Thursday, July 31, 2008

Print Journalism Success Story reports that, with daily newspaper circulation falling faster than ever, the print media is in trouble.
Daily circulation fell 3.57% from the same period last year for 530 U.S. newspapers reporting a Monday-through-Friday average for the six months ended March 31, according to data released Monday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Among the 601 papers reporting Sunday circulation, circulation dropped 4.59%. Those numbers compare to declines of 2.6% for daily circulation and 3.5% for Sunday circulation during the six months ended Sept. 30.
Not here. Real Change circulation rose by 16% last year. 2008 circulation thus far is up by nearly 17%. More than five years ago, as we planned for the shift to weekly publication, we learned through focus groups that most people expect a street newspaper to be crap. This negative expectation was so strong that people could buy the paper over and over and never read it. They'd already made up their minds. Real Change, they thought, was about charity, not news. We made a decision to rebrand as an activist community newspaper and to lead with the quality. This year, Real Change took three awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. The vendors hear all the time that we're the best newspaper in Seattle. Quality journalism and compassionate community: it's a winning combination.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Politics of Illusion

McKinney-Vento, the Federal statute that allocates funding to programs serving homeless people, is up for reauthorization, and the fight this time, as always, is over the definition of who, exactly, is homeless, and the political consequences of that number.

Most people don't realize that different bureaucracies go by different definitions. The Department of Education definition of "homeless" includes families that are doubled up or living in short term poverty hotel situations. As a result, there are 903,000 homeless kids who receive protections that allow them to attend public schools despite their lack of formal residency. A letter from the National Education Association to members of Congress reads as follows:
The Department of Education definition of homelessness reflects the realities of family and youth homelessness. Public schools are the cornerstone of communities; no other entity has the same level of daily contact with children, youth, and families. Schools see the scope and the depth of housing problems in every community in the nation, and therefore are among the most accurate barometers of family and youth homelessness. Schools serve children whose families cannot get into shelters because they are full, or non-existent. Schools also serve children and youth who are excluded from shelters because of eligibility rules.

Homeless children and youth are at grave risk of educational failure and dropping out of school. Children who are moving from place to place – and are tired, hungry, sick, and traumatized – face significant barriers to academic success. Yet, the narrow definition proposed in the mark will undercut public school efforts to help these children. The definition will make it harder for schools and other agencies to work together and will prevent vulnerable children and youth from receiving the services they need to come to school ready and able to learn.

By aligning HUD’s definition more closely with the Department of Education, communities will be better equipped to serve these vulnerable children and youth. Again, we urge the Committee to adopt the Biggert-Davis amendment to include in the HUD definition children and youth who are verified as homeless by public schools.
Were HUD to adopt the Department of Education definition, these homeless families would be eligible for housing assistance and other benefits that might ease their way to stability. This, despite the strong efforts of progressive homeless advocates, looks unlikely. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, the 800-pound gorilla of homeless advocacy that serves as an almost quasi-governmental agency in pushing the Bush Administration Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness agenda, is opposed.

Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the 10YP paradigm's intellectual architects, says why in the current issue of Time Magazine.
"There's a very large housing problem in this country," he says. "But shoehorning new people into the homeless category isn't going to make a hill of beans of difference. It's only going to dilute what we're doing." He points to the U.S. budget for homelessness, which is just $1.5 billion a year. That's barely enough to help fund the Housing First push; it's not going to bail out families caught up in the foreclosure crisis.
Great. The problem is too big to solve given current resources. So let's maintain the illusion that we're winning the war on homelessness at the expense of children. Throw 'em to the goddamn wolves.

Speaking of illusions, yesterday I wrote about the Good News from HUD, reported in the NYT, that chronic homelessness is down by 30% since 2005. Rejoice!

I spoke to a reporter today and offered four good reasons for why the HUD number is total bullshit.

1.) The McKinney definition of "chronically homeless" narrowed over this period. It's the oldest trick in the world, but still a good one.

2.) When I was a homeless advocate in Boston, we always did an action at the Federal Building on January 21st, statistically the coldest day in the year. In 2006, the Feds mandated that, for consistency's sake, all One Night Counts be performed during the same period, during the third week of January. Counts dropped. Victory was declared.

3.) In the context of escalating and systematic harassment by police in cities everywhere, all of which routinely profess their great commitment to "ending homelessness" through their Ten Year Plans, homeless people have simply made themselves harder to find. When you know a cop might come around to steal your blanket, the logical response is to hide.

4.) There is tremendous institutional incentive to lie. This is what the concept of "political will to end homelessness" has become: an exercise in bureaucratic legerdemain to deliver numbers that look like success, whatever the actual reality may be. This, theoretically, keeps the funds flowing. There are serious problems with this as a long-term strategy that will most likely fail. You can only lie for so long before the truth becomes apparent, and the hard end of this road is probably closer than any of us thinks.

