Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Note to Nickels: People Are Not Trash

Today's Real Change leads with an investigative piece by Adam Hyla that reveals a pattern that dates back to at least May of targeting a list of homeless encampment sites for "cleanup." This, from what we've seen, involves destroying people's homes and throwing away their meager possessions without actually removing the trash from the area, which is apparently a lower priority.

A FOIA request to the Mayor's office revealed this email from Nickel's human service liaison Julien Loh that identifies 10 sites that are targeted for "cleanups" that occur monthly. The email lists the five sites that were hit in May, and discusses the June schedule, and attaches a Top Ten List of encampments that are targeted. I have chosen not to make that public.

The email refers to a shift in policy from one of tolerance, where sweeps were triggered by neighborhood complaints, to a policy of "proactive" monthly "cleanups." This is the zero-tolerance policy that we've been hearing rumors of that nobody wants to go on record about.

Let's be clear about our terminology here. Cleanups are something that one does with garbage and messes. When removing people and their homes, a different term is required. For my own purposes, I'll use "homeless sweeps," but stronger terms would do as well. I'd describe a policy of targeting homeless encampments and possessions for monthly destruction in a city where the shelters are full and homeless people must therefor survive however they can "terrorism."

To help the Mayor clarify, I offer the above two photos. On the left, we have a ten year old file photo of a homeless person recovering on the street from surgery. Note the eyes, the tortured expression, and the palpable sense of desperation. This is a human being. On the right, you have a pile of garbage, which is basically inanimate, has no rights, and deserves little or no respect. Different approaches and terminology are required in each case. I invite the Mayor and others involved with this policy to refer to this handy field guide as often as necessary.

Adam visited an area that was recently "cleaned" and found signs that advise campers that crews will be coming through, and they should call the Community Service Office for assistance. The Mayor defunded the CSO office years ago. A call to the phone number gets you a "no longer in service" message.

Whether this is cynicism or incompetence is something for the Mayor to explain.

While the area was subjected to a "cleanup," garbage remained everywhere. Only the belongings, structures, and people were removed.

This is another example of the dark side of the Ten Tear Plan to End Homelessness. The focus on getting the numbers of homeless people in Seattle down so that we can declare a "win" after the January One Night Count by any means necessary should make any thinking person want to puke. Ending homelessness isn't about eradicating evidence. It's about helping people. Or is it?

I guess it depends on who you ask.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Seriously Solipsistic

Let's navel gaze, shall we? You might notice the addition at the top right of this blog. No, not the stupid little poll. Above that. Yes, there. IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT ME! It's official.

Events of the past week have led to numerous discussions regarding my identity relative to that of the guy who works at Real Change. Can I still be me, or have I collapsed irretrievably into he? Is blogging as myself even possible? Fortunately for blog readers everywhere, the answer is yes.

The alternative is truly sad to contemplate.

Here's a pathetic example of a guy trying to blog while hemmed in by institutional identity. This is someone who, in real life, is funny and has decent politics, interesting opinions, and all of the quirks and flaws that go along with being human. But you wouldn't know it because he's blogging on the United Way website. If there is a hell in this world, this must be it. I say, "Free Vince!" I want tortured ambivalence. I want that wild, devil may care, Matulionis sense of humor to spill freely forth. Unleash him! Freeee-dom!

Here's someone else, blogging in full on institutional garb. Sandy, at least, has an interesting job. He gets to have opinions on everything. But he's soooo serious. He's like an ecumenical Tin Man the day after a rain storm. A YouTube video on herding cats is about as wild as he gets. I'll bet if you get a few cosmopolitans into this guy he's a laugh riot, but we'll never know. Sandy can't drink and blog. At least he's easy to talk to. His phone number is listed right up top.

Bill Block, being of the lawyerly persuasion, has the good sense to avoid blogging altogether. He is a very smart man.

When I first started this thing last February, it was as a discipline. I wanted to reclaim my identity as a writer from the nonprofit administrator drone I had become. The commitment was to write everyday. This got me thinking about things in new ways. And the more I thought, the more I understood. And the more I understood, the angrier I became. I developed a thinking problem.

This spilled over into everything.

I decided that the world doesn't really need any more safe opinions. We need to ask questions, I think, that are as dangerous as the times in which we live. As the answers become apparent, we need to have the courage to follow where they lead.

And that's what this is about.

I have a job. The guy who works there has a personae that is professional and appropriate, sort of. He balances what he has to say against various institutional interests and imperatives and operates with a certain amount of polish. Over at Real Change, there's a super-ego in charge. Here at Apesma's Lament, it's all about the id.

Monday, October 29, 2007

On Complicity

I've been dabbling this week in Thomas Merton's Raids On the Unspeakable, a brief collection of essays in which Merton the contemplative Trappist meets Merton the worldly activist to speak to our contemporary condition. I say dabbling because one does not simply breeze through a collection of Merton essays. One reads and rereads, and having gained new capacity to understand, reads again. One takes numerous trips to the well and the water always refreshes.

One essay, in particular feels extraordinarily apt this week. This is his Letter to an Innocent Bystander, in which Merton contests the notion of innocence in our time, asks what it means, exactly, to stand by, and calls for an open-ended resistance to the powers that dehumanize and objectify while presenting themselves not only as that which must be, but also as that which "we have been waiting for."

Within this, he deals with themes of guilt, complicity, and cooptation. He calls us to a true kind of innocence; that of the child, who, regardless of what others around around him say, is willing to recognize what he sees and say it aloud: the emperor has no clothes.

He begins with the idea of waiting, helplessly, convinced that there is nothing to be done. This, for me, brings to mind all of those who, having embraced the allure of the instrumental logic of cost-benefit analysis, have resigned themselves to the inevitability of deepening inequality, war, racism, and injustice. We can't do anything about that, they say, but we can build x units of housing to get x number of visible homeless people off the street. They piously acknowledge that these deeper causes are the real issue — and genuflect reverently in their direction as often as necessary — without ever confronting the problem of what a deeper, more authentic, activism would entail. Meanwhile, they enjoy the benefits of complicity while they "clean up" the signs of deepening poverty.

There is a complacency here, that, when properly considered, brings one smack against the problem of one's own guilt. To know of injustice and not act, whether out of resignation or despair or a belief in one's own powerlessness, all amounts to the same thing: a complicity in perpetuating the very injustice we claim to abhor.
"Here we stand, in a state of diffuse irritation and doubt, while "they" fight one another for power over the whole world. It is our confusion that enables "them" to use us, and to pit us against one another, for their own purposes. Our guilt, our deep resentment, do nothing to preserve us from a shameful fate. On the contrary, our resentment is what fits us most perfectly to be "their" instruments. How can we claim that our inertia is innocent? It is the source of our guilt."
In Merton's system, there are three inter-related groupings: "We," who he calls, apologetically, the intellectuals; "They," those who count us, dehumanize us, and technocratically work toward our mutual annihilation, and "The Others," who depend on us, upon whom we depend, and from whom we should not set ourselves too much apart. Our own clarity, he points out, rests largely upon our ability to correctly identify those who are "They."
"We must identify them wherever "they" may appear, even though they may rise up in the midst of ourselves, or even among "the others." We must be able to recognize them by what they are and not rest satisfied with what is said about them, by others or by themselves or above all by one of us. ... It is to their obvious interest to bribe us to give them a new name. ... We must not let our vanity provide "them" with false passports. ... we must make sure they do not, once again, convince us it is "they" we have been waiting for."
Merton dwells upon the allure of despair. "Despair, indeed, seems very respectable, until one remembers that this is only the preparation to accept "their" next formula, which will explain, and exploit, our emptiness."

