Monday, October 1, 2007
Why Don't You Just Say What You Mean?
Below is the text of my keynote speech last night at Temple Beth Am for the H2R Fundraiser. No wonder no one ever asks me to speak anymore.
I was going to speak extemporaneously, but then Sally told me I couldn’t swear, and I thought I’d be better off tonight with a written speech.
The other thing she said was, “Oh, and no Jew jokes.” Not a problem, I thought. No swearing, no Jew jokes. Got it. I can do that.
And then I run into her at the Interfaith Task Force Building Political Will conference a few weeks ago and she says, “and don’t talk about Jesus.”
At this point I’m wondering if maybe she’s having some second thoughts. Like, she thinks I’m going to conclude by asking you all to look in your hearts and consider, “What would Jesus Do?”
So a few days ago, I thought I’d play with her.
We’re talking about directions here and she’s trying to explain the weird intersection at 80th and 26th or something and I say, “Sally, I’ll find it. I’ll just look for the big steeple with the cross.”
And there’s this moment of silence. And she says, “Tim, that is wrong on so many levels.”
But thanks for having me anyway.
I don’t get that many speaking gigs anymore, since I contracted Tourette’s earlier this year.
I hope, a half hour from now, that you’re not regretting the invitation.
I’ve been writing a lot lately, and that’s led to a lot of thinking, and anyone who in these times thinks much is pretty angry.
So I’m here tonight as an angry person
I’m angry because I see the feds claiming to end homelessness while they attack programs that serve the poor, and continue to walk way from their commitments to housing.
I’m angry because I see homelessness framed mostly as a matter of helping dysfunctional people, as opposed to changing a broken system.
I see homeless advocacy that doesn’t really include the voices of poor people or support the organizing we need to see.
I see a “movement to end homelessness” that embraces cost-benefit analysis in order to minimize the expense society must bear for the poor.
A movement that mostly avoids the big picture because we’d rather be “making a real difference” by being immediate and practical, and besides, we’ve tried that whole ending poverty and inequality thing before and it didn’t work.
I see a two-tiered economy, what Barbrara Ehrenreich once dubbed the Kmart/Bloomingdales economy, in which the educated middle class on up does better and better, and other working people struggle more and more to make ends meet. As the middle class continues to erode and face more economic insecurity, we are becoming the Value Village/Tiffanies economy.
I see the people who sell Real Change. About 60% claim some form of disability, and the help available to them is pathetic. I see functional nine year olds coping year after year in a shelter system they can’t escape.
There is a three to six year wait for public housing, and lots of road blocks designed to knock you off that list.
If you’re dirt poor, and more and more people are, you have to be suicidal or homicidal to get mental health treatment.
Options for substance abuse treatment are pathetically under-funded and largely short term, and too often people leave treatment to face the same hopelessness that drove them to drugs in the first place.
And here’s where I go from being angry to being downright bitter. The rhetoric is that in all of this, we’ve chosen to End Homelessness, and not just maintain the structures of mitigation. And we do this by institutionalizing new, but more localized, structures of mitigation.
We say we’re taking a structural approach to ending homelessness, and yet the structures of poverty and inequality itself go largely undiscussed in our work, much less directly challenged.
I believe homelessness can be ended. We’ve ended it before.
Most people think of mass homelessness as something that arose in the late 70s and early 80s, but this isn’t right. We’ve seen this several times before, also in times of massive economic dislocation.
In the 1870s, Civil War demobilization and the advent of the factory system of labor created a huge class of hungry men who rode the new railways in search of work. The old, home-based and largely rural systems of production were disrupted and replaced by an urbanized factory system that did little to lift people out of poverty. There were two depressions in the late 1800’s.
A great tramp army roamed America. The dean of Yale law school, Francis Wayland, said that the homeless and jobless man of his time was a “spectacle of a lazy, shiftless, sauntering or swaggering, ill-conditioned, irreclaimable, incorrigible, cowardly, utterly depraved savage.”
A skid row infrastructure, most fully realized in Chicago’s “main stem”, saw the market opportunity presented by these migrant laborers, and created cheap housing, cheap restaurants, bars, thrift stores and pawnshops, to meet their needs. Areas like this arose in cities across the country.
Much of this was knocked down by urban renewal, our domestic post-war version of the Marshall Plan.
Most of us have seen pictures of the huge homeless shantytown that existed south of Seattle’s skid road during the Great depression of the thirties and forties.
