Friday, November 30, 2007

What's That Odor? Why, It's Nicole Brodeur

When Real Change broke the homeless encampment clearance story last month, I made a prediction. What happened in San Francisco and other places would happen here. There would be a city propaganda offensive. The press would soon be replete with stories of feces and syringes. Homeless campers would be portrayed as a walking health hazard. A bunch of rapists and baby killers. They leave their gross condoms around. Were you to suck on one, you could get AIDS.

It's a well-worn play book.

So, it was inevitable that Nicole Brodeur would take the bait and thus write the cleverly alliterative "Homeless Haven, or Hellhole."
You don't want to go down there. Not even in broad daylight, and certainly not alone.

That was the warning I got from some Seattle Parks and Recreation employees the other day. And they were right. On a tour of several homeless encampments Thursday with a group of parks people, I could have been stabbed, raped, infected, or fallen to my death. ...

I went into this with an eye to the plight of the homeless. I've come out knowing that many of them are out there because they choose to be. ...

We saw rats. Mountains of beer cans. Jugs filled with urine. Feces. Tents with doormats and wind chimes. Axes and knives stuck in trees and plastic bags I wouldn't nudge with my steel-toed boot.

Workers have put out fires; walked through tunnels made of mattresses; and handled needles, condoms and more than a few dead bodies.

"No newborns or anything," one parks employee told me. "But that's probably the only thing we haven't found."
Nice. She even worked in the baby killing thing. Hasn't happened yet, but it could ...

I realize that those who live near greenbelts have issues that need action. And I sympathize.

Before I got condoed out of an affordable duplex in the Greenwood area a few years ago, we lived with a crack house across the alley. I'm a guy who thinks homeless people should be breaking into abandoned housing as often as possible. But here was a place where my anti-capitalist sympathies broke down. Prowling the neighborhood for shit to steal and sell for cheap so that you can be a successful crackhead isn't cool. I called the cops every chance I got.

But, this isn't all about that, and the city's actions don't solve the problem. One of the interesting things about the list of sites that the Mayor's office prioritized for clearances is that the majority are not near residential areas. Another was the near complete overlap with the One Night Homeless Count map.

For as long as I can remember, there have been roughly twice as many homeless in Seattle as there are emergency beds. Shelters are often frightening, chaotic places. When our own Dr. Wes Browning was homeless several times, he didn't go to them. With his PTSD, that wasn't an option. He slept out. In greenbelts.

Homeless people in Seattle didn't suddenly become more disease ridden, drug addicted, and dangerous than before. What's changed is this: Seattle, like cities of all sizes most everywhere, is experiencing a boom in downtown living, and all those affluent people who are moving to the urban core to experience the excitement are bringing their suburban comfort zones with them.

Developers have bet heavily that the downtown can be turned into something akin to a suburban shopping mall, but with better food. The Mayor feels their pain. Class war is being waged on the most vulnerable people in our city.

Seattle City government had an opportunity this budget cycle to use part of their large surplus to put $275,000 into funding a homeless outreach program to try and reach the tougher cases. They decided they didn't have the money. Instead they handed about $100 million to Paul Allen in the form of South Lake Union infrastructure money.

So sure. Some homeless people inject heroin. Big news flash for Nicole Brodeur. But you know what? At this point, I think homeless people have more to fear from us than we do from them.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pat McInturff: High on Crack, or Has Greg's Back?

Recent press on the City of Seattle’s halt to campsite clearances — like this story in the PI, followed by this editorial, and this story in the Seattle Times — says Seattle Human Services Director Patricia McInturff, did not correctly represent the City’s position. In an email to members of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness Interagency Council and others she clarified what their position actually is, sort of.
“Until an new encampment abatement protocol, that incorporates existing city law, is finalized the City of Seattle will continue to address encampment complaints and removal in the same way that we have for the last several years. The existing protocol provides notification to persons in the encampment, addresses valid public safety and public health concerns, and enforces appropriate laws. Abatement procedures will vary depending on the urgency of the problem and the campsite location. We will continue to evaluate each situation on a case by case basis.

In consultation with the law department we are reviewing all current laws related to encampments. Once that process is concluded [Dept of Neighborhoods Director] Stella Chao and I will invite a group of stakeholders to meet with us and provide input on an updated protocol.

Sorry for the confusion --- the City is committed to a humane and consistent approach.”
Thanks for that Patricia. In other words, the clearances have not been halted. As welcome as this newly found “commitment to a humane and consistent approach” might be, her email is interesting in that it skirts the issue of the City’s documented shift to an illegal and immoral policy last May.

So did the monthly campsite clearances policy then not incorporate city law? Given that city legal is just getting to reviewing this issue now — since it’s blown up in their faces — the answer to that would probably be “no.”

The pretense of consistency is also a bit hard to swallow. Real Change’s FOIA request for City policy on encampment clearances surfaced only a 1996 document that in no way resembles actual practice.

So what she seems to be saying here, really, is “while our lawyers are assessing just how vulnerable our pathetic bureaucratic asses are to litigation over our illegal campsite clearance policy, we have reverted to the previous policy which exists on paper but in actual practice is largely meaningless. We’ll get back to you when we get our shit together.”

Why didn’t she just say that?

In the PI story, Al Poole said the city’s “concern” was motivated by the death of the homeless man who was struck and killed by brush clearing machinery as he slept. Really? The policy started in May. Isaac Palmer was killed in June. Was he the first casualty of an aggressive yet half-assed policy on campsite clearances? You have to wonder.

So this week’s poll is this: Is Seattle Human Services Director Patricia McInturff high on crack, or is she just covering the Mayor's back? As always, you may vote at the top right of the blog.

The results are in, and while the were close, a slim majority said that Patricia McInturff has the Mayor's back, although almost as many said she was high on crack. One astute reader bemoaned that the poll didn't offer the opportunity for both options. I apologize for the mistake.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jon Gould On Employee Supervision for Dummies


If there's anything that everyone everywhere can agree on, it's this: Jon Gould, who has graced the Children's Alliance for ten years now with his even-keeled presence, is one hell of a guy. Real Change awarded him our annual Change Agent award this year for "visionary organizing and exceptional effectiveness," and this description barely begins to do the man justice. Am I gushing? Who cares? Though he would never admit this, the man channels everything that's good in the universe.