This is the uncomfortable question that I have asked. Who among us are "they," and what right do "we" have to a despair that the bigger issues are somehow beyond our ability to affect? Merton cautions against an embrace of radical formulas and easy answers, but calls us to clarity on our own condition, and toward an exploration of possibility that is rooted in radical optimism and hope. Anything less, I think, is beneath us as beings who yearn toward the absolute.

Finally, there is this:
"It is true that as intellectuals we ought to stand on our own feet — but one cannot learn to do this until he has first recognized to what extent he requires the support of the others. And it is our business to support one another against "them," not to be supported by "them" and used to crush "the others.

"They," of course have never really been in any position to support anyone. "They" need us. but not our strength. They do not want us strong, but weak. It is our emptiness "they" need, as a justification of their own emptiness. That is why their support comes always, and only, in the form of bribes. We are nourished in order that we may continue to sleep. We are paid to keep quiet, or to say things that do not disturb the unruffled surface of the emptiness from which, in due time, the spark and the blast must leap out and release, in all men, the explosion."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Insanely Talented Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix saw music in color. Sadly, there isn't a ton of stuff on YouTube that does him justice. Most of it's badly filmed, has poor sound, or just isn't that great of a performance. This video from the BBC's Lulu Show in 1969 is the clear exception. Jimi and his band mates Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding begin with a stratospheric Voodoo Child, and when the nice British announcer asks for their big hit, Hey Joe, he obliges her by totally screwing with the intro and rocking it for sixty seconds or so before he abruptly quits and does a quick little Cream tribute instead. Amazing. A talent too big to be contained by TV.

Redding's face kind of reminds me of the post-reconstruction Michael Jackson. My four-year-old doesn't believe me when I say he's a boy, And watch for the moment when Jimi smiles over at Mitchell as he drops the tuning on his lowest string for a little extra growl. Magic.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Street Years: Part Two

Street Magazine was the place where my new life began to come together. Al Nidle coaxed us into his world with visions of building Street into the next Rolling Stone, and we were happy to suspend judgment and come along for the ride. We lived on no money on the first floor of an Alston-Brighton rental house. Every one of us, in our own way, was crazy, although I was probably the sanest of the lot. A lonely old lady lived upstairs, and light brown patches spread across our ceiling from the urine of a hundred cats. Most nights, you could hear her moan and cry.

As publisher, Al was the guy who held the vision, opened the mail, and sold the ads. He was a grandiose narcissist with charisma to spare, and colored in each of the first 2,000 copies with crayon to complete the cover design. Al refused to work, and reserved the right to make his living off of our irregularly published magazine. He had a wife and an infant daughter who would visit occasionally, but was too self-absorbed to be of much use to them.

His forty-something friend David lived in a closet off of Al's living room-office-bedroom. David had a photographic memory, and could quote many of the books he'd read verbatim, but had trouble organizing his thoughts. I came to think of our conversations as intellectual pinball. While David had no formal role in the publication, he more or less functioned as Al's aide-de-camp. With his night-time dish washing job, he was the only one of us with regular work.

Jon was someone I quickly came to regard as an authentic genius. His bedroom was our production center and he'd painted a completely accurate nude self-portrait on his door. At twenty-two or so, he was a wildly prolific cartoonist, an amateur musician, and a talented graphic artist whose idea was to completely redesign each issue of the magazine so that it would never get stale. Jon drank too much and would disappear behind his door for days at a time. His creative jags, too, would go on for largely sleepless days on end. Jon temped a bit, but mostly spent his time working as an artist. A starving artist.

His bi-polar and anorexic mother Collete lived in a small bedroom just off of the tiny kitchen. She had yellowish hair, sunken eyes, and a quick wit, and would go in and out of psychotic episodes. My wife and I spent a lot of time encouraging Collette to eat, and making sure there were food bank groceries in the cupboard so that she might starve a bit less quickly.

Mine was the other room in the front of the house, which might have once been the master bedroom. I had a mattress on the floor and a chair, and kept the few clothes and other things that I had in a couple of boxes. I also still had the guitar that I'd bought in the Air Force, and we all played it. While none of us were any good, Jon had the most talent, and could do a dead on knock off of Devo's Mongoloid. I worked nights as a proof-reader at Stone & Webster, a huge engineering firm located near South Station. This paid better than other temp jobs I'd had, but I only got about twenty hours a week.

The second month we were there, Al took everybody's rent money and spent the $600 on a used Mac Plus without asking. This, with its two megs of RAM and 20 MB hard drive, was our only computer. Up til then, we'd been producing Street by sneaking into the Harvard computer lab. They rarely checked IDs and didn't seem to care if we were students or not. Since we still didn't own a printer, this was where we'd run the pages when we went to press.

After that, I don't think we ever paid rent again.

There was serious discussion of staging a break in of a downtown office that we knew of to steal their state of the art Mac IIci computers and laser printers. The plan involved explosions and flares to distract the police while the rest of us stealthily made off with the goods. Fortunately, we all got cold feet when it came time to actually make the heist.

We were working on our second issue together when, on October 19, 1987, the Dow lost $500 billion in a single day to add up to the biggest stock market crash in history. Our cover became a soup line with Jon's caricatures of various Boston personalities dressed in rags. "We're having a Great Depression" the tag line read.

There was a tent city in Cambridge in a big empty lot near the Necco candy factory on Mass Ave. I'd go there to hang out and got to know a few of the homeless leaders. There was always some sort of a high drama crisis unfolding. I tried to be helpful, but they didn't have much use for me. I was there as press, and did what I could to tell their story.

We saw ourselves as the gonzo documentarians of the impoverished urban lunatic fringe, and were well-positioned personally to understand the subject. Al had this vision of Cambridge as the Haight-Ashbury of the East Coast, but two decades later, and with homeless people instead of flower children.

Jon went to work developing an ad kit for Al, and various other bits of marketing paraphernalia. We had tons of heart, and Al and Jon fed each other's mania, but we didn't have the first idea, really, of what we were doing. Our Ché stickers, for example, invoked the signature likeness and read "Ché led a revolution and never sent a piece of junk mail. We're running a Magazine the same way."

The name of our publication was nowhere in there to be found. As far as we were concerned, branding was something that happened to cows and horses in Montana.

Eventually, an eviction notice was posted on the front door. We studied it carefully. The language was makeshift and it seemed to have been run off on someone's personal printer. If it didn't come from the Sheriff, we decided, we weren't all that worried. By now, it was January. The gas heat was shut off, but the electricity and water, which regularly froze in our bathroom sink, remained. I started spending the colder nights at Carolyn's place out in Jamaica Plain.

By then, we at Street Magazine central were beginning to hate each other. It became clear to Jon and I that what little money the paper raised was going directly to Al, who treated the paper's bank account as if it were his own. We'd spend hours working out decisions between ourselves, and then Al would just do whatever he liked. Slowly, Jon and I moved toward a coup.

The name, we found, wasn't trademarked. There was nothing to prevent us, the editor and art director, from ousting the publisher altogether. I was the primary architect. We plotted in bars and coffee shops, kept our plans to ourselves, and saved the money from our jobs to make first and last month's rent in a new place. Once we located a second floor walk-up near Somerville's Davis Square, we swung into action.

One sparkling blue day in February, while Jon and I were both at work and Al was out of the house, Carolyn and Collette put the Mac Plus in its little carrying case, stuck it in the car trunk, and drove away from the Alston-Brighton apartment for good. Jon and I broke the news to Al. He was off the masthead. His warlock friend Daemon put a curse on us. For all I know, it worked.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Friday, October 26, 2007

How to Play to Win

I made this full page Real Change poster back in 2006, when we were fighting the Downtown for All campaign along with SAGE to get downtown condo developers to pony up a $20 per square foot surcharge for affordable housing for floors that exceeded Seattle's previous height limit. The developers and the Mayor had reached a back room agreement of $10 per square foot that they fully expected to be obediently ratified. It wasn't. We fought the downtown interests and won, and the higher surcharge is expected to raise about $14 million for housing.

