Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Real Change Rock Rock On

Today, a close friend called to say their family was sending Real Change $1,000. It's been a tough year for them, but they're doing it anyway. I've been hearing that a lot lately. It's inspiring. It's also a lot of responsibility. This year, more than a thousand people valued our work enough to send a check, and lots of them stretched to do it. It's an enormous honor to be supported in this way. 2008 was a hard year in many ways. To end on solid ground, Real Change needed to raise $180K over the last two months just to sustain what we do. People came through with at least $225K. In a recession year. Amazing.

I get the same thing from the vendors. People walk up, shake my hand, and say Real Change has saved their life. They say they don't even want to think about what things would be like without. They mean it. You can see the fear and despair in their eyes when they flash for a moment on their alternatives. These are our society's disposable people and they damn well know it.

Yesterday, one of our guys said he felt more loved at Real Change than anywhere he'd lived in five years. This is what we call a Real Change moment. A lump rises in your throat. You get a little misty, and you say something like, "Thanks. That makes me happy." Then you do a little hug or handshake or whatever, and feel lucky for having work that lets you be a real human being. You then go back to doing the best you can with what you have to work with, and push those rocks up those hills. Because that's what you do.

The friend who called also mentioned a local hip-hop band that's made it big. She'd been listening to their Long March EP. "Did you know the Blue Scholars mention Real Change?" Um, no. "Well, they do. They say, 'Real Change, rock rock on!"

Real Change rock on? Really? "Rock Rock on. Real Change rock rock on. You should spend the buck-ninety-nine or whatever at iTunes."

I bought the EP. I'm 48, and not exactly the prime Blue Scholars demographic, but this is great stuff. Smart, funny, sophisticated, political, poetic, passionate, and pissed. What's not to like? Do the download. Here's the song lyrics. It's called Cornerstone.

It's the cornerstone.
From the gutter to the throne, corner to the stone.
Comaradary is earned, cultivated and homegrown.
Don't really own a damn thing except for my labor, and maybe a couple of thousand pages of my rhymes
And your brain's just a cage with a mind locked inside it unless knowledge itself gives proper perspective
To see how the politicians keep the dollars protected, my namesake is not confined to scholarly methods
To reach the mass, never preached the way they teach in class, sleep-walkin' half-dead spirits leaving fast
If you never had your ass beat, brah, you can't speak about non-violent protests and other such mythology
Watch how the quantity leads into quality deep beyond the reaches of your Babylon economy
I speak solemnly; I seek equality, my people celebrate life despite poverty
Fuck the false prophecy, promising we'll all be free, as long as we fall in line with the flawed philosophy
And mystery, God's eternal afterlife in Heaven, while living in Hell, where the militant dwell
Now the ranks start to swell in the hoods and jail cells, lock down the campus cause it's right to rebel
No uprising fails, each one's a step forward toward the victory up at the end of the trail

We crack jokes while singing the blues, and rock like the stone that the builder refused
To all area crew, who carry the world on their shoulders, on some atlas shit, this one's for you
206, rock rock on, The proletariat, rock rock on, Beacon Hill, rock rock on
Now the hustle on the corner set the struggle in stone

My compatriots and comrades engaging in combat, trying to stay sane up in this land gone mad
Give me two bucks and take a puff and pass my bong back, nearly 3 years and they're still up in Baghdad?
Battle-raps, 85% talkin' this-and-that, quit that, insecure petty little man
Get a manicure and tan, B, amateurish candy raps, it's hilarious, I'm laughing till I can't breath
Can it be that it was never simpler than now, consumers waitin' for a magazine to set the style
The critical instead begin to organize quietly, underneath the sugarcoated surface of society
My purpose as of now is serve the people to the fullest, knowing that my name is somewhere written on a bullet
The beats that I inherited, and rhymes in my chromosomes, passed to my seed, I call him my cornerstone

We crack jokes while singing the blues, and rock like the stone that the builder refused
To all area crew, who carry the world on their shoulders, on some atlas shit, this one's for you
New People ya'll, rock rock on, Real Change, man, rock rock on, the next generation, rock rock on
Now the hustle on the corner set the struggle in stone

We crack jokes while singing the blues, and rock like the stone that the builder refused
To all area crew, who carry the world on their shoulders, on some atlas shit, this one's for you
Central District, rock rock on, U District, rock rock on, International District, rock rock on
Now the hustle on the corner set the struggle in stone

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Sweeps Campaign. Time to Reassess.

One year after launching a campaign to oppose and reverse the city’s zero-tolerance policy of public camping, how does the landscape look? What has changed? How should the Real Change Organizing Project's strategy adapt over the coming year to current realities? Your feedback is welcome. Anonymity, if that's necessary, is OK and understood.
  • Over the course of our campaign, we have demonstrated deep public skepticism, outrage, and opposition to city policy on public camping.
  • Protocols have been created to guide the sweeps that are rendered largely meaningless by their own loopholes and the city’s failure to adhere to their own guidelines, particularly in the area of storage of possessions.
  • We have assisted SKCCH and Columbia Legal in documenting the City’s failure to follow their own protocols in preparation for a potential legal strategy.
  • We have found that insufficient political will exists in the City Council to hold the Mayor accountable regarding protocol implementation. Public Safety and Human Services Chair Tim Burgess has resisted attempts to create meaningful oversight.
  • CEHKC, the decision-making body for city policy on homelessness, has consistently refused to take a position on this issue. Claims of affordable housing and shelter with services as an alternative to camping and a “pathway” out of homelessness are consistently made by CEHKC in concert with the Nickels administration to justify the sweeps policy.
  • CEHKC’s Ten Year Plan strategy for ending homelessness has lost credibility due to their failure to meet housing goals, dismal prospects for future funding, and the increasingly apparent limits on internal democracy.
  • 70 additional shelter beds have been set aside to accommodate displaced campers. The extent to which these “extra” beds simply displace other homeless from shelter or actually offer new capacity is unclear.
  • Seattle Center has been opened as additional severe weather capacity in response to pressure regarding the survival realities of homelessness in Seattle.
  • The city has funded human services outreach to campers. The extent to which this outreach is backed by meaningful capacity remains very unclear.
  • The media narrative — that homeless campers threaten public safety and exist in conditions of disease, addiction, and filth — has been challenged by a counter-narrative of inadequate public resources for the destitute and, with the Nickelsville camp, of homeless people doing for themselves despite the hostility of city officials.
  • A report has been issued documenting that the city’s PR strategy on the sweeps is intentionally grounded in a “discourse of filth and contagion.”
  • Leadership in the faith community and the Church Council have stood up to city bullying to offer safe haven to Nickelsville.
  • Service providers witness daily evidence of the hardship and misery created by the city’s commitment to ongoing, routine sweeps, despite clear evidence of inadequate alternatives.
  • City PR strategy has focused on distorting the facts to reassure the public that meaningful alternatives exist, and that City efforts are carefully calibrated to offer the maximum possible response, and to stigmatize homeless campers as lawless outsiders who inexplicably refuse to cooperate in the city’s efforts to help,
  • We have, through our protest and efforts to provide material support to homeless campers, found that broad public opposition and skepticism exists regarding city strategy.
  • We have been largely unsuccessful in leveraging that support to create meaningful system change to stop the sweeps and offer meaningful survival alternatives.
  • Outside of one recent meeting between City officials and faith leaders, which ended in impasse, the City has consistently refused dialogue.

Strategic Questions for RCOP:
  • How do we most effectively continue to broaden opposition to the City’s zero-tolerance of public camping?
  • How do we effectively counter the city’s twin strategy of dehumanizing homeless campers and delegitimating their survival efforts with empty claims of reasonable alternatives?
  • City policy and human services response has narrowly focused attention on shelter and service availability. How do we effectively broaden the issue to address growing suffering in the face of a declining economy and growing inequality, affordable housing lost, inadequate public health resources, and issues of racism, criminalization of the poor, and declining civil rights?
  • A City frame has developed that says responsible and compassionate efforts to end homelessness and provide alternatives to public camping are underway, and opposition is “political” and driven by advocates who will simply never be satisfied. How do we effectively respond?
  • What is RCOP’s unique role within the broad spectrum of opposition and concern regarding conditions for homeless people in Seattle?
  • Where does power reside, and where are the leverage points to hold power accountable?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Power Grows From The Pages Of Your Checkbook

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the golden rule of grassroots fundraising: If you tell the truth, take the risks that the times demand, and operate from a place of integrity, the money will follow. But only if you ask. We asked, and you came through.

