Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mitch Snyder Lecture, Cambridge, 2007

Below is the text from my speech at First Church Cambridge on Sunday, where I gave the annual Mitch Snyder lecture. It's actually a reconstruction of the speech, since I spoke from notes, and my attempt to record the thing failed. Rumor has it that a plaque is in the mail. The photo above is another gem from the JwP archives. I need to check this against news clippings, but I think this is the 1991 demonstration where several hundred of us stormed the statehouse and there were multiple arrests. I was in a room with Statehouse security, State Patrol, and Boston cops that morning to discuss CD arrangements. They set up booking for us right in the basement. Very convenient. I'm the guy with the bullhorn

When Jim invited me out for this he said I could say anything I liked, and insult anyone I wanted, but that I couldn’t swear. So, to build in some insurance, I picked these up on the way here. They’re a special kind of eggs. They don’t have any carbs. Say’s so right here. “No carbs.”

So I’m going to hand these off. Pass them around. If I let fly with an F-bomb, throw. Aim for the head. It’s about Mutually Assured Destruction, because I’m not sure what I’ll do if anyone actually throws one.

Jim titled this “How to Really End Homelessness,” although he said I didn’t have to talk about that. And that I could mock it if I liked. But that’s actually what I’m here to talk about.

The first thing I wondered was why didn’t Jim just invite Phil Mangano. I actually pronounce his name Philip F. Mangano. You can ask Jim what the F stands for. But he’s THE guy. He’s a sort of a native son here who’s become Bush’s homelessness Czar. He has a couple of lines that he likes to use.

He says that he’s from Massachusetts, and he’s an abolitionist, and that Republicans ended slavery and that they’ll end homelessness too. And somehow people don’t throw eggs.

He also says that the solution to everything is more data. No longer, he says, will we rely on “conjecture and speculation.”

I don’t think we necessarily need more data. I think we need more resources.

When I do my class I ask the students to think of the federal commitment to end homelessness as a sort of a zen koan. That’s an apparent absurdity, like the sound of one hand clapping, and if you think about it long enough you break through into new levels of consciousness.

So, here we have what has arguably been the most hostile administration to the interests of the poor in 70 years. They’ve slashed antipoverty programs and shoveled money to the wealthy as tax breaks, and they’ve continued the assault on public housing. McKinney-Vento, the program that federally funds homeless shelters and such, was increased by $70 million over 2002-2006. This was a great victory for the homeless.

Over 2004-2006, funding for HUD was slashed by $3.3 billion. And the Bush administration says every chance they get that they’re ending homelessness. HUD just had a press conference last week to say chronic homelessness, due to their good work, is down by 12%.

So, it’s a zen koan, and I’ll come back to that. But meanwhile, think about it. Meditate.

I think we can end homelessness. We’ve done it before. I teach a class on homelessness and I’ve noticed that twenty somethings have often grown up with it and think this is the way it’s always been. Those who are older know different. But you might be surprised to know that we’ve had mass homelessness before, and we ended it.

The previous period of homelessness, like our own, was rooted in major economic dislocation. The Civil War ended, and the demobilization left hundreds of thousands of men, mostly white men, uprooted and without work. The end of the war coincided with the replacement of an agrarian and home-based economy with the factory system of labor. In the space of a few decades the populations of the rural and urban areas basically flipped.

The factories kept their labor costs down with women, children, and immigrants. Blacks were largely kept in the south as cheap agricultural labor through a system of terrorism. The railway system was new, and provided a means for white men to travel in search of work, and enormous numbers did. They were despised and feared.

There were three depressions, two in the late-1800’s, and then the Great Depression.

But they roamed the country, and a whole infrastructure, a market solution, arose to meet their needs. Areas like Seattle’s skid road and Chicago’s main stem arose to house and shelter them in cheap housing and missions. There were hobo camps. In Seattle, by the 30’s a vast Hooverville of shacks and tents, with a Mayor, a people’s college, and streets with names, arose.

Most people think it was the New Deal that ended the depression, but it wasn’t. It was the war, which created full employment. The men who could went to fight, and women took jobs. People of color had new employment opportunities. The shantytowns emptied out.

After the war, government was not about to have millions of hungry, disillusioned, war hardened men trained in the use of arms wandering the country. That did not seem like a good idea.

So a new era began. Public housing was built. Suburban home ownership became readily available through cheap FHA loans. There were public works programs to build roads and such. There was the GI bill to send people to college, one of the greatest engines of class mobility this country has ever seen.