We helped build the grassroots support that would take a minority idea favored by Tom Rassmussen, Peter Steinbrueck, and Nick Licata to final approval by the entire Council.

What made this happen?

We worked our relationships. Real Change partnered with SAGE to strategize and bring in other allies, but we also brought in Real Change vendors and their relationships with readers to help build pressure. Many other allies came into motion. At the hearings it was the will and the interests of the people versus the self-interest of the developers, and we were heard.

We made it interesting. We took what had been a sleepy technical issue that was poorly understood by most, and made it about equality and basic fairness. Would the downtown be just for the wealthy, or would it be a Downtown for All?

We did our research. Peter Steinbrueck got the city to commission a neutral third party to produce an expert opinion on whether development at the higher surcharge was still sufficiently profitable. Downtown interests tried their best to delegitimate the report, but they never got traction. One turning point was when Columbia Tower developer and Seattle legend Marty Selig testified that if developers could not pay the $20 surcharge and still make a profit, "they shouldn't be in the business."

We polarized. We made t-shirts that said "Developers Stole My Downtown and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." We made an issue of the Mayor's clear allegiances. We held a well-attended "Zoned Out" forum on downtown issues and put our council members on the spot. We beat up on weaker kneed allies who were more willing to compromise than we were and got them to back off. We took what had been a sleepy technical issue and made it a moral crusade.

We called their bluff. The downtown establishment kicked and screamed all the way to the final vote, but their dire prognostications of the flight of investor capital to the wilds of Bellevue failed to materialize. What's more, the more they threatened, the less support they seemed to have on the Council, and the more attractive siding with the democratic will of the people became.

As we continue to work on issues of housing affordability, wage equity, and civil rights, we need to remember our successes, and that the downtown interests don't always prevail. People power can trump money and clout, if you're smart about your organizing and play to win.

Reformation Polka

Dr. Wes' run-off blog is just about my favorite place on the internet, and part of this is his outstanding talent in finding the YouTube videos that I don't have time to find myself. The Reformation Polka is awesome. I especially love the transubstantiation image.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Karmic Significance of Fruit Flies

The above photo is a close up of the compound eye of a common fruit fly. Obviously, a miraculous organism. I kill the little fuckers everyday.

About three weeks ago, our house became infested. I'd walk into the kitchen and find about a hundred of them having a party, rubbling their little legs together, looking for something sweet and sticky. They'd float past my eyes and try to go up my nose. This precipitated massive killing sprees. The one good thing about them is that they're slow.

A few days ago I explored the issue with Dr. Wes of whether my murderous ways might have karmic implications, and how this might explain some of my recent difficulties. Assuming a fruit fly lives about 3 days, he said, I'd need to kill about 10,000 of them to equal a single human life.

Wes is never shy about having an opinion.

This seemed not so bad. I kill maybe 5-20 a day on average. Maybe 100 tops on a really, really big day, but that doesn't happen much anymore. We found the source last week in a maggoty pail in the corner of the laundry room, so the numbers have gone down.

10,000 seemed like a big, safe threshold. I was sure I was nowhere near 1,000. What's the life equivalent of less than a tenth of a human? A pine tree? A tomato plant? Maybe a pigeon? I don't know the answers to these questions. Then I discovered that the adult life-cycle of a fruit fly is actually around a couple of weeks.

This bothered me. It's hard to feel bad about killing something that barely exists anyway, but two weeks? Maybe, in fruit fly terms, that's a rich lifespan. Or, maybe it's worse to kill something that only lives a few days, because, like, man, that's all it's got, you know?

Fortunately, due to the new Blogger polling element, located at the top right of this page, you can help me to decide. Here's my very first poll. Please cast your vote on this important issue today.

Fruit Flies. Do they Count?

A.) Yes. All life is sacred. You're totally screwing up your karma dude.
B.) No. It's a fruit fly. Clean your floor and buy some insecticide, idiot.
C.) Undecided. The universe is vast and mysterious. I really can't deal.

The results are in! A whopping 38 of the 877 unique visitors last week weighed in on this pressing issue, and fruit flies carry no karmic weight whatsoever.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


My idea for this morning was to talk about courage. When I used to write Classics Corner for Real Change, before the twins were born, I came to think of each 600 word column as a sort of a mini-sermon, but funny, and with classical references. And a lot of ambivalence about God.

It’s been more than three years since I wrote that column, but I never really got out of the habit.

So I’ll tell you something about myself.

When I need to rise to the occasion for something, whether it’s picking up the phone to call a donor or testifying at a hearing or telling someone what I really think, I think of Macbeth.

I love the Orson Welles movie. You probably know the scene. Macbeth needs to go up and kill King Duncan in his sleep, so he can become the Thane of Cordor, and he’s sort of dithering around, and Lady Macbeth sets him straight by saying, “Screw your courage to the wall. Then you’ll not fail.”

I always hear it in my head with this Scottish brogue thing.

And I visualize Jeanette Nolan.

And that kind of does it for me. But there’s this sort of secondary process.

First I ask myself, “Is what I’m about to do more noble than ascending the throne by means of assassination.”

And the answer to that generally being yes, I ask myself the next question.

“Is what I need to do easier than plunging a knife into the heart of a sleeping monarch?”

And I find the answer is always yes there as well.

So, that’s what works for me, but the point is, we live in very trying times, and it seems sometimes that the hardest thing for us to do is to grasp the reality of the situation we’re in without looking away.

And to not be overwhelmed by the horror.

And to do what we need to do, even when it’s not comfortable. Even when there is risk involved. Even when we’re not sure of the right way forward.

When we become activists for a different kind of world, no one hands us a road map that says turn left at the democratic party and keep going up hill until you see the brick wall, and then, transcend.

It sounds trite to say, but phrases that become worn with use often get that way because they’re just right.

We make our road by walking. And it always begins with a first step.

For the last year, we at Real Change have been deepening our understanding of our unique position in the community. We have allies. We bridge issues. We have more freedom than most — thanks to our large community of grassroots supporters and our earned income through circulation and advertising — to say what we mean and mean what we say.

And, we have 270 vendors each month selling the paper, reaching more than 12,000 readers each week. And there is a bond there. And that’s where our power lies.

So this year, we’re kicking off what will be a great experiment in cross-class organizing. We know that poor and homeless people need to have a stronger voice, but we can’t do it on our own. We know that our readers and other allies have political clout, and that their interests, and the interests of poor people, are linked.

We’re not really exactly sure where we’re going, but we’re taking the first steps toward building a space where people can come together and find their fire.

Real Change isn’t just a community. Real Change is many communities. Our work, we think is to increase the size of those spaces where these communities come together.

Text of speech for Real Change 13th Anniversary Breakfast, 10.24.2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Magic of Real Change

I'm often left feeling quite humbled by the amazing work of the volunteers to put in incredible hours to make what Real Change does possible. Today was one of those days.

Documentary filmmaker, improvisational actor, real estate agent, and all around super woman Amy Sedgwick produced a video for our annual breakfast tomorrow morning and, were I capable of being moved by the sound of my own voice, I think it just might have made me cry. She did a beautiful job of capturing what's transformational about Real Change. Watch and see what I mean.

Amy also recently produced the video for The Gratitude Campaign, which is spreading the word about a simple way to show appreciation to members of the armed services. Please visit the site and see what that's all about.

Monday, October 22, 2007

We Hold These Truths As Less Than Evident

Events this week have had me thinking about power and how issues get defined; who sets the terms of debate and through that, controls the outcome. Often, this power to define and control works invisibly. This is what makes it so powerful.