Today’s mail brought another $2,925 in support for our work, bringing the total raised in donations since November 1 to $219,046.54. Our $180,000 Winter Fund Drive goal has officially been smashed. An unusually difficult year is at an end, and Real Change is operating from a place of health and strength. Our debt is retired. Our landlord gets his last six months’ rent. You made it happen, and we thank you.

You get that Real Change works; that we engage our vendors, readers, and allies in addressing the issues that directly affect all of us. You get that our capacity to mobilize is based in our fifteen-year history of walking alongside those who have the least, and in the growing web of relationships that is Real Change.

You get that the time to organize is now, and that with your help, a different reality is possible. 2009 brings its own challenges. With your help, we’ll meet those as well.

Race and Poverty in Seattle

Mass homelessness is a structural fact of the economy, and is the visible result of three decades of increasing inequality, combined with social policies that maintain rather than reduce poverty.

Homelessness in Seattle and King County is growing and becoming more racialized. The 2008 One Night Count documented a 15% increase in homelessness over the previous year. During this snapshot early morning January count, 5,800 people were in emergency and transitional shelter, and another 2,300 homeless were found surviving outside on a night when the shelters were full. The count also documents that although Blacks make up just five percent of county residents, they make up 40 percent of King County’s homeless. This number is up four percent from just two years prior.

As the effects of the sub-prime loan collapse continue to ripple through the economy, creating budget deficits at all levels of government, essential survival services are at risk of being cut back or eliminated at the time when they are needed most.

As inequality in Seattle has widened, city policy on homelessness has shifted to the reduction of visible poverty and a focus on criminalization. Sadly, this has brought a zero-tolerance approach to public camping with the provision of few viable alternatives. This policy of homeless sweeps has been promoted by the city through what a team of University of Washington academics has described as “a discourse of filth and contagion.” The Mayor’s focus on proactively identifying and eliminating homeless campsites from public spaces has dramatically increased the stress and desperation of street survival. Protocols designed to assure the public that these policies are humane and responsible offer little real protection to homeless campers.

The past three decades of growing homelessness and incarceration are related to the realities of a global economy that has eliminated most of the opportunities for “unskilled” work and created a largely unrecognized pool of structurally unemployed. This includes the more than five-fold increase in incarceration that has taken place since 1980, an increase that has placed one in ninety-nine Americans behind bars and left an African-American male high school dropout with a two in three chance of being imprisoned by the age of thirty-five. Seattle’s high school graduation rate for African Americans is a mere 52%.

Seattle is moving ahead with plans to build a new municipal jail to accommodate anticipated increases in incarceration. The facility will cost at least $210 million to build and another $19 million annually to operate. Money that could be used to rebuild lives will instead deepen the cycle of poverty for the most disadvantaged in our society

Seattle’s new jail is an expensive commitment to the structural racism that will surely deepen poverty in disadvantaged communities. There are alternatives — but none will happen without a grassroots fight for a better way forward.

Opportunities and Challenges

Real Change is engaged in two related campaigns to defend those who have the least. Since we uncovered the Mayor’s secret homeless sweeps last year, we have been the leading voice for better survival solutions in Seattle. Over the past year, we’ve held four overnight protest encampments at City Hall. We’ve mobilized large numbers of people for public hearings, documented consistent violations of the city’s own policy, and provided major support to the Nickelsville survival encampment that has gained the strong support of Seattle’s faith community.

Our No New Jail Campaign has challenged the Mayor’s assertion of inevitability, and elevated the jail issue from a NIMBY-based discussion of site alternatives to a community-wide debate over the role of incarceration in perpetuating race-based inequality. We are organizing a broad-based and powerful coalition to take action on this issue, and will hold a large public forum on the new jail this January.

Real Change believes that single-issue, siloed approaches to homelessness have only led to structures of mitigation that are inadequate to the obviously growing problem. In the absence of a large, activist constituency to defend the poor and economically vulnerable, human services are subject to reduction during these times of state, county, and city budget deficits.

The Real Change newspaper and Organizing Project addresses root issues of growing inequality, racial income disparity, declining housing affordability, and attacks upon basic civil rights by growing a powerful and vocal base of activists to take action on these issues. We believe that the hope that exists for structural solutions to poverty and inequality can only be realized through a powerful grassroots activism that unites constituencies across issue and class.

Real Change is well positioned for leadership on these issues. More than a thousand annual supporters of our work provide the majority of our financial support. Our independence gives Real Change enormous freedom to pursue our mission in a manner that is uncompromised by funding sources. We accountable to our base, and our base supports what we do.

Yet, Real Change still faces serious capacity issues on three fronts. Large increases in the numbers of vendors we serve, driven by the increased need and desperation on the street, have challenged our ability to adequately respond. In the face of this rising direct need, our grassroots activism is difficult to sustain. Finally, Real Change’s limited administrative capacity reduces our ability to effectively manage the resources we already have, and more aggressively grow our grassroots support.

To meet the challenges of organizing an activist response while meeting the growing direct need, Real Change needs to grow over 2009 in the following areas:

Vendor Staffing: Inadequate vendor staffing limits our ability to effectively serve the more than 350 vendors we now see each month. Real Change works to connect vendors who express a desire for services with providers that can meet their needs. Our ability to do this effectively is limited by staffing and the capacity to effectively engage the many volunteers who support our work. (Cost: $32K)

Equipment and Space: Our fifteen-year location at 2129 Second Avenue meets our needs as an inexpensive, stable location that is friendly to those we serve. The 2,000 square foot space, however, is no longer adequate to our growing staff and clientele, and the resulting pressures limit our effectiveness. Our aging technology — computers, servers, software, phone systems, etc. — need to come into this century. Over the next year, Real Change must redesign the space and upgrade the tech systems. (Cost $30K)

Administrative Infrastructure: Real Change needs an operations manager to coordinate staff management, more effectively measure and track progress toward goals and milestones, and manage the administrative details of a growing organization. This will free up the ED to organize, build community, and grow the grassroots support needed to sustain and grow our work. (Cost $45K).

Production and Online Support: Real Change newspaper staff (2.5 FTE’s) are challenged by the demands of weekly production and lack the capacity to ramp up for the more multi-media approach that a dynamic internet presence requires. A staff position that focuses on newspaper production, maintaining a multi-media website, and producing a coordinated Real Change e-newsletter will grow our readership, increase grassroots support of our work, offer a professional public face to our activism, and enhance the quality of our core service. (Cost: $40K).

At the close of 2008, Real Change is strong and healthy. We are rooted an expanding base of grassroots support and a stable foundation of earned income that grows with our circulation. We are taking the risks, telling the truth, and organizing for power. Your support makes that possible.

2009 is a new year, and many challenges remain. With your continued and growing support, we will rise. Please make your gift to Real Change today. Visit our website at, or mail your donation to Real Change, 2129 2nd Ave, Seattle, WA 98121.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Bad Month For Aging Sex Pots

Bettie Page and Eartha Kitt are both gone. Page died at 85 earlier this month, and Kitt passed on Christmas Day at 81. Still, their revered lives have inspired millions of orgasms, and are a testament to the clear link between extreme sexiness and longevity. Here's to the hope that, one day, we'll meet in heaven,

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Upon The My O My

From time to time, someone will ask what that Apesma thing is all about. It's from a Captain Beefheart spoken word bit on the Shiny Beast album, one of my top five favorite recordings of all time. You can hear it by scrolling all the way down to the footer and clicking on what you find there. I hid it at the bottom for no good reason. It's been my little secret.