Last night, I was talking to my friend Ruth, who works with Jon. She's becoming a new supervisor, and they had a coffee meeting to talk about how it's done. She showed me her notes. They arrived at four basic points. Actually, Jon offered just three, and when Ruth offered the fourth, he affirmed her contribution.

So, here's Jon Gould's Guide to Employee Supervision, as told to my friend Ruth, as heard by me. I'm sure that more was said, but here's the gist:

Be Interested in People: This was the first thing he said. Ask after their welfare. Find out what they care about. Actually listen to what they say. Let them know they matter.

Ask Questions: Don't just tell them what to do. Ask them what they'd do. Help them grow. Understand what they're thinking and how they approach problem solving. Build leadership.

Get Organized: Have a file. Document as appropriate. Get the schedule of meetings and reviews into your calendar. Know the personnel policies. Be systematic about reviewing relevant materials.

Follow Through: Do what you say. Have check-ins. Refer back to goals and mark progress. Build on previous work.

So there you have it. Like most things, when you get to the core, it's simple

— Photo by Katia Roberts.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Real Change Ain't No Turkey Dinner


We’re nearly half way through the Real Change winter fund drive and things aren’t looking so good. In many ways, we’re hitting on all burners. Papers are selling like hotcakes. Circulation is up this year by 16%.

Our new Real Change Organizing Project is working toward an exciting re-invention of homeless advocacy to address our common economic vulnerability on issues of housing affordability and growing inequality, as well as the human and civil rights issues that threaten us all.

Building upon Real Change’s key asset — our vendor-reader relationships — we’ve created a long-haul organizing strategy that builds for power. The keynotes of our organizing are leadership development, direct involvement, and cross-class solidarity.

Our new cultural projects will tell people’s stories through video and street theater to add an exiting new dimension to our long held mission of being an authentic voice for those in need.

We’re on fire, but one thing is missing. You guessed it. Money. Our work has outgrown our resources, and we need your help to come into 2008 on solid footing. Real Change has set a goal of raising $90,000 from our readers over November and December. Closing in on the end of month one, we’ve raised $17,335. This is a good beginning, but we need to pick up the pace. We’ve done it before, and with your help, we’ll do it again.

We’re keeping it real, focusing on the work that desperately needs to be done. Let the other homeless programs fundraise over the holidays for turkey dinners. We have our eye on bigger game. Please help us spread the word, and make a donation today.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Mayor's Suburban Strategy


Seattle's homeless encampment sweeps have been halted until the Mayor's office can create a policy under which "everyone can be respectful and preserve the possessions of people," says Human Services Director Al Poole in Tuesday's Seattle Post Intelligencer. Poole was amusingly, and incorrectly, identified as the City's HR manager. Who's copy editing over there? That's what I want to know?

Kery Murakami's excellent article quotes one homeless man who was a target of the city's "concern."

At a free-lunch distribution earlier this month in a parking lot under Interstate 5 at Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street, Austin Rusnek, who carried his possessions in a backpack and was eating a sandwich, said he left his camp in Kinnear Park on the west side of Queen Anne one day in mid-October.

When he returned hours later, his tent and his sleeping bag were gone. So were pictures of his children.

"They were the only pictures of them I had," Rusnek, 36, said.

While the halting of Seattle's homeless sweeps is a start, the City response falls far short of the demands raised by the Real Change Organizing Project.

No outreach funds were included in the recent city budget. Adequate alternatives for homeless campers have not been identified. And the Mayor's office insists on developing policy in secret and without the input of human service advocates. In the past week more than 1,000 people have signed Real Change's petition that the City halt clearances until these goals are met.

SHARE/WHEEL, weirdly, has set their sights a good deal lower, and simply wants the city to provide porta-potties and dumpsters to homeless campers. Maybe people are supposed to live in these? It seems we should be able to do better.

Until the city can — with a straight face — answer the question of just where homeless people targeted by campsite clearances are supposed to go, their "policy" will simply be a more polite version of the same message: Get Out of Town.

I was at an event in Everett the other night where an activist said the numbers of homeless people in Snohomish County seems to be rising lately. I have a pretty good idea why.

Governments of neighboring areas might want to tell our Mayor that pushing the homeless around doesn't solve things. It only drives people further from the help they need, and exacerbates homelessness in other communities. Or maybe the Mayor already knows this, and he just doesn't care.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

We Suffer Into Truth


Truth doesn't come easily. One thing the ancients got was that questions are dangerous things. Oedipus was on top of the world until he started wanting answers. Everyone begged him to stop. Then his whole fucking world caved in. Nobody could draw out a reversal or a recognition scene quite like the Greeks. They reveled in it. To these guys, the most amusing thing in the world was to have it dawn that things are not what they seem. "I'm a wise and powerful king! No, I'm a regicidal motherfucker! Shit!" Orestes is another one. Pylades, big help that he is, chimes in with his "count all men your enemies rather than the gods" and talks his best friend into driving a knife into his mother's plaintively exposed breast. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Apollo was in his corner. Athena, not so much. The furies, definitely not. Life's like that. In the end he was exonerated by the skin of his teeth and probably still wonders at some level whether he did the right thing. People in Argos are still sorting it out. You do stuff. Some people love you. Others get mad. It's safer to stay in exile, but not much happens there. Life isn't easy. Neither is Truth.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

And Yet Great Beauty Exists





I went looking for something gorgeous tonight to remind myself that all is not shit. John Zorn's Masada compositions, in which he explores his Jewish roots and makes ample use of Sephardic scales and rhythms, often have an epic feel. If 4,000 years of truth, pain, and joy can be conveyed through music, this is what it might sound like. The top videos are his Electric Masada band, with Zorn doing an utterly transcendent Ornette Coleman sort of thing on part one, and Marc Ribot playing like a man possessed in part two. Throughout, there is a wonderful subtlety that infuses the entire band. Below is the Masada String Trio, being beautiful and traditional.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Here Be Monsters


When ancient cartographers described areas beyond the border where knowledge and experience failed, they would simply write "here be monsters." This is a lovely metaphor for all that we'd rather not think about. This might be about denial. It might be about simply not knowing. It might be that the truth is more unimaginable that we ever dreamed, and not in a good way.