I harsh a lot on Ten Year Plans. The irony is that I believe the principal of Housing First works. As an advocate, I've said that housing is the solution to homelessness for more than twenty years. But it has to be funded. The Feds are AWOL from the table and retreating, and localities can't do it on their own. Seattle's 10YP, which is missing its goals by approximately half, is one of the success stories. This does not bode well.

But this, relatively speaking, is a minor problem. The larger issue is that narrow, social service solutions to homelessness that evade inconvenient issues of poverty and inequality are incapable of capturing a political constituency that can build for power.

To frame homelessness in terms of the most dysfunctional 10-15%, and constantly describe them as mentally ill people, drunks, and drug addicts who are an expensive burden that must be met one way or another, is stigmatizing and self-defeating. When defending this definition comes at the expense of helping kids, the evil is multiplied.

But here's the worst. Homeless advocacy has been co-opted by the bureaucratic-managerial class, and the promise of Ten Year Plans offer cover to municipalities as they criminalize visible poverty. United States Interagency Council on Homelessness head Philip Mangano should not be allowed to fly around the country posing as some technocratic version of Saint Frances of Assisi.

When mass homelessness was last solved, it was through programs that also expanded access to the middle class and led to thirty years of economic growth and declining inequality. Guaranteed FHA loans. Public Housing. The GI Bill. Work programs to build infrastructure. Regulatory government that curbed corporate and individual greed.

The real solutions haven't changed.

Homelessness will never be defined away, and those of us who care about homelessness as the extreme and dehumanizing result of poverty and inequality need to be clear about who's side we're on. The politics of illusion might look good from a distance, but from the perspective of the street, they don't do shit.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lies, Lies, and More Lies

"What fucking stable housing? There is no stable housing! My housing isn't even stable." This was my friend Revel's response then I read her this line from today's New York Times, which reports a 30% decrease in chronic homelessness from 2005-2007.
Housing officials say the statistics, which are collected annually from more than 3,800 cities and counties, may reflect better data collection and some variation in the number of communities reporting. But officials also attribute much of the decline to a policy shift promoted by Congress and the administration that has focused federal and local resources on finding stable housing for homeless people suffering from drug addiction, mental illness or physical disabilities, long deemed the hardest to help in the homeless population.
This great victory is based on numbers such as this, which report that Seattle decreased chronic homelessness by 20% over 2006-2007. There isn't a single advocate in Seattle who believes this to be remotely true. While housing first works, everyone knows there isn't nearly enough. Here in Seattle, we're missing Ten Year Plan targets for housing production by half, and we're doing better than most.

This is about narrowed definitions, municipal strategies that criminalize poverty, and an eagerness to lie in the service of the illusion that things are basically OK, and that the most vulnerable are being taken care of.

I don't really fucking think so.

I was going to write s whole book on this, but my friend Israel saved me the trouble. The ED of Street Roots in Portland has a blog too, and he said it just as well as I can. Read his post, Lies, Lies, and More Lies.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Lesson on Power: Lie Big and Hit Hard.

Apparently, the city is bringing charges against the Camp4Unity Fifteen, pictured above. Mike Smith, also an arrestee, was handled separately by an ACCESS van and was unable to appear in the post-bust group photo.

Over June 8-9, about a hundred fifty people camped overnight at City Hall in protest of the Nickels administrations' relentless sweeps of homeless encampments. Since last May, the City has systematically attacked homeless campers, routinely throwing away the blankets, survival gear, and personal possessions of those who often have nowhere else to go.

2,631 people were counted outside of an overextended shelter system last January, a fifteen percent increase over last year. To accommodate those displaced by the city's campaign of criminalization and harassment, the City added twenty new shelter beds and hired a few outreach workers to offer pathetically inadequate "services" to the hard cases outside.

Despite nearly a year of strong activism by a variety of organizations, including the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness, Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness, Columbia Legal Services, Jobs with Justice, and the Real Change Organizing Project, the Nickels administration has steadfastly held to their program of aggressive campsite clearances. The City Council, led in this matter by Human Services Committee Chair Tim Burgess, has refused to address the concerns of homeless advocates or demand accountability from the Mayor's Office.

So, on the Morning of June 9th, fifteen clergy, homeless people and their advocates, and student and labor allies walked out onto Cherry Street with a tent and refused to move. The event was one of those choreographed sorts of CDs where everyone knows exactly what's going to happen before it does. We were arrested after three warnings, handcuffed and loaded into a bus, and released to the sidewalk at West Precinct in less than an hour. The official RCOP video is here.

We achieved our objective, which was to get tons of press. At a time when the media was already growing more critical of the Mayor's policy, we gave them a big fat hook for their stories.