And most of us think it was the New Deal that ended the depression. It wasn’t. The New Deal helped in many ways, but it was the war that emptied America’s shantytowns and also spelled the end of places like Chicago’s main stem.
The war created full employment, and when it ended, government did not want to repeat the post-civil war experience of relegating hordes of hungry, disillusioned men, now trained in the use of small arms, to the street.
And so we got the GI bill, which was one of the greatest engines of class mobility this country has ever seen. We got public housing, cheap credit and federal lending to feed the suburban boom. And we got an understanding between labor, government, and big business that growing the middle class was in everyone’s interest.
Robert Reich’s new book, Supercapitalism describes the period of 1945-1975 as the not quite so golden age: we had McCarthyism, racism, oppression of women, cultural monotony and uniformity, yet, there was a linkage of democracy and capitalism, and an acted upon belief in the common good which took inequality to historic lows.
When you look at the structural forces that ended homelessness in the forties, you see the mirror image of present structural realities now: there is a two-tiered economy, widening inequality, schools that reinforce the class system, higher education made less attainable, and an assault on the very idea of public housing. Robert Reich argues that democracy and capitalism have come unlinked, and that while the market is very responsive to consumers and investors, the structures of democracy that promote the common good have atrophied and become largely useless.
Most of you are probably familiar with the roots of contemporary homelessness in the late 70s and early 80s. The effects of urban renewal and the systematic destruction of cheap housing caught up to us just as the feds decided to get out of the housing business and begin the long process of de-funding HUD, which continues even now.
There was deinstitutionalization, which with the best of intentions dumped thousands of mentally ill people on the city streets without providing the promised alternatives. And deindustrialization, brought on by new infrastructures that accelerated the mobility of capital and turned our economy from one based in manufacturing to one that created mostly service industry jobs for the working class, and jobs for the educated middle class in the burgeoning information-based economy.
There was Reagan era supply-side economics with its slashing of the social services safety net.
And housing itself made the great leap from being a necessary place to live to being a speculative commodity, and the first of the many urban condo booms to come began to happen, eliminating great swaths of affordable housing in its wake.
The shelter system arose as an emergency response. As founders of Seattle’s DESC — created 30 years ago to meet the needs of the mentally ill, addicted, and vulnerable homeless that other shelters were ill-equipped to handle, will often say — the E in DESC stood for Emergency. They thought they were dealing with a unique crisis that would, in less than a decade, pass.
It didn’t. The perfect storm of the 70’s was a structural realignment, much like earlier economic disruptions of the late 1800s and the twenties and thirties of our own century. Over the 80’s homelessness in American cities tripled and quadrupled, and through the 90s and until recently rose by double digit percentages pretty much each year. We’ve been locked ever since in the Emergency response paradigm.
But the Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness say they’re out to change all that. And I have to ask, really? Are they really?
The National Alliance to End Homelessness puts number of homeless in a year at 2.5 to 3.5 million. Their one night snapshot number is 730,000.
Every year, I eagerly anticipate the Conference of Mayors report, which usually arrives in February. Rate of growth slowed in recent years from double digits, but in 2006, we were still up by 5%, and 9% for families. 86% of cities are turning away homeless families that seek shelter.
Here in Seattle, the meaning of our own most recent homeless count is a matter of contention.
The official 2007 Annual One Night Count of People Who Are Homeless in King County, WA, prepared by the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless, found 7,839 people homeless in King County at that particular point in time. 2,159 were literally on the street, like, there’s one riding the bus all night, and there’s one walking with bags at 3 am. That's 2,159 people.
This report shows homelessness decreasing in similar count areas by 4% from last year. The previous year saw around a 3% decrease. Yet, as the report authors are quick to point out, we shouldn’t make too much of this. The first year that decreases were reported, the timing of the count was moved from October to the last Thursday in January to meet federal guidelines.
Also, there was this observation, also in the 2007 report: “The neighborhood where we counted seems more inhospitable to homeless this year than last. There are more gated, locked and brightly lit areas. People last year were sleeping and this year they were walking or sitting in bus stops."
Turn-aways at emergency shelters are as high as they’ve ever been. I’ve recently heard that 40 women each night are being turned out to the street, and the numbers of men are up as well, but harder to measure. These are split between multiple sites.
But not everyone is so careful with their numbers. The United Way of King County, in their recent press release announcing their goal to raise $25 million to build 1,000 units of housing for chronically homeless people, said homelessness in Seattle had decreased by 10% two years in a row. This 10% decrease per year puts us pretty much on track for meeting the ten year goal, shows success, and gives contributors a reason to hope that their money will indeed accomplish the stated goal.
