Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mitch Snyder is Spinning in His Grave

I've heard from several very well-placed sources that the upcoming Seattle conference to more deeply engage the faith community in providing housing and services to homeless people is not tied to the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Apparently, there's a small pot of money left over from the Fannie Mae Foundation melt-down, and this is part of how it's being spent. While the OFBCI does have a strategy of sponsoring conferences around the country, this is not that.

The Church Council's Sandy Brown and Seattle Office of Housing's Adrienne Quinn are co-chairing the organizing committee, and there is said to be a huge amount of latitude in creating the goals and outcomes for the conference. While I'm satisfied that this is being driven locally and not from DC, organizing for this has intentionally been below radar, and that's set off some alarms for people. If we're really about building a movement to end homelessness, we need more transparency and discussion and less secrecy and control.

That said, here's some stuff for conference organizers to consider, since they never asked.
  • Churches have been doing this work for a long time, and in most cases don't have a lot of resources themselves. Whatever thoughts people are having about churches being the backbone of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness needs a serious reality check. Earth to CEHKC: The mainline churches are in decline and mostly composed of those old enough to have voted for Kennedy. The evangelicals are interested in other things and the mega-churches have perverted Jesus into some kind of an Amway salesman for God, where if you pray hard enough, you'll be rewarded with a new Ford Explorer. This strategy has its limits.
  • The Bush administration is engaged in a structural reassignment of responsibility for managing the wreckage of robber baron capitalism, and they're not it. But they love churches. Love, love, love. And Phil Mangano's got that God-talk thing down cold. It's a great system. Untrammeled capitalism creates, figuratively speaking, a never ending stream of lepers, and the church folk get to line up to wash their feet. Everyone wins. The rich get richer, the faithful get an in with God, and some of the lepers get clean feet. End unfair but hopefully thought-provoking metaphor.
  • Exactly when was it that everyone turned into a total chicken shit and stopped talking about raising hell to end poverty? The Ten Year Plan, until people get a backbone and start getting real about poverty and the role of federal policy in creating inequality, is not "ending homelessness." It's managing homelessness at a higher level of sophistication with fewer government resources.
  • Ending homelessness will take new federal priorities, and that's a long hard fight that too few are talking about. The fact that we've allowed a fast-talking, disingenuous, refugee from a community theater production of The Music Man who also happens to be a shill for the Bush Administration to become the national spokesperson for "ending homelessness" is the saddest commentary on what homeless advocacy has become that I can possibly imagine. Mitch Snyder is spinning in his grave.
Last night I was at a meeting that was billed as a Progressive Roundtable. It was mostly enviros, politicos, and think tank types talking about how to build a progressive movement, and there were guests from successful progressive coalitions in Michigan and New Mexico bearing rumors of effective strategy. One described how 501(c)3 organizations who provide services need to operate at the very edges of the quite substantial amount of lobbying that is allowed. I found myself at once very excited by this rather obvious idea, and very saddened at how far this is from our reality.

If Fannie Mae wants to pay to convene a conference, we should use it to talk about how the movement to end homelessness has been co-opted by bureaucrats and rendered about as politically threatening as a newborn kitten. We can hold the conference at a Catholic church. Then we can all make our confessions and do some penance by getting off our safe and complacent asses to do some real organizing.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Well! Isn't That Special?

"It is that massive effort by people of concern and people of love to save lives which will change our nation for the better. In the midst of our plenty, there's darkness, but there's always hope. In the midst of plenty, there is sadness and loneliness, but there's always a soul to put your arm around and say, 'I love you.'"

- President George W. Bush
Remarks at the 11th Regional
White House Conference on Faith-Based
and Community Initiatives
Los Angeles, CA, March 3, 2004
Ever since I heard that a Fannie Mae-financed Seattle conference is in the works to link up churches with the largess that flows from Bush's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, I've been abnormally curious about who these people are and what they're up to.

The most surprising thing I've learned is that there isn't simply one Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. In 2003, Bush issued an Executive Order instructing each of his cabinets to create their own version of said office.

Therefore, the Department of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education all have their own Centers for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and are all encouraging churches and other non-profits to assume the work of caring for the needy, since the feds sure as hell aren't going to.

The genius of this only becomes apparent when one considers the political issues involved for any Democratic administration that would dismantle this apparatus. Say what you will about the Bush administration, they understand the meaning of structural change.

Insiders such as David Kuo have criticised the program as ineffective and highly politicized. Jimmy Carter, as part of his recent George Bush is the "worst President ever" remarks, drew special attention to the OFBCI, which disbursed $2.15 billion in 2005 alone.
“The policy from the White House has been to allocate funds to religious institutions, even those that channel those funds exclusively to their own particular group of believers in a particular religion. Those things in my opinion are quite disturbing,” Carter said. “As a traditional Baptist, I’ve always believed in separation of church and state and honored that premise when I was president, and so have all other presidents, I might say, except this one.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dionysius Doesn't Dance Alone

The Greeks had their maenads. Women under the spell of Dionysius would dance all night and then rip small animals apart with their bare hands. The Balinese have the Monkey Chant. The Sioux had the Ghost Dance. Hippie counter-culture had the Grateful Dead and The Doors. The French and others have carnival.

Throughout human history, across the centuries and across cultures, people have come together to lose themselves in drink, dance, drugs, music, and ritual. We all want, it seems, to expand our boundaries and lose ourselves in the company of others.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s thoroughly remarkable Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy delves into the history of group ecstasy, its suppression by colonialists, church officials, and political elites, and what it means for us now as we struggle to hold together a society of individualists.

This sort of social history is where Ehrenreich truly excels. While recent work as an undercover journalist (Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch) have brought her writing to new audiences, one hopes they will move along with her to embrace this profoundly meaningful history of joy.

Euripides’ Bacchae, often described as the most inexplicable of plays, explores the tension between ecstatic experience and order as Pentheus the king and Dionysius the androgynous stranger face off in a farcical yet deadly power struggle.

This archetypal conflict of Pentheus and Dionysius echoes on throughout much of human history. As the increasing popularity of such events as Burning Man and the enduring appeal of storefront charismatic churches and small dark music venues attest, the historic victory of Pentheus, while significant, is never complete.

The depth of the European ecstatic heritage is perhaps best illustrated by the cooptation of Dionysian myth in the social construction of Christ. Dionysius, with his various festivals and close association with the benefits of wine, was the most wildly popular of the pagan deities, although Baal and Asheroth were popular as well for many of the same reasons.

Nor are depictions of the Dionysian limited to the New Testament. While the militaristic god that evolves throughout the Pentateuch was well suited to an imperial religion held by a surrounded people, every time the chosen folk got a little breathing room they’d go running right back to Baal.

A dozen or more centuries later, as class and hierarchy increasingly defined the social experience, the central role of dancing and celebration in the life of the community came under fire, and under the watchful eye of the Calvinists was nearly extinguished.

Ehrenreich traces the evolution of the suppression of community to the emergence of social hierarchy. In case after case, the pattern is the same: elites increasingly pulled back from popular celebration into more exclusive and careful gatherings of their own. As elites withdrew, the subversive aspects of carnival-like celebrations offered both the opportunity and organizing structure to parody and sometimes attack the upper classes. They became threatened, and gradually outlawed popular celebration.