Over the last week, I've been running into people who believe things are far worse than I can bring myself to imagine. An old friend I hadn't seen in ten years turned out to be a 9/11 Truth Movement activist.

"I can accept," I said, "that our government would stage some sort of Reichstag fire event to provide cover for imperial ambitions and internal repression, but why would elites take out the heart of their own financial system?"

He didn't blink. Obviously the question had arisen before.

The buildings were old and needed to come down anyway. And they needed several thousand deaths to make it look good.

Oh.

Later last week, I met someone else who believes this. She also said that boxcars were being manufactured that have built-in shackles. And guillotines.

Guillotines?

Yes. Three to the car. Very efficient.

To me, this seems crazy. But what the hell do I know? At this point, pretty much anything feels like it might be possible.

Global warming is a fast-approaching death sentence for millions in the southern hemisphere, but the powerful in this country, other than Greg Nickels, don't much seem to give a shit. And he probably only cares because we just remodeled the aquarium, and it would be a shame to only get fifteen or twenty years out of it. The smart money, you'll notice, builds on higher ground.

The White House seems hellbent on fulfilling their Christian Armageddon fantasy in the Mid-east. Is George Bush crazy enough to attack Iran? Hell yes. It isn't really about "crazy." He just needs to be a greedy sociopath. That much is self-evident, and he has plenty of company.

The government heavily contracts military and security operations to a private mercenary army. The plans are in place to arrest and imprison internal "subversives" when the time comes. The surveillance society that already exists makes the most paranoid 50s fantasy seem tame in comparison.

That much is well-established.

According to the Bureau of Justice's own statistics, 1 in 32 adults are now in jail, prison, or on parole. I find it rather easy to believe that, given current trends, that number is likely to rise and, worse, at some point include me.

But obviously I'd rather not think about that.

So I don't know. These are dangerous times. 9/11 an inside job? Guillotines in box cars? Why not?

For all I know, homeless people are being ground up for dog food in the basement of City Hall. We're becoming a city of homeless-hating dog lovers. It would make sense.

Have I gone completely around the fucking bend? Not yet. But I expect to get there eventually.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Best Eyes: Winona Ryder or Ogre Spider?


Some people have complained that these little weekly polls are stupid and irrelevant. As if I should be polling people on my blog about things that actually matter. Hello? The point is to keep myself amused. This is something I take very seriously. This week's poll: Who has the most amazing eyes? Shoplifting Golden Globe winner has-been Winona Ryder? Or the unearthly Australian Ogre Faced Spider?

A full 31 of the 702 people who visited the week of this poll declared the Ogre Spider's eyes the most amazing. You did the right thing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

When "Empowerment" Ain't About Power

Tonight I was thinking of all the reasons I moved away from the "homeless empowerment" model of organizing that prizes homeless leadership above all other values. Over the late 80s and early 90s, I organized one empowerment project after another, and witnessed numerous other attempts, and time and again the same sorts of things happened.

But the dream died hard. As late as May, 1993, after I had learned the hard way that this sort of organizing doesn't work, I was still insisting to a reporter from the Boston Globe that it did:
Q: Are you still convinced that the homeless have to lead their own political movement?

A: Absolutely. A homeless person speaking for himself or herself is far more compelling than any advocate speaking on their behalf. Because they have a direct interest in seeing that something is done about the housing crisis and about rights in the shelters, they're willing to be more militant than the advocates. The advocates have a vested and institutional interest in maintaining the status quo. For example, at the Statehouse they have to protect their access to politicians. The homeless don't have access to begin with. The only way to organize the homeless into a powerful political force is if they're in charge. Otherwise, they just see it as someone else's show.
What a load of crap. I could spend the next 1,000 words on why this is all ideological drivel. But at this point, it would just bore me to fucking tears, so I won't. The funny thing was that by the time I did this interview, I knew better. It was just that I'd been saying the words for so long, I didn't know how to change.

I'd turned homelessness into an essentialist category, meaning, that this was for me their defining characteristic. It wasn't a crappy thing that happened to people. It was what they were. This isn't a good thing for anyone.

Not surprisingly, the people to whom this appealed were generally those who sensed there was some level of power to be had in the deal. This power usually came at the expense of building broad internal leadership or cultivating allies.

This mistake gets made all the time. It's a natural reaction to want to assert pride and power against dehumanization and social control. But obviously, not every homeless person is honorable and brave and not every advocate is a craven sell-out. And regular people just disappear here altogether.

I'd seen one homeless run organization after another — the Union of the Homeless, Spare Change, The Homeless Civil Rights Project, Homefront 88, the list goes on — fall into the same shortcomings:
  • leadership who hold power by creating fear and distrust
  • insufficient expertise to build strong, thriving organizations
  • stagnant thinking brought about by a reluctance to challenge leaders
  • failure to build real alliances or work in coalition with others
  • insufficient resources to offer long-term stability
  • various vulnerabilities such as addiction undermining organizational stability
  • entrenched leadership that never develops a real following
  • elevation of homelessness into an identity that limits personal growth
  • a focus on bogus external enemies to deflect attention from internal problems
I'd like to think that the past thirty years of applying the identity politics rhetoric of various separatist movements to the situation of homeless people has revealed itself as an organizing dead end. But it hasn't. The mistake keeps getting made. It's really time to learn and move on. No one benefits from a romanticized idea of homeless leadership. What we need is leadership, built across class, that doesn't define anyone as "less than" or hold anyone down. That's a pretty good pace to start

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.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Nina and Don Get It On



This week's cultural offering is Nina Hagen and Don Rickles on the Merv Griffin Show. There's nothing else to say.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Cambridge Photos, and Me, as Rock Star

These will have to do as the post for today. I took the top photo this morning as I left my room at Episcopal Divinity School. Apparently, Jim Stewart has some sort of an in there that allows him to score free lodging for guests. This is Burnham Hall, where I'm staying. The guest lodgings are are on the nice side of college dorm-like, which is surprising, considering the building looks like some sort of medieval manor. The wide windows in my room have a built in 1863 feel, and the steam heat gurgles happily in the iron radiators. It's lovely.