The federal US Interagency Council on Homelessness quickly added the United Way statistic to the many other ten year plan success stories on their website. The more nuanced Coalition for the Homeless version went unreported there.
People often say to me, Tim, why do you hate the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness so much? And I don’t, really. It’s just that the giant sucking sound you hear is all of the energy that could be directed toward organizing that is being exclusively put toward direct services.
And I also say, well, to understand that, you have to think of it as a zen koan.
This is an imponderable, you know, the sound of one hand clapping. That sort of thing. An apparent absurdity, that if you think about it long enough, you break through into a new clarity and a fresh way of seeing the world.
So the koan here is, where does the Bush administration, arguably the most hostile administration of this century to the interests of the American poor, get off in making deep cuts to poor peoples programs and continuing to gut federal housing programs, while holding the stated objective of ending homelessness in Ten Years?
Between 2002 and 2006, there has been a $70 million increase in funding for McKinney-Vento, the federal package of legislation that funds homeless relief. Yet over 2004-2006, a shorter period, HUD funding has decreased by $3.3 Billion, with another $2 billion in cuts in the works. Other programs, serving the poor have seen deep cuts as well.
I’ve come to regard federal funding as a precise calculation of maximum cooptation for the minimum amount of money. It’s like they’ve developed a special slide rule to figure it out. Homelessness, through McKinney-Vento, goes for about $1.6B now. The cost of the Iraq war are calculated by the Democratic party at about $195 million a day. So the funding for ending homelessness is a little better than a week of Iraq.
My own break through moment came when I reread a 1986 article by Columbia professor Peter Marcuse called Neutralizing Homelessness. In this, Marcuse identifies the ideological bones of the federal response on which the present day policy response hangs.
Marcuse says that the widespread existence of homelessness in a society as affluent as our own is a moral outrage that challenges the legitimacy of the social and economic order itself. Homelessness, therefore, must be ideologically neutralized.
"If government does not deal with homelessness," says Marcuse, "it appears illegitimate and unjust; if it does try seriously to alleviate homelessness, it breaks the link between work and reward that legitimizes wage labor. Neither horn of the dilemma is a comfortable resting place."
The way to respond, then, is to talk a great deal about ending homelessness, while taking no effective action to actually solve the problem.
It’s like a fat man running. There’s little progress, but huge amounts of apparent effort.
Solutions, therefore, are "aimed more at dealing with ordinary (housed) people's reactions to homelessness than with homelessness itself."
Marcuse outlines four basic ways in which this happens:
DENY: Find creative ways to lowball the numbers. Narrow the definition so as to exclude. Minimize. Maybe hold your street homeless counts in late January
BLAME THE VICTIM: Focus public attention on the most stigmatized members of the homeless (mentally ill, addicted, alcoholic) and place the blame on character defects, as opposed to structural unemployment and unaffordable housing. I’ve spent twenty years trying to get across that homelessness isn’t just about the visible drunks and crazy people. That most homeless are families and working poor people, only to have that undone by those who use the terms chronic homeless, street homeless, and homeless interchangeably, and in doing so collapse the distinction.
SPECIALIZE: Drill deep into data and subpopulations. Marcuse quotes neo-conservative Thomas Mann saying solutions to homelessness should be in the form of "separate policies for separate subpopulations" rather than focusing on universals such as housing, wages, and access to social services.
ISOLATE: Ghettoizing homeless people outside of mainstream society in shelters and such while criminalizing public displays of extreme poverty with no-sitting ordinances, forbidding public feeding, criminalizing park sleeping, etcetera, all of which are on the rise nationwide.
Sadly, his prescriptive solutions of twenty years ago didn't really take. The militant Union of the Homeless that so inspired him in 1988 pretty much flamed out within a few years. A direct-action based demand for housing mostly ended with the 1990 suicide of Mitch Snyder. The National Coalition for the Homeless, which once carried the torch for a more structural approach to homelessness, is a shadow of its former self, and has been entirely eclipsed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which operates hand in glove with the Bush administration's United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Here in Seattle, we’re seeing the same trends that are occurring everywhere else, but in a more extreme form. According to the 2000 census, incomes in Seattle rose over the ‘90s by 56 percent for the wealthiest fifth, while incomes for the bottom fifth fell by 7.4 percent. 52.6 percent of Seattle residents reported paying more than a third of their income in rent, a proportion exceeded only by Boston.