As Europeans took their increasingly dour worldview abroad, the suppression of ecstatic ritual was a mere footnote to the wholesale extermination of entire civilizations. Yet, as in the case of American slaves, what was driven underground would often reemerge in less overtly threatening yet still subversive forms.

While Ehrenreich stops short of offering a blueprint for the restoration of collective joy, she offers the universalizing influence of festival as an antidote to the impoverishment of public life. Being responsible to one another, she says, begins with establishing emotional connection. Recovering joy isn’t just about loosening up and having more fun. It may be a matter of survival.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Please God, Make It Stop

"L-O-V-E. There's a lot inside of me. L-O-V-E. There's a lot to share."

This 26 seconds of hell is brought to you by my kids' daycare for Mother's Day. The one in the middle of the front in the purple dress is Twin B, and the one off to the far right who looks as though she might be on another planet altogether is Twin A.

My turn is coming up. For Fathers Day, I get to miss half a day of work so I can drive to some park, eat hot dogs, and make small talk with a bunch of other dads who probably don't want to be there either. I've been told that the girls will be looking for me. Blowing it off isn't really an option.

Personally, if I'm going to miss work to be with my kids, I'd really rather take them to the beach or something on my own, but that's because I don't do social convention so well. I'm liable to offend someone just to liven things up. Who knows, maybe I already have.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

I threatened a guy with a crowbar on Friday. I don't know what's gotten into me lately.

It was the beginning of Memorial weekend. Staff had places to be and I was closing. A drunk guy who had come in earlier was asleep on the couch. An hour before he had been singing loudly. Staff was in an indulgent mood. Now he was my problem.

At close to six, I tried waking him and got nothing. Wes and I conferred. I called 911.

The dispatcher asked if I'd tried yelling and shaking him. Yeah, I said. He just won't wake up. "Is he breathing?" they asked.

I should have said no.

They declared it a medical matter and said someone was on the way. A half-hour later, there I was, reading my email, listening to the drunk guy snore.

Wes told me how when he drove cab some smelly drunk with no money crawled in the back and wouldn't leave. He pulled the guy out of the car and dumped his ass in the parking lot. Some liberals who saw the whole thing gave him shit for it.

But that wasn't the end. Wes got the guy's bugs on himself. He didn't notice at first, but his date did. Wes didn't get laid that night.

There was a moral to the story. These things are never as easy as they look.

I tried waking the guy up again. This time more vigorously. He looks at me. "Hey, you gotta go. We're closed."

"Fuck you," he said. Then he closed his eyes.

We had a short chat. I called 911 back. "My guy woke up, but now he's belligerent and won't go."

We did that thing where you describe the guy while you're looking dead at him. This is normally asshole's cue to leave. But my guy didn't care. He was going back to sleep.

They said they'd cancel the EMTs and send a car. They were pretty busy.

I waited.

At around 7:20, Wes had another story for me. He told me about how once some guy hit his cab and drove away. It took three hours for the cops to come and take a report.

I let that sink in for a few minutes and went into the back room.

I was striding purposefully toward the front when I heard a far off voice. "Oh God. He's got a crowbar."

Wes was standing next to Anitra, who was hanging out at a computer with one of her StreetWrites buddies. She looked up with mild alarm.

Right. Like I'm going to beat some drunk homeless guy to a pulp with a crowbar right there in the front office of Real Change.

I just wanted to impress him. I'd never seen him before. I wasn't taking any chances.

I pushed and pulled and yelled. He regarded me with disdain. "Fuck you," he repeated. I grabbed his arm, pulled him off the couch, and dragged him down the two steps to the front exit. He sat in front of the door and refused to move. I shoved him out of the way. He looked at the crowbar. I opened the door. He moved toward me.

"Fuck you buddy. I was in Vietnam." His shirt was pulled up. I saw ace bandages. He was pathetic. It was a fucked up situation. He mimed karate moves but was too feeble to present a threat.

Anitra, who is even more ADHD than me, got between us and went nose to nose with him. "No," she said, inching him out the door, "You're leaving." We were both dead calm. In the zone. In a crisis, people like us are good to have around.

Before we knew it, he was on the other side of a locked door. I called 911 again and told them to cancel the call.

"What happened," she asked.

"I got tired of waiting and chased the guy out with a crowbar."

"You took matters into your own hands," she clarified.

"Yeah," I said. "I did."

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Oh Great. A Faith Symposium.

Apparently, there will be a "Faith Symposium" held somewhere near you sometime in the near future. Fannie Mae is working through United Way King County and the Seattle Office of Housing to train and fund churches to not only create more housing for chronic homeless people, but to also staff the services that they require.

Fannie Mae, as close readers of this blog will know, is the government entity that favored the National Alliance to End Homelessness with a $5M grant just as they were crawling into bed with the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, thus quadrupling their budget in a single year.

The Faith Symposium is one of seven conferences being held around the country that come out of Bush's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. There have been two quietly organized, invitation only planning meetings. Interestingly, the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness was not among the invitees.

Adrienne Quinn of Seattle's Office of Housing told attendees of the last meeting that since the feds are out of the housing business, it's time for churches to step into the breach. And not just for housing. For everything else too.

As Bush strengthens his Party's Christian-right base by shifting money out of community development and into his faith-based slush fund, it looks like there are plenty of liberals who are happy to line up for a little dough as well.

Let's just roll back the whole fucking New Deal. We already have income disparity to rival 1929. Now we just need everyone to understand that government doesn't do charity anymore. That it's better left to the churches.

Here's what churches should be doing instead of shoring up their budgets with government funding: Opposing a murderous war for oil that is undermining whatever hope we have for achieving long-term security, urging their members to find meaning in service and not in the empty idolatry of consumerism, and insisting that government use its resources and regulatory power to protect the weak, rein in the strong, and promote the common good.

My Jesus would tell 'em take that money and shove it up your ass.

Also ...

S.P. Miskowski quits the Democratic Party at Daughters of Catastrophe.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Explainer

This from the National Alliance to End Homelessness website. It's from their fact sheet series The Explainer. I can't find where I got this again, but you can get it here.

Isn't it great how Bush is the Decider and NAEH is The Explainer?

The factsheet shows how if you look hard enough, the federal government is spending more on homelessness than it first seems, but they're still not doing jack on housing, even though that's all they ever talk about.

But then The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers this less than promising summary of the President's budget, and it's long-term impact on domestic discretionary spending. Note that the largest cuts are in community development and job training.

It looks like The Explainers still have some explaining to do.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Help Get Real Change Up To Speed

We're three weeks into our summer fund drive and a bit over $35K toward our frighteningly large goal. Should it be hard to raise $140,000 to help homeless people in a city with 36,000 millionaires? Probably not, but that's not how it works. Raising money is never easy.

But it's important, so we do it anyway.

As you may have heard, we want to expand our organizing capacity, shore up support for the newsroom staff, and get a little administrative help so that people like me aren't wasting their time keeping the books and crap like that.

There are all sorts of ways to help.

You can click on the badge at the top right to make a donation at Network for Good, or to watch a short video about our work. You can also install a badge just like it on your own website until our drive ends and encourage folks to help.

You may also head over to our wiki to find out how our 20/20 campaign works and find online and printable tools that make it easy to ask your friends to support our work.