Below that is Greg Daugherty, who is Spare Change's most successful vendor. Greg dates back to my era, which was about 14 years ago. He twirls in a circle like some kind of an autistic paper selling machine and finds something to say to each person who passes by that connects to them personally ("How are you, young maaaan? Help the homeless today?"). He is a street paper vendor genius. It's always nice seeing him again.

Finally, there's me, in 1990, accepting an award from the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless for Boston Jobs with Peace's key role in the local 1989 Housing Now! March mobilization. My memory is that Boston sent 39 buses. I think I look a little like a rock star giving a speech at the World Economic Forum at Davos. I purchased the suit that day for the occasion. Jim Stewart bought me the tie.





Saturday, November 17, 2007

Homeless Civil Rights Project, 1990-1991


I'm in Boston this weekend to give a talk at First Church Cambridge, which was a center of Boston homeless activism in the late eighties and early 90's. I'm here to give their annual Mitch Snyder Lecture, which feels like a huge honor, even though Jim Stewart, the long-time shelter director here, would be the first to lower expectations in that regard. He said I could dis anyone I wanted, so long as I don't swear.

Why does everyone always feel like they need to tell me that?

Jim Stewart was a Mitch Snyder lieutenant in this region and took me under his wing during my boiled potatoes and shoplifted cheese period that ensued after college. I worked three or four overnights a week at the shelter, and this paid enough to keep things together while I was doing Street Magazine and learning to be a homeless activist. After a year of this, I had enough street level organizing under my belt to be a credible candidate for a paid activist gig at Boston Jobs with Peace.

I was hired as Executive Director, but, being the only staff person there, that was a bit of a joke. There were no benefits. I saw my first dentist in twenty years in around 1997, when the years of neglect drove me to the free clinic at Yesler Terrace for some extensive work.

But in 1987, $18k seemed like a fortune, and benefits just weren't expected. My job was to make the organization look much bigger than it was, and that I knew how to do. This morning, I was able to scan the JwP photos that remain from that period into my laptop. The above was my favorite.

This was taken at a press conference we held at Au Bon Pain to announce some protocols they'd developed after the Homeless Civil Rights Project I'd organized targeted them for sometimes refusing to serve homeless people. Au Bon Pain was sort of like a proto Starbucks on the east coast, but with croissants.

The agreement was a bit of a slam dunk piece of organizing. Burger King was a lot harder. We also got an asshole — known by the homeless as RoboCop — who terrorized folks on the Boston Common transferred to a desk job. That was harder still. The HCRP was in the news a lot in those days.

The guy I hired to be the Director of the project had been a leader in the Walpole prison uprising while he was in for bank robbery. Jack McCambridge was a jail house lawyer, a natural organizer, an exceptional tactician, and had plenty of charisma, whether he'd been drinking or not.

I fired him. Three times. When the last one stuck, he mobilized every ally he had and put me through the wringer.

I was hanging out at Spare Change today talking with James Shearer, one of the co-founders of that paper (which I organized after the HCRP in 1992), and Macy Delong, who I knew from homeless organizing even before I started at First Church. It's kind of cool that these people are still around doing the work. We've all grown.

We got to talking about Jack. Macy told me Jack had been out of prison for two years. He killed Dick Doyle, the man who had been his closest friend in the organization. For awhile, they were actually co-directors. Emily, the new ED at Spare Change was there and hadn't heard the story. She got it in three part harmony. It was fun watching her eyes get big.

The first I heard was when Jim called me at home with a heads up that The Boston Globe would be calling for comment. I turned on the TV and there it was.

A Bread & Jams van was spotted by police weaving down I-128. This was a homeless-run outreach organization based in Cambridge. Dick had become one of their drivers. When the police went to pull them over, the van sped up. A chase ended with the van going off the road and rolling. Dick was thrown and crushed. Jack was pinned behind the steering wheel, unconscious.

When Dick's body came into Boston Hospital, they realized he'd died before the crash of a gunshot to the head. The gun was on Jack.

I said something to the Globe about my shock and surprise, and that Jack was a kind and gentle man. I've always regretted that quote.

After Jack was fired, his next six months were spent in a haze of hard booze and coke. His behavior had become increasingly threatening. No one really knew what went on between Jack and Dick. There had been an incident a few days prior involving a baseball bat and a car. Jack was out of control.

Whatever happened on the night Dick died, there were no witnesses.

Dick, a middle-aged working class guy from Southey who had beat his own alcohol problem, was beloved. Lots of people came to the funeral. Most were crying.

During the trial, Jack fired his lawyer and went pro se. A murder trial. The media loved it. The Boston Herald did anyway. High profile homeless activist kills homeless activist and fires his lawyers. What's not to like?

His defense was two-pronged. A.) I was in a blackout and remember nothing, and B.) Dick was a child molester. This last part was a bizarre twist, and there wasn't any supporting evidence.

I didn't get it. Eventually the logic dawned. Jack was a guy who did better in prison than on the outside. He stayed relatively sober and he knew the rules. Behind those walls, he rose to the top of the food chain. Child molesters were at the bottom.

He'd shrewdly combined his defense with his re-entry strategy. Jack was sentenced to eight years. Amazing. The absence of witnesses got the charge bargained down to manslaughter.

Even more amazing: last year, he was asking around the homeless scene in Cambridge to see if anyone was hiring. The answer was no.

Friday, November 16, 2007

When Mayors With Balls Roamed the Earth


I'm in Boston going through some archives from back in the day and came across this letter from Ray Flynn encouraging other Mayors to unite against the feds to recover the housing budget. This was before DC was captured entirely by the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate industries, among others, and it was not yet "common sense" that the feds will do nothing on housing. You can click the jpg to enlarge.

Soon, I Will Be Invincible

Scientists in Oregon announced today that the goal of cloning monkey embryos has finally been achieved, thus bringing me one small step closer to my goal of having a full-fledged army of winged monkeys. Of course, the winged part might take a little more time, but I remember seeing a report two decades ago in the Weekly World News that Soviet scientists had already perfected the head transplant (thus setting off an economically devastating head transplant race among the superpowers).