The Mayor and the City Attorney's office took their time deciding what to do with us. We weren't even sure we'd been booked. Apparently we were. Reverend Rich Lang was the first of us to receive any notice that charges have been brought. Today, he received his summons to appear in court on August 12th to face charges of Pedestrian interference (12A.12.015). There is an additional charge we weren't warned of when we arranged the civil disobedience action with police. This was filed under the statute relating to Obedience to Peace Officers, Flaggers, and Firefighters (11.59.010). Together, charges carry a threat of a $5,000 fine or 365 days in jail. The other fourteen of us will no doubt get our notices in the coming days.

The charges themselves are interesting. I sort of assumed that the pedestrian interference statute was about jaywalking and that sort of thing. Maybe at some time in the past it was. Now it's about controlling homeless people and suppressing dissent.
SMC 12A.12.015 Pedestrian interference.

A. The following definitions apply in this section:

1. "Aggressively beg" means to beg with the intent to intimidate another person into giving money or goods.

2. "Intimidate" means to engage in conduct which would make a reasonable person fearful or feel compelled.

3. "Beg" means to ask for money or goods as a charity, whether by words, bodily gestures, signs, or other means.

4. "Obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic" means to walk, stand, sit, lie, or place an object in such a manner as to block passage by another person or a vehicle, or to require another person or a driver of a vehicle to take evasive action to avoid physical contact. Acts authorized as an exercise of one's constitutional right to picket or to legally protest, and acts authorized by a permit issued pursuant to the Street Use Ordinance, Chapters 15.02 through 15.50 of the Seattle Municipal Code, shall not constitute obstruction of pedestrian or vehicular traffic.

5. "Public place" means an area generally visible to public view and includes alleys, bridges, buildings, driveways, parking lots, parks, plazas, sidewalks and streets open to the general public, including those that serve food or drink or provide entertainment, and the doorways and entrances to buildings or dwellings and the grounds enclosing them.

B. A person is guilty of pedestrian interference if, in a public place, he or she intentionally:

1. Obstructs pedestrian or vehicular traffic; or

2. Aggressively begs.

C. Pedestrian interference is a misdemeanor.
The second, unanticipated, charge, is about gratuitously upping the ante. It's one of those tools that are used to make charges more serious when that might be useful. Here's how this one reads.
SMC 11.59.010 Obedience to peace officers, flaggers, and firefighters. No person shall wilfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order of any peace officer, duly authorized flagger, or firefighter, who is at the time discharging the duty of regulating and directing traffic or pedestrians. (RCW 46.61.015)
That's it. Short and sweet. I suppose the first crime was to dissent by carrying a tent out into the street, and the second was to fail to stop dissenting when threatened with arrest and asked to stop.

Not long ago, I described the Mayor's homeless sweeps policy in terms of Joseph Goebbels' notion of the Big Lie, and quoted the Nazi propaganda minister himself.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
A few months ago, when I wrote that blog entry, it crossed my mind that we had not yet arrived at the entire equation. In time, I thought, it will come to this, but it would probably be awhile. This is, after all, Seattle. I was wrong about the second part.

Why now? My guess is that the Mayor's Office is looking at Nickelsville, a survival encampment protest planned for sometime around the end of August, and thinking this might be an excellent time to make an example of some dissenters. Whatever they're thinking, we'll make the most of it. Let's play jujitsu.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Plausible Finish

My friend Mark sent me this scan of an original manuscript of a poem by Charles Bukowski. I have a special place in my heart for Charles by way of being a complete sucker for fucked up, drunk, and dirt poor intellectuals. Yes, he was a misogynist pig and a pathetic, violent shit of a human being, but damn, the man saw things and could write. At least Bukowski knew he was an asshole. That's something.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The End of the Middle Class

Author, economist and New York Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman discusses the history of the American "middle class," and argues that growing income inequality may threaten its existence.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Oh Baby Hoggify! All I Need Is My Butt ...

Who knew there was a whole genre of Joe Cocker parody on YouTube? Whatever Joe was on at Woodstock, it didn't make him any easier to understand. Or, maybe he thought The Beatles' lyrics to A Little Help From My Friends needed some help as well.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Love Song

Richard Thompson's
1952 Vincent Black Lightening still gives me chills toward the end. Passionate people, deeply in love, living hard and dying well, with one of the greatest story endings ever: "I see angels on Ariels and leather and chrome, swoopin' down from heaven to carry me home, and he gave her one last kiss and died, and he gave her his Vincent to ride."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dioxin at Lora Lake: A Few Good Questions

CEHKC Director Bill Block gets ashed at last summer's Lora Lake faux civil disobedience.

Ah, Lora Lake. We hardly knew ye. Last summer's affordable housing flash point fizzled with barely a whimper last week when the Port Authority issued a press release written by King County Housing Authority (KCHA) declaring their mutual agreement that the much vaunted deal to save 162 units of affordable housing in Burien is now dead of poisoning.

There will be no autopsy. But read on. Someone needs to call the coroner to see if Lora might be revived.