We just decided to have a used book sale in Ballard the last weekend of June to end the drive with a final push. If you'd like to donate books, contact Joe Bushek.

Or, you could just send a check to Real Change at 2129 2nd Ave., Seattle, WA 98121.

The staff of Real Change is in a death match with the board to see who can raise the most money in the 20/20 campaign, and I'm hoping that this blog is our secret weapon.

Actually, it's not a death match. I think the winning group gets a keg. But we like beer, so please help. If you want to help us drink it, we'll even invite you.

The WRAP Blog

Wednesday I had a conference call to talk about raising money for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, and in my typically diplomatic way I said that our website sucks, and offered to build a blog to replace it. So here it is.

I hope people use it. WRAP has this vision of building an alternative way of doing homeless advocacy and organizing that isn't about victim-blaming and ignoring inequality, and all six groups in the coalition have been around the block a few times and have mostly left their dogmas behind. We could learn a lot from each other.

We can also see what the pattern is, and it's the obsession with chronic homelessness by advocates and increasingly harsh laws being pushed by downtown interests. This isn't something you hear a lot about. That's because all the air has been sucked out of the room by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and now they get to define everything about homeless advocacy.

A few months ago a friend was visiting who has hated the NAEH for far longer and much more virulently than I. She's been working on me for years. She won.

We were talking about the Ten Year Plan thing when I wondered aloud how well their siamese twin thing with the US Interagency Council on Homelessness had paid. I Guidestarred their 990's and the 2003 and 2004 tax returns tell an intriguing story. In 2003, NAEH income was about $1.7M. This was typical of previous years. In 2004, the budget jumps to almost $7M.

It's not often that organizations achieve that sort of extraordinary growth. I've heard that most of it was attributable to a $5M Fannie Mae grant, but haven't checked to see if it's true. It sounds about right.

But I was talking about the blog wasn't I? Anyway, there's some amazing organizations in WRAP doing some great work, and there really has to be a way of doing homeless advocacy that doesn't sell out the poor to boost the property values of the rich. I don't think that's what any of us are here for.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Poverty of Affluence

Last night I finished Ehrenreich's Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. A fascinating look at the history of ecstatic group experience and it's suppression by those it may threaten. If you wonder why modern life feels so pale and unsatisfying, read this book. I wanted to share just this one paragraph, which vividly describes our sorry state:
We pay a high price for this emotional emptiness.… Collectively, we seem to have trouble coming to terms with our situation, which grows more ominous everyday. Half the world's people live in debilitating poverty. Epidemics devastate whole nations. The ice caps melt, and natural disasters multiply. But we remain for the most part paralyzed, lacking the means or will to organize for our own survival. In fact the very notion of the "collective," of the common good, has been eroded by the self-serving agendas of the powerful—their greed and hunger for still more power. Throughout the world (capitalist and postcommunist), decades of conservative social policy have undermined any sense of mutual responsibility and placed the burden of risk squarely on the individual or the family.
This really is the problem isn't it? Rebuilding the sense of collective responsibility. Reintroducing the concept. Like George on Seinfeld. "HEY! We live in a SOCIETY you know!"

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Betrayal of Christ

Somewhere along the last few weeks, the Ten Year Plan paradigm for ending homelessness sort of fell apart for me. The resources aren't there, and we don't live in some static bizarro world where 600 units of low-income housing means 600 more needy people housed, pure and simple.

We're being told that we've got homelessness on the run, and that it's not about poverty or inequality. Not really. It's about fucked-up dysfunctional people, and charity. It's about those who are the biggest drain on society. And our spiritual obligation to help the needy.

Apparently, the Bush administration gives a crap about these poor people, mainly because they cost so much. Most other poor people are pretty much on their own.

Homeless families, kids, and working-poor homeless have disappeared. The rural homeless are gone. No one sees them anymore.

There has been an odd convergence of focus on chronic homelessness and increased surveillance and repression of street homeless. Cities are passing tougher laws and exploring new strategies to aggressively encourage some people to go away.

It's all about getting them off the street, one way or another.

We've come to accept that homelessness is a technical and complicated issue, and few non-professionals can even understand it. And to half-believe that it's not about power.

It feels like we're in one of those creative moments where homeless advocacy needs to be re-invented and reunited with poverty — and everyone knows it — and we're not really sure what's next. But a lot of people are talking, and something is happening.

Some people maybe in Kansas might think the Bush administration is ending homelessness, but nobody here does. So what now?

Our very own Anitra Freeman gave the keynote last week at the State Coalition for the Homeless conference, opposite Nan Roman. She kicked ass.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Tralfamadorian Perspective

Last night, my classics reading group watched George Roy Hill's 1972 adaption of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It isn't often that we read anything less than 2,300 years old, but we made an exception to honor the passing of Kurt.

While the film took the Cannes jury prize that year and also won a Hugo award, it was too weird for most people and didn't do well in theaters. The movie is now out of print, but can be rented at Scarecrow.

You've never heard of anyone who was in it, except for Holly Near, who played Billy Pilgim's lovely but doomed wife. Up until now, Near's film career had escaped my notice, but she's also had small roles in All in the Family, The Partridge Family, and most recently, Law & Order.

The Tralfamadorians, who live in four dimensions, seem to have it right. Time is an illusion and all moments have always been and always will be, so there isn't much to get worked up over. Things aren't bad or good. They just are. Being happy is about focusing on the good.

Pilgrim finds his own peace when he becomes an evangelist for Tralfamadorian fatalism. Life's tragic absurdities are much easier to take if you assume their inevitability.

For myself, I don't think I'm ready to dump the notion of free will just yet. But it does seem sometimes as though the broad strokes have already been drawn, and all that's left to us is some filling in of shadows and texture. We kid ourselves, I think, about how much control we actually have.

And Also ...

Dr. Wes Browning's Run Off blog is really getting to be about my favorite place to stop in every few days. Between his memoir, his excellent taste in strange and astonishing music videos, the Technocrati sucks thing, and whatever other random-ass crap he might put up, it's pretty great. Today he posted six videos he found of a Romanian folk tune that he's fond of. Here's my favorite, because it rocks.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Fucked Up Genius of Andrew Boyd

The last time I saw Andrew Boyd was maybe five years ago. He was in town promoting his deeply existentialist Book of Daily Afflictions. This was a strange little book that combined genuine philosophical insights, shallow self-help rhetoric, and a keen sense of self-parody to create Brother Void.

When we greeted each other at his Hugo House reading — he looking rather hot in his black cassock and I feeling rather dull in comparison — Andrew looked deeply into my eyes as he placed his hand over my heart. It was on odd gesture that made me wonder, "Is this Andrew, or is this Brother Void?"

I'd worked with him a bit more than a decade before in January of 1991. The Gulf War, after months of saber-rattling, was to begin the next day. A huge march around the Boston Common was scheduled. I worked with Andrew and two other organizers out of the Jobs with Peace office to recruit and train people from the march for civil disobedience. We wanted to be sure that the next day's response was maximally disruptive.

