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.

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