Apparently, levels of dioxin were found in the soil that exceed current residential standards. Testing and soil clean-up were performed in 1987 by the State Department of Ecology before the now doomed apartments were built, but, as the press release explains, things change.
However, since that time, testing and clean-up standards have been made more stringent. Results of the recent environmental analysis revealed soil contamination of dioxins and other contaminants that exceed current standards for residential use.

Though remediation will still be necessary, the lower environmental standard required for industrial purposes means eventual redevelopment for an industrial use, rather than a residential use, likely remains financially feasible.
At this point, the "homeless advocates" involved collectively shrug, throw up their hands, heave a deep sigh, and say, "Dioxin. Watcha gonna do? Can't poison poor people can ya?"

Here's "homeless advocate" Sandy Brown, quoted in Jennifer Langston's recent Seattle PI article.
Sandy Brown, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church who led demonstrations and prayers to preserve the apartments, said he was disappointed with the outcome.

However, he agreed it doesn't make sense to spend scarce affordable housing dollars on cleaning up pollution.

But last year's controversy, he said, sent a clear message that government-owned housing serving lower-income residents shouldn't be bulldozed and not replaced.

"I think we're not going to see the same cavalier approach to (destroying) 160 units or so as we did in this case, so it's still a victory," Brown said.

Yo, Sandy. Way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. I am totally inspired. Thanks for the prayers.

And intrigued at how similar your messaging is to Rhonda Rosenberg's at KCHA. Real Change reporter Cydney Gillis covered this story, and her notes contain a remarkably similar quote. "As a result of all this stuff that's happened, the Port has become more sensitized to the importance or regional need for affordable housing." The Lora Lake fight, she said "focused much-needed attention on the region’s loss of affordable housing."

It's nice to see so much agreement on the terms of surrender.

Should any of the fire breathing advocates who have apparently given up on this decide to take a closer look, here's a few questions they might ask.

According to a Port of Seattle press release issued last February to announce suspension of the deal pending further testing, samples were taken at depths of seven and fourteen feet. Soil mitigation, however, only occurs two feet down. This, presumably is what happened when the site was tested and cleaned in 1987 prior to original construction.

So, why the sudden interest in finding deeply buried contaminants? It just seems odd. I'm not a scientist, but looking around on-line, it seems like soil testing usually focuses on samples taken at much shallower depths.

Also, there's the needing to have it both ways issue.

When one decides to demolish an apartment building due to dioxin contamination, one runs the risk of a class action suit by former tenants. This issue was addressed by Rosenberg in Gillis' earlier Real Change piece when the deal was first suspended.
"... the housing authority does not believe its previous tenants, who were evicted in June, would have been exposed, as the contaminants are believed to be sealed under Lora Lake’s concrete-on-slab construction."
Let me ask a possibly naive question here. If the contaminants are sealed, and no one is exposed, then what's the problem? Unless, of course, you tear the place down.

So, why is the deal off again? Maybe I'm just shooting in the dark here, but it seems like these are questions worth asking. Serious activists don't always believe what they're told.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Less Spin. More Courage.

Depending upon your source, the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in Seattle/King County is succeeding, or failing. This week, the Committee to End Homelessness (CEHKC) released their 2007 Annual Progress Report. “By December 31, 2007,” reads the report, “we had opened 1,449 units with another 1,411 in the pipeline.”

Having reached the thirty percent mark in less than three years, we can presume that homelessness will end on schedule.

This is pure, unadulterated spin. Plan benchmarks call for opening 950 units of housing and subsidized rentals annually over ten years. Units “in the pipeline” don’t count. On the other hand, units in the pipeline prior to the plan are counted as units opened. At least they’re being consistent.

The sad reality is that CEHKC, a public/private sector consortium of business, government, philanthropy, churches, and non-profits, is falling short on meeting stated goals by nearly half.

One need look no further than their own Governing Board minutes of last April to see the truth.
“The Ten Year Plan has a goal of creating 9,500 units of housing — 4,500 units through new development and 5,000 from the use of existing housing through master leasing/rental subsidy. Our current rate of 500 units per year (approximately 300 new construction and 200 subsidized rentals) is double the pre-Plan pace, but still less than that needed to reach the Plan’s proposed ten-year average of 950 per year. To achieve our goal, we need to increase our production by 450 per year.”
This progress came during a time of state, county, and city budgetary surplus. We now face a contracting economy and budgetary shortfalls at all levels of government. According to CEHKC’s own numbers, sustaining current housing production rates will cost a total of $55.6 million annually. To produce the units required to meet plan benchmarks and cover the current shortfall will take another $67.8 million each year.

Worse, the 2008 One Night Count of homeless people in Seattle/King County documents a 15% increase in homelessness over the previous year. This should surprise no one. Rental vacancy rates are at an all time low and the cost of housing is at an all time high. Several times the number of affordable units produced have been lost to condo conversion and other market forces.