Of course, this wasn’t available to everyone. It happened within a context of institutional racism, and black people weren’t generally getting the GI-bill. There was red lining to determine who got those housing loans. The blacks who got work during the war were forced out of the factories.

But the shantytowns did empty. More important, there was the Fordist deal that said we need our workers to be consumers as well, and that there was a balance of interests to be maintained, and that meant a regulatory government, corporate CEOs who considered the public interest, and strong organized labor.

From 1945-1973, there was steady economic growth averaging 3.8%, and the gap in inequality became more and more narrow.

You might have noticed that each of these things, access to higher education, easy access to the housing market, public housing, and work for anyone who needs it, are the very things we now lack. In fact, each of these is going in the wrong direction as we become a more and more unequal society.

Worse, the relationship between capitalism and democracy has become unhinged. There is little left in place that looks out for the public interest.

This looks like a pretty sophisticated audience. I probably don’t need to go too deeply into the causes of contemporary homelessness.

There was another major economic dislocation. That was deindustrialization. The internet and the shipping container greatly accelerated the globalization of the economy, and the rules changed. We went from being a manufacturing based economy to a service and information economy. What Barbara Ehrenreich calls the Kmart-Bloomingdales economy, and is becoming the Value Village-Tiffanies economy. Lots of competition for lousy jobs at the bottom end, and well-rewarded work for those who have the skills, education, and background.

There was deinstitutionalization, where these inhumane mental health hospitals were closed down to move people into the community where they would have neighborhood-based services. The second part never happened, and people just got dumped on the street.

Housing stopped being a basic human need and turned into a speculative commodity. Urban renewal wiped out the cheap pre-war housing. One person’s housing is another’s urban blight, and it became condos, parking lots, and new business towers.

Then, of course, came the Reagan years, with its supply side ideology that strengthened the power of business, weakened labor, and attacked the social services safety net. And it’s been that way since. And there was the attack on public housing. The past three decades have been the story of the feds getting out of housing.

Over the 80s, homelessness in American cities tripled and quadrupled. That’s what we were seeing and responding to during those years of homeless activism here. There was a crisis in the streets. But even after, homelessness tended to rise each year by double digits. That’s slowed recently with the strength of the economy, but I wouldn’t make too much of that.

Inequality has steadily increased for more than thirty years to now be at its widest ever, and the rate seems to be accelerating.

So lets come back to our zen koan about the federal commitment to ending homelessness.

There was an important article that pops up a lot in the academic literature by a Columbia University urban planning professor named Peter Marcuse. It was published in 1986 in, prepare to be frightened, Socialist Review, and was called Neutralizing Homelessness. One of the reasons this article amazes me so much is that it is so very prescient.

Marcuse says that massive homelessness in a society as affluent as our own constitutes a legitimation threat to the government, because it really doesn’t feel right that we have to step over people in the street. We might start wondering why it is that our economic system is failing so many people.

But government, he says, is on the horns of dilemma. To ignore the problem is to appear illegitimate and unjust. But to do something about it, really do something about it, is to undermine the whole wage labor system upon which everything rests. So, what do you do. You make a big production of appearing to do something.

This rests on a handful of techniques, and you’ll recognize them all. You drill way down into subpopulations and you obsess over data. This makes it an issue for specialists and helps to divide and conquer.

You isolate the problem, both intellectually and physically. Turn it into a technocratic human services issue and divorce the discussion from poverty and inequality. Move the homeless people themselves away from the rest of us where we don’t see them, and when we do, we are frightened.

You deny. This mainly has to do with low-balling the numbers through narrow definitions and various other tricks.

And you victim-blame. It’s not about structural unemployment. It’s not about institutional racism. It’s not about poverty and widening inequality. It’s about screwed up people that us middleclass do-gooders need to fix.

The goal, then, isn’t to end homelessness at all. It is to convince the politically active middle class that we’re ending homelessness, and to reduce the evidence.

I often say it’s like a fat man running. There’s lots of visible effort, but not a lot of progress.

But I do have some good news. Bet you weren’t expecting that. But the thing is, it’s couched in bad news.

We’ve already talked about widening inequality. Real incomes for most of us have been largely flat since 1973. But the things that have grown more expensive most rapidly are the same things that make us middle-class, or offer access to the middle-class. Homeownership. Higher education. Decent healthcare. The middle-class is feeling very squeezed, and they are.