Beefheart's genre-defying creative genius and extreme perfectionism have, time and again, led me to marvel at his mere existence. A man with no formal education who seems, nearly always, to inhabit the Eternally Fecund moment of Now. I wish there were more footage of him around, but there ain't. So I have to pace myself. This is from the BBC's Old Gray Whistlestop. My last post of more than a year ago, a stunning SNL performance of Ashtray Heart, was sadly removed from Youtube for a terms of use violation. A lower quality version can be streamed from here.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Covering Up Homelessness, CEO-Style.

One of the ways in which the people that are ending homelessness like to pretend they're succeeding is to talk about opening and closing front and back doors, a image that, to me, always brings to mind a very large, crowded and windy hallway, probably with florescent lighting and substandard ventilation.

What they mean by this is that institutions that deal with poor people — mental health centers, prisons and jails, hospitals, and foster care systems — should all take responsibility for their own poor, as opposed to shoveling them off for containment in emergency shelters. This is one of the ways in which Ten Year Plans hope to accomplish their goal of ending homelessness by simply being smarter: Get other systems to expend their resources.

The assumption here is that homelessness, in large part, is all just a big misunderstanding, and with just a bit of inter-agency cooperation and some help from the private and nonprofit sectors, we'll be able to clear it all up. The problem, of course, is that the other systems serving poor people are broken too. Worse, in times of widespread budget deficits and growing numbers of expendable poor, those systems are subject to funding cuts as well.

The technocratic do-gooders will do almost anything to avoid facing up to the logic of their own system: poor people are expendable. During a time when Democratic Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire's own budget calls for eliminating the $339 a month General Assistance - Unemployable benefit for the 9,000 or so people who need it to live, the truth of this should be rather obvious, no?

But this is just too unpleasant by half. This is why some "homeless advocates" need to convey success, no matter what the evidence. While the news is filled with burgeoning tent cities, freezing homeless people, depleted food banks, and families in cars and such, the USICH website is simply bursting with good news. Street and chronic homelessness are down:
The street/chronic decrease represents a reduction of more than 52,000 people living on our streets or languishing in our shelters. Given an average length of stay in homelessness of 5 years, the reduction represents more than 260,000 years of homelessness coming to an end. That means quantifiable cost savings in health and law enforcement systems in cities across the country.
Wow. 260,000 years of homelessness has ended. That's quantifiably amazing.

Even better, the CEOs, with their high standards of accountability and savvy business acumen, have taken charge:
In the past year, more jurisdictional CEO's are committed to 10 Year Plans. When the year began 529 mayors and county executives had committed in 321 plans. At the end of this year these number had increased to over 860 CEO's and more than 355 plans.
Impressive. In just one year there was a 10.6% increase in Ten Year Plans, but this was accompanied by a 62% increase in CEO involvement! At this rate, can the end of homelessness be far off? Heck, no!

But wait, somethings wrong! It appears that new institutions that deal with poor people have turned to shelter-dumping as well. KOMO reports that last Sunday, the downtown Seattle Greyhound station sent a busload of stranded passengers, kids and all, to the severe weather emergency overflow shelter at Seattle Center, and when it became apparent that the shelter was unprepared, the bus just drove away. Kind of gives new meaning to "Go Greyhound!"

As the economy worsens, look for other businesses that serve the downscale consumer to follow suit. Southwest and Frontier will be the first among the major discount airlines to implement Greyhound's revolutionary cost saving strategy.

These bottom-line savvy innovations are not limited to the discount transportation industry. Taco Bell lobbyists are no doubt working the halls of Congress to bring back the government surplus food program, and hope to soon have finely grated surplus cheese subsidies supplied to their 5,845 U.S. locations. I also expect that corporate buyers for Payless Shoes and Ross Dress For Less to soon be scouring the racks of Goodwill for slightly distressed items that can be sold at 800% mark-up.

According to Kraven F. Ückwadde, a Taco Bell senior executive and one of the newest CEOs to join the fight to end homelessness, "The dynamic nature of American capitalism demands that businesses adapt. When you wake up one day to find that your cheese has moved, you either give the consumer less fucking cheese, or you find a way to get the cheese at someone elses expense. We make $2 billion a year just by covering up bad food with free hot sauce. If that's what it takes to keep the profits coming, we can cover up homelessness as well."

Night of Mercy

Last week, Real Change held our fourth campout at City Hall to protest the homeless sweeps. I wasn't there this time. Being sick and hanging out in twenty degree weather overnight in the rain and snow didn't seem like such a great idea. Some, however, don't have the luxury of this choice. Real Change put out the word that we need survival gear to replace that which the city routinely steals, and the response has been overwhelming. That night alone, we gave away around two tons of blankets, sleeping bags, coats and warm clothing. The donations are still coming in. People get it, even if the Mayor doesn't. Professor Gail Stygall of the University of Washington was on hand to talk about the report released that day, documenting the city's campaign of dehumanization on the homeless sweeps issue. Once again, that report is available here. The video of the event is by Revel Smith, the second speaker shown.

Song of a Queen Bee

I've was reading E.B. White's The Second Tree From The Corner when I ran across Song of a Queen Bee, first published in The New Yorker in 1945. I tried to do it justice by altering my reading of the main poem to approximate my notion of a "ravishing, rollicking, young queen bee." White, by the way, was fired from the Seattle Times in 1923, after working there just 11 months. By 1927, he had joined the staff of The New Yorker, where he remained for the next six decades.

Below is a linked image that, now having deeply reflected on this matter of queen bee sex, seems a metaphor for all that is wrong with the scientific age.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

How To Drive In The Snow

Mayor Greg Nickels recently gave the City of Seattle a "B" for their response to our recent unrelenting snow. Room for improvement, he says, but basically "outstanding." Outstanding? Who is he kidding? No one.

This is classic Nickels. No matter how stupid, unthinking, or craven your actual policies or performance is, say everything is fine. At least then, no responsibility is owned for the failure. A KING 5 poll linked to their story, with 1.214 votes in and counting, has 40.2% giving him a solid "F."

Over the past week, I've come to regard my '92 Toyota Corolla as sort of a motorized sled. My own winter driving skills were first developed in Sioux Falls, SD, and then further honed in Boston. I live next to a large hill, and my apartment complex parking lot is basically unplowed. This morning was the defining challenge. I awoke at 8 with a thick curtain of big fluffy flakes coming down. The kids needed to get to mom's to catch a plane early this afternoon. I also had a Christmas breakfast to go to in Wallingford, which was guaranteed to be fabulous.

I've been getting braver with each passing day, but driving in a snowstorm with six inches of packed slush on the ground without snow tires or chains just seemed like a bad idea. But the past several days had prepared me well. I decided, "What the hell? I live for danger!"

I made it back alive, but got stuck four times trying to park in front of my apartment before deciding I simply needed to turn around to come at the problem from uphill, build some momentum, turn wide, and basically skid out of the slush rut, up the slight hill, and into the parking spot. Having accomplished this delicate maneuver, I am a winter driving god and well qualified to offer this, Tim Harris' Tips For Driving in Seattle Snow.

Tip #1: Be Prepared: This morning I left the house in what are essentially glorified slippers. My error became apparent as soon as I encountered six inches of slush with intermittent two inch pools of standing ice water. My best advice in this circumstance is "move quickly and try to avoid the ice water."

Tip #2: Momentum is your friend: Earlier this week, I climbed Battery to First Avenue and made the mistake of stopping prior to cresting the hill. I needed to back the traffic behind me halfway down Battery to remedy the problem. In severe weather conditions, stop signs and red lights are to be approached situationally. Conversely, the positions on your automatic transmission marked 1 and 2 are your lower gears, and may be useful for driving down treacherous hills with turns at the bottom without relying on your damn brake, idiot!

Tip #3: Drive at nine and three: Normally, I find it most comfortable to drive with one arm hooked behind the passenger's seat and a few fingers in the vicinity of my lap. Alternately, I drive with my right hand while holding a cigarette out the window. This is less than optimal while sledding in your motor vehicle. This morning, while negotiating nearly five blocks of deep residential slush in the Wallingford area, my car wanted to leap out of the tracks to acquaint itself with the parked cars on either side of the narrow street. Liability insurance, under these circumstances, is generally advised. The high point is always when one makes a turn in an unplowed intersection, especially when this involves hills. This morning's method was to gun it down the slush rut while countering the tendency to skid, take the shortcut through the inside of the traffic circle, and keep the momentum going while fighting my way toward the next available rut. This sort of thing is best accomplished with both hands on the steering wheel.