Anyone who’s taken the time and trouble to analyze homelessness as a systemic issue knows it’s about declining housing affordability, structural unemployment, and the failure of wages to keep up with inflation. It’s about the globalization of trade that expresses itself in America as our two-tiered, deindustrialized economy. On the one side are an inadequate number of low-wage service industry jobs, and on the other you have the well-compensated professionals who work within an expanding information economy.

Poverty and inequality are growing, and the most vulnerable of us fall out at the bottom.

Homelessness, however, has been redefined. When you hear discussion of homelessness now, it is most likely to mean “chronic homelessness.” The talk here is always of individual dysfunction, its cost to society, and how we’re going to “end homelessness” by getting the most visible homeless (about 10% of the whole, using current definitions) people into housing within ten years. The other side of this “getting the numbers down” is the heightened policing of the urban poor. This, too, is often invisible.

This isn’t ending homelessness. It’s reducing the visible poverty that threatens the profits of developers who have, across the country, invested heavily in an urban condo boom for the winners in the new global economy. It’s sweeping poverty, and its true causes, under the rug.

Follow the money. It won’t win you any friends, but it might open your eyes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Working Class Hero

Marianne Faithful is another one who gains resonance with with age. This live version of John Lennon's Working Class Hero from the NYC sound stage show Sessions at West 54th in early 2000 puts the studio recording to shame. I love the guy on bass, and how he and the guitarist sort of merge into a single entity. And Marianne's definitely making the most of what's left of her cleavage years.
Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But we're all fuckin' peasants as far as I can see

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Year of Living Dangerously

On my eighteenth birthday, my sister brought my mother over to the house to try and normalize relations. My present was a blue jeans get-up that had elephant bells, a tight fit around the ass, and a vest to match. They brought a cake. We had a family moment amid the empty beer cans.

After that, I wore the new outfit constantly. My hair grew out. I was finally cool.

Meanwhile, life at the party house was becoming untenable. Mike was a nasty drunk, and it was taking less and less to get him there. By the time I left, he was down to an hour from first beer to belligerent dick. The parties were getting larger and more out of control, and police were showing up regularly to close us down.

I moved in with a friend I didn't like all that much to share an attic room in a house that had been partitioned all to shit. The landlord was a morbidly obese middle-aged Pepsi addict who worked at a tire shop. His name was Bob and he was a friend of Mike's. Saturday mornings we'd get high and watch cartoons. As landlords of shit housing go, he was a pretty decent guy. He got cheap rent to deal with the rest of us.

On the first floor, next to Bob's place, lived Cliff and Daisy. They were 40 going on 60 and usually drunk by three in the afternoon. Cliff and Daisy were talkers, and while I'd try to avoid them as I came and went, it wasn't always easy. Evenings at home basically meant hanging out in my attic cubby hole or getting loose with the neighbors. One night, Daisy sat close to me on the stairwell and asked if I believed in free love.

I said no.

Later, I would sell my dilapidated Country Squire station wagon to Cliff for $75. When we went to the DMV to transfer the registration his hands were shaking so badly he could barely sign his name. We stopped at a drive thru on the way home for a pint of White Port.

For a while, I drove this car with the gas line unhooked from its rear wheel well grommets and run up the side and through the back window into a two gallon can perched on the seat. I smoked. I knew this was dangerous, but, like all eighteen year olds, assumed immortality.

My mom saw it and wailed that this was "a time bomb." I told her not to worry.

The house with Mike was only three blocks away and I still hung out with them. Pat took over my room when I left, and Mike's underage girlfriend had gotten sick of his shit and moved her cute little ass into Pat's room. Now Mike was wasted pretty much all the time and stumbled around in a wounded fog. The large nightly parties continued.

A friend and I had left one of these to get cigarettes, and when we returned, there were eight police cars parked in a broad semi-circle, shining their floods on the house. Several of the cops had taken firing stances behind their open car doors. Pat came out with a rifle cracked open at the bolt held high above his head. The police rushed to take his weapon and took him down in cuffs.

Pat had told some kid to leave who didn't feel like it, and pulled out a rifle to make his point. The kid was a jerk and called the cops. In the end, no charges were filed, but it was a wake-up call for Mike. He moved back home with his mom, joined AA, and became a huge fan of the PTL club. This, for him, was all a step in the right direction. He'd always been a wiz with small electronics, and soon found happiness fixing toasters and stuff at the downtown Goodwill.

Meanwhile I moved several more times and worked as I could. The summer job at Augustana was soon over. I lied about my ability to drive a standard to get a landscaping job and managed to fake my way through. This was back breaking work and I quit in less than a month. It was a frigid morning, and I was on my hands and knees in front of a Burger King planting what seemed like hundreds of evenly spaced three inch seedlings. I decided it wasn't worth it and wandered off without a word.

They tried to stiff me on the final paycheck, but I went to some hole in the wall legal aid outfit and they heard me out and wrote a letter. The check was ready within days.

I spent a few weeks digging ditches in hard red clay with a jack hammer, did a bit of farm labor, and worked for several months in a potato chip factory. This involved driving an elevated tractor — called a Spudnik — that was outfitted with a conveyor belt shovel blade into semis filled with potatoes. The spuds would run down the belt and up a chute to drop onto a 10-foot brown mountain. We'd walk around on top and spread them about with big push brooms.

For a few months I lived in a nice rooming house, but it was more than I could afford. There were a couple of different roadside motels that charged weekly rent. When coming up with a month's rent no longer worked, these were a good fall back. I was always on the lookout for a cheaper place. The last four or five months I lived in Sioux Falls I was in a room above the Arrow Bar and across from the Nashville Club. Out my window, I'd see the regulars wait on the sidewalk for the doors to re-open at seven.

By then I'd found full-time work at Component Manufacturing, a light assembly operation that made mobile home rafters. In Sioux Falls, there was plenty of work if you were eighteen and willing to accept minimum wage and no benefits. The good union jobs were all in meatpacking, and although these were dangerous and had dismal work conditions, everyone wanted in.

I was hanging with some pretty rough people, and they didn't always like me. There were a few different girlfriends at that time, and there were hard feelings around one named Lisa whose last boyfriend was less than resigned. I pulled her out of a fight one night when she got jumped at a party, and that pissed some people off. Her nose had been bitten up, but not badly enough to need stitches.

A few weeks later, I was hitching my way downtown and hopped into the back of a pick-up. My body tensed, but I didn't pay attention. The truck sped out of town. I didn't have the guts to jump. It took dirt roads off the highway to a wooded area. When the truck stopped, I was alone with three enemies. One was the girl who had jumped Lisa, and there were two big guys as well. She held the knife.

"Take off your clothes," she ordered. I looked at the knife. "Why?" "I'm not going to cut it off," she laughed. "Just do it." There was a kick from behind. "Now." I did it.

I was forced to roll in the mud. They kicked me a few more times, took my clothes, and left. I made my way through the woods to a small lake, and there were people and cars. I called out from the bushes. Some guy brought me a blanket and gave me a ride to my place above the Arrow.

I wrapped a steel chin-up bar with friction tape to offer a better grip and tracked them down. A party was happening. They were expected. I went there.

A friend's step mom who was maybe thirty-five and had known me since I was fifteen caught wind of my plan and showed up to intervene. She pulled me out of the house to talk underneath a fire escape. I'd go to prison, she said. It wasn't worth it. Our faces were close. She kissed me on the lips.

We got high and the adrenaline slowly drained away. I took my taped bar and left. She dropped me off downtown and we never spoke again of what had happened.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Friday, October 19, 2007

Actual Voice Mail from Sandy Brown

On my voice mail this morning, and promptly followed by a legalistic email that stops just short of threatening legal action.