The work paid off fabulously. While teams of people did choreographed CD at the Federal Building the next morning, there was also a running guerrilla skirmish in the streets, where knots of people would block traffic and tunnels and retreat as police moved in for arrests. Later that day, the huge main march would be led right onto Storrow Drive, accomplishing the Boston equivalent of blocking Seattle's Highway 99 at rush hour.

It didn't change much, but it sure felt good.

Andrew became a culture-jamming activist writer. Nice work if you can get it. He 's particularly good at creating reproducible guerrilla theater. Billionaires for Bush was his idea. Andrew here became Phil T. Rich.

His latest incarnation is as an agent of the Oil Enforcement Agency, a shadowy government agency charged with putting some muscle behind President Bush's new-found concern with "breaking our addiction" to oil. The OEA is recruiting. The video is awesome.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Raining on Philip Mangano's Rock & Roll Tour

There is an alternative to the Philip Mangano Rock & Roll circus. Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project calls bullshit on federal housing policy and plugs the Without Housing report (2:08 Mins).

We Don't Need Your Pity

The politics of fundraising off of pity (1:20 mins). Western Regional Advocacy Project ED Paul Boden, May 16, 2007, Ballard Public Library.

We're Not Quite Seen Equally

Paul Boden talks about homeless people being used by well-intentioned advocates. Western Regional Advocacy Project ED Paul Boden, May 16, 2007, Ballard Public Library (1:32 mins).

Paul Boden Can't Sell StreetSheet for Shit

The story in thirty-three seconds. No lesson drawn. No moral attached.

Nothing to Lose

More Paul Boden at the Ballard Public Library. Here he talks about the WRAP Report on twenty-five years of federal housing policy, and says that grassroots people who give a shit will outlast the NAEH. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has yet to respond to the WRAP data (2:14 min.).

An Expert on Panhandling

Who died and made Mangano the fucking expert?

Western Regional Advocacy Project ED Paul Boden, May 16, 2007, Ballard Public Library (1:09 mins).

Friday, May 18, 2007

The DSA's Panhandling Offensive?

The Downtown Seattle Association is working the media over a manufactured increase in panhandling. They landed an article in today's Puget Sound Business Journal on the 38% increase in panhandling they say they can document over the same period last year. Then Fox News on Q13 got tipped on tomorrow's PSBJ story, and the DSA got a twofer out of the deal with a Thursday night news spot as well. The "spike" in panhandling was the lead story after the tragically robbed girls' choir.

Q13 came down to Real Change to get the crazy guy's side of the story.

I don't seem to be able to link directly to the story, but you can find it here at Q13. I have to try and do something about that wild-eyed thing. Kate Joncas seems so much calmer than I.

Apparently the DSA's pandhandling education campaign is failing, and downtown begging is up by thirty-eight percent. That's what the DSA is saying anyway.

The guy named Tim Harris says that DSA's numbers have no science behind them and that the DSA is using bogus data to inevitably push for Tacoma-style toughness toward panhandlers, which makes me look a little like some commerce-hating, panhandler-loving, conspiracy prognosticating nut case. All too true.

Some guy named Tim Harris is in the PSBJ talking about this too. "The thing with the Metropolitan Improvement District numbers," he says, "is that there's no science behind them. The areas that they have people in change. Their focus on what they're documenting changes. Sometimes their ambassadors are looking for panhandlers and sometimes they're just handing out brochures to tourists. It undermines the validity of their numbers."

Oddly, the article says at one point that MID "readily acknowledges" the lack of science in their "data," but then later they say their counting methods are consistent. I suppose what they mean to say is that their methods are consistently unscientific.

To tell you the truth, I have no idea what the DSA is up to. I've called to ask, but haven't heard back yet. One assumes that an organization doesn't alert the media that panhandling is seriously on the increase without some sort of larger intent.

I'm actually not a big fan of panhandling. But I'm not wild about pushing the poor into the sea either.

In other media news, the Seattle Channel has placed the Ten Year Plan League of Women Voters panel discussion of a few weeks ago on-line. Once again, I appear dissatisfied with how things are shaping up, starting about thirty-five minutes into the broadcast.

Something's Happening in Our System That's Wrong

Paul Boden talks about coming up from the streets in the Tenderloin in the early 80s. Western Regional Advocacy Project ED Paul Boden, May 16, 2007, Ballard Public Library (2:08 mins).

Part of a Community

The homeless label isn't helping us. Western Regional Advocacy Project ED Paul Boden, May 16, 2007, Ballard Public Library (1:26 mins).

Charity is Not the Answer to Poverty

Paul Boden advances a common-sense argument for socialism. Western Regional Advocacy Project ED Paul Boden, May 16, 2007, Ballard Public Library (56 secs).

Food, Clothing, Shelter

Be careful of what you ask for. Western Regional Advocacy Project ED Paul Boden, May 16, 2007, Ballard Public Library (1:08 mins).

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Talkin' Trash in Ballard

WRAP Executive Director Paul Boden gave a talk last night at the Ballard library, sponsored by Real Change and our friends at Trinity United Methodist Church and Sustainable Ballard.

I think I've found the one other person on earth who hates Philip Mangano as much as I do. Boden doesn't like Mayor Newsom much either, and privately describes him as a kind of smiley Kennedy-wanna-be who fucks over homeless people.

The Western Regional Advocacy Project this year released Without Home, a critique of federal housing policy that documents how more than 25 years of federal funding trends for affordable housing have created the contemporary crisis of homelessness and near-homelessness.

WRAP is a west coast homeless empowerment organizer's coalition (see blog) that is working to build a bottom up alternative to business-as-usual. Boden started the organization last year after eighteen years as ED of the San Fransisco Coalition on Homelessness.

Boden will discuss Federal homeless and housing policy today with members of the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless immediately following the group's monthly meeting.

Paul said stuff that needs to be said and a bunch of people pretty much seemed to agree. We gave away about 30 pounds of WRAP reports before we ran out. I videotaped things, but the download cord got left at the office. So you have to wait, like I do. I'll get something up soon.

WRAP Member organizations:

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Oi! Again with the mishuggeneh guy on the cross!

There's been talk for a while of evangelical Christians overtaking the military and creating an oppressive environment for those of other faiths. It's a big enough issue that several watchdog organizations, such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and Jews on First ("because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind"), have formed to challenge the eroding separation of church and state in military institutions.

The Des Moines Register reports that David Miller, an Orthodox Jew who has been hospitalized regularly at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center for chronic kidney stones, is now suing for damages because he has been submitted to unrelenting proselytizing by evangelical Christian staff during his stays.

Miller says he often went hungry during his hospitalizations because staff refused to allow him kosher food or to contact his rabbi for assistance. Military chaplains, said Miller, repeatedly attempted to convert him to Christianity while he was in acute pain.
Over the past two years, Miller said, he has been asked over and over by the Iowa City VA medical center's staff within its offices, clinics and wards, "You mean you don't believe that Jesus is the Messiah?" and "Is it just Orthodox Jews who deny Jesus?" He said one staffer told him, "I don't understand; how can you not believe in Jesus; he's the Messiah of the Jews, too, you know."
Amazing. This is one of those instances where reality overtakes satire. I mean, look at the guy! Anyone who tries to convert David Miller to Christianity has clearly crossed the line. This goes beyond issues of church and state and the outrageous spiritual hubris involved to outright anti-Semitism. It's more like, "Look, Jew, worship Jesus!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Christ Came to Tennessee

A friend of mine who runs a women's shelter first heard about this when several people called with offers of pizza last week. The story is that Phillip Workman, who was executed on May 9th for killing a Tennessee cop during a Wendy's robbery twenty five years ago, used his last meal request to ask that a vegetarian pizza be delivered to a nearby homeless person.