So, I figure, "how hard can it be?"

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Who'd Win in a Bar Fight? Nickels? Or Rickles?


We all know that Mayor Greg Nickels likes to have things his way. But just how far is he willing to go? Gouging eyes? Biting noses? Head butting? Just how fucking tough is he, really? So, here's this week's poll. Who'd be the last man standing in a down and dirty bar fight? Seattle's developer friendly Mayor Greg Nickels? Or beloved insult comedian Don Rickles?

The people have spoken. 25 of the 796 people who visited this blog last week weighed in on this very important issue, and four out of five agree: Don Rickles would kick Greg Nickels' ass in a bar fight. Don Rickles is the biggest bad-ass!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Gone to Ground

Today, I was able to expand the lexicon over at the Urban Dictionary. The phrase "gone to ground" wasn't in their database yet. Here's how I defined it. Gone to ground: to take evasive action in order to avoid further attention. To "lie low." e.g., Ever since we exposed the Mayor's sleazy policy, they've gone to ground on this issue.

Since Real Change reporter Adam Hyla broke the story last month that the Mayor's office has pursued a secret policy of proactive monthly homeless campsite clearances since at least last May, the response has been classic Nickels. That is to say, played close to the vest and tightly controlled. Demands by advocates for an immediate cessation of clearances have been met with stony silence. They're working on a policy, they say.

Hell, that's what they were saying months ago, before their secret policy became public. So now, are they still working on the secret policy, or are they just working on the public policy that they'd rather work on in secret? Whatever they're working on, they clearly don't want us to know about it.

A scheduled city council briefing on the issue was canceled, and no new date was offered. As far as stopping the sweeps goes, all we know is that the greenbelt clearances that were scheduled for November 1st were called off when our reporter tipped his hand that we knew. As far as anyone knows now, homeless campsite clearances are continuing as before.

This is obviously unacceptable. The Real Change Organizing Project has therefore initiated a petition campaign to demand accountability from the City on this issue of basic human rights.

It is not acceptable to chase homeless people out of town with harassment tactics as if they were no more than rabid vermin. It is not acceptable for the Mayor's office to unilaterally formulate policy on this issue when their actions have shown they don't give a flying crap about homeless campers and how they are treated. The breathtaking contempt the Mayor's office has shown for their so-called "partners" in "ending homelessness" by covertly pursuing a policy of systematically destroying homeless campsites and trashing the belongings of vulnerable people render them unfit to be trusted.

The Mayor's office will minimize. They will self-protect. They will try to maintain control. And they will, most predictably of all, go on the offensive by attacking homeless campers as a menace to public safety that must be eliminated.

And that is why they cannot be allowed to set the terms of this debate.

The Real Change petition launches today. It reads as follows:
Housing, Not Harassment. Justice for Homeless Campers.

On any given night, at least a quarter of the 8,000 people who are homeless in King County are without any shelter. They sleep in cars, camp in greenbelts, ride buses, and try to find warmth and safety in any way that they can. Nobody should have to live outside, but there simply is not enough low-income housing and emergency shelter for everyone who needs assistance.

Current City of Seattle clearance policies (and implementation of those policies) devastate the lives of people who are already marginalized and vulnerable. People's campsites are being systematically destroyed, and their basic survival gear and personal effects are being taken away and discarded. So far, the city has not made public what its policies are, nor has it permitted human services professionals or homeless advocates to review and comment on those policies.

Extensive protocols for responsible campsite outreach and clearance exist. They include on-going human services outreach to homeless campers, assistance in accessing emergency services, and provision of long-term housing. The City of Seattle has done none of these things.

We, the signers of this petition, call upon the city government to CEASE ALL CAMPSITE CLEARANCES IMMEDIATELY, and to take the following actions:

1. Create realistic housing and safe shelter alternatives for homeless campers.

2. Fund Outreach and Engagement workers to seek out homeless people who are not within the shelter system, and work with them to access housing and secure services.

3. Partner in good faith with homeless people and their advocates to create a fair and humane policy regarding homeless campers. This policy should include an outreach and engagement plan and the provision of real housing options.

Only when these actions have been taken will it be reasonable for the city to recommence clearing campsites.

The online version may be found here. A hard copy of the petition is available for download as well. Sign it. Circulate it. Hold them accountable.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Limits of the Altruistic Imagination

Speaking of humoring delusions, I've started reading John Ehrenreich's classic 1985 history of the social work movement to get clearer in the relationship between service provision and organizing. The Altruistic Imagination is required reading for anyone who finds themselves perplexed by that sort of thing. I'm barely twenty pages into the thing and having Aha! moments all over the place.

Social work was born at a time of tremendous economic dislocation. The factory system of labor inverted the relationship between urban and rural areas, and women, children, and immigrant labor were all pressed into service as cheap labor by the industrialists of the age. The margin for survival was thin, and for the poor, which was most people, the entire family had to work. Blacks were largely kept in the south through a variety of means to function as cheap agricultural labor.

By the early 1900's, a revolutionary situation had developed, and reform was being championed by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt in order to preserve the capitalist system.
"First, to create a rational social order, it was necessary to curtail what Teddy Roosevelt had called "the dull, purblind folly" of the rich, that is, giant corporations had to be regulated. The corporations were not about to regulate themselves. Some corporate leaders — people like Mark Hanna, Andrew Carnegie, and August W. Belmont — did understand that a more moderate stance toward workers and consumers was in the long-run self-interest of the capitalist class. Without it endemic unrest, if not outright revolution, was inescapable. But no one corporation could carry out such sweeping societal reforms alone, and in any case, the fear of giving a competitive advantage to the other corporations inhibited them. The task of reform, of moderating corporate behavior, has to be carried out on a unified nationwide or statewide basis or not at all."
This is remarkable in that it is precisely what Robert Reich argues in his new book Supercapitalism. The socially responsible corporation is, he says, an oxymoron, and the rules of the game dictate one loyalty and that's to the investors. He describes the various campaigns that target a single corporation for "unethical" behavior as "detour and frolic," and calls us to pressure government to once again take up it's regulatory role. Corporate reform, he says, is only possible on a level playing field when ethical behavior is expected of all players alike.