Tim, this is Sandy Brown calling from the Church Council of Greater Seattle. Hey, I , you know, was verrryy surprised to see our logo on a mock announcement for Unite to Extend Homelessness, and I just wonder if you generated this, and if so, how you're going to disconnect us from what is obviously a spoof to those of us involved in it, but maybe not a spoof to the people that are going to be confused by this. So, we really do not want to have our name connected with this, uh, mock, uh, publicity, and would like you to remove us from it, and make a retraction that we have nothing to do with it. So please give a me a call at my office to explain to me what's going on here if you indeed are the source of this, and I'm anxious to be removed from any participation in it because it obviously goes contrary to what our viewpoint is, and our logo should not be on it. So my telephone number Tim is 206-525-1213 x3911 Thanks much, Bye now.

Here's a link to a page on political satire (including use of branding) as first amendment protected free speech.

Homelessness Awareness Month

As if I didn't have enough to do, I took it upon myself to rewrite the Homelessness Awareness Month flier (click here for PDF download) promoting various events being held in Seattle this November. I think I'm losing it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

It's Breakfast for 500 and You're Invited

Ten Reasons to Come to the Real Change Fundraiser if You're in Seattle Next Wednesday.

(click on image to enlarge to full size)

1.) You'll be able to watch the sunrise on your way downtown.

2.) Our 2007 Change Agent Award for "visionary organizing and exceptional effectiveness" goes to Jon Gould of the Children's Alliance, and he's promised to say something moving and profound.

3.) I'll talk too, and you never know what the hell I'm going to say.

4.) The food won't suck, as it has in previous years at a certain International Conference Center near Bell Harbor, which shall remain unnamed.

5.) Our keynote speaker will be radical, funny, and inspiring, and her book will be for sale.

6.) Sixty bucks is a lot of money for breakfast, but the company will be fabulous.

7.) All day long, we'll consider you one of our 500 closest friends.

8.) Real Change is Seattle's essential alternative weekly media source, offering dignity and opportunity to 270 vendors each month.

9.) You'll get to hear about our new organizing project that's finally going to kick some ass in this town.

10.) If you've got it to give, donations of $200 or more at the breakfast will be matched.

We'd love to see you there. Your friends too. Email me. Or Joe. Or call 206-441-3247 x208.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Housing Now! And Tomorrow Too!

Last week, the Seattle Human Services Coalition put a modest proposal before the Seattle City Council. We should take $12.5 million of Seattle’s $70 million projected budget surplus this year and make an investment in long-term housing affordability.

The white-hot Seattle condo market, rising land values, and double-digit rates of increase in rental prices have led to unprecedented losses in Seattle’s affordable housing stock, and the trend continues.

Forbes Magazine just named Seattle as one of the few places in the nation where housing is likely to remain a strong investment. That’s good news for homeowners, but for the rest of us, it just means housing costs are likely to keep rising.

If you want to see the future, look to San Francisco, where a one-bedroom apartment now goes for around $1,500, and rents are up another 8.3% over just the last year.

A Seattle Housing Acquisition Fund would provide loans to non-profit developers who need the flexibility to move fast on available opportunities. By helping the good guys compete for properties with those who often have superior resources, Seattle can make a long term-difference in the outlook for affordability. The best part is that the fund renews itself. As projects succeed, the money is repaid and becomes available for others.

This is an idea that has worked well in numerous cities, including Washington, DC, which established a $15 million fund in 2005, and New York, which parleyed $8 million in city investment into a $230 million fund supported by nine private foundations.

Opportunities to make a real difference in Seattle’s housing market do not arise all that often. This is a bold investment in the future that needs action by the City Council now, when the resources and the political will are aligned. It’s the right idea at the right time. Hearing dates and City Council contact information can be found here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Projects of Reassurance

As I mentioned last week, I've been reading Timothy Gibson's Securing the Spectacular City: The Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle, and this relatively obscure four-year old urban planning textbook has pretty much rocked my world.

Over the past thirty years, says Gibson, new technologies have forced cities everywhere to reinvent themselves in order to remain viable within the new globalized economy. Seattle, with its thriving centers of upscale consumption, diverse cultural offerings, stunning natural assets, and thriving downtown core, has fared better than most.

This, however, has come at a cost. As elites have managed to sell corporate and developer interests as being somehow identical to the needs of "Seattle," the city has become increasingly geared to the upper-income consumers and workers that this development was designed to attract. Thus, we have a downtown condo boom where at least 4,500 new units of downtown housing are slated to become available over the next three years at an average price of $750,000, and a housing affordability crisis where the eighty percent of us with more normal incomes are, more and more, left to go elsewhere.

This rehabilitation of our urban landscape is as much psychological as it is physical.

In pop culture terms, our city has transitioned from the gritty scenes of Cinderella Liberty, where James Caan haunts Seattle's working class bars and rooming houses and tragically falls in love with a good hearted prostitute, to the cloying Sleepless in Seattle, where Tom Hanks, an architect, meets Meg Ryan, a journalist, and they presumably go on to spawn above average children and live happily ever after in a land where everyone in sight is a middle-class professional or better.

Within the popular imagination, many still visualize our urban centers as something akin to Dirty Harry meets Blade Runner. A few years ago, my wife and I went to a concert downtown with her parents, who usually divide their time between Riverside, CA, and Issaquah, WA. The show let out, and they insisted, as a matter of safety, upon giving us a ride from Benaroya Hall to the Nordstrom parking garage six blocks away.

They are more normal, I think, than we are.

For cities to succeed and attract the consumers that business desires, says Gibson, people need to be convinced that the waters are safe. This depends upon something he calls "projects of reassurance." These are the various tools that have been developed in cities across the country to suppress the inconvenient urban poor.

As our cities have become centers of upscale consumptions, downtown interests have worked to gain the same sort of control over the built environment that a suburban mall might enjoy. This typically looks like heightened policing, new laws aimed at the visible poor, the privatization of public space, and the expansion of private security.

And we are easily convinced that this is both normal and in our best interests.

Much of the time, it seems that those of us who are active on issues of homelessness and poverty are working with concepts that are fifteen to twenty years out of date. This means that we're forever playing catch-up, as the reality of our times continues to operate several steps beyond our reach. We need to smarten up and figure out what time it is.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Life Begins At Seventeen

After the disastrous sophomore year of high school, my life took an unexpected turn for the better. The sessions with a counselor seemed to have had some effect upon my parents. Suddenly, I was allowed to have friends and to come and go like a normal teenager.

I'd quit my job at the Canton Cafe when, after three years, the Wong family still refused to bring my pay up to minimum wage. My small cut of the waitress' tips made this legal. I now worked at the Country Kitchen, a Denny's-like chain. I made new friends. Getting high was part of the job. The lower rungs of food service are like that.

When a popular manager was fired after an ownership change, me and the lead fry cook decided to fuck them. It was a Sunday and crazy busy. I let the dishes back up almost to the door. Mark slowed down on the orders. When the point of maximum chaos met with the height of noon rush, we walked out. A waitress quit along with us.

This was my first overt act of labor rebellion. I don't know that it accomplished anything, but it was glorious. I soon found a similar crap job at a pancake house on Minnesota Avenue.

My junior year proceeded uneventfully. The deal with my parents was that if I went to school, they'd leave me alone. This worked surprisingly well. While I can't say I'd come to like school, I read a lot, and my grades were acceptable. This was a start.

It started to look like I'd finish high school.

Something else happened as well. I grew. The pre-adolescent pudginess went away and I got long and skinny. I had a date or two.

I was actually liking my life. I had friends. I had freedom. While this was the year I discovered the joys of purple haze and microdot, the drug use was still much more moderate. It was more about having fun than shutting down.

But the détente with my parents was about to end. I arrived home from a post-school year party at 1 a.m. and was met by my father at the door. "Even Cinderella was home by midnight," he said. "Whatever," I replied. I was grounded for the rest of the summer.

The next day, they went to work. I packed a box and left.