When Workman committed his robbery, he was a homeless Vietnam vet who was strung out on cocaine. His final unselfish act recalled that history, and sought to perform one final act of compassion.

Prison authorities refused, saying that a.) state money can not be used to contribute to charity, and b.) the cost might surpass the allotted $20 value of the meal.

The story got out and set off an avalanche of pizza to the homeless. A Tennessee woman got her friends together and raised $1,200 to buy 170 pizzas for the Nashville Union Rescue Mission. Another 17 pizzas were spontaneously delivered to a Tennessee youth shelter. Given that pizzas were being offered to relatively obscure homeless shelters as far away as Seattle, I can only assume that Workman's final request resulted in thousands of pizzas being delivered to homeless people across the nation.

The biblical metaphors here are irresistible. Condemned man in last meal shares food with poor. A miracle follows, and vegetarian pizzas multiply like loaves and fishes. Poor people throughout nation break bread in his memory. Workman, in his final moments, becomes Christlike.

Amnesty International has printed a detailed statement on Workman's case, and believes that the death was the result of an accidental shooting by another officer. Workman's was the 1,074th execution in the United States since the death penalty was restored in 1977. You can get a strong sense of what Workman was like in this videotaped interview with CNN.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Counting the Homeless with Philip Mangano

NPR's Scott Simon did a softball interview with Bush administration homelessness czar Philip Mangano last Saturday on Weekend Edition, and Phil offered a genially upbeat litany of distortions and half truths as he assured us that the "business focused, results oriented" Ten Year Plan strategies are succeeding in ending homelessness. It was disappointing to hear Simon, who is certainly capable of doing a tough interview, defer to Mangano as if he were the reincarnation of Mother Theresa.

Simon sets the stage for Mangano's rap by parroting the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness line that ten percent of the homeless draw fifty percent of the emergency shelter resources, and that the magic bullet to ending homelessness lies in relentlessly focusing our attention on the toughest cases.

The rebuttal to this gets pretty deep into the weeds, which is part of why Mangano's oversimplification works so well. The short version is that the studies upon which this is based exclude several key groups, like families with children. The Ten Tear Plan model also assumes a static reality, which is just weird. For a good overview and critique, see NPACH's Q&A on chronic homelessness.

What I find so maddening about Mangano is how successful he's been in sidelining any discussion of structural poverty in relation to the problem of homelessness. By focusing national attention on the most dysfunctional and stereotypically "homeless" ten percent of the two million or more who are without housing, he has managed to deflect attention from the many ways in which federal policy creates poverty while effectively placing ninety-five percent of the responsibility for a solution on the localities.

He uses the terms chronic homeless, street homeless, and homeless interchangeably, so when he talks about these huge "reductions" that are taking place, any normal person would assume he's talking about homelessness in general. Thus, the illusion is established that major progress has been made when the reality is far less encouraging.

In Portland, for example, Mangano says homelessness has decreased by 70%. Without going into the complexities of the count, let's just say that this is an extremely contested number. The City of Portland claims a 39% decrease. Portland's Street Roots says they're not convinced.

The 2006 Conference of Mayors report says that requests for family shelter in that city actually rose. Outside the city, these rosy reports of ending homelessness turn positively grim. Some advocates claim that rural homelessness in Oregon is up by as much as 300%.

San Fransisco, another of Mangano's successes with a 38% decrease, reports a rise in family requests for shelter as well. Overall, says the Conference of Mayors, homelessness is up by six percent, nearly a third of family requests for shelter go unmet, and the average length of an episode of homelessness is now at eight months, the longest on record.

A recent internal fight within the our own Committee to End Homelessness in King County might shed some light. While some parties within CEHKC, based on the last two years' counts, wanted to report similar declines in homelessness, others argued that changes in the timing and methodology of the annual one night count rendered comparisons less than entirely meaningful. This point of view eventually prevailed.

Something that goes unsaid in all this counting and recounting is that most cities are employing liberal use of the stick right along side the Housing First carrot. Portland, LA, San Fransisco, and a host of other cities have become decidedly less hospitable, and this decreases the numbers as well. LA, for example, sends their police out every two weeks to roust sleeping homeless people under the guise of getting an accurate count. The numbers in LA's skid row have declined sharply.

Over the last three years in San Fransisco, says the Mayor's press release, "1,864 homeless persons left San Francisco to be reunited with friends or family members in other parts of the country through the City's Homeward Bound Program." This is otherwise known as the one-way bus ticket out of town. Long-time San Fransisco advocate Paul Boden reports that his city now counts these as housing placements.

So as Mangano goes around crowing his mission accomplished message, I'm thinking I've heard it before, and it wasn't true then either.

I'm just thankful that he didn't go into his "I'm from Massachusetts and an abolitionist, and Republicans ended slavery and they'll end homelessness too" rap. That just might have sent me right over the edge.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

On the Other Hand ...

If there's anywhere that one can access the Dionysiac it's at a good rock show.

The past few weeks I've been obsessed with Nirvana's In Utero album. I was alone this morning and cranked the stereo as far as the speakers would take it and listened to Milk It about six times straight. The pain of the lyrics and the rawness of Kurt's voice on this song goes straight to that fucked up space in my soul that I'd rather not talk about. There's this place where he does something between a sob and a chuckle that just slays me every time.

I got to thinking that there had to be something out there that captures a bit of what Nirvana must have been like live, and found this, from a show on February 6, 1994, in Cascais, Portugal. Two months later was the tragic suicide. It's funny how something like that can brand an inconsequential detail into your brain.

My wife and I had just moved to Seattle three weeks prior, on March 14th, and landed in a little student apartment near University Village. We went shopping at the QFC, where I got all nostalgic for my youth and bought one of those Chun King chow mein things, with the juice and vegetables in separate cans. On the way out of the store I saw the headline.

We went home and made the chow mein. It sucked.

As a newcomer to Seattle and not a huge grunge fan, I was unprepared for the city-wide paroxysm of mourning that followed. It wasn't until later that I grew to appreciate what Nirvana meant.

While the sound quality of this clip leaves a little to be desired, you really get a taste of the experience. On the first note of Heart Shaped Box there's a roar, and the crowd starts singing and clapping along, and then on the chorus, they come in full force. There's way more than just the music going on here.

Our Pale Imitation of Life

This weekend I'm reading Barbara Ehrenreich's new work on the demise of ecstatic experience and why it matters. It's called Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. This is a much better and more ambitious book that the title suggests.

Collective ritual that creates altered states of consciousness is something that has existed in cultures throughout the world since the beginning of recorded history. Its subversive aspects and inconvenience to capitalist production has, in most instances, led to its repression and virtual extinction. This, says Ehrenreich, has been an incalculable loss. The range of human experience is radically impoverished, and our unmet desires are exploited by less salubrious forms of collective immersion.

