Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Kip Tiernan's River Babies

One of the very first people I ever heard challenge homeless advocates to go beyond services to structural solutions was Kip Tiernan, a Boston activist out of the Catholic Worker mold. Kip is still around and at 77 continues to direct Boston's Poor People's United Fund with her longtime associate Fran Froelich.

She and Fran have recently published Urban Meditations, a work they describe as "outcast political theology" that is a reflection on forty years of urban ministry. I've been thinking of her lately because voices such as hers are so rare yet so badly needed. I first became acquainted with Kip's work in the late-80s, when she was a fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, and was working out a structural analysis of homelessness.

Kip was the first person I ever heard ask the question "Qui Bono," or who benefits? Having seen Good Will Hunting, I can't hear this phrase anymore without thinking of Matt Damon's retort, "Qui gives a shit?" In a time when more people seem to care about the next American Idol than the problem of increasing inequality, that's not a bad question to pose either.

I'll always be grateful to Kip for starting me down this path and for turning me on to radical theologian Walter Bruggeman, who in The Prophetic Imagination said "Situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency." There's a lot in there to unpack.

Today someone asked me what I thought about Project Homeless Connect in San Fransisco. Apparently the US Interagency Council on Homelessness has adopted this program as one of their best practice models, which means that it is likely to spread. In fact, their website says it has already been duplicated in 106 cities.

On the surface, it looks like a good thing. Huge amounts of corporate support are linked up with government and non-profit resources to offer volunteer driven assistance fairs that link homeless people up with services. Longtime San Fransisco homeless activist Paul Boden says that while the both the volunteers and the homeless people who line up the night before care about the problem and want to see solutions, it's a bit of a media show that creates the mistaken impression that if only homeless people would just ask, they'd get the help they need. They ARE asking, says Paul, every day. And typically, the help isn't really there.

The question reminded me of Kip's signature story, which I've embellished and taken to telling as well.

Imagine a village where life is good. People have what they need and more. In some cases, much more. This village, where life is good, is filled with good people.

One day, someone notices a basket floating down river. There is a wailing sound. A girl wades out and finds a baby that needs to be rescued. A temporary home is quickly found and arrangements for care are made.

The next day, several more baskets arrive, and the day after that, the flow increases even more. After a few weeks of this, a crisis is declared. Meetings are held, resources are appropriated, and the Coalition for the Survival of Basket Babies is formed.

Over time, the trickle of baskets floating down river turns into a deluge. The village gets really, really good at dealing with the problem. There are rescue teams that can pull baskets out of the river in any weather and hardly ever miss one. This matters, since further down river there is a huge waterfall. There are teams of volunteers who spend all day mashing bananas and apples for the babies to eat. A dairy farm is dedicated to the purpose of providing milk. Churches erect baby dormitories where volunteers tend to their needs and seek to place them with loving families. A basket recycling center is created to mitigate the environmental impact. The pulp is mixed with cotton fiber to create cloth for diapers.

This is adopted as a best practice in hundreds of other villages that are experiencing similar problems.

About ten perent of the village resources are now dedicated to mitigating the baby crisis. People feel really good about it and are imbued with a strong sense of purpose. But despite the enormous infrastructure that now exists, and despite the great skill, caring, and generosity that has gone into its creation, the babies are still coming down river in great numbers. And oddly, no one ever goes up river to see if the flow can be stopped at its source.

When someone finally does, no one listens to what she says. The up river solution might mean that some of the people who have way more than they need might have to do with less. This is a controversial idea, and the villagers don't want to make the wealthy town fathers angry. They're the biggest financial supporters of the rescue operation.


katia said...

What an excellent analogy is Kip Tiernan's River Babies.
Thanks for sharing that.

I'm a photojournalist and have come to know and love many of the homeless people in Seattle - particularly the 'stage kids' at Westlake. So much so that I decided to go to Seattle central comm. college to get my AAS in Social and Human services. To be a social worker. Yup. So new ways at looking at things inspire me. I don't want to get into that field and do the same old things. I'd like to know where changes in perception are being made and plug into that.

Anyway, I'm enjoying your posts - thanks!

Katia Roberts


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