The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has no mechanism to re-assess benchmarks in relation to affordable housing loss and increased homelessness. The 950 units produced annually target is a static number that exists within a dynamic landscape of growing inequality.

Bottom line: The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is in deep trouble. Proposed solutions include greater efforts to leverage federal resources, and a stronger push for state and local resources. In a time of contracting budgets, prospects here are dim. We are hitting the wall. Laughably, the plan for “increasing political will” rests largely on a revision of the CEHKC communications plan.

Newsflash: Building the political will to end homelessness cannot be separated from building a broader movement for economic justice. This includes addressing issues of responsible development, tax fairness, growing inequality, racialized poverty, and broadly felt economic vulnerability.

Homelessness cannot be ended without the confrontation of power.

Ending homelessness, you may be thinking, is a goal that is both audacious and difficult. At least they’re trying.

No. They are not. Trying takes courage. It means stepping on a few toes. It means sincerely giving a crap about the condition of those who are on the street tonight, and not deferring the solution to the full implementation of some half-assed plan that is clearly failing.

Seattle’s homeless sweeps are making the City safe for the most affluent at the expense of the most desperate. Over nearly a year of intense community opposition to City policy, CEHKC has offered only silence. City officials routinely hide behind the Ten Year Plan, even as they dodge the critical question of where people are supposed to go.

“Thank you for your comments about illegal encampments,” begins the Mayor’s standard reply. “For too long, society has viewed homelessness as a problem that can only be managed, not solved. I disagree. … Allowing people to live in tents and under tarps in greenbelts without water, sanitation and hidden from police is neither a safe nor humane approach. We can do better. Working with local partners, we have created the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness ….”

Homelessness cannot be ended at the expense of meeting immediate survival needs. To say that more shelter beds are not the answer and that outdoor survival is illegal when 2,631 people were counted on the street — outside of an over capacity emergency shelter system — during the cold dead of a single January night, is a dodge at best.

This is not courage. This is hypocrisy, the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

Across the nation, more than three hundred municipalities have adopted Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness. This is not a social justice movement. It is a bureaucratic response to federal funding requirements.

In most of these cities, certain similarities can be seen. Urban living is in for those who can afford it, and visible poverty is a problem to be managed. Extreme and growing inequality defines the urban landscape, and quasi-governmental bodies have implemented various strategies to manage the contradiction. This typically looks like the repression and criminalization of those on the street, and “homeless advocacy” that ignores the broader issues of poverty, inequality, and declining human and civil rights.

The modern era of homelessness has everything to do with the question of power. Cui bono. Who benefits? In the global economy, private capital has eclipsed the power of an increasingly deregulatory government. Profits are privatized, risk is socialized, taxation is regressive, and those who are written off by the new economy are largely abandoned.

You don’t end homelessness with a better communications plan. You end homelessness by challenging power and fighting back like it matters. As billionaire investor Warren Buffet has said, “There’s class warfare alright, but it’s my class — the rich class — that’s winning.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

Smart Mouse, Mean Cat

This morning I was talking to one of our vendors, a pretty together sort of guy who's been sleeping out in one of Seattle's finer parks. Not surprisingly, many of the "higher functioning" homeless people opt out of the largely oppressive and chaotic shelter system for the independence of taking care of themselves. This, given that the shelters are packed to the rafters, winds up working for everyone.

Except the City, which has declared war on people like him, and last year unleashed a campaign of systematic harassment. This includes defining homeless campers as criminals, throwing away their stuff whenever possible, and portraying them as urine-soaked vectors of disease and the source of the international drug trade.

"They leavin' you alone," I asked?

"Nah. I'm playing cat and mouse with 'em. There's no traffic in the middle of the night, so when the cruisers come through with their spotlights I always hear them first."

"Nice, stayin' a step ahead. Haven't they got anything better to do?"

"They do. But that doesn't stop them. I'm OK, but I could really use a good night's sleep."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Parody in Palindromes

This weekend we were listening to Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan's Daniel Lanois-produced and vastly under-appreciated 1989 recording, when Revel felt compelled to share this video by Weird Al Yankovic. My world was instantly culturally enriched. This spot on parody of D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Don't Look Back is brilliant on so many levels. For starters, the original Subterranean Homesick Blues footage is, in itself, inherently ridiculous and begging to be mocked. Yes, Dylan's a genius, but when I first saw Don't Look Back, my big take-away was "What an asshole!" And yes, Dylan's lyrics are often deep and brilliant, but sometimes they're just nonsensical easy rhymes delivered with great feeling. This, too, begs for mockery. But the best part is that Yankovic has written his parody completely in palindromes, or lines that read the same frontward or backward. Bet you can't watch it just once.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Branded was a short-lived (1965-1966) western I watched in re-runs as a kid in Sioux Falls, SD. Chuck Connors stars as Captain Jason McChord, a West Pointer who is unfairly accused of cowardice in battle and drummed out of the military. He wanders alone bearing his shame, but strength of character carries the day and he generally transcends. I didn't remember most of that until I looked it up. But I did remember the parody of the theme song that we found so screamingly funny on the Saint Mary's School playground.
Stranded, stranded, stranded on the toilet bowl,
What do you do when you're stranded, without a roll?
To prove you're a man, you must wipe with your hand,
so be brave! Stranded.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What's Up With The Japanese?