A few decades ago, a recording of the Balinese Ramayana Monkey Chant made a huge impression on me. When I saw photos of several hundred men seated in a tight circle, obviously transported by the experience, I thought, this is what is missing from our lives. This sort of group ecstasy is what we all hunger for, whether we realize it or not.

This surrender to the group can be experienced joyfully as a form of religious experience, or, in the form of Carnival, a subversive loosening of restrictions that creates cohesion. Or, it can take the more negative forms of nationalism, or its more extreme form, fascism. Bill Buford's remarkable Among the Thugs, which takes an immersion journalism approach to European soccer riots, offers yet another negative example of where this longing to lose oneself in the crowd can lead.

I'm only a bit more than halfway through the book, so I'm not sure if Ehrenreich goes here, but I think the desire to lose oneself in the collective is hardwired, and goes to the core of what it means to be human. We've been socialized to think of ourselves as a lone self, but somewhere, deep within each of us, lives the intense desire to merge with our tribe. The absence of this experience is part of why so many of us seem so tragically lost, and are so willing to be swept away by those who would profit from our emptiness.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Problem(s) of the Rich

The 2005 census figures were released last March and show that inequality is at its highest since the Roaring Twenties. The top one percent of the population, or 300,000 people, showed the same income as the entire bottom fifty percent, or 150,000,000 people.

That's a one to five-hundred average income ratio between the bottom half of the population and the top one percent.

You'd think the well off (annual household income for the top 5% starts at $166,000) would be pretty grateful for what they have. But you'd be wrong.

If this blog by Tim, the million dollar condo owner at 2200 Westlake is at all representative, they're still not happy, and they fear and hate anything or anyone that might impinge upon the unbridled enjoyment of their privilege.

Tim's problems include poor people, sketchy-looking art school students, and substandard concierge service. He also whines about having to bus his own table at the Wholefoods bistro, and needing to walk two blocks to get to a Subway sandwich shop.

He unfavorably compares Cornish students to WTO protesters and says, "If you're paying a million dollars for your condo, you don't want to feel guilty every time you drive your BMW by these starving artists while they mentally break your car's windshield with their bedazzled painted baseball bats."

Bedazzled painted baseball bats?

Tim is also threatened by the "riff-raff homeless," who he says "belong either in one of these 3 places: 1. Mental institution, 2. Rehab facility, 3. Job training center." They do not, he says "belong on the street where they are a menace to society and unproductive."

Condo owners, he says, need to band together to get their own security to manage the riff-raff, because the police are "useless."

Round 'em up. Take 'em away.

Here is the hard edge of extreme privilege. If the other high-end condo owners that are flooding into the downtown over the next five years are anything like this guy, we can predict heightened class warfare well into the next decade, and it won't be the poor who are taking up arms.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Trouble with Poor People

The Downtown Seattle Association has taken the offensive on panhandling again. Today I talked to a reporter from the Puget Sound Business Journal who said they told him that incidents of aggressive panhandling were up forty percent this year. Their theory is that Tacoma's stringent new anti-panhandling laws have driven the hard cases to Seattle. The reporter wanted to know what I thought.

"I'll bet you dollars to donuts (My mother used to say this — Sometimes I can't believe what I hear coming out of my mouth)," I said, "that if you call West Precinct, they can't corroborate those numbers. The MID throws statistics around like they're real but there's no science behind them at all."

Which is true. The Metropolitan Improvement District has their Downtown Ambassadors walking around writing up incidents of panhandling, alcohol and drug activity, sitting or lying on the sidewalks, urination, defecation and such, but the sort of consistency that would make these numbers meaningful — numbers of ambassadors on the street, what they are focused on looking for, primary areas of deployment — simply isn't there.

The MID finds what they're looking for. This is how, for instance, the MID could argue last year that public urination and defecation has risen since the installation of public toilets. Similarly, they now argue that five months after launching a campaign to discourage panhandling, the results are in. Panhandling is up by forty percent.

Yeah. That makes sense.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that the panhandling education campaign was just the beginning of what appears to be an ongoing strategy. As the downtown goes more and more upscale, the poverty that exists amidst our troubled affluence is to be rendered as invisible as possible.

And if real solutions are expensive and complicated, then increased repression will do just fine as the next best thing.

You don't need to be a genius to see where they're going with this. If aggressive panhandlers are coming here from Tacoma because that city has enacted stringent anti-panhandling legislation, maybe we need laws that will make Tacoma look like a bunch of smelly homeless-loving-hippies! It's reverse polarity magnet theory.

On a related note, I got another call today from a guy who doesn't give to panhandlers because he thinks that nine in ten of them are on the make. But, he finds the existence of that ten percent who might be truly needy very troubling. He wants government to remove the ambiguity from poverty.

"What I need," he said, "is a way to identify the ones who need my help." He suggested that a licensing process be created to certify the truly needy. Then these could proudly display their deserving poor badge, and people like him could stop anxietizing.

This idea actually has a long history. The first laws requiring the public badging of paupers appeared in England in 1697 and persisted well into the next century.

"One could argue that a licensing process would be demeaning," he said, "but it's certainly no less demeaning than panhandling itself."

The caller said he could remember the first time, in the seventies, that he saw a panhandler in Seattle. He thought it odd at the time. America is no longer a superpower, he said. We are now "the wealthiest third world nation in the world."

As extreme poverty and extreme affluence rub shoulders more and more, that prescient description will only become more apt.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Reason for Revolution #347

During a conversation yesterday morning with Rich Lang, the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard, the subject of passion arose. As Thomas Frank notes in What's Wrong With Kansas, right-wing evangelical Christians care enough about their issues to work on them 24/7 and maybe even take out a mortgage on their house if it would make the difference. They have a counter-cultural community that gives their lives meaning and focus.

Liberals, on the other hand, and affluent liberals in particular, don't have that. Our real religion, said Lang, is consumption. I thought of that tonight as I came across this photo essay by Brian Ulrich at the Mother Jones site, which was selected from his Copia project.
"In 2001, citizens were encouraged to take to the malls to boost the U.S. economy through shopping," he says, "thereby equating consumerism with patriotism. The Copia project, a direct response to that advice, is a long-term photographic examination of the peculiarities and complexities of the consumer-dominated culture in which we live."
What's striking to me in these photos is the blankness in people's faces, and the desolation of the landscapes. This, to me, is the perfect metaphor for consumer culture. It's the cure to the disease that never quite delivers, and always leaves you wanting more.

Each weekend, it's my job to do the Costco run. I go with the girls, and they sit next to each other in the dual seat in the enormous shopping cart. They always seem to have a nice enough time of it. I'm used to the place. Its enormity doesn't seem odd anymore. What does feel strange is the overwhelming ennui I always see in my fellow shoppers.

Life is suffering said the Buddha. That's not news. But must it also be boredom and dissatisfaction? I don't think so.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Real Change Needs Your Help

Once, not all that long ago, the thought asking anyone for money filled me with icy terror. I'm over that now. Eventually, my belief in the work I do trumped whatever issues I had around fund raising. I've seen the huge difference that Real Change makes in people's lives. I've experienced the caring community that Real Change creates. I've seen the difference we can make in building for power.

