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 realchangenews.org to make a secure on-line donation. We’re in this together, and we’re playing to win.