Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Beast Is Loose Upon The Earth

As Seattle's Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness stumbles blindly toward 2014, the logic of ending homelessness without addressing poverty and inequality has hit a wall.

This blindness includes wholesale abdication to the market forces that have reduced Seattle’s affordable housing stock several times faster than the non-profit sector and local government can keep up. We are losing ground.

The blindness also extends to the wage side of the equation. One in four workers in King County earn less than a living wage. New jobs are mostly divided between low-end, poverty wage work and knowledge worker occupations that pay $75K or more annually. Economic security has become increasingly elusive.

While the connections between poverty, homelessness, race, and the revolving door of the prison industry is increasingly well understood, the racialization of poverty continues to deepen.

Federal priorities are a disaster. More than $35 billion in cuts to the federal housing budget since 2004 have been driven by tax cuts, rising healthcare costs, and the enormous cost of an unjust and misbegotten war. This pattern shows little sign of altering.

Yet, we act as though we can somehow mitigate the wreckage and turn things around with smarter service provision and “Housing First” for the 10-15% of the homeless who are in deepest distress. This will work for some, and with resources, it might work with many.

But housing is not the only broken system.

Child welfare. Education. Transportation. Criminal Justice. Healthcare. Make your own list. It’s all broken. And the solution, goes the mantra, is to cut taxes. Especially for the rich.

Seattle's obsession with reducing visible poverty is a gift to the wealthy delivered at the expense of the most desperately poor. The pretense of there being sufficient help for those targeted by sweeps and other heightened policing strategies is too thin to bear weight. Various establishment players lend credence to the illusion, whether by their silence or their active support.

The Mayor’s “punish the poor” sweeps strategy is a quick and immoral fix to the structural problem of growing poverty, because the Ten Year Plan isn’t getting the poor out of sight fast enough.

It can’t. Getting 950 units of housing up every year, given the resources available, the expenses involved, and the NIMBY attitudes that prevail when housing is an investment to be protected are daunting enough. But homelessness isn’t just about housing. It’s about the failure of multiple interdependent systems.

Why is it that those who seek ever more nuanced understandings of the screwed up poor rarely direct that curiosity toward the production of poverty itself?

The argument for the visionless and narrowly technocratic Ten Year Plan strategy is that growing poverty is beyond our control. We should focus our attention on what can be done. This is both a political choice and a losing strategy. You will be outflanked and forever clearing the wreckage.

Homelessness is a fucking moral outrage. We need to be shouting that from the rooftops. We should not be collaborating in the hiding of the visible poor by any means necessary. We should be screaming, “Yes, here they are! What kind of a society allows this!”

A homeless advocacy paradigm that falls silent when sleeping in public spaces is criminalized does not deserve our support. Advocacy that focuses nearly all of its energy on depoliticized service provision but attends housing lobby day once a year barely deserves the name. Advocacy that doesn’t care to ask why people are poor and who benefits can do no more than ameliorate.

And it will never get better. Not unless we do something different.

There will never be enough services in a world without justice. You want bottom? Look at a third world mega-slum. Services don’t exist. This is what happens when the rich completely vanquish the poor.

Our organizing needs to reduce the distance between those who need and those who serve. We need to break down the labels that define homeless people as a tribe apart. We need to embrace each other as soldiers in the war on poverty. Take chances together. Care for one another. Envision a different world together. And build the power it takes to make a movement.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%; the breakdown of our workable systems which has lead right into the breakdown of familes, jobs and communities. I have been "preaching" about the fact that POVERTY is the main ailment afflicting the homeless; although the effects of lesser human treatment is usually what persons see and address. Homelessness is a symptom of a societal plague;which we are all infected with. Some folks may have mutations of foresight and compassion that lead them to create prevention models working to change the system to assist all, to make a whole body not just seperate organs failing slowly. Poverty and injustice are the reasons for homelessness and the fear of catching poverty is real for many.

Trevor said...

Excellent analysis of the problem.

I don't mean this as an attack on you or Real Change, but I've never quite understood how the sentiment in your last paragraph would translate into specific, meaningful action beyond the very important work of protesting the ongoing criminalization of the poor.

Tim Harris said...

RCOP launched with the sweeps as our organizing issue because a) it's a moral outrage and no one else was in a position to lead that organizing, and b) you don't need to look very deeply to see how sweeps are a logical product of growing inequality in a changing Seattle.

One of the things that's different about RCOP's organizing is that we're very focused on working across class and sharing our stories as a means toward that end. We're still figuring out how to make the practice match the theory, but it's a closer match all the time. This is what makes the difference between short term issue-based organizing and long-term movement building.

The other thing is that we see ourselves as an organization that will pursue multiple issues simultaneously, once we come up to strength. Our core issues are housing affordability, growing inequality, and threats to human and civil rights. At present, we're working our way toward defining a housing issue strategy.

I think the key thing, other than the relational organizing model, that sets RCOP apart is that we're quite clear that homeless people and the economically vulnerable rest of us have more in common than not, and can organize together based on mutual self-interest.

It's a work in progress, but so far, I'm seeing a different level of commitment from people than I've seen in any other organizing we've done. We're onto something.

Trevor said...

I definitely agree that RC is on to something, and think that it's very exciting to see political economy put front and center in our discussions of poverty.

Too often, people treat poverty as a kind of inefficiency in capitalism, an historical accident that elites can reform away through charity. This makes it impossible to talk about the fact that some people profit from others' poverty, and also tends to make people very unrealistic about how the end of poverty is just around the corner when really they're sweeping it under the rug. Seeing Real Change challenge this dynamic, and be one of the only organizations in Seattle thinking critically about alternatives, has been really heartening.

I asked my question about tactics mainly to ask about what cross-class organizing against poverty based on this analysis means. Is it about activism pushing for an expanded welfare state? Or sub-state survival strategies in an age of neoliberalism? Both? More than that?

One thing I think needs to be addressed is that social democracy at home requires promoting social democracy abroad. We are fighting for crumbs while the real money in government is going to war-making that forces other nations to roll back their social safety nets. It is near impossible to get Democrats to raise this issue, to challenge our now $700 billion military budget. The Nation has finally caught on to this, thanks in part to the work of Joseph Steiglitz. See their new issue on the War on Terror as "Class War."

Anyway, keep up the great work.

Trevor said...

Sorry for the flurry of posts this morning. Just wanted to share this:

Sally said...

I don't know what you're on, Tim, to constantly come up with these great analyses. If it's a drug of some sort, we need to distill it and infiltrate the water supply of every governmental office in the country. Social justice Koolaid, that's what we need.