Tip #4: Let others know how you feel: Always swear at the overconfident trucks and SUVs who pass you under dangerous conditions, placing you and your loved ones at risk. When children are present, swearing is especially justified, but should be practiced under one's breath and supplemented with a fervent wish for the offending driver's imminent grisly death.

Tip #5: Steer into the skid! No! Not that way!: This is where some experience helps, because this is largely a function of body memory, and often goes badly when one thinks too much. The logic is that steering into the direction your front end is heading while avoiding the tendency to ruin everything by braking will transfer weight to the back wheels and allow you to regain control of the car. There is a zen to this, since an over-steer will turn into a fishtail, which can lead to extreme stress upon various external components of your vehicle when you collide, for example, with a tree. So, leave your brain out of it. Focus upon the syllable OM, and let your body do the thinking. If this sounds too hard, stay the hell off the road. You are a menace.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Santa's Factory Labor System

This 1932 Disney Silly Symphony cartoon is remarkable in that the elves in Santa's workshop are happily employed in a fully Taylorized factory labor system, with each task broken down to its simplest elements, making for utterly replaceable elves. No need for a union here. It's all happy and magical, "bringing joy to a million homes" through efficient production and quality control.

Given the immense pressures on the toy industry within a global marketplace, Santa's workforce will soon need to adapt, with elves of color, underage and women elves doing most of the work with no health-care or retirement benefits, drastically lowered wages, and little to no job security. Productivity will rise, wages will decline, and the Big Guy at the top will keep getting fatter.

The obligatory race humor of the era is present in a few spots, but goes by quickly. Tip of the Apesma hat to the always erudite Mr. Trevor Griffy, who troubled himself to reference this account of the 1941 Disney Animators' Strike, in which the Mouse eventually lost the battle, but won the war and lost his soul.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

World's Most Appropriate Christmas Card

Today one of my favorite people in the world handed me this Christmas card as she carefully stuffed $31 into my sweatshirt pocket. We hugged and I almost cried. Over the years, I've come to regard this woman as a manifestation of the Buddha.

She's a smallish African immigrant who sells Real Change. Her life has never been easy, but her wisdom and cheer have been a major inspiration, especially during my own, comparatively minor, travails. There's a saying that goes, "If you meet the Buddha, kill him." In her case, I wouldn't especially recommend this. One way or another, she'd kick your ass.

I accepted her gift, which was immediately invested. On the way home, I bought a spare bottle of 12-year single malt Glenlivit.

The card reads, "Joy in the little things," and opens to continue, "Hope you find it EVERYWHERE this Christmas."

Anyone versed in the science of semiotics knows that messages are conveyed through the signifier and are open to interpretation through the lens of cultural values by both the sender and receiver. In this instance, we are dealing with two distinct communication modalities, the cash, and the card.

The cash was simple enough. To my mind, the cash gift connotes, "I love and respect you, and am doing well enough myself to do this for my friend. Don't even think of saying no, and don't do anything I wouldn't do (wink)."

The card is another matter. Here, there is the meaning that the author intended, the meaning grasped by the sender, and that of the receiver. While the meaning of the author, in this case, is irrelevant, based upon our brief conversation, I believe that sender and receiver are pretty much on the same page. She knows this hasn't been my best year.

"There is joy everywhere," she laughed in her lovely accent. And then she commanded, "Remember that!" I humbly accepted her advice.

To my eye, Santa is affixed to the rear view mirror by a noose, his legs desperately searching for the chair recently kicked out from under. Or, best case scenario, the green ribbon is attached to his underwear, and he is wriggling to reach a more acceptable position before his scrotum goes numb. Through it all, being Santa, he is intent upon finding the upside to his situation.

So, in the spirit of my wise friend, here is my holiday wish to you. Though your scrotum may be turning blue, look to the good in all that you do. Happy holidays and best wishes in the New Year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cat Who Hated People

I spent the entire weekend snowed in with the girls, with one of them sick and me coming down with a cold myself. There was lots of imaginative play, where I accepted whatever roles I was assigned, some tossing and rolling of balls, lots of book reading, and endless time at Starfall, with a focus on building the five year old girl, her room ,and her elephant chasing jumping kitty. On the more highbrow side, there was a good deal of beating upon the new piano while standing on chairs to watch the hammers, a first chess lesson for Twin B (she won with her horse in around 9 moves — I cheated by neglecting to move my king out of check), a good deal of art in a variety of mediums, and lots of cuddle-time by the fireplace. And, of course, there was hour upon hour of cartoons on Youtube. This was my favorite.

This 1948 Tex Avery short comes out of what I've come to think of as the American noir period, where the war left people with a hard cynical edge that permeated popular culture. It opens with an alley cat who peers out of his box and says, in a voice reminiscent of Jimmy Durante, "People are no darn good. I hate people."

The voice is Paul Frees, a voice and character actor who, after a year of hospitalization, survived D-Day at Normandy. His vast credits include Santa in Frosty the Snowman, Boris Badenov on Rocky and Bullwinkle, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. This cartoon works for kids, but it's really for the war toughened adults that would spawn the baby boom generation. The scene where the cat gets diapered on the planet of dangerous inanimate objects works well for a time when nearly everyone had a baby or two at home and more on the way.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bugs Bunny Does The South

The girls have broadened their tastes from Chilly Willy and Roadrunner to Tom and Jerry (161 episodes between 1940 and 1967) and the Merrie Melodies ouvre, which includes Bugs Bunny. I'm finding myself seriously getting into these. Tonight we hit on a few that were notable in their disdain for the South. Not exactly PC, but pretty damn funny nonetheless. There's a bit a few minutes into the 1950 Hillbilly Hare where Tuck & Punkinhead look for all the world like ZZ Top. The routine with Bugs calling squaredance steps is wonderfully cruel. In the second video,the 1953 Southern Fried Rabbit, he goes south of the Mason-Dixon line to mess with an unreconciled Civil War holdout. There's a scene where Bugs does blackface that's often removed, but I didn't find it nearly as offensive as some of the stuff I've seen in Tom and Jerry. In the next scene, he appears as Abraham Lincoln. and then later as Stonewall Jackson and Scarlet O'Hara. Awesome.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Christmas Present

I'm feeling a little like Homer Simpson in the episode where he buys Marge a bowling ball, drilled for his own finger size, for her birthday. Why? Because tomorrow morning, a piano mover will arrive with my five year-olds' main Christmas present: a Baldwin Hamilton studio piano, which I was fortunate enough to score at Deseret Industries this week for a mere $75. I'm so excited I just had to share. I don't play piano, so I guess the girls and I will all learn. Hope the neighbors don't mind. I found some guy on Youtube who plays a broad repertoir of Christian hymns on his. This, for all you heathens who don't already know, is "Twas a Glad Day When Jesus Found Me." Maybe I'll learn that one first. It's kinda catchy.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Who Wouldn't Want To Sleep Here?

Casey McNerthney at the Seattle PI called me last night after being driven around around a bit by Sgt. Gracy to get today's story on homeless people refusing shelter. I like Casey. He's a good reporter who's done right by the homeless more than once. For some reason, however, my rather clear explanation of why people avoid shelter didn't really get into his story, although I do appreciate the bit that did.
City, county and federal officials need to do more, according to Tim Harris, executive director of the Real Change newspaper.

"To say that there needs to be more of an investment in services is a radical understatement," he said. "They spend money where they see value, and they don't think homeless people have that much value."
To be fair, "some homeless people" were quoted saying pretty much what I told him. People are afraid of getting lice, and shelters are demoralizing. City Human Services press flak David Takami gets some of the rest, although he seems to find it much more mysterious than it actually is. "Some don't want to sleep next to somebody else. Some people have mental health problems that make it an issue."

This is ball park, but doesn't really get to the brokenness of the system, and why some would rather just avoid it altogether. Both Takami and the police are quoted as saying "the goal is to help homeless people become self-sufficient -- paying bills and maintaining a home." Shelters, apparently, help people do this, and being literally on the streets, they say, does not.

This is fiction. Shelters don't have the resources to provide real services. Not most of the ones for single homeless people anyway. And many of the people they contain have been permanantly written off, never to come back. The system is radically underfunded and overcrowded, and fundamentally broken. To say that shelters are somehow "a pathway" to rejoining the mainstream is to participate in a collective fairytale that denies the reality of what's going on.

If McNerthney really wants to know why people don't want to be in shelters, he should spend a night at DESC on one of the mats on the floor, four inches from the guy with the deep cough that won't stop. If he's smart, he'll put anything of value in his shoes and keep those under his pillow. If he's lucky, he won't get any of the bugs that are around.

I used to only really hear that about lice and bedbugs at Union Gospel. It's been a consistent complaint for years, and apparently they either don't care or can't get it under control. But now I hear it all the time about DESC too. There's an infestation, and people don't want to go there.

To listen to Sgt. Gracey and David Takami talk, you'd think that the shelters have legions of social workers, and to walk in the door is to enroll in some sort of homeless makeover program, where one learns the intricacies of personal hygeine and money management, gains soft and hard job skill training, overcomes their addictions and mental illnesses, and is placed on a smooth road toward becoming a housed member of the working, if not middle, class.

Bullshit. They're warehouses for the broken, written-off, detrius of the global economy. There are not a lot of jobs out there for, say, a 49 year old black felon who lacks a high school education, or a 60 year old unskilled laborer with a bad back, or a border-line retarded thirty-year-old who's been on the street since he was fourteen and is now addicted to crack, or the woman whose customer service skills have been honed by fifteen years of nickel and dime street prostitution, and so forth.

So we pack them in where we don't see them, and offer the minimal conditions necessary to sustain life. Then we boot them out at 5 or 6 a.m., so they can disperse before the real citizens get downtown so they won't have to see the undiluted misery of so much human wreckage discharged to the streets for yet another day.

Large shelters are total institutions for those whom most people would rather not see. The line staff are heroic, but underpaid, overworked, and completely stressed. There is nothing reasonable about what's expected of them, and this translates to what they are able to do. The best of them are saints, but most are as human as the rest of us and become numbed to the extreme misery of what they see. Under these conditions, true empathy becomes unsustainable.

Those who have the wherewithal to fend for themselves outdoors often choose to do so. To me, this isn't a mysterious, inexplicable choice. It's a matter of finding personal dignity in the fact of everyday survival, as opposed to surrendering to dehumanizing misery and the loss of personal agency. If I were homeless, it's what I'd do. It's a rational choice.

If the city wants people to go to shelters, they need to invest in these places to bring them past the tipping point of offering more to homeless people than they take away. There are both physical and moral dimensions to this.

A decent shelter should offer some sense of community. There should be meetings, activities, and the sharing of food. Large, institutional settings don't lend themselves to this. They foster, instead, a sort of defensive isolation.

A decent shelter should be a homebase, where possessions can be stored and real respite from the hardships of the street can be found. They should offer some semblence of personal space. A real bed, for example, that one can return to each night, and at least a few feet from the next person over

A decent shelter should not restrict one's personal liberty anymore than necessary. One should not have to subject themselves to a 10 hour lockdown to sleep indoors.

A decent shelter should operate on a small enough scale for people to know each other. A decent shelter should have a client to staff ratio that gives people some small chance of getting real help. All most shelter staff have time for is the bare essentials, and barely even that. Basically, the priority is to see that no one gets hurt. This isn't a "pathway." It's a tar pit.

People who have a hard time sleeping on sheets with a threadcount of less than 300 don't get to judge homeless people who opt out of shelter. They simply have no idea of what they're talking about.

If the city wants people to go to shelters so damn bad, they should invest the resources to make them places people would choose to be. This isn't rocket science.

So forget the bullshit "helping" rhetoric. Very few people are being helped, and there isn't a lot right now to help them toward. The affordable housing that's supposed to be the solution isn't there. The waiting lists, if you can get on them, are years long. Try getting a gravely mentally ill homeless person some services sometime. You learn fast that things are very, very bad. And they are going to get worse.

If the city wants to help people who don't go to the shelters, here's an idea. First, do no harm. Then, why not just ask what they want? You might learn something.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Masters of War

The antiwar song to end all antiwar songs. Bob Dylan's Masters of War. Tonight was a Garageband first. I listened to the finished song and made myself cry. Click on the photo to see the rest of David Leeson's extraordinary Iraq War photos.
Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know I can see through your masks

You that never have done nothin' but build to destroy
You play with my world like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand then you hide from my eyes
Then you turn and run farther when the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old you lie and deceive
A world war can't be won, and you want me to believe
But I see through your eyes and I see through your brain
Like I see through the water that runs down my drain

You that fasten all the triggers for the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch while the death count gets
You hide in your mansions while the young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies and gets buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children into the world
For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood that runs in your veins

How much do I know to talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young, you might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know, though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question: is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could?
I think you will find when your death takes its toll
All the money you made won't ever buy back your soul

And I hope that you die and your death will come soon
I'll follow your casket through the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered into your death bed
Then I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Thought Journalism Meant Asking Questions?

Tonight I was looking for coverage of Real Change's fourth protest encampment at City in the last year, and found this odd story on KOMO. "The City of Seattle says that police and social workers will be out tonight helping the homeless find a warm place to stay, but some of the homeless are protesting. Bryan? Why the protest?"

Bizarrely, tonight the KOMO story transcription renders this on their website as "And some of the homeless are smirking"

Pop Quiz #1: Is this a.) A simple transcription error? b.) Someone who's bored, getting high on the job, and pissed that they make $9 an hour? or c.) An intentional editorial comment by someone who knows that no one really reads these things and even fewer people care? Answer: We'll never know, but I'm thinking some combination of b and c.

The story continues. "Well, you know, Mary, normally, City Hall Park is just filled with the homeless. But not tonight! It's too cold! The city says that's because they're keeping three emergency shelters open, at City Hall, the Frye Hotel, and out at the Seattle Center. But guess what? The homeless say Thats ... Not ... Enough!"

Bryan Johnson moves from his dramatic intro to a three second B-roll of some tents while he says there are people at City Hall protesting the homeless sweeps. He then gets Real Change staffer Natalie Novak to say there's at least 2,361 outside of the shelters and to repeat after him, "471 ain't goin' ta do it!"

I've watched this thing three times, and I honestly can't tell whether reporter Bryan Johnson thinks we're a bunch of whiners or that we have a legitimate beef. What I do know is that his story obediently followed both the lead and the frame that the city helpfully provided.

I know this for at least two reasons. The first is that every time Real Change does a protest encampment, the City issues a preemptive press release to instruct the media on what to report. The other is that as soon as I saw the number "471" materialize out of nowhere, I thought "City Press Release!" I looked up December 16, and there it was, just in time.


SUBJECT: City Keeps Emergency Shelters Open During Cold Snap
12/16/2008 4:30:00 PM
Alex Fryer (206) 684-8358

City Keeps Emergency Shelters Open During Cold Snap

SEATTLE – As freezing temperatures continue, the city of Seattle is keeping two severe weather overnight shelters and one “overflow” shelter for homeless people open through the duration of the cold snap. Given current weather forecasts, this means the shelters will remain open through Friday, Dec. 19, and potentially into next week.

Shelters, jails, hospitals, the Crisis Clinic and Operation Nightwatch notify homeless of the additional services. In addition, Seattle police officers in a van equipped with blankets approach homeless people and ask them if they need shelter for the night and help them with transportation as needed.

Since the first day of operation through Monday, a total of 471 people have stayed at these shelters.

“We will continue to provide emergency beds as needed, to make sure our city’s most vulnerable have a warm place to stay during these icy nights,” said Mayor Greg Nickels. “We urge the homeless to keep safe and take advantage of the services we are offering.”

Beginning on Friday, Dec. 12, the city opened severe weather shelters at City Hall and the Frye Hotel. On Saturday, Dec. 13, the city opened an additional overflow shelter at Seattle Center.

  • The co-ed City Hall shelter is located on Fourth Avenue between James and Cherry Streets. Shelter doors open at 9 p.m. People seeking shelter should arrive no earlier than 8:30 p.m. Capacity is 75 people.
  • The women-only shelter is located at the Frye Hotel at Third Avenue and Yesler Street and can be accessed through the Women’s Referral Center, located at 2030 Third Avenue between 7 and 7:30 p.m. Capacity is 25 people.
  • The overflow severe weather shelter is located at Seattle Center Pavilion B and is open at 9 p.m. Capacity is 75 people.

During the day, Seattle residents can find warm, public space at Parks Department community centers, the Seattle Center and libraries. The Greenwood Senior Center is also opening its doors at 525 N. Greenwood Ave. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to anyone who needs a respite from the cold.

City of Seattle severe weather shelters open in the event of two or more days of heavy rain, or when the temperatures reach 32 degrees or colder or when snow is on the ground.

People in need of emergency shelter should call the community service hotline at 2-1-1.

Get the Nickels Newsletter and the mayor’s inside view on transportation, public safety, economic opportunity and healthy communities at

- 30 -

A close reading offers much to admire. Note for example, how the phrase "since the first day of operation" is employed to discourage anyone from doing the math. The answer is 471 people served over 4 days. Nightwatch was still turning people away on Friday night, so the city finally kicked up and opened Seattle Center. That detail gets sort of buried. Note also that it takes two consecutive nights of heavy rain for the severe weather shelters to open. The homeless are tough. They can easily handle one night of being cold and wet. They're not really like us. Also, the shelters don't open unless the temperature drops to 32 degrees. Not 33 degrees. People line up, watching the doors, hoping it's cold enough. When it isn't, they wander off, just like they've got nowhere to go.

Pop Quiz #2: In a 35 degree temperature, how hard does the wind have to blow to produce a below freezing wind chill? Answer: According to the National Weather Service, just 5 mph.

Pop Quiz #3: If 471 different people compete for the 625 total number of opportunities over the whole of 4 nights to sleep on a severe weather indoor mat, how many of these people got to stay inside for a second of the four nights? Answer: 154

Extra Credit: Where, then, did these people go on the other 2 nights? Answer: Who cares?

So they did not actually serve "a total of 471 people." As we see, that number doesn't make sense, which is why they obfuscate the math. I'm thinking that 471 is the total number of mats-on-the-floor severe weather accommodations provided over the 4 days, at a bit under 120 people served per night. 471 people served just sounds more impressive. The cold precision of the number offers the illusion of truth and accuracy.

The last city press release on homelessness was nearly two months ago, so today, which happened to be the day of the City Hall protest, we were clearly due. The last, issued on October 30, was More Housing for Chronically Homeless. In typical City of Seattle/Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness fashion, the release doesn't actually say there is more housing. It says there was an announcement of a funding partnership to secure a site, so that when the money to build this housing is raised, there will be a place to put it. The release doesn't actually say when the housing will be completed. I'm guessing around 5-6 years from now.

Pop Quiz #4: If a homeless person is 3-4 more times more at risk of death than the general population, and a "chronically homeless" person runs even an greater risk of death, how many of any random set of 60 chronically homeless people that were alive on October 30, 2008, will be dead by the time this housing is actually built? Answer: Too many.

Anyway, I digress. Those of you who share my fascination with city press strategy and the running dog lackeys of the fifth estate who lap it up will love, love, love, this media analysis of Seattle's homeless sweeps, released this week by a multi-disciplinary team of academics at the University of Washington. They find that the City of Seattle — lovable, liberal, Seattle — has deliberately created a "discourse of filth and contagion" to justify the elimination of homeless campsites, and the media has willingly and consistently followed their lead. There's some good news in there too, but you need to read more than halfway through to find it. Most reporters won't get that far.

Pop Quiz #5: If you define a person as less than human, and equate them with disease and filth, what can you get away with doing to them? Answer: You don't want to go there.

Monday, December 15, 2008

It's A Wonderful Life

My 92 Corolla broke down rather spectacularly last week. I was on I-5, crawling home in heavy traffic, when the front end of my car began to resemble a dry ice fog at a KISS concert. The temperature gauge climbed into the red. I was in trouble. My inner Boston driver kicked in as I fought my way, lane by lane, to the right. I could feel the life drain from the car. "It's been 189,000 miles," she said. "What do you want from me?" We made it to the breakdown lane just after the on ramp a half mile before the 85th street exit. Ten seconds later, all the gauge lights came on and she quietly died.

"Fuck!" I explained.

I called Triple-A, raised the hood, and slowly waved a road flare like it was a sparkler that wanted to be a roman candle. It would be an hour or so, they said. The flare exhausted, I climbed down into the culvert to pee, smoked a few cigarettes, closed the hood, and tried the engine. Miraculous resurrection, by way of St. Jude. After four pitchers of water provided by the gentle smiling African immigrant giants at the Aurora AM/PM, I made it home.

Still in denial, I thought a coolant flush might do the trick. For years, I'd denied the men at Jiffy Lube this simple pleasure. Perhaps, I thought, they'd been right all along.

"We have good news and bad news," they said.

What's the good news?

"We're not charging you for your coolant treatment."

My spirits sank. What's the bad news?

"You can guess. There's a giant hole in your radiator." Subtle rivulets of green water poured from the top seam, wasted like the seed of Onan into the plastic-laced pit below.

Can I drive?

His face reflected the sudden knowledge he was dealing with a moron.

"I wouldn't," he said. "Not far anyway."

Various experiments revealed I had five miles or so before the needle neared the red and the terrible smell commenced.

One doesn't do without a car when one has twin five year-olds. Their little legs are poorly suited for long distances, and buses don't come equipped with car seats. So my work today was clear. Cancel my morning and early afternoon meetings, find a rental car near my mechanic, get downtown to work, make a crucial 3:30 meeting near U-Village, and get back to Shoreline for a 5:00 conference with my kid's kindergarten teacher. All very doable.

Just as I was leaving, staff called to say I was wanted on The Conversation at 1 and that the heat wasn't working at Real Change. I gave staff a number to call for HVAC repair, and called the KUOW producer to say I'd fit it in, but would have to do so from my shitty Verizon celphone, perhaps from the Enterprise lobby. She dubiously agreed.

I didn't tell her that the Verizon signal frequently drops. Everybody knows that.

The operation was timed like a dimestore watch. It would be fine. As I left home, my friend couldn't get her passenger door to close. We stood on an icy patch, bouncing the door back and forth, futzing with the mechanism while trying not to fall, laughing at this latest insult from The Universe. After five or six minutes of this, I blew graphite into the frozen latch from the nearly depleted tube I found in my glove box. Click. It worked. Fuck you, Universe.

We slowly worked our way across the ice of north Aurora, watching the engine gauge go from frozen to warm to hot. Ten blocks before Enterprise, we were close to redlining. The aroma of broiling antifreeze filled the air.

"Baby," I said, "We're going to Starbucks."

My Corolla gratefully rested in the cold while we went inside to nurse our respective burnt bean addictions. I politely asked the barista if they wouldn't mind turning down their annoying Christmas music while I did a phone interview at 1:05. They graciously obliged. At 12:57, the 2008 Starbuck's Christmas CD fell silent as a ron yon virgin.

Three minutes later, my cel rang. I'd be live on KUOW in a few moments with Ross Reynolds to open The Conversation. I did that thing I do under these circumstances, which is to retreat into that special place where the entire universe collapses into a triad of me, the interviewer, and my talking points. Ten minutes went by in a Blink.

I was packing up when the store manager came over to say hi, and told me about how much she likes the Real Change vendor they let work their drive through. He, too, worships the burnt bean and the symbol of the mermaid. We are legion. A filled Food Lifeline donations bin sat inside their front door. There are good people in this world, I thought. They help balance out those of us who are shits.

My car sprinted the next ten blocks without breaking a sweat. I was placed in a new KIA. "I've always wanted to drive a KIA," I smirked. They smirked back, and said that KIA actually stands for Korean Imitation Automobile. We discussed how this knowledge affected our feelings of brand loyalty. A woman who was far too smart and funny to stay in such a crappy job for long followed me the twenty blocks down Aurora to my mechanic. My needle rested happily in the middle. There was no smell. We accomplished the transfer.

I drove my virtual Korean rental car, feeling invincible. I made it downtown, to U-Village, out to Shoreline, and back to Edmonds. I felt like Lance Armstrong after the Tour de France, but before the steroids scandal.

I was standing in the dark, nearly empty parking lot of my kids' school when my cel rang. It was Rosette from Real Change, asking if I could be in at 8:30 to meet the HVAC people. "You must have worked your magic on KUOW," he said. Why? "People have been coming in all day with boxes of stuff for the survival gear give-away, saying they heard you on the radio." I smiled and felt a little like James Stewart when he discovered all wasn't lost. Everytime a bell rings, she said, an angel gets his wings.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Please Suh, May I Have Two Please?

This is a world class city? Brad Wong's PI article, City Helps To Warm Homeless, makes me want to scream, or cry, or perhaps curl into a little ball and sleep for a very long time. My favorite quote came from Union Gospel Mission communications staff Sharon Thomas-Hearns, who said the agency helped 100 people with blankets, hot chocolate, and other warm things over Saturday and Sunday.

"People were so cold that they wanted two blankets."

What is this? Fucking Dickens?

According to Wong, the city's opened up the Frye and City Hall to max out their overflow mats. Tents at Nickelsville have snow on them. Mars Hill had 125 people lined up around the block for a sandwich and a coat. And so forth. Real Change even got into the act this weekend and sent a truck full of coats and blankets over to Nickelsville. We neglected to alert the media.

This Tuesday night, a small encampment will be held at City Hall, where some intrepid souls will stay overnight to manage our survival gear giveaway. The stuff's been pouring in, but we've been giving it away almost as fast. Desperate people keep coming in the door saying they're cold, and that the City's stolen their blankets, tents, and sleeping bags and such.

This is too sad and pathetic for words.

Wong's story, I think, is supposed to be about a generous city reaching out to help. Is this the best we can do? Blankets? Hot chocolate? A hundred extra mats on the floor?

It's nice that the homeless people on Wong's story are so grateful, but I think more would probably get done if they were surly and pissed off. God knows they have a right.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

One Froggy Evening

Every once in a while, watching cartoons on YouTube with my kids, I'll stumble on something really special. Steven Spielberg calls this Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies short from 1955 "the Citizen Kane of animated film." Actually, I like this better.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Harold Arnett

Another song from Spoon River Anthology. This one about suicide. The last about spiritual emptiness. Masters is a laugh-riot.

I leaned against the mantel, sick, sick,
Thinking of my failure, looking into the abysm,
Weak from the noon-day heat.
A churchbell sounded mournfully far away,
I heard the cry of a baby.
And the coughing of John Yarnell
Bedridden, feverish, feverish, dying.
Then the violent voice of my wife:
"Watch out, the potatoes are burning!"
I smelled them … then there was irresistable disgust.
I pulled the trigger … blackness … light …
Unspeakable regret … fumbling for the world again.
Too late! Thus I came here.
With lungs for breathing … one cannot breathe here with lungs,
Though one must breathe … Of what use is it
To rid one's self on the world,
When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

From the Department of Desperate Strategies

So, I'm screwed. My wife's parents are paying for her lawyer and my parents are poor. I guess marrying up can blow back on you. My pay was attached in the preliminary court order to take 43% of my income out before I see it, and her lawyer got the court to order a parenting eval to decide custody that I can't afford but have to pay for anyway if I want fair treatment. Oh, and I have no money for a lawyer, and won't until I get some of my assets back, which won't happen unless I get a lawyer. What's a completely fucked dad to do?

And then, tonight it hit me. I'll throw the Hail Mary of all Hail Mary's and pay for an ad in Real Change. Some people think divorce lawyers are a bunch of shits. Maybe they are. I've seen recent evidence. But you never know unless you ask.

This is one of those ideas that might be completely insane, so, I'm putting it out there in a poll on my blog first. Should I pay to run this ad in Real Change? If you say no, you have to offer a better strategy, because right now, I don't have one. The poll is at the top right of the blog.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Best Fundraising Pitch Ever

I wrote this as a hybrid editorial/fund drive ask for Real Change this week, and think I'll submit it to The Society of Professional Journalists this year just to see if it's possible to get an editorial writing award for a fundraising pitch. That would be so cool.

Hard, Hard Times
Real Change offers direct opportunity while we push for structural change. Don’t make us choose. Support the Winter Fund Drive

This holiday season, the shopping is subdued. We’re all worried for the future. Things are going to be hard and everybody knows it.

During Real Change’s Winter Fund Drive this year, the stakes are unusually high. We need to reach our $180,000 goal to be able to sustain both our organizing and the increased demand we experience from our vendors. In the past year, the number of vendors we serve has risen by more than twenty percent. The sorts of scenes that were once rare in our office — psychotic episodes, suicide attempts, fights and other threatening behavior — have become almost commonplace.

Homelessness is growing, and the conditions have become unbelievably desperate.

Recent federal cuts to Medicare mean that many disabled people on fixed-incomes now pay $200 or more each month for their healthcare out of their meager social security checks. For these, the choice between healthcare and bare survival is no choice at all. For some, this will mean the end. Their precarious hold on some sort of life with dignity will break. And these are the “deserving” poor.

There is a serious possibility that this February, Washington state will eliminate the GAU program (General Assistance – Unemployable) altogether. For 9,000 people — many of who are waiting the two to three years it often takes to qualify for social security disability benefits — this paltry $339 a month is the difference between life and death. But budgets must be balanced and poor people are not a powerful constituency. The machine rolls on.

Here in Seattle, the many homeless who sleep in public — outside of the at-capacity emergency shelter system — are subject to arrest and the seizure and destruction of their property. This has been happening for more than a year and it’s no longer news, but we see it everyday. People who are barely hanging on come into Real Change out of the cold and tell us their gear has been thrown away, again.

Why? They live with the misfortune of having to be somewhere in a city that has administratively legislated that somewhere out of existence.

We are on a very ugly trajectory. The poor haven’t just been abandoned. That was the eighties and nineties. Now, we’re being ground into the dirt.

Up From the Grassroots

And yet, November brought us hope. Things won’t be easy, but there is a political mandate for a new direction. These are hard, hard times, but for the first time in decades, real change is possible.

And not a moment too soon. Inequality in America has grown for three decades to stratospheric highs and unimaginably abysmal lows.

Change is possible, but only if we make it happen.

Over the past century, we have seen movements for economic justice win gains for both the poor and the broad middle class. None of this came easily. The labor movement and the civil rights movement paid for their gains in blood. Progress was made against poverty over the sixties and seventies when the demand was forcefully made. Without protest politics, there are no real gains.

Economic justice rarely happens just because it’s the right thing to do. Economic justice is a matter of power, and it happens when movements form out of necessity; when the pressures in people’s lives build to the breaking point and need for change is so great that the movements they create force concessions from entrenched power and money.

This winter, we face economic crisis on the national level and budget deficits at all local levels of government. If we let them, these budgets will be balanced on the backs of those hurting most: single moms with kids, the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill, the sick, the addicted.

Change is coming, but it’s not here yet. The stakes are high, and we need your help. Real Change has raised $114,498 toward our goal since November 1 of this year, and we have just three more weeks to raise the rest.

Two Campaigns, One Problem

The problem, simply put, is that inequality in America has become so extreme that the bottom has fallen out of sight. Beyond Seattle’s 5,800 emergency and transitional shelter beds that were available this year, there were at least another 2,300 people who, more or less invisibly, slept outside.

Beyond the official unemployment statistics, which are worse than they’ve been in decades, are the “discouraged” workers who have stopped looking and dropped off the charts. And behind these are those who have been fodder for the more than five-fold increase in incarceration since 1980 — the poor, the black, the brown — an increase that has placed one in ninety-nine Americans behind bars and left an African-American male high school dropout with a two in three chance of being imprisoned by the age of thirty-five. Seattle’s high school graduation rate for African Americans is a mere 52%.

Racial disproportionality in incarceration on this scale leads to the further impoverishment of economically disadvantaged communities. The 2008 homeless One Night Count documents that 58 percent of homeless people in King County are persons of color. Countywide, people of color make up less than 25 percent of the general population. Although Blacks make up just five percent of county residents, they make up 40 percent of King County’s homeless. This number is up four percent from just two years prior.

As inequality widens and urban living becomes the lifestyle choice of the affluent, visible poverty is criminalized. Begging, sitting, lying, sleeping, and even serving free food in public have all been outlawed. City after city has passed laws to drive the unsightly poor out of town and out of sight. When they don’t go, they accumulate citations. These citations are often ignored out of fear and inability to cope, and these become warrants. The warrants turn into jail time.

Eventually, the jails fill and you need more of them. They’re not cheap. The one the Mayor wants will cost $210 million to build and another $19 million annually to operate. Money that could be used to rebuild lives will instead deepen the cycle of poverty for the most disadvantaged in our society

Seattle’s new jail is an expensive commitment to the structural racism that will surely deepen poverty in disadvantaged communities. There are alternatives — but none will happen without a strong and unified struggle for a better way forward.

Real Change is engaged in two related campaigns to defend those who have the least. Since we uncovered the Mayor’s secret homeless sweeps last year, we have been the leading voice for better survival solutions in Seattle. This December 16, our City Hall Campout and Survival Gear Give-away will mark our fourth overnight protest encampment in one year. We’ve mobilized large numbers of people for public hearings, documented consistent violations of the city’s own policy, and backed the Nickelsville survival encampment that has gained the strong support of Seattle’s faith community.

Our No New Jail Campaign has challenged the Mayor’s assertion of inevitability, and elevated the jail issue from a NIMBY-based discussion of site alternatives to a community-wide debate over the role of incarceration in perpetuating race-based inequality. We are organizing a broad-based and powerful coalition to take action on this issue, and will hold a large public forum on the new jail this January.

Real Change is caught between two challenges. On the one hand, we provide a valuable direct service in a time of rising need. On the other, we have a responsibility to push hard for structural change. Both take resources. Real Change needs the capacity to not have to choose one or the other.

Please support the Winter Fund Drive. Our broad and growing base of grassroots support gives us the freedom and clout to play an uncompromised and leading role in demanding the change we all need. Mail your gift to Real Change, 2129 2nd Ave., Seattle, WA 98121, or visit our website at to make a secure on-line donation. We’re in this together, and we’re playing to win.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dreaming Big With Obama

The Western Regional Advocacy Project, of which Real Change is a proud member, sent this off recently to the Obama transition team. My capacity for hope is still tempered by twenty-eight years of well-earned political cynicism, so I'm not holding my breath. Still, it's good to ask. It all seems pretty reasonable to me.

WRAP is an organization of seven West Coast community groups with, on average, 15 years of service in their communities. In 2006 we formed this organization to serve as a vehicle to bring our collective voices to Washington DC. Toward that end I present to you the following paper we prepared for a congressional staff briefing hosted by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office after the release of our report entitled Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness and Policy Failures. Since its release we have documented over 25,000 downloads from our website and have distributed our full print run of 3,000 hard copies. The full report (and accompanying artwork) is available on our website for your perusal.

One key recommendation we recently added to this paper is to ensure that affordable housing development is included as part of any economic stimulus proposal. We want to express that at the local level we are hearing a strong call for affordable housing and the proposed economic stimulus package is an ideal opportunity to address the housing and economic crises simultaneously. We can supply you with several examples of Community Housing Developers that have done an incredible job of community development as part of their housing development work -- through local hiring and training, small business generation, use of green technology, and of course paying a living wage to their workforce.

Our briefing paper follows and should you have any questions please do not hesitate to call at the number listed above. WRAP members are also available to meet with you to provide more detailed recommendations and input. We all are truly looking forward to a new day and a new relationship with OUR federal government!!

Paul Boden

Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness, and Policy Failures, written and published by WRAP, documents the direct correlation between homelessness and the massive cuts to HUD and USDA affordable housing programs that began in 1979 and continue today.

The report shows why, after 20 years, the McKinney Act has had no substantial impact on ending homelessness. It shows how the failed policy of having local communities write 5 and 10 year plans to “end” homelessness has pitted them against each other for the miniscule amount of McKinney funding and has shifted the focus away from the lack of funding for affordable housing.
  • Between 1978 and 1983 HUD budget authority shrank from $83 billion to little more than $18 billion (in 2004 constant dollars) and has never been more than $30 billion since then (chart 3).
  • In 1983 local governments across America began opening “temporary” shelters in response to the emerging numbers of people who had become homeless in their communities.
  • The impact of federal cuts to affordable housing programs has been drastic. In 1976, for example, HUD maintained 213,742 existing housing units and built an additional 203,046 to keep up with a growing population. In 2002, HUD maintained only 25,900 existing units and built only 7635 new ones (chart 1).
  • HUD funding for new public housing units – the safety net for the poorest among us – has been zero since 1996 (chart 4), while more than 100,000 existing units of public housing have been lost in that same period.
  • From 1976-1985 a yearly average of almost 31,000 new Section 515 rural affordable housing units were built, but from 1986-2005 the average yearly production was 8170, a 74 percent reduction (chart 2).
  • In 1987 the federal government responded to the growing crisis of homelessness with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, but McKinney funding has never been more than $1.4 billion (chart 3).

McKinney homeless assistance programs have increasingly become a “catch-all” system for people who once were provided for by other mainstream federal government programs. Without Housing documents this trend regarding cuts to HUD and USDA, but it also holds true for domestic violence victims who used to depend on Department of Justice funding, for veterans who depended on the VA for housing and treatment, and for disabled people who depended on HHS funded residential and community-based treatment programs.

The original intent of McKinney to provide funding for communities “facing an immediate and unprecedented crisis due to the lack of shelter for a growing number of people” has become unrealistic because the federal government continues to create homelessness with cuts to legitimate housing and treatment programs.

There are approximately 470 Continuum of Care Boards and more than 290 “Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness” Councils across America, with over 400 10 year plans. Many communities have both, and all are competing for a share of the same $1.4 billion of McKinney funding.

The most surprising aspect of mass homelessness is not that it was created by cuts to affordable housing. It is that the federal government spends more on housing subsidies today than it ever has, but these subsidies overwhelmingly benefit the private housing sector. Federal tax expenditures on home ownership in 2005 were $122 billion, while total HUD outlays were $31 billion – a difference of $91 billion (charts 7 and 8).


WRAP – along with hundreds of other groups – wants the funding of federal affordable housing programs restored to comparable 1978 levels. We all share this goal, and these recommendations are presented to you as steps needed to get us there.

1) Include affordable housing development as part of any economic stimulus proposal.

2) Reject all current and future proposals to reduce funding for affordable housing, and prioritize access to housing for the poorest among us.

3) Ensure that funding cuts to federal mainstream programs don’t push more people into homelessness; local homeless planning boards should monitor the effects of these federal cuts and report on them in their McKinney applications. McKinney assistance should not be considered a catchall for beneficiaries of other programs after those programs have been cut.

4) Consider the full scope of federal housing subsidies and take action to balance the disparity between housing subsidies for wealthy people and for poor people. We refer you to: the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform report, Simple, Fair, and Pro-Growth (2005); National Low Income Housing Coalition’s report, Changing Priorities: The Federal Budget and Housing Assistance 1976 – 2005 (2004); and the report of the Bipartisan Millennial Housing Commission, Meeting Our Nation’s Housing Challenges (2002). These reports have specific and consistent recommendations about this issue.

5) Ensure that the more than 688,000 homeless children in our public school systems are fully integrated with their housed peers, are provided support to succeed in school, and have homes in which to grow and thrive.

6) Monitor HUD’s use of regulatory language and NOFAs that reprioritize and change the legislative intent of homeless assistance funding, and hold the Secretary of HUD accountable.

McKinney-Vento homeless assistance funding is a vital program for addressing the immediate suffering of homeless people, but if we – as a nation – want to end homelessness, we must do much more.