Twenty years ago, I considered raising money a necessary evil, and I was terrible at it. I lived in a Boston squat with four other people and eaked out the occasional publication of an underground newspaper called Street Magazine. I made maybe $3,000 that year. We ate at food banks. No one wanted to raise money. We reluctantly sold a few ads. There were a handful of subscribers. We didn't exactly have a business model.

I participated that year in a business plan writing workshop, at the end of which I had an interview with a banker. If he liked what he saw, I'd get money. He was impressed, but perhaps not in the way I was hoping. He said he'd "never met anyone less interested in making a profit."

The relationship between money, resources, and success was a bit beyond my comprehension. Eventually, the newspaper folded. Looking back, maybe what we were doing just wasn't all that important.

Real Change is different. If you watch our video, you'll see what I mean.

Over the years, I've learned two things. The first is that the goal of multiplying the impact of our work matters far more than any discomfort I might experience in asking for help. The second is that many people will happily support good work. so long as a.) they are asked, and b.) they are able.

And so, for the convenience of those of you who may not already be Real Change supporters, I've put a Giving Badge that connects to our secure Network for Good page at the top of my blog for the duration of our summer fund drive. We have a huge goal of raising $140,000 before July, and I'm thinking that some of you might want to help.

This summer, we need to find the resources to take our work to the next level. Here's the editorial I wrote last issue explaining why. We brought in $7,315 the first week. This is a great start.

We've made it easier for you to be a Real Change fund raiser yourself. If you believe in our work, you can put the Giving Badge on your own blog or website. The link is on the badge.

Another way to help is to take up the Real Change 20/20 challenge, which involves asking 20 friends to support our work with $20. We have a number of tools at the Real Change website to make that easier for you to do.

Or, you could email this link to friends with a note about why it matters.

Finally, you can give yourself. If you are a previous suporter, you'll get a letter soon if you haven't already. If you have not yet donated, this is a great time to start. We need your support. Thanks for believing in what we do.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Rumors of Oz's Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Am I really going to write about my cat? He does such interesting things! What a rascal! Little Ozzy. Ozzy-wozzy-wozzy-wozzy!

Yesterday morning I thought he was dead, and I was so happy. Oz is 19. I've been impatiently waiting for him to die for years. My wife found our small black cat at a Boston pet shelter in 1988. This was when she had an apartment in Jamaica Plain, and I lived in poverty in Somerville, editing Street Magazine and occasionally temping for money.

I now think of this as my boiled potatoes and shoplifted cheese period.

Carolyn chose him because he was throwing himself against the walls of his cage when she visited the animal shelter. He seemed unusually desperate for adoption.

As it turns out, he was just stupid.

Oz is one of those pathetic animals who was removed from his mother too early and never recovered. If you pet him, he'll immediately start kneading your legs with his claws. Or he'll climb until he can rub his little cat breath teeth along your ears. Some people might be into this, but I'm not. It's sweet, but really annoying.

We have compatibility issues. We're just looking for very different levels of intimacy.

Whatever patience we once had for Oz pretty much dried up once we had twins to deal with. Our good cat died two years ago, leaving Oz bereft and needier than ever. It was a downward spiral. He has become an annoying presence that requires feeding and frequent litter changes. The love is gone.

The day before he'd peed on our bed again. That was twice this week. We're getting really sick of washing the comforters. We put a litter box in our bedroom, but it didn't interest him. Carolyn was nearing the end of her patience. I was ready to kill him by around the fifth time, but my wife, she's a Quaker, and has more respect for life than I.

But this time, even she was done. Oz is old, frail, and senile. I said I'd investigate the logistics of legitimately offing the cat.

I should say that our children love him, and abusively stalk him every chance they get. They're four. He used to outrun them, but he's slowed down and they've sped up.

His new found popularity has been a big lifestyle change for him. He reluctantly lets himself be petted, usually because he's been pinned to the ground. We intervene on his behalf when we can.

Another of his endearing traits is his habit of waiting outside our bedroom in the morning and filling the air with piercing cries as we awake. This generally wakes the girls.

But this morning, there was no Oz. His litter, which was just changed was unused. He was gone.

Carolyn greeted me as I awoke with the news. Oz is dead. We have to find his body before it starts to smell. She had to get going. I dressed the girls, made their lunches, and made a determined search before getting them off to day care. No luck.

At work, I told everyone the good news. The fucking cat was finally dead! Hallelujah!

I asked advice on whether I should discuss death with the girls, or just never speak of him again. My co-workers sensibly suggested I go the more direct route. Adam even suggested that I enlist the girls in the search for the body. Brilliant.

"Now Twin A, B? Remember Oz? He's gone now, and he's not coming back. And somewhere in this house is his dead body, and we need to find it before he begins to smell. The first girl to find a dead cat gets a chocolate chip. Ready? Go!"

I told Adam that this is why his kid will need therapy.

I left work at four to go look for my dead cat. I looked everywhere. I cleaned out closets. I searched underneath furniture with a flashlight. I pulled the washer and dryer out and I looked behind the water heater. I looked through cabinets and drawers and on shelves. I was running out of options.

Carolyn got hamburgers for dinner so we could continue the search without interruption. As the girls ate their grilled cheeses, they started talking about how they'd been up petting Ozzy last night while we were asleep. Then, apparently, Twin A roared, and Oz ran away. Then there was something about playing in the backyard.

We looked at each other.

Carolyn went out back and found the cat underneath the shed. He was hungry, but perfectly OK.

Twins A&B had gotten up sometime after I went to bed at midnight, played with the cat, opened the back door and frolicked for awhile in the yard, and then put themselves back to bed, where we found them this morning sleeping like a pair of angels.

Now, after the happy reunion, it just seems wrong to have him killed. That must have only been number seven or eight.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Pagans and Drag Queens and Queers, Oh My!

Yesterday I persuaded my wife to skip meeting and instead celebrate Mayday with a bunch of pagan drag queens in Ravenna Park. We dressed Twins A&B in Tigger and Eeyor costumes left over from Halloween. It was a wholesome Sunday afternoon family outing.

I apologized to someone dressed like a tree about inflicting Disney on such an aggressively counter-cultural gathering, but he just laughed. "Oh, we can subvert that."

I don't know how long this tradition has been running, but we first stumbled upon the thing 12 years ago while crossing the 20th Avenue bridge. We had no idea of what to make of it. I saw strangely dressed men and drums and thought it was some sort of Robert Bly thing. My wife assumed they were bored medievalists, out drinking mead and playing lutes and such.

Last year was our first time there. My friend Rosette was the reigning Queen of the Ravine, and invited us along. As a straight family with kids, I wondered if we'd feel at all out of place, but this turned out to be the least judgmental crowd on earth.

It had never been especially hard for me to imagine Rosette in his drag queen days. He's got one of those room-sized personalities that can't really be contained within one or two genders. But to see him last year sashaying in platforms and a curvalicious red velvet dress to convincingly inhabit the role of an Earth Goddess, well, that was something else again. I gained new respect for him that day.

This year, he said the Goddess was an RG, or, in drag queen parlance, a Real Girl. He said she would be stunning. She was. It turns out that her name is Sarah Rudinoff, and that she was in Hedwig and is a well-known performer. It was the best sort of ephemeral art. An incredible performance, done once, and then gone forever.

This year, I found myself especially appreciating the matronly older queens. These guys of the Stonewall generation in their dowdy dresses and sensible shoes. What's not to love?