Another interesting insight deals with how social work's focus as a field is generally on either individual dysfunction or broad social reform, and that these go in and out of fashion depending on the broader political context. When there is a grassroots social movement pushing for structural reform, the emphasis within social work tends to follow suit. During more conservative times, the focus narrows to fixing people's problems. Ehrenreich's book addresses how both are possible and how we needn't see this either/or dynamic as a given.

Finally, he talks about how social change, especially as imagined by service providers, often represents an assertion of middle-class values and power to mediate the problem as defined by the professionals. This often looks quite different from how poor people themselves would address the issues.
"The third characteristic approach of the progressives to stabilizing the social order took the form of creating class-bridging, unifying, harmonizing ideologies. This is best represented in the very idea of "the public" and the "public interest," ideas that gained currency during this period. This had, in fact, a double meaning. In part, "the public" was none other than the new middle class itself, representing itself as the entire society. Thus the classic progressive tripartite panel, with representatives of "labor," "capital," and "the public": It should be clear that after subtracting labor and capital, the only "public" left is the middle class. …
Other characteristic progressive ideals, reflecting the occupational and political roles of the new middle class as rationalizers, harmonizers, mediators and planners, embracing the value-neutrality of knowledge, the beneficence of science, technology, and expertise, and the desirability of efficiency and order in all things. … Above all, the goal was class harmony."
Hmmm. Sounds a little like something we've been seeing a lot of.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Prison Hockey Stick



I googled Bruce Western to see what I could find after my friend Silja Talvi mentioned him as one of the leading thinkers on the relationship between prisons and inequality. The chart above, which shows the more than 700% increase in incarceration in the US over the past three decades, comes from this site, which has numerous other depressing graphs and statistics that will shock and appall.

This year, Western left Princeton to join the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School, where he will direct the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy. Western argues that sky-rocketing rates of incarceration, particularly among African-American males, exacerbate inequality by dramatically reducing the employment prospects and earning potential of the large numbers of those who have been imprisoned, particularly those who have had felonies. With large numbers of poorly educated men, and increasingly women, removed from the labor market, statistics on wages and unemployment are distorted to look much rosier than they actually are.

This is the structural unemployment issue that seems to be the big elephant in the room in American politics. Why doesn't anyone ever see the thing? All we ever do is describe its parts, and just barely at that.

Western says that the "tough on crime" incarceration strategy may well create more problems than it solves by increasing social inequality and thereby feeding the cycle of desperation and crime. Instead of continually feeding a growing prison-industrial complex, we might want to think about investing more in education, or job training.

What I find most interesting is the timing of the prison boom: the mid-seventies, just as the effects of deindustrialization are hitting American cities everywhere. This is also the time frame for the beginnings of mass homelessness and the growth of the shelter industry, the other strategy for managing large numbers of superfluous people. While it's no secret that there is a revolving door between the shelter and prison systems, it's surprising that more hasn't been said about these two populations and their relationship to the structural employment issue.

Maybe Fannie Mae will give the National Alliance to End Homelessness one of their big fat cooptation grants to study this important issue? Not.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Beloved Community

Anitra Freeman, the annual WHEEL homeless women's forum, and poetry chapbooks all sort of run together on my mind. Each year around this time, I expect to see Anitra camped out at a Real Change computer, getting crumbs all over the keyboard, freaking out because the women's lunch is in three days and the chapbook was due at the printer four hours ago.

This year, she's been looking unusually relaxed and happy. The book's been done for weeks. Whit Press, a non-profit Seattle publishing company, has lovingly produced an anthology of WHEEL chapbooks entitled Beloved Community: The Sisterhood of Homeless Women in Poetry. Proceeds support the work of WHEEL, and it's good.

And it's gorgeous. So buy one. Read it.

Then send another check to WHEEL, because they do great work and they suck at fund raising. They've been doing their annual lunch for thirteen years, and it's free. Wednesday, Nov. 14, noon - 1:30 p.m., at First United Methodist Church, 5th and Columbia, Seattle.

The material here spans more than a dozen years, and, the world of grassroots homeless activism being small to the point of claustrophobia, these are women whose names and faces trigger a flood of memory and, in some cases, sadness.

Catherine Condeff's "Did You Hear That," for instance — first published in Real Change a dozen years ago — gave me chills then and it still does. And Catherine's still around, sometimes doing sort of OK, and sometimes not. Lately not.

A dozen years later, things are worse. Lots worse.

We talk a hell of a lot more about ending homelessness though. If words and reports and data were housing we'd have luxury skyscrapers for the homeless all up and down the waterfront, and the desperation of Catherine's poem would just be a literary artifact to remind us of a more unfortunate time.

But she's still here. And so are we all.

Cynthia Ozimek, on the other hand, isn't. She died a few years ago at 45 of pneumonia just after getting into housing. It's surprising how often that happens. Do a Real Change site search and you'll find her ouvre. She was a felon. A drug user who tried and sometimes failed to get clean. And, she was a beautiful, loving, amazing, working-class intellectual and one of the most natural writers I've ever encountered.

It still feels like I should be able to look over to the Real Change open computers and see her sitting there some day. But I won't. She died because she was poor. The middle-class seldom die alone in their rooms of curable diseases.

The usual suspects of Seattle's homeless literary circles — Marion Sue Fischer, Elizabeth Romero, Anitra Freeman, Liz Smith, Reneene Robertson — are all well represented. Half of these have books of their own, and the others should. Marion Sue's Recourse for Women deserves to be much more widely anthologized. As does Anitra's Words, or Romero's Ordinary Day.

Truth be told, not all of this is great poetry, although some of it certainly is. Chrysta Casey's work, which opens the anthology, could have published in one of those little magazines that only academics other writers read. But it's all real. You get some heartfelt doggerel, the sort of stuff that the words "homeless poetry" might typically bring to mind. But most, if not all, offers a window on a reality that, in a better world, wouldn't exist.

But because it does, we owe these women a hearing. All of them. These are words that matter.

There's something very bittersweet about celebrating a "community of homeless women." Some of these women are no longer homeless. There's a small sprinkling of unknowns, but for the most part, the women in this anthology are the activists and writers who've been around for a decade or more. A few have dropped away, some for better, some for worse.