Three Japanese bands, in their own ways, do 21st Century Schizoid Man total justice. Here's the string orchestra Seasons, with their impossibly gorgeous arrangement of the King Crimson classic that I can't stop watching. Below, a punk band named Z.O.A. and a rock outfit called Ninjen-Isu both take the original up a few notches. I don't know what it is with the Japanese, but they really, really get this song. Maybe their culture is even more fucked up than ours. A video of the King Crimson version can be found by clicking on the label below.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Seattle's Caviar King and the Polish Barn Raising

Here's a video tour of David "Squirrelman" Csaky's treehouse, made by some folks at local rock station KISW the morning they helped take the structure down. Most people would probably assume that the City of Seattle, since they wanted Csaky gone so damn badly, were the ones who tore his treehouse down. They would be wrong. They told Csaky to take it down himself. If he didn't, they threatened, workers would simply come and cut down the three large Lindens that supported his home and say it was his fault.

Here in eco-obsessed Seattle, trees are often more beloved than people. This is why Mayor Greg Nickels likes to grind poor and homeless folks into the dirt. They make for an amazing mulch.

Shortly after receiving this threat, Csaky asked for demolition help during a radio interview on KISW. Around fifty people called in. A neighbor and friend of Csaky called them all back, and a work crew was assembled that included callers, radio staff, and friends from around the neighborhood. A friend of Csaky's describes the scene.
They went up in the treehouse, admired it, took photos of it and of Dave. Then they moved everything down the ladder in a kind of fire brigade. Using crowbars, they began taking the treehouse apart. It was well constructed. Dave used well beyond the required number of nails. They worked all day and got the treehouse down. At first they filled a pickup and did a couple of runs to the dump at their own expense. Later in the day, they began dropping everything to the ground below the trees. They worked extremely hard and didn't quit until the sun went down.

I talked the Lake Union Cafe into donating sodas to the crew. Our neighbors talked the Eastlake Bar and Grill into donating some hamburgers. I talked Romio's into donating a pizza, then I donated a couple of pizzas. The crew was great. Dave was moved by their generosity.
Perhaps you read Real Change Editor Adam Hyla's tale of two approaches to Squirrelman. Documents from one of our recent public disclosure requests revealed the name of the man who ratted out Csaky, but when Hyla dropped in for an interview, the local businessman declined to go on record.

Then the asshole got all chatty, which presented a dilemma. Hyla, being an ethical kind of guy, deliberated and decided it was more important to use the guy's words to tell the story than to out him to the community.

Happily, another neighbor saw the story in Real Change and sent a letter to the editor that ran in today's paper. I guess people were going to find out sooner or later.
I write to criticize the reporting in your story about Dave “Squirrelman” Csaky.

I believe Dale Sherrow to be the man you declined to reference. ... Certainly you could not have missed the fact that Mr. Sherrow is not just any man but the owner of the Seattle Caviar Co. Your story would have an added dimension and carried greater meaning with more impact if you had taken the time to note the ironic contrast. Squirrelman living in a tree house on the kindness of others lost a home because of the owner of a business stocking the quintessence of the all too “nouveau riche.”

You could have noted that the Seattle Caviar Co. grossed about $2 million last year in sales while Dave Csaky pulled in less than $1000. Your paper might have taken the time to explain that the little shop, just a short block from the famous tree-house, does not hesitate to charge up to $250 for a mere ounce of its named product. (at that rate a “quarter-pounder at McDonalds would be $1000 or, as Mr. Sherrow has been proudly quoted, "$50 a spoonful. Yummy." In other publications, Mr. Sherrow sagely comments that "an ounce of white truffles goes a lot further than an ounce of caviar."
Yet, to get the true flavor of Mr. Sharrow and his relationship to an evolving Seattle, one can do no better that to visit the About Us page of his own Seattle Caviar Co. website.
Dale and Betsy Sherrow opened the Seattle Caviar Company in 1990. Both Betsy and Dale are Seattle natives. They developed an appreciation for caviar through travel in Europe and decided that a thriving metropolis like Seattle, Washington was ready for the elegance and mystique of the world's finest Caviar.
Yep. Seattle has arrived. We deserve the elegance of fine caviar. Poor people, on the other hand, get shit sandwiches with extra mayo.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


The new Real Change came in today. It's always a mob scene with everyone wanting to be first on the street with the new paper. I stood out on the sidewalk while Steve waited for the line to subside as he told me about last Friday.

"I was sleeping in Meridian Park in Wallingford, totally out. It was like 11 o'clock. Some guy kicks me in the hand, kicks me in the ribs, kicks me in the jaw, and says, 'I know where you live. I'm going to kill you.' And then he runs off. Never seen him before in my life. I called the police and it took them 45 minutes to show up. They took a report and left. Why does it take them 45 minutes?"

He was holding a cup of Ramen noodles. His lower thumb joint looked like a golf ball.

"That the hand he kicked?"

"Yeah, it's all swollen. It hurts. But I can move it. It's not broken." He twitched his thumb to demonstrate.

"Steve, it's fucking broken. There probably isn't much they can do, but you should have it looked at."

"That's all I need is to spend my day in an emergency room."

"Yeah, it sucks."

"I don't know what kind of shoes he was wearing, but it hurt like hell."

Then Steve told me about a couple of guys he knew who were attacked by three high school boys last summer while they slept out at Ballard Locks.

"They just started kicking them. Then they picked Pete up and threw him over the railing. The tide was out, so he hit the rocks. They were all covered with barnacles. He was all cut up. Split his head open. Busted his ribs and his leg. They caught a couple of them, but one is still on the loose."

As the City goes out of its way to identify homeless campers with urine, hypodermic needles, trash, and disease, there will be those who hear the not so subtle subtext loud and clear: These people are less than human. Do with them what you will. We don't care.

Last December, as the Mayor's moved toward the release of new protocols to justify sweeps of homeless encampments, the City Council passed hate crime legislation to increase penalties for malicious harassment of homeless people. This would include, causing physical injury, making threats which cause reasonable fear, or "causing physical damage to or the destruction of property of another person."

The Mayor's office has been quite clear that the ordinance does not apply to their routine practice of discarding homeless people's possessions. Given that this ordinance passed to "fight the dehumanization of the homeless by discouraging behavior that reinforces and promotes dehumanization of the homeless," this issue needs to be revisited.

Big Hands

The question came up recently of what made Modest Mouse, at their peak, such a great band. I had to think about it for a minute. Great songwriting, and vocals that were always just on the brink of hysteria. I came across this 1981 clip of the Violent Femmes doing their signature song, and realized that the same principles apply. One of my peak live show experiences was seeing them in '84 in a small Northampton club. I don't remember its name, but there was an small airplane sticking out of the roof, as though it had crashed into the building. The club, with maybe 150-200 people, was packed. Their set was largely acoustic, with just a simple snare for percussion. They were electrifying. I saw them again a few years later in a larger venue in a full on concert setting, and it wasn't the same at all. The magic was gone. The Femmes were at their best when they kept it simple. Pure stripped down angsty intensity. That was the shit.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Jails Aren't The Answer, But Where's CEHKC?

Last Saturday morning, I drove my tired ass out to North Seattle Community College to see the City's new jail dog and pony show. This would be the facility that King County says we no longer need, and that Seattle, out of sheer institutional momentum, will force upon the neighborhoods anyway.

I sat at a table next to some guy who looked maybe twenty-five who'd just bought a house near the proposed site. "I want to participate in the civic dialogue," he said, "and understand how these decisions are made."

"Cool," I said. "Let me simplify the process for you. The ... City ... doesn't ... care ... what ... you ... think." I don't think he believed me. He'll learn.

Back in 1999, King County projected that limited jail capacity would necessitate cities having their own facilities for misdemeanor criminals. Planning has been underway for a Seattle jail ever since. Four neighborhoods have arrived as finalists for the $110 million facility that would cost around $19 million annually to run, and, hold your breath: nobody wants it.

Now, however, the county says they were wrong. There's plenty of capacity. Among the primary reasons are jail diversion courts, work release, and housing programs that cut recidivism. The chart below, posted in The Stranger's SLOG as overflow from an excellent piece on this by Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, shows the radical decrease of the actual jail population in relation to former projections.

Things are working, but are in serious danger of moving backwards. Spangenthal-Lee writes:
As it turns out, King County's 1999 study was flat-out wrong about its projected inmate population. Neither KCJ nor RJC are operating anywhere close to capacity. By now, the county was supposed to have roughly 2,600 inmates. Instead, the county has about 2,200 and, if operating at maximum capacity—which would require an expansion at RJC—room for nearly 1,500 more between its two facilities.

According to Major William Hayes, a spokesman for KCJ, the county's projections for its jail populations have changed drastically in the last decade because of diversion programs such as drug court and work release. "We could handle quite a few more [inmates]... if we needed to," says Hayes, who adds that he's never seen a jail reach capacity in the 24 years he's been with the county.

On the other hand, several other factors could mean King County does need a new jail sooner rather than later. Because of a $68 million county budget deficit, drug court and mental-health court could soon disappear, as could the county's homeless inmate housing-voucher program, which has reportedly reduced recidivism rates between 30 and 40 percent. The loss of both programs could lead to a spike in the prison population.
And yet, no one cares. The assumption seems to be that prison populations will rise forever. According to a report from the Washington State Institute on Public Policy. Washington State incarceration rates over 1960-1980 remained largely even. Since 1980, they have more than doubled. The county jail incarceration rate grew by 184%. Similar trends have occurred across the nation. We just love, love, love, locking people up.

So much so that programs that actually work to reduce the prison population and cut costly incarceration expenses are first on the chopping block when times get tough.

The City handily dismisses all of this by deploying their favorite tactic: the straw man. Despite the fact that the city's jail population has dropped by 38% over the last decade while overall population has risen by 8%, they say, we still need a new jail. Why? Because, as City policy analyst Catherine Cornwall stated at Saturday's North Seattle forum, while diversion works "we still can't get it down to zero."

Zero? That seems a rather unrealistic goal. Why zero?

Well, because, "at this moment, no county jail beds will be available for misdemeanants by 2012." This is true, I suppose, if the county were still saying this, but they're not. They're saying the capacity is there. The City is lying. They cherry pick their facts to pretend the new jail is inevitable when nothing of the sort is true.

One would think, given that the Committee to End Homelessness in King County's own Color of Homelessness report documents the link between rising incarceration rates, the racialization of poverty, and the disproportionality of people of color among those who are homeless, that CEHKC might have something to say on this issue. One would be wrong.

The report discusses the overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system, and how the absence of services, onerous restitution laws, and discrimination against ex-offenders creates a difficult downward spiral for those who are black, brown, red, and poor.
With over two million persons in prison, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. While some might think that the reasons for such a massive prison population stem from a need to control crime and violence, no clear relationship is present between these matters. Instead, much of the growth in the U.S. prison population over the last three decades is due to the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. For instance, between 1980 and 1999 the number of state prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes increased twelve fold from 19,000 to 251,200 inmates. With respect to federal prisons this percentage increase was fourteen fold during this time period. Due to a multitude of factors, persons of color have suffered the brunt of this buildup in the U.S. prison population. For instance, over half of all persons in prison and/or jail are Black.
Also, one out of three Black men is currently under some form of correctional supervision (in jail, prison, or under parole).

With respect to other persons of color racial groups, the situation is equally disturbing. For instance, Latinos are twice as likely as Whites to be incarcerated. In addition, together with Blacks they make up 80% of all state prisoners sentenced for drug crimes.

Although Native Americans represent less than two percent of all state prisoners, due to their small population size they make up the largest prison population per capita in the U.S. Primarily assumed to be a problem that affects men of color, women of color are also becoming increasingly represented within the correctional system. For instance, women of color make up two-thirds of all women in jails and State and Federal prisons and comprise the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population.
So, let's think a tiny bit out of the box here. Instead of just building more and more prisons and jails, as if this were some completely inevitable law of nature, why don't we instead fix the racist fucking drug laws and support programs that work? If that seems too crazy to contemplate, here's another idea.

The Urban Institute has a new report coming out that applies the logic of Housing First to the problem of recidivism, growing prison populations, and the resource drain this represents as incarceration takes an ever-increasing share of local budgets. Providing housing to those who often inappropriately wind up in jails, they point out, makes fiscal sense and reserves jail capacity for those who actually pose a real threat to society.

A 2006 report by the Urban Institute for the Philadelphia prison system found that nearly four out of five prison releases from 1996 through 2003 were re-releases. Seventy percent of prisoners released in 2003 had "been there, done that" in the previous eight years, and about one in every five prisoners released were coming out for the second, third, even fourth time. If the city can identify the oft-imprisoned and provide services to assist their return to the community, the city will save money and otherwise wasted lives.

Some cities are finding that concentrating on cutting the number who frequent jail and use other services can slow the revolving door, cutting the jail population and saving millions.

In New York, where researchers compared those in homeless shelters with those in jail, at least 900 people had been in jail four or more times and in shelters that many times over a five-year period ending in 2006. Early results from a city initiative to place these high-cost nomads in permanent supportive housing halved their jail stays. In Seattle, 125 mentally ill people who bounced in and out of jail and averaged 21 emergency-room visits a year cost taxpayers more than $3.2 million in hospital bills alone.

Corrections systems may balk at spending money for community-based pre-release programs. But it's just too expensive to define public safety narrowly. Given economic pressures to cut the jail population and political pressures to improve public safety, the choice is between which approach to programs aimed at frequent users is best, not whether to launch or expand them.

So, where the hell is CEHKC in this issue? The same place they are on the homeless sweeps: stone silent with their heads in the sand. It's not hard to see why. Both King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Nickels sit on their Governing Board. These two are at odds on the jail issue, and, once again, CEHKC has a fatal institutional conflict on a problem that radically affects homeless people.

Where we need leadership, what we get from CEHKC is hamstrung, unimaginative, brain-dead bureaucracy that sells