The other standout for me was the utter elasticity of the pagan tradition. You had your drag queens and your wiccans and your whatever else's, and you pray to each of the directions and burn some sage. There doesn't seem to be a lot of orthodoxy there to get hung up on.

Nature is holy. Life is awe inspiring. Spring is to be celebrated. What's so complicated? Nothing. Everything.

More photos are below in a short slide show. The music, some shape note singing recorded in the thirties by Alan Lomax, captured for me the feel of the day.

We plan on coming back with the girls every year for as long as they'll put up with it. We haven't thought much about what sort of religious framework the girls might have, but whatever it is, I hope it's big enough to embrace this.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Growing Up Racist

This weekend I finally got around to reading Mary Crow Dog's Lakota Woman, a memoir that falls into the genre I've come to think of as the AIM biography. In 1973, the year of the siege of Wounded Knee, I was in the eighth grade, living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Leonard Peltier, Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, and Russell Means were all familiar from the evening news. They were terrorists.

Mary Crow Dog writes that, "In South Dakota, white kids learn to be racists almost before they learn to walk." I learned my first racist joke from my parents when I was around four. What did the Indian say when he sat down on the blanket? WHOOO-PEEEE! Hearty yucks all around

And so, like every other white kid in South Dakota, I grew up regarding Indians as "prairie niggers." Sioux Falls was a mostly white working class town, with two meat packing plants and lots of low-wage light industry. If kids grew up learning to play an instrument, it was likely to be the accordion. There was a popular fast food chain that sold roast beef sandwiches. The restaurants looked like huge tepees and had peace pipes and pictures of Crazy Horse and such on the walls. It was called Heap Big Beef.

Crow Dog's book describes how generations of extreme poverty and repression boiled over in the early seventies when the younger generation, who identified with the Black and Chicano power movements, and the older generation, who remembered a different time, reached the limit of what they could tolerate.

I remember my dad coming home one day from the Post Office. The old man was OCD, and his most deep-seated rituals involved mail. His letters, sealed with half a roll of scotch tape, were quite distinctive. After placing stamps on an envelope, he'd lightly pound them in place with his fists for several minutes. And then he'd start on the next letter. He could spend an hour there, easy, checking his mailbox, over and over.

Anyway, this time, he said he'd seen "a huge Indian" prying up bricks from the sidewalk and hurling them through the plate class windows of the Sioux Falls Courthouse. It wasn't until years later, when I read Peter Matthiassen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, that I realized what had happened. There had been a trial of an AIM member in Sioux Falls. When the judge came in and the bailiff said "all rise," the Indians in attendance remained seated. The room was sealed, and marshals waded in to teach them some manners. A full-blown riot ensued.

As a teen-age white kid, I didn't have the first idea of what was happening in my hometown and all across the state — the poverty, the nihilism, the intense resentment, the battle lines that had been drawn. I'd piece all of that together later on.

A number of years later, I was working in Boston, organizing homeless people. I wore my hair back then in a braid that went most of the way down my back. The homeless skins would often ask what tribe I was, and when I'd say I wasn't, they'd give me shit about that too. Eventually it occurred to me that, as an adoptee from North Dakota, there was every chance that I had some native blood. I'd never considered the possibility.

This idea sort of shook me. When I was a kid, I always felt inferior to my tow-headed, accordion-playing, blue eyed peers. My face was a bit rounder. My eyes were large and brown. By skin was slightly olive. A bit Mediterranean maybe. It was just enough to feel a little different and not as quite good.

To this day, adoption records being sealed in that state, I have no idea. My mother denies the possibility. My sister, adopted from the same place as I, was once picked out of a crowd at the Mitchell Corn Palace to be dubbed an "Indian Princess" by some faux descendant of Sitting Bull. She got her picture in the paper, and my dad bought an authentic Sioux oil painting to seal the deal. While there's no blood relation, she has my eyes.

This, for me, was a lesson in the subtleties of racism and self-loathing. While I may or may not have native ancestry, the mere fact of being slightly shy of the Northern European ideal was enough to make me feel somewhat "less than." Here's the remarkable part. No one ever said a thing. It was just mutually understood. There was an ideal, and I wasn't it.

As an urban organizer working with homeless people, I had plenty of opportunities to come to grips with my own racism, but this one was, by far, the most personal.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Why Don't You Just Say What You Mean?

"We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world, a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we'll kill you. Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up for refusing to kill gooks. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us; they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them."

— Hunter S. Thompson

Friday, May 4, 2007

The League of Women Voters and Me

Last night, I was on a League of Women Voters panel discussing the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. My co-panelists were three members of the CEHKC governing board (Bill Block, Doreen Cato, and Sheila Sebron) and the former Mayor of Kirkland.

Leading up to the panel, I'd been rather conflicted. On the one hand, I want to publicly support the Ten Year Plan. It's a good thing that people want to end homelessness. It's a good thing that the plan has created momentum and has raised expectations. It's a good thing to build housing that gets people off the streets.

On the other hand, I've come to view the Federal Government's Ten Year plan strategy as a means of defining the issue in politically neutral terms and severing homelessness from the broader movement against poverty. The NAEH/US Interagency Council on Homelessness approach exemplifies each of the tactics that Peter Marcuse points out in his landmark Neutralizing Homelessness analysis: Denial of the scope of the problem, narrow specialization, stigmatization through it's focus on chronic homelessness, and isolation of the issue from any broader discussion of poverty.

Additionally, I believe that the federal strategy seeks to devolve responsibility for the issue to the private sector — to churches in particular — and return us to the days when poor relief was largely the province of the faithful.

So, how to be supportive, but authentic at the same time?

As it turns out, it wasn't all that hard. I said we'd heard a lot about the cost-benefit analysis for ending homelessness, but what we really need is a who benefits analysis, and went on to talk about the housing market, structural unemployment, and supply side-economics.

Then I talked about what an asshole Bush's homelessness czar Philip Mangano is for going around saying that homelessness is decreasing, when the 2006 Conference of Mayors report says homelessness is up by six percent, twenty-nine percent of homeless families get turned away from shelter, and that the average length of an episode of homelessness — eight months — is at its longest ever.

I brought up growing inequality and economic vulnerability, and talked about how you can't build power to move an issue by asking people to act on someone else's behalf. You need to address people's own self-interest in limiting inequality and connect that to homelessness.

I said that the lesson of the state legislative session was that, in the absence of a real grassroots strategy, you can make progress only up to the point where it begins to interfere with the ability of well-funded and powerful interests to make a buck off of poverty.

You can't end homelessness without taking on poverty, I said, and you can't take on poverty without organizing for power. And you can't organize for power without appealing to people's own self-interest.

The great thing was that everyone else on the panel, to one degree or another, seemed to agree. What's fascinating about the whole Ten Year Plan phenomenon is that the feds — by raising expectations and then doing so little to deliver — may be sowing the seeds of revolt. The other interesting thing is that there is nothing monolithic about it. It is a multi-layered effort composed of numerous constituencies who all have their own motivations.

Tonight, there seemed to be a real possibility of reconnecting the issues of homelessness and poverty. To me, that is very encouraging news. The Seattle Channel was there, so I'll link the footage of the panel once it comes online.