The Beloved Community is, for me, a reminder of how far we have left to go, and of the people I've met along the way who've deserved far more in their lives.

Mark Lanegan, 2004



I've been obsessed with Mark Lanagan's Field Songs and Bubblegum albums lately. This guy's voice is like whiskey and codeine. He's the Sinatra of Rock & Roll, with more than a little Leonard Cohen thrown in just to make it interesting. There's this combination of grit, technique, intensity, and just plain genetics that rarely come together in one person, and smart, complicated songwriting too. This performance of Wedding Dress, off the Bubblegum album, from Irish television in 2004, is one that I can't stop watching. Mesmerizing. I don't know who the guy on guitar is, but he's fucking amazing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Notes From Homefront '88


Tonight I found a notebook I kept as a participant journalist covering a three-month homeless encampment in 1988. Homefront began as a "spontaneous" encampment at the Statehouse following a Boston Common memorial service for those homeless who had died the previous year.

While Homefront started as a protest that was backed by middle-class advocates, this support eroded as the homeless increasingly saw the encampment as an end in itself. Within the first two weeks at the Statehouse, the camp had become entirely self-managed, and most of the advocate support fell away. In the third week, Homefront was chased by police from the Statehouse steps across the street to the Boston Common. Within days, the camp was moved again, this time to the steps of City Hall, about four blocks away, where it remained for the next two months. While church-based allies continued to bring meals some nights, the people in the camp were left largely on their own to scavenge for food, manage security, and negotiate with the City.

My roles as journalist, activist, and increasingly, friend, became hopelessly intertwined as I tried to support the often difficult personalities that led the camp. Over the course of covering Homefront, I saw street homelessness at both of its extremes. On one side was a rawness and brutality that took my breath away. Whatever blanket notions that I had of the noble poor died at that City Hall encampment. At the same time, I saw people who had absolutely nothing pull together to form a community that was fiercely their own. As difficult, violent, and riven by faction as that community often was, it always aspired toward something better. At its best, Homefront represented the idea that those who were on the very bottom of society could take control of their lives by camping on the doorstep of power to demand something better.

The following three character sketches are written from drafts done in 1988. Sadly, I've lost the article that came out of the three month experience.

Mennen
An aged Black man sat straddle legged on the City Hall steps. As a half-dozen Homefronters looked on disinterestedly, he uncapped a bottle of Mennen aftershave and raised the strong-smelling liquid to his lips. "The one good thing about Mennen," joked an onlooker, "is that you can buy it on Sundays."

Tilting his head back he closed his eyes and poured the green cologne down his throat. He gagged and drooled, and then dropped straight back, hitting his head on the bricks with a sickening thud. The man sprawled across the steps, unconscious.

Homelessness hardened people, and the vibe at Homefront had taken on more and more of the viciousness of the streets. All of their targets — The City, the State, the Federal government — sat comfortably in air conditioned offices and had guards protecting their doorways. The homeless, on the other hand, were easy targets for everyone, including themselves.

"Someones going to die on Thursday," one woman prophesied. She whispered it again. "Before this is over, someone's going to die." The violence had been building for weeks, and fights were now nearly continuous. The frustration of nearly three months of squatting with nothing to show were taking its toll.

In the late evening, Lee, a thin white girl who was as tough and mean as any man I'd met, viciously beat a blind crippled woman named Carol as the Homefronters looked on, although a few women tried unsuccessfully to intervene. City Hall security looked on from behind a glass door. Carol was taken away in an ambulance.

Homefront security usually broke up men's fights, and their inaction as a blind woman was kicked, punched and stomped was hard for some to understand. "When women fight, it's different," said Grizz, "cuz then you get involved with their boyfriends. You just have to let it alone.

It was true. Behind Lee stood Jerry, and behind Jerry stood most of the Puerto Rican Homefronters and some of the Cubans. Lee was protected. Lee was also crazy.

On Thursday came the news that the camp would break the next morning. Homefront was at peace. The violence of the previous day disolved as people digested the news that it was over, and that these people who had been so close for these months would all go their own ways. A body was found that night in a South Boston drainpipe. She was identified a few days later as Lee. She'd been strangled.

Crazy Joe
He looked a little like a long-haired Jack Nicholson. "I got an old lady I'm taking care of," he said. "She's crazy. Proposition 2 1/2 released her five years ago from Mass. Mental to the street and she's been there since. She wears miniskirts and no underwear and the guys all want pussy but she don't give none up. She needs a protector." Her medicine costs $6. Money that neither she or Joe had. "We had a fight this morning and she's on the Common somewhere. I told her she knew where to find me."

Joe showed off his tattoos. Love across the knuckles and a death's head on the shoulder. "I worship death," he scowled. With a wink he pointed to a small cross on his other shoulder. "But there's this too." He paused for effect. "But I got that one when I was fourteen."

"I worship death," he said, "because death is the only thing that ever lasts."

The Prophet
Wilamena is a striking Black woman who likes to preach. You can find her on the street, at the Statehouse, at the Copley Library, on the Common, wherever the homeless gather to spend time, talking self-help and Jesus.

Walking down Tremont toward Government Center, Wilamena placed her bags on the sidewalk and spread her arms to the sky. "I'm HOME-less, but not hellllplesssss!" She crossed her legs and sat on the pavement. There we sat for the next hour.

"Shelters and welfare are the bondage of the soul," she said, curling her lips and widening her eyes for emphasis. "If they can't possess your soul, your mind, your body, they'll try to take your dignity away. And that's the bottom of the pit. That's homelessness."

"I've always spoken the truth, and people beat you down for that. The schools, my parents, the church, welfare, they all tried. I'm not religious," she said. "But I have religion. God talks through me. Churches just split people up."

Homefront, for Wilamena, was a place to find herself. "To participate politically," she said, "I'm coming back alive, 'cuz living in that shelter I was dead. They manipulate you, and they humiliate you. My life means nothing if they destroy my soul."

Friday, November 9, 2007

Seattle Rejects HUD Propaganda Offensive

If ever there was a government agency that deserved absolutely no credit for ending homelessness, it would be HUD. This is the agency that hasn't spend a dime on new public housing since 2001, and has actually lost 100,000 units since 1996. This week, they cooked some stats and shuffled around some dough to serve up big bowls of media pap about winning the war on homelessness.

