I wouldn't have been concerned. I knew The Weekly. They were our friends. But, since the buy out, everyone I knew there has left. The chain that owns them now has a reputation for the kind of journalism that values sensationalism over fairness.

When pretty much everyone you trust at a publication leaves, that's the sort of thing you notice.

So when friends tell me that a reporter who just moved here two months ago is asking a bunch of loaded questions, my trust in The Weekly's professional integrity doesn't exactly carry the day.

I've talked to a whole lot of people about this over the last few days. Journalists, writers, community activists, and other people who think and read and watch what's happening with the media in this town, and no one sees the weekly of today as being The Weekly we once knew.

So they've got something to prove. We'll see how they do.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Subway Station of the Living Dead

OK. Before you do anything else, click here to begin listening to the full recording, available on the Washington Post website, of the greatest performance ever to be ignored.

Here was the Post's idea. Take one of the world's most extraordinary musicians, put him in a subway station during morning rush hour, have him play some of the most transcendent music ever written, and see if anyone notices.

So Joshua Bell, a Grammy award-winning violinist who usually commands around $100 a ticket for live performances, agrees to be the guy. He shleps his $3.5 million made in 1710 Stradivarius to L'enfant Plaza station and plays nonstop for 43 minutes. The acoustics are excellent. He's loud. He's brilliant. The air fills with soaring, beautiful, pure emotion. 1,097 people go rushing by. Exactly seven of them stop to listen.


He earns $32.17. $20 of that is from the one woman who figures out who he is. She'd seen him a few months before at the National Gallery.

I guess everyone else had a train to catch. Read the remarkable story, with video clips of people walking by, at the Washington Post.