Our progress toward the Ten Year Plan goal of adding or expanding upon 950 units of low-income housing a year is being trumped by market forces, as condo development and rising rents takes affordable housing off the market about twice as fast as it can be produced. Seattle is becoming a city of rich and poor.
In a five block area near the Pike Place Market that developers refer to as Seattle Gold Coast, there are 4 condo developments scheduled to be completed in the next two years, offering 505 new units of housing at an average price of over $2 million each. One must earn about $90K a year to afford homeownership in Seattle. You need to make about $19 an hour to comfortably afford the current price of a rental.
So what would I have you do?
First we have to do what we are doing, and then some. The response can’t be separated into charity over here and justice over there. These responses need to be linked. I’m not arguing that we walk away from acts of mercy to fight some vague class war. I am arguing that we need to take more political risks, and reach out across class to fund and build a social justice movement.
And we have to, when appropriate, dare to bite the hand that fees us.
I hate to pick on United Way. There’s much that’s good about what they do. They are raising $25 million dollars to fund housing for chronically homeless people, but where’s the funding for organizing poor and homeless people with their allies?
That’s not what foundations and government are interested in. Charity is a lot less complicated, risky, and controversial.
So organizations like Real Change, SHARE/WHEEL, and the Tenant’s Union starve for funding while the Mayor hands $3.5 million to Plymouth Housing Group to build housing for chronic homeless people without even pretending to have a process.
Plymouth does a lot of great things, but boat rocking isn’t one of them.
We need our United Ways. We need our Plymouths. But we need organizing too, and we have to stop thinking of it as some sort of afterthought to perhaps be considered once the other bases are thoroughly covered.
We have to, again, look to the last time homeless was ended in America. Access to education. A major federal investment in housing. A government, business, and community alliance that worked toward the common good, and ensured that the benefit of some didn’t come unduly at the expense of others.
The path toward truly ending homelessness is the path forward for all of us.
History shows that government responds to mass movements, especially when those who are most affected have become disruptive and have allies in the broad middle class: This was true once of labor and could be again. It was true of the civil rights movement. It was true of the anti-poverty movement that led to the reforms of the Great Society that, before sidetracked by Vietnam war, were effective in reducing poverty and inequality
The closest we’ve come to this in the movement to end homelessness was Housing Now!, organized in 1987 by Mitch Snyders’ CCNV. There was a loud and disruptive grassroots movement that included the poor and homeless, and it gave us McKinney-Vento.
Our problem was that we saw this as an end, as opposed to a beginning. We got tired. We became timid. We allowed homeless advocacy to be professionalized and sidelined into technocratic service provision, cut off from the wider anti-poverty movement.
The American Prospect this year did a special issue on poverty, which was remarkable in that it didn’t mention homelessness once.
This issue, which was once seen as the tip of the iceberg, the canary in the coal mine — choose your own metaphor — is now orphaned and sidelined as a narrow social services issue. And the moral outrage that homelessness in an affluent society represents has been sidelined right along with it.
This is a failure of moral and political imagination.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities talks about how funding for the war, line item give-ways to corporate interests, and tax breaks aimed mostly at the wealthy, undermine the possibility of increased federal funding for housing. They say we can no longer afford housing advocacy that ignores these larger issues. They say policy choices must start to target weak claims on funding, and not weak clients.
We can end poverty, they say, but everything has to go back on the table. The current approach assumes everyone keeps the cards that we have, and that game is totally rigged.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to talk about why, after 13 years in Seattle and more than two decades of organizing to end homelessness, I still think that street papers in general and Real Change in particular is one of the most powerful organizing models I’ve seen.
As a newspaper, we’re able to support and engage with the broader movement for social justice. We’re able to meet the immediate and sometimes desperate needs of our vendors for an income with dignity, while giving them an opportunity to work for social justice themselves. We stand with one foot in our community of about 270 homeless and very low-income vendors that sell the paper each month, and the other foot in our mostly educated and affluent readership.
The longer we do this the more we understand that our effectiveness is based in the power of those reader/vendor relationships.
Our challenge, and the challenge for all of us, is to build the space where those relationships can come together in a truly cross class movement for economic justice. This space, for the most part, doesn’t even exist now. Real Change is a beginning. SHARE/WHEEL is a beginning. There are also huge rumblings happening in the broader advocacy movement, and things are starting to shift. But the real work, truth be told, has barely started.
We don’t have all the answers, and are struggling ourselves to find the right way forward, but we need you there with us, helping to light the way. Thank You.