Some ate less heartily than others. The Washington Post, which has apparently been reduced to simply editing government press releases for length before dropping them into the paper, was one of the worst. Their idea of balance was to use a quote from USICH lapdog National Alliance to End Homelessness:

"In the past few years, there has been a significant investment in ending chronic homelessness, both in time and resources," said Mary Cunningham, director of the Homelessness Research Institute at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

"Communities across the country are really working hard on this issue," she said. "It would be a major disappointment if the numbers were not going down."

Yeah. Totally major. Thanks for the critical perspective Mary.

The New York Times passed on it altogether and instead ran this utterly depressing but excellent piece of reporting on the escalating numbers of homeless veterans.

Special traits of the current wars may contribute to homelessness, including high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injury, which can cause unstable behavior and substance abuse, and the long and repeated tours of duty, which can make the reintegration into families and work all the harder.

Frederick Johnson, 37, an Army reservist, slept in abandoned houses shortly after returning to Chester, Pa., from a year in Iraq, where he experienced daily mortar attacks and saw mangled bodies of soldiers and children. He started using crack cocaine and drinking, burning through $6,000 in savings.

“I cut myself off from my family and went from being a pleasant guy to wanting to rip your head off if you looked at me wrong,” Mr. Johnson said.

God I hate this fucking war. The LA Times also passed on the HUD propaganda-fest and picked up on an AP version of the homeless vets story as well, and the Boston Globe took a similar route.

The NAEH just released a new report, Vital Mission: Ending Homelessness Among Veterans, which says that one in four homeless people are vets and contains this factoid: "approximately 89,553 to 467,877 veterans are at risk of homelessness. At risk is defined as being below the poverty level and paying more than 50 percent of household income on rent. It also includes households with a member who has a disability, a person living alone, and those who are not in the labor force.

The DC poverty pimps published an important report and managed to eclipse a HUD non-event in the process. Kills me to say it, but ... nice work. In the face of all this, the USICH website, which carries the HUD press release and links to their favorite story (USA Today), says they have homelessness among vets on the run as well. Here's my favorite quote by USICH poo-bah Phil fucking Mangano.

"When McKinney-Vento was first passed, this technology developed in the mental health system of response was not in common use. Today communities across the country are targeting this technology to those experiencing chronic homelessness and achieving 80-85% retention rates on average."

He's talking about housing there. Where does he get this stuff?

Here in Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer story was admirably critical, and SKCCH Executive Director Alison Eisinger was Kennedy-esque on KUOW.

Jeremy Rosen over at the National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness did a really nice job of banging out a quick fact-check of the HUD press release, and here's what he had to say:

In July of 2001, then HUD Secretary Mel Martinez declared a goal of ending “chronic” homelessness by 2011 – a modest goal considering that the “chronic” homeless population is at most 10% of the overall homeless population over the course of a year. HUD and the US Interagency Council on Homelessness declared that this goal could be met by providing 150,000 new units of permanent supportive housing. Beginning in 2002, HUD began working to achieve this goal, primarily by shifting existing resources from programs serving other homeless populations, but also through targeting of the new homeless assistance grant funding provided each year.

Between 2002 and early 2007, HUD frequently asserted that “chronic” homelessness was being reduced, but no data was released to support this claim. In February, HUD released its first “Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.” Citing January, 2005 data collected as part of Continuum of Care applications, the number of chronically homeless persons was listed as 169,879 persons. This is a different number than the 175, 914 people who HUD’s press release cited as being “chronically” homeless in 2005. Since HUD did not release any data to support the numbers listed in their press release, it is hard to account for this variance. But whichever number you take, it would certainly appear that “chronic” homelessness did not decline between 2001 and 2005.

With respect to the ”new” 2005 to 2006 data, both national and local advocates have noted methodological concerns. In a USA Today article, staff for the National Alliance to End Homelessness commented that it can be difficult to determine whether or not an individual living on the street is disabled and that some cities have seen increases in “chronic” homelessness even as other cities have seen declines. HUD’s release acknowledges this, stating that over 1,500 of 3,900 communities reported decreases in “chronic” homelessness, meaning that 2,400 communities showed increases.

And in a Daytona Beach News-Journal article, Volusia/Flagler County Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Lindsay Roberts dismissed the HUD announcement, attributing any decreases in “chronic” homelessness to HUD’s changing standards for how communities have been instructed to count homeless persons. According to Roberts and local officials, their area’s point in time count of all homeless people, which includes the category of “chronic” homeless persons, dropped from 2,660 to 1,478 – not because of new housing opportunities but instead because HUD required them to use new methods for estimating the extent of homelessness in their community. Among these changes, HUD no longer allowed them to “count homeless people who were in jail or hospitals more than 30 days, or people sharing places with another person in a hotel.” As Roberts concluded, “If you torture the numbers enough, you can make them tell you anything. I think they would really like the picture to be rosier. I think it's justification of not providing adequate funding to address the genuine need. Skewing the numbers doesn't make these people go away." Without more information from HUD on how rules for counting homeless persons have changed, any reported decrease in “chronic” homelessness remains suspect.

In addition, HUD efforts to focus federal homeless assistance resources on the “chronic” homeless population have had a profound impact on homelessness among children, youth, and families. At the same time that New York City cited a decrease in “chronic” homelessness, the city also reported a record number of homeless families. Similar issues have occurred in Philadelphia, where funding for successful housing and services programs for homeless families was reduced in order to focus on “chronically” homeless individuals – an effort that even organizations serving the homeless street population have criticized. Increases in family homelessness help to explain why HUD is unable to report any overall decrease in homelessness.
So, what does this reported 11.5 percent drop in homelessness mean? Not all that much. Mostly, it means that some people are desperate enough to show success that they don't care how much damage they have to do to truth to get there. Alison nailed it:

"While we would applaud a genuine decrease in either chronic homelessness or homelessness, because after all that is what we are all working night and day to accomplish, we would really appreciate fewer press conferences and more investment in additional Section 8 vouchers and in substantial changes to how we house the people of this country."