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.

No comments: