Friday, May 23, 2008
Help. I've Had Too Much To Think.
My class meets for more or less the last time in the morning. They'll show up next week to talk about their papers, do an eval, and leave early. I'm hoping some of them come to our Camp4Unity June 8-9. No more sweeps. No more jails. No more deaths. No more lies. It's fucking poetry isn't it? Poetry by consensus. Amazing really. Just part of why I love RCOP.
But more about that later. I'm having them write 3-4 pages about what they learned. I thought that maybe if I'm having them do it, I should too.
The best thing about this class, oddly, isn't the $2,000. It's the opportunity to rethink and to deepen how I see my work. It's strange to see it put that way. My work. More than twenty years of being with homeless people and obsessed with homelessness. Every once in a while, some idiot comments here that blogging is easy and that I really haven't ever done anything to end homelessness. Like run a transitional housing program or something like that I suppose. Give me a break.
Anyway. Without stopping to think once in a while, things just sort of go on, and you keep doing what you've been doing as if nothing around you has changed. If you do some of your thinking in public, it's even better. Then you get the experience of saying things most people aren't and wondering whether you've secretly become insane, and everybody but you knows.
Last year, I taught the Ten Year Plan paradigm against the more structural approach offered by people like Peter Marcuse and Todd Depastino. I pretty much blew my own mind. My outrage grew like the Grinch's heart. It got bigger and bigger until it busted out of the old frame. The same thing happened this year. I added Timothy Gibson, and had the sweeps to illustrate first hand what happens when the winners in the global economy come up against the problem of surplus people.
The sweeps would have put me over the top whether I was teaching the class or not. My friend Anitra once made me laugh by calling me the Malcolm X of homelessness. Now I'm starting to think she might be right.
And that sort of scares me.
Each time, there's new stuff that comes out of the same texts. The highlight for me again was Marcuse's 1988 Neutralizing Homelessness. Last year, I was blown away with the correspondence between his list of Four Tactics to Pretend to Address Homelessness and the Ten Year Plan paradigm. This year, it was his argument that modern homelessness is mostly about permanently surplus people.
Marcuse says homeless people and poverty class people of color in general are the "surplus of the surplus," and have been written off as waste that needn't be maintained. When there is some anticipation that an economically superfluous population will one day again be needed, he says, then housing and benefits, however paltry, will be provided. If not, well, it's pretty much to the wolves with you.
This is about more than a shift in the structure of the economy, he says. It's about a shift in power relations. The overall terms of labor are degraded when there's a huge permanent surplus pool down there on the bottom. Homelessness isn't about the system failing. It's about the system working perfectly.
While the waste needn't be maintained, it must nonetheless be contained. This year I also added readings from Bruce Western, the Kennedy School guy whose pioneering research on incarceration has documented the link between the war on drugs and the racialization of poverty. My friend Stephanie came to guest lecture and gave me shit for focusing on black males and having a white male's text when women of color are the fastest growing prison population and my good friend Silja's written a whole fucking book on this. This led to us ad-libbing some dialogue in character, where I was the dealer who rolled on my homey for a lighter sentence, and she was my unwitting but loyal girlfriend who got the book thrown at her for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I look around the room at times like this to see what the students are thinking, and I see anger, disgust, shock, and outrage. It's what I'm feeling too. It's what we should all be feeling. The only reason we don't is that it's hidden in plain sight. Those of us with the privilege to be anesthetized by comfort can look the other way. We usually do. Despite this, I'm not giving up on the middle-class. We need each other, whether they realize it or not.
When you look at the criminalization of the poor in light of the globalization that Marcuse, Depastino, and Gibson all similarly discuss, you start writing songs like Burn It Down. Especially when Seattle has gone all "consistent and humane" on the homeless and is looking to build a new fucking jail by 2012 just for misdemeanants that almost nobody is talking about. The Ten Year Plan crowd has their Color of Homelessness report, but somehow they haven't made the connection. Odd, huh? Not really.
Depastino talks about how the deserving/undeserving poor frame leads to homeless policy where women and kids get into transitional shelter while single men, especially those of color, mostly get repression. This hit straight home for me this time.
It's getting late, and class is in the morning. Fortunately I don't have to do much. Wes and Anitra are coming.
Wes reminded me at City Hall a few weeks ago that he's been doing his column for twelve years and nine months, and Anitra came along to the editorial committee just three months after. We make each other laugh. They are old friends and it's going to be fun. Even better, I can rely on them to blow my students' minds. Smart pissed off people who can make you laugh are too rare. Everybody really ought to know several.
I find myself struggling with how to make the root globalization connections in the everyday work, and thinking through what this means. So long as homelessness is viewed as an isolated issue apart, we get neo-liberal Ten Year Plan palliatives that do more to obscure than fundamentally solve. For more than a year, I've struggled with the problem of connecting homelessness to broader economic vulnerability. Over the past few months the way has become more clear, but I'm not there yet.
On my mantle sits The Post-Fordism Reader, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, and Punishment & Inequality in America. I'm working on it. Somewhere in there is a way to make the connections that's clean, simple, and easy to grasp without getting lost in a bunch of psuedo-marxist rhetorical complication.
When so few people involved in homelessness talk about this stuff, it's easy to start feeling like I've crawled way out on some sort of crazy-ass limb where people like me go to be dismissed as "radical" and then die. For a guy who runs an organization as high profile and financially tenuous as Real Change, that can feel like a scary place to be.
My last fund raising pitch for the paper made the globalization connection, and I had to wonder if I was shooting myself and Real Change in the foot. "Is this too left," I asked our newsroom, "because I can't tell anymore."
I can't. I really can't. To me, it's just becoming the obvious truth that needs to be said.