Think of how many homeless people you know who are unemployed or underemployed but not receiving unemployment. They’ve dropped out of the unemployment stats. So have all those who are in prison. There’s a huge structural unemployment issue that the statistics hide. 1 in 99 people in the United States is in prison or jail. One in 31 live under the supervision of the corrections system. Since the 70s there has been a five-fold increase in incarceration rates. The war on drugs has racialized incarceration and poverty. Bruce Western here at the Kennedy School talks about how the hugely disproportional number of blacks in the prison system is an engine of racialized inequality, due to the reduced employment and earning prospects.

I was talking to a friend who works at the ACLU yesterday, and he says he sees it as the newest incarnation of the 3/5s of a man rule for voting, since most of those people are disenfranchised as voters once they’re felons.

Inequality is also widening because government and the democratic process have been captured by corporate interests who see democracy as just one more means to seek advantage and build their bottom lines. The big money, lobbyists, and lawyers that they throw into the legislative process totally sidelines authentic citizen participation.

And all of these things are being talked about more. Poverty is coming back on the agenda. And not because we want to do something for others. It’s because we need to do it for ourselves. The middle-class being squeezed and the growing incarceration rates and increasing inequality and homelessness are all part of the same thing, and we’re starting to figure out that we're in this together.

The strongly-felt economic vulnerability of the middle class offers a basis for helping to address the true causes of homelessness as well, because it’s not just about helping them. It’s about looking out for ourselves as well. And history shows, whenever there’s been lasting broad-based, structural change, it’s benefited the majority of us.

I really see the Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness, as conspiratorial as this sounds, as being the superstructure through which the federal government neutralizes the issue. It’s depoliticized and reduced to a technocratic approach to a social services delivery problem. The focus is on chronic homelessness, which you may read as visible homelessness. This comes at the expense of other sectors. The chronically homeless are about ten percent of the whole and they’re the most visible.

There was just an article in the New York Times about how family homelessness in Massachusetts is growing, and they suspect it’s growing elsewhere as well. You just have the means to track that here because of some prior legislation.

And communities, if they want federal funding to help with homelessness are forced to buy in. The grants are evaluated on a points system. And you get points for having an HMIS database system, and you get points for having a ten year plan. There’s over 300 of these things now, and every time a Bloomington, Indiana adopts a plan, Philip F. Mangano flies out to do his Saint Francis of Assisi routine and his rah rah show about how we’re really ending homelessness. And there’s enough truth in it, if you view things narrowly enough, for it all to look pretty good, and people buy it.

But what’s really happening is that, in the post-industrial era, cities have had to reinvent themselves to remain viable, and are increasingly becoming islands of wealth. I wrote an article. I called it, Quick, Hide the Poor. The Rich are Coming.

Various cities adopt various strategies. Some go the sports stadium route, which doesn’t usually really work. Some go for the urban upscale consumption draw, to compete with the malls and draw shoppers downtown with various amenities and restaurants. Some go for the cultural center thing. Seattle’s done all of these. We have two new stadiums, a revitalized upscale downtown shopping center, a new symphony hall, an expanded art museum, a new outdoor downtown sculpture park.

But we’ve also attained the biggest prize of all: we’re a port city, and a command-control center for global capital. Corporations will almost always move their manufacturing where labor’s cheapest, but there are other functions, which for purposes of flexibility they generally outsource, that they’d rather keep local. Legal, accounting, marketing, etc. And they don’t want to be dealing with guys in Tokyo. They want to be able to meet in each others’ conference rooms and send documents back and forth by bicycle courier.

This is where the winners in this economy work, and increasingly, it’s where they live. Last year, Seattle raised the height restrictions on downtown condo development, and all the developers raced to city hall to get their permits in first. There’s a crane every few blocks downtown. 5,000 or so units with an average value of $750,000 are going up downtown in the next few years.

In just the few blocks surrounding the new symphony hall, the new art museum, and the Pike Place Market, a quaint historic market with a stunning view of the Sound, where you can get your fresh baked bread, fresh fish, and organic vegetables and shop for crafts, there are four luxury towers going up with a total of 506 units. Average value: two million dollars.

Seattle is an extreme example, but this is happening in cities everywhere. What’s also happening is an increased policing of the urban poor, and new laws that criminalize what they do. Camping, sleeping in parks, sitting on sidewalks, panhandling, etc.

I was just at Grendels this morning and the bartender told me — I had the steak and eggs. It’s just where they seated me — that he was at a neighborhood meeting where the police chief said there would be a greatly expanded police presence soon in Harvard Square. And that they had trained the police to understand the various homeless subpopulations (criminal class, alcoholic, mentally ill) and to respond to them each appropriately.