By the end of the week my stuff was tossed and my bedroom converted to an ironing room. They canceled my life insurance. This was a passive-aggressive insurance agent's way of saying, "You're disowned."

I soon felt as though my previous life had ceased to exist. It was like being hatched anew at seventeen. I felt that way for a very long time. Years later, when I was married, my wife put a photo of her family on our mantle. I placed an egg atop a candle holder.

For the next month or so I revolved between the living room of a girl I barely knew, a couch in apartment of another casual friend, and a sleeping bag on an air mattress in the garage of yet someone else. I didn't want to wear out my welcome anywhere, so I did what I could to tread lightly.

I had a small savings, and quit my pancake house job the day I left home. It was a kid's job and wasn't enough money to really help anyway. I also didn't want to be that easily found.

Hunger was something that, in the coming years, I'd come to understand. I showed up one afternoon at the Canton Cafe and asked the waitresses I'd once worked with for a hamburger and french fries. Barbara bought the meal out of tips and it sat before me on the counter. I was overwhelmed by the moment.

"Hasn't anyone ever given you anything before," she asked?

No. Not like this.

The friend with the garage, a guy named Mike who was a few years older than I and already had a serious drinking problem, planned to move out soon and get a place with me. We found a small two bedroom house to rent. It was cheap. This was, after all, Sioux Falls in 1978.

Returning to school in the fall ceased to be an option. The counselor at Washington High said they just weren't set up to handle emancipated students, and that If I wanted to graduate, I'd have to move back home. I took the GED without studying and passed with flying colors.

Most work required either a driver's liscense or that I be 18, so the job search wasn't going so well. Feeling some desperation, I told someone at the employment center that I needed work soon or I'd be literally on the street. He sent me to a storefront that did CETA job placement. This was a remnant of the War on Poverty. I was soon employed as a maintenance trainee at Augustana College.

The other CETA placement in the Augustana maintenance pool was a stoner named Pat whose parents had died. He had a small house and a social security check. We became good friends.

I did everything from shingling roofs to digging ditches. Most of the time, I followed around a straitlaced coffee-swilling septuagenarian Swede named Buell. After he went home, Pat and I would park the maintenance truck somewhere off campus, have a beer, get high, and then drive back to punch out at five.

I started taking whitecross that summer and loved how speed made me feel. The crash after a three or four day run, however, was brutal. I decided I liked it too much and left it alone. This was one of my better decisions of that period.

Nearly thirty years later, a mid-life ADHD diagnosis got me a prescription to Adderall, a much cleaner version of the same stuff.

Every high school kid who is half-way hip knows of a house where — pretty much any night of the week — odds are a party is going on. I lived in that house. There was a liquor store across the street that didn't seem too concerned about ID. We kept them in business.

I lost my virginity near the end of the summer. A couple of Indian chicks stopped to talk while we were on the front porch drinking beers. The fair was in town. We all went. I came home and went to sleep. Shortly after, my bedroom door opened and there was my new friend. She did all the work. I barely knew where to put the thing. Like most first times, this was not the stuff of fantasy. As she rode up and down, I felt completely outside the moment. It ended and she asked what was wrong.

The next day she brought flowers. Classy. I never saw her again.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Belltown's Most Hated Bench Goes Away

I stumbled upon a party the other morning on my way to work in Belltown, and no, it wasn't that kind of party. Those usually wind down in this neighborhood by 7 a.m. or so. The subject of jubilation was the removal of a bench that has been a magnet for drinking, drug dealing, and other activities of despair that occur in the one block stretch of Second Avenue between Blanchard and Bell.

While I'm generally a stand up for the underclass sort of guy, this I get. We used to have a bench of our own. Ours was a six-foot heavy wooden board that sat atop concrete legs. The thing weighed about 120 pounds. A bunch of them were made by a group of activists and distributed around the city in 1995. The Sidran civility laws had recently passed, and spaces to rest were disappearing fast. These were being replaced by a new urban architecture designed to prohibit sleeping or getting too comfortable. So ours wasn't just a bench. It was a political statement.

We got rid of it about six years ago. The neighborhood drunks had taken to having contests to see who could throw it farthest. We joked that this might make a good new Olympic sport. The Seattle Benchtoss team would be a sort of like the Jamaican Bobsled team, but drunker.

So, when I stopped in at the Casbah Cafe for my morning double-tall Americano with room and mentioned that a crew was removing the art bench installation a few doors down, I wasn't too surprised to hear that this bench had been reviled by area merchants for years.

When I say area merchants, I don't mean the Nordstrom's. I mean the lovely people at the Casbah, who I regularly see give day-olds and coffee to the neighborhood mentally ill. I mean Dave, my Barber, who cheerfully buys Real Change from the vendors who wander into his shop. I mean the Senior Center across the street and the Crocodile Cafe. They were all standing on the sidewalk, looking on with huge smiles. Neighborhood activist Joe Corsi, who manages Concept One apartments on that block, looked like he'd just had a baby boy. I thought someone was gonna pop a bottle of champagne any second.

And who can blame them? This stretch of Belltown right by Real Change is one of those odd places where the hell of life on the very, very bottom is on display 24/7. I hear blow jobs are going for two bucks. People try to sell me drugs and sex at 8 or 9 a.m. all the time. I've always chalked it up to Wally's, the convenience store that sells malt liquor and fortified wine. There's usually two to three panhandlers within twenty feet of their doorway. But it's more than that.

I don't really understand why some downtown stretches of sidewalk are like this. From what I can tell, no one else does either. I'm sure the bench didn't help, but its removal won't exactly lead to a new Disneyfied era for this block in Belltown.

My theory, conspiratorial as it is, makes as much sense as any. I think there's a sort of a hydraulics of pathetic street crime, and cops know that if you squeeze in one place it comes out somewhere else. My guess is that they prefer to know where it is, and that there are various areas of the city, some only a block or two long, where this sort of activity is generally tolerated. These act as containment areas that keep it away from the rest of us.

Benches don't make people into street alcoholics, drug dealers, and crack whores, but they do offer a place to rest. Here's hoping that one day, a better solution will be possible.
—photo by Greg Riley

Saturday, October 13, 2007

From the Horses Mouth

This week I came across Chronic Homelessness: Emergence of a Public Policy, a 2003 article that long-time homeless researcher Martha Burt wrote for the Fordham Urban Law Journal on recent homeless policy shifts toward focusing on chronic homelessness. Burt, along with Dennis Culhane, is one of the main researchers whose work helped bring Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness into vogue.

Fan of 10YPs that I am, I expected to find something to disagree with. Oddly, I didn't. I was amazed to discover that, in her dispassionate academic way, Burt sees the problems as well as the possibilities. It seems that where we've gone wrong is to adopt a sort of Ten Year Plan boosterism that pretends we can have the good parts while ignoring the troubling barriers that get in the way, as if these issues will somehow resolve themselves.

This has the effect of reducing the whole thing to a bit of a resources shell game that boosts the budgets of some human service providers at the expense of others while focusing on the visible homelessness that urban downtown interests find most troubling. It's a convergence of interests, but it's not "ending homelessness."

Let's start with the good parts. Burt says the research is clear: those who have been homeless long term opt for housing with supportive services when it is available, and, for the most part, they stay in that housing. It's expensive, but no more expensive than the cost of not doing so. Even better, the estimated total number of these people who need to be housed — roughly 150,000 to 250,000 people in a given year — is within the means of a concerted, long-term effort to achieve.

It's interesting that her research shows a more or less break even cost-benefit relationship, as opposed the the savings factors of two or three that we hear from Mangano and company. This strikes me as a more honest assessment.

While this is good news, it's qualified good news. Even as she expresses enthusiasm for the Ten Year Planning strategies then unfolding through the USICH and NAEH, she also cites numerous problems.

