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.