Cops aren’t social workers. “Hi. I’m the police. I’m here to help.” This is about what’s happening everywhere. Driving homeless people away, and getting the numbers down.

In Seattle, we’d been hearing rumors of a zero-tolerance policy of homeless encampments, but we couldn’t get anyone in city government to confirm this. So we put out a bunch of freedom of information requests. We just FOIA’d everyone. To our great surprise, we found the smoking gun email we were looking for. It said that the policy had shifted from one of tolerance with clearances triggered by neighborhood complaints to proactive, monthly, clean-ups, with a list of ten targeted sites. Nine of the ten were within the one-night count area. Most were very urban, and not even in greenbelts or near residential neighborhoods.

But the best part was that the city was using Department of Corrections labor to clear the sites, with armed police back-ups, and they were just throwing people’s stuff away. Slashing up their tents, and destroying their belongings. They were putting up signs one day ahead of time saying they were doing a clean-up, and that if you need help, you should call the Community Service Officers.

The Mayor defunded that program two years ago. When you call, you get a “number disconnected” message.

And it was a secret policy. The city council didn’t know. Neither did the Committee to End Homelessness in King County. They Mayor is on their Governing Board, but they weren’t informed.

This isn’t about ending homelessness. It’s about eradicating the evidence.

There’s a carrot and a stick to the Ten Year Plans. The carrot is Housing First. This is the notion that it’s less expensive to just house someone and provide services than to have them cycling through jails, hospitals, and shelters. And it’s true. It is. The problem is that our ability to do this runs up against the limitations of local resources, because little or nothing is coming from the feds.

I always say that federal funding levels are a precise calibration of maximal cooptation for minimal funding. Homelessness goes for about $1.5 billion.

Which leads to a reliance on other forms of simple repression to get those numbers down. Every year there’s a count — for some reason the federal government requires it to be in the last week of January — and success is measured by how those numbers look.

The Ten Year Plan focus on ending homelessness is fixated on chronic homelessness because that’s the visible homelessness. When that goes away, the problem as far as we can see ceases to exist. The affluent few who are taking over the urban cores won’t have their suburban comfort zones challenged, and the investments of those who have bet heavily on the urban condo boom will be protected, and that’s what this is really about.

And the big attraction is that we get to end homelessness by a sort of a magic trick. Through the data, the technology, our great sophisticated understanding of the problem, we’re targeting resources and making a difference. But the thing about magic tricks is that they are based in illusions.

It’s not real.

There are no short cuts. Ending homelessness is about ending poverty, and ending poverty is about building for power. We whine and we say, “Oh, we tried that. It’s too big. It will never work.” Our expectations on that score have been very reduced. That’s — don’t throw eggs — crap. We don’t have a choice.

Coming together to challenge inequality, to build power, is in our own self-interests, and it’s also the only way we can really end homelessness. I’ll take questions.


Anonymous said...

I live in Vancouver BC. We have a serious homeless problem caused by poverty and a zero rental vacancy rate.

We also have a building sitting in the downtowneastside which has been vacant since November 2006. This building has 100,000 square feet and it is owned by the City.

I have been trying to get interest in turning the building into shelters and all I get is that the activists and the social providers consider shelters are a band-aid and want the homeless to stay out on the streets until affordable housing is built although all three governments have repeatedly said that they were not going to fund affordable housing. Do you suffer from the same mindset.

Tim Harris said...

This is an old dichotomy that has recently taken a new twist. Here in Seattle, for example, a line has been firmly drawn against new shelter, despite strong evidence that the need is acute. Every time people push for more shelter to meet the immediate need, someone in government can be counted on to piously assert that housing is the answer, not shelter. Which usually translates into doing nothing, while dire needs remain unmet. I think the homeless people in Vancouver, along with allies like you, should just take that building over. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Not to nit-pick but doesn't the demise of the Hoovervilles contradict your later assertion that he end of homelesness is the end of poverty? Surely poverty didn't go away with the Second World War (even though it did deal with the surplus labor problem rather neatly).
I accept that action to end poverty is right and good, but there are halfway measures that could help -- not just sheltering but real moves on housing affordability -- just don't ask me what.

Tim Harris said...

Good point. I don't think I said the war ended poverty. I said the policies subsequent to the war that reduced inequality for three decades running ended mass homelessness, and that present policies bear no resemblance to what has worked before.