The first is that while its no more expensive and more humane to provide housing with services than to leave people on the streets and in shelters, these costs are born by different bureaucratic entities, and a savings realized by one does little to offset an expense borne by the other.

This brings us to the political will issue, and the difficulty of sustaining said will over time.

Finally, even the narrow approach of solving chronic homelessness will take more resources than seems to be politically possible at the moment. The rest of the homeless — families, working poor, etc — are unaffected and may even receive less attention than before as a result of the policy shift.

These problems alone are enough to give any prudent person pause. But the biggest issue is that the structural realities of rising housing costs, low wages, growing inequality, and diminished government support for programs that assist the poor essentially undermine the foundation upon which progress through the means of Housing First would be realized. Burt concludes:
First, housing has to become more affordable. The simplest way to do this is to subsidize housing; research indicates that the public policy that would do the most to reduce the risk of homelessness is subsidizing housing. This involves no need to build more units, no struggles over project siting or zoning or not in my backyard behavior. All it takes is providing those people with the most disparate housing costs in relation to their income the financial resources to remain in place. In addition, new housing needs to be created that is affordable by people earning relatively little despite working regularly — renewed incentives for producing affordable rental housing would greatly help the current situation of inadequate housing supply.

It is also essential that people who are poor today, and their children, have the educational and training opportunities to assure that they are not poor tomorrow. That is, we have to increase the ability of the poorest people in this country to afford housing without requiring subsidies in the future. The problem is, these steps are not in political favor at this time, being seen as the old anti-poverty agenda. Instead, present federal budget proposals actually offer significant cuts in public and subsidized housing — actions that in the long run will work against the federal commitment to end chronic homelessness. Ultimately, the solution to chronic homelessness will rest on the solution to homelessness in general; the latter begets the former. Only a few communities so far have committed themselves to this larger goal.
Seattle is one of those communities, but rather than embracing the challenges of what it truly means to end homelessness, we have over time moved toward a more limited focus on street homelessness. This is inevitable, in that ending homelessness would take political courage and imaginative organizing across class and issue constituencies. We need a broad-based organizing effort that can change the definition of the possible. What we have instead is a lowest common denominator effort that is directed from the top. That's just not going to do it.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Magnificent Seven

Sandinista!, the fourth album by The Clash, remains one of my favorite recordings of all time. While the reggae-heavy three album release had more than its share of hits — Somebody Got Murdered, Washington Bullets, Police on my Back, The Call Up — it's also loaded with radical politics and brilliantly original music that had no commercial potential whatsoever. Songs like Rebel Waltz, Look Here, Lose This Skin, and Shepherd's Delight revealed them as artists of remarkable range and depth who were also capable of churning our clever pop and getting on the Tom Snyder Show. This 1981 clip of The Clash performing The Magnificent Seven catches them at the top of their game not long after this album was released. This was the first rap song ever recorded by white artists. The clip below, also from the Tom Snyder appearance, is one of those instances of a bunch of musicians being put uncomfortably on the spot to be spokespeople for a generation. But there's a nice bit toward the end about squatting as a matter of principle because housing just costs too much.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Quintana's Just Not That Smart, Is He?

I was down at the City Council budget hearing tonight to testify (my testimony starts at 2:13:00 on the Seattle Channel video) in favor of the Seattle Human Service Coalition's visionary proposal to put $12.5 million of this year's $70 million budget surplus toward a housing site acquisition loan fund. Just when things were getting dull, Joe Quintana, the lobbyist for the Seattle Business Coalition got up to speak for his clients.

For those who aren't in the know, the Seattle Business Coalition, says the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce website, is
A broad consortium of business organizations that are committed to a healthy economic climate like the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Neighborhood Chambers Alliance representing 39 neighborhood chambers, the Downtown Seattle Association, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, the Associated General Contractors, the Greater Seattle Business Association, the Seattle Hotel Association, and more. It will provide a firm voice on policy issues most important to businesses operating in the city of Seattle.
The rule at City hearings is that you get two minutes, but if you're with a group, you get more time.

Quintana let the Council know he was speaking for the coalition and would be taking the extra time, at which point Jean Godden asked that the other members of his group come forward.

Seconds ticked by. No one moved. Apparently, everyone figured Joe could handle it on his own and had gone out for drinks instead. There was an embarrassed silence.

Godden graciously threw him a lifeline. "How about if they raise their hands? We'll accept raised hands," she beamed. Standing in the back, I'm scanning the room with everyone else, not quite believing what I'm seeing. Not a hand in sight.

Just when I thought Quintana was going to suffer a delicious minor humiliation in front of God and everyone, some woman in front raised her hand and went into a long explanation of how she was going to testify but would yield to qualify Joe's "group."

Thus seconded, Quintana recited his list of Business Coalition talking points: developers will go to Bellevue if you ask them to contribute to the community, more cops are needed downtown, businesses are getting shafted by the city, etc. He offered some common sense guidelines for possible cuts, made some councilors smile with a dig at the city's "200 information officers," and finished by mumbling something about non-support of the Mayor's dumb-ass proposal to spend $9 million on a 311 call system so that no one will ever have to use a phone book again.

I was thrilled to see that we have common ground. I hope it's the beginning of something beautiful.

Joe's been getting around lately. Forward Seattle, the Political Action Committee of the Downtown Business Coalition, is named in an ethics complaint to the state Public Disclosure Commission that charges collusion between them and City Council Candidate Venus Velazquez. The PAC made a decision to support Velazquez, who has branded herself as the successor to the Peter Steinbrueck friend of the poor mantle, by sinking their resources into her campaign.

This is odd in the extreme, because Steinbrueck is precisely the last person on the council these guys would support. Aimee Curl at The Seattle Weekly quotes Velazquez: "If they want to play in this race, sure. I'm seeking support in all communities."

Maybe Quintana's a brilliant strategist, and this is like the Log Cabin Republicans throwing a high profile endorsement to a liberal southern Democrat. Fortunately, we were able to secretly record a late night strategy meeting at the Wild Ginger, and have the evidence that clears Venus:
Joe Quintana: OK. Here's how we're gonna run this play. We take all the money we got, and we sink it into one candidate.

Jan Drago: It sounds risky. If I were you, I'd spread the money around.

Quintana: When I want your opinion Jan, I'll ask for it. Velazquez is the lynchpin. We take that bitch down, the council is ours. The downtown interests pour money into her campaign, the left deserts her, Harrell wins. Easy-peasy!

Pat Murakami: (emitting a high pitched giggle) and then I'll file an ethics complaint against her! Quintana, you're a fucking genius!

Kate Joncas: Then it's settled. Dessert anyone?
And that's how it happened. Really.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Families: The Next Big Thing

The news from Massachusetts this week is that family homelessness is up dramatically. There is a "right to shelter" law in that state that requires an accurate count of families in shelter. In other states, the numbers are less clear, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Massachusetts, where the number of homeless families is now up to 1,800 from 1,400 in June of last year, is not unique.

Not surprising. Federal funding priorities in recent years have been targeted to the elimination of visible homelessness, and local efforts have largely followed the funding. Meanwhile, the sorts of supports that make the difference between mere poverty and homelessness — food stamps, housing assistance, childcare support, access to health care — have all lost ground.

The argument has often been made by the Bush Administration's US Interagency Council on Homelessness and their lap dogs at the National Alliance to End Homelessness that ending homelessness is much easier than ending poverty or solving the housing crisis.

This is true. But only if you're talking about visible homelessness. If you're at all concerned with the other, more invisible, ninety percent of homeless people who don't look like winos, then things get a little more complicated.

When a community commits to housing with services for those with the most severe addictions and mental illness, visible street homelessness will most certainly decrease. When this is combined with intensified policing of the poor, as is the case in nearly all Ten Year Plan cities, you can get those numbers down even further. The business of ending homelessness is good for business.

But this isn't ending homelessness. It's reducing the evidence of homelessness while poverty increases and affordable housing becomes more scarce. It's classic Bush administration perception-management smoke and mirrors.

The next load of shit coming down the pike from the USICH will be Ten Year Plans to End Family Homelessness. This promises to be a good deal trickier.

The first planning conference, sponsored by the NAEH will be hosted right here in Seattle this February. Philip fucking Mangano is already telling us how solving family homelessness will be all about the data.
The overall number of homeless people is up from a few years ago, Mangano said, but nobody can pinpoint an exact number of families because reporting requirements vary widely from state to state.

“Our desire would be to have many more states step up and track the data,” Mangano said. “Research and data, that’s what should drive the resources that we make available. Instead it’s often anecdote, conjecture and hearsay that does that.”

Here's a radical idea. Maybe solving family homelessness isn't so much about the data as it is the resources. Maybe if the feds weren't doing their best to kill public housing and routinely slashing other supports for low-income people, fewer families would be in such desperate situations.

Maybe, if we spent less time tracking data and engaging in gut-busting bureaucratic exercises to chase a few crumbs of federal funding, and more time demanding the government be less beholden to corporations and the wealthy and more concerned for the welfare of ordinary people, we'd see finally some real results.

If it were up to me, one message would come through loud and clear this February. No Resources, No Plan. The feds don't get to put us through their hoops and look all concerned and active on the issue of family homelessness unless they start walking their talk. Otherwise, it's just more smoke and mirrors.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Everybody Must Get Stoned

By thirteen, I was well on my way to my new identity as a pothead. In 1973, I was all about Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Yes, Pink Floyd, and getting high as often as possible. My best friend and I worked as dishwasher/busboys at the Canton Cafe. School nights we were home by ten, but Fridays and Saturdays the place closed at 2 a.m. We'd finish mopping the floor and leave at around 3. We got high before work, on our breaks, and after we got off when we'd go out for breakfast.

At Saint Mary's, my chronic truancy began in the seventh grade. I hated everything about school. I was physically clumsy, emotionally immature, and near the bottom of the social food chain. My homework was never done, since most evenings were spent huffing Pam or finding other forms of trouble. I was behind in most things and couldn't really focus very well on course work anyway. Life at home was a nightmare. I got good at being checked out in almost any situation where adults were involved.

One fall, there was a tragedy at nearby McKennan Park where a kid chased a kite into a tree and came in contact with a power line. He died instantly. I would often fantasize about following his example. Obviously, I never did.

As shut down as I was, I was still precocious, but mostly in ways that didn't help. In social studies we did a segment on systems of government. I said that Communism and Christianity had a good deal in common on paper, but neither really lived up to their promo. This merited a trip to Monsignor Sullivan's office, where I listened to a sanctimonious, late-model Mercedes driving old fart ramble about lost sheep. My mom said, "You never had these ideas before you started hanging around with Jeff Thompson."

Jeff was three years older, lived two houses down, and was the embodiment of cool. He had Robert Plant hair, knew karate, and played guitar in a rock band. While I was a late-bloomer, Jeff could have passed for twenty at sixteen, and often did. His band, named for a vinyl faux-masonry sold by the yard in hardware stores, was called Z-Brick. They rocked. Jeff had an older brother named Bob who was an honest-to-god hippy, and all the other neighborhood hippies congregated at his house.

Bob had done jail time for what was quite possibly the dumbest robbery ever committed in Sioux Falls. He pretended to beat up the manager of the Pizza Hut where he worked and locked him in the walk-in cooler just before the alarm was tripped. There was a light dusting of snow that night. It was early morning. The cops followed the tire tracks right to his house. Everyone got fired and the whole town had a good laugh.

Jeff and my other friends from the neighborhood were into rock & roll, cars, getting high, and girls, pretty much in that order. I was never cool, but at least they let me hang around. Our house was a place for them to party.

My sister and I learned we were adopted when we found paperwork in a desk at the end of the hall. I was already sufficiently alienated to not much care. My sister, on the other hand, kind of lost it. Within a year she was stealing large amounts of money from my parents by forging checks for cash to the local grocery store. The money went to junk food, pot, and buying the attention of one of the neighborhood boys who pretended to like her. She was morbidly obese. It was sad.

As much as I hated my parents, I knew they didn't have any money. The check writing went on for months and escalated over time. She wouldn't stop. I finally told my mother. She was in the basement doing laundry. I was as clear as I could be. Checks. Forged signatures. Several times a week. A few days later she told me that she'd looked into it, and that I must have been mistaken. I let it drop.

About a month later, my sister and I were smoking with a friend at the rock fireplace behind our garage when we heard brakes screech and a car door slam. It was my dad. "How could you do this ," he bellowed as he struck at her with his fists. "You've ruined me!" His rage had reduced him to tears. Terry was bawling. My stomach turned to ice.

It was arranged for me to leave and spend the night at a friend's.

I never understood how the forgery could have gone on as long as it did without being noticed. Once I'd said something, I figured it was out of my hands. I decided my sister had something on them. Something terrible. Something I didn't want to know about. And that my mother, for her own reasons, had covered.

In 1974, I started ninth grade at O'Gorman High, the Catholic school across town. My sister was already there. She never went to classes either. Neither of us were doing very well. In the middle of my first year she dropped out, never to return. My parents tried various things. Weight Watchers, counseling, Junior Achievement. Nothing took. The idea of her returning to school was soon dropped.

My mother asked our parish priest whether Terry might be possessed by Satan, and he said the problem could be found much closer to home. That was the end of that relationship.

They moved their business to a few blocks from our house and tried to resume their role as parents, but their efforts were ham handed and authoritarian and did more harm than good. They were the enemy, and we resisted.

My truancy became a full-time commitment. I was stoned most of the time. Weekends were spent in detention under the kid-hating glare of Father Wagner, the closeted gay Principal who was fooling nobody.

All the kids called him Father Fagner, or Father Fag for short. But we wanted it both ways. The second most hated teacher at O'Gorman was the woman who ran detention study hall. Apparently, her and Father Fag were an item.

In high school, there were the jocks, the nerds, and the heads. My choice was clear. I loved everything about stoner culture. Nothing was as cool as a forty dollar lid of Columbian.

My friends all had little pipes designed for smokeless hits between classes in the boys room. We passed joints in the grassy quadrangle over lunch. The essential high school car accessories were an eight-track and a bong. School was little more than a series of occasions to get high. I was too bored to even know how bored I was.

The truancies led to a series of suspensions, and finally, a few months into tenth grade, expulsion. As my mother walked me out of the administrative office where we had received the news she turned to me and said, "How does it feel to be a failure?"

I treated it as a rhetorical question.

I was enrolled immediately in the downtown public high school. My days were spent a few blocks away at Uncle Earnie's Pinball Arcade, a smoky little store front with about ten machines and a couple of pool tables. When the school truant officer was spotted, an alarm was sounded and we disappeared out the back door or into the basement until the threat had passed. There were a few suspensions, and by the end of the year I was expelled from there as well.

Next, I went to summer school at Lincoln, the high school in the wealthier part of town. A gym teacher caught me smoking a joint on the sidewalk before class, which got me expelled for the third time that year. I made up information for the police about my source, fingering some nobody losers that I didn't need to worry about.

The charges were dropped but I was required to see a counselor. He met with my mother and I together and then with her alone. The next week, I walked to his Augustana College office to see him on my own. Whatever she'd said to him, it must have been a thing to behold. She was bat shit crazy and couldn't feign normalcy to save her life.

He told me I wasn't the problem. My family, he said, just wasn't a good place to be. I needed to get out as soon as I possibly could. I had to hang on for another year or two.

I'd been waiting all my life for that. I could leave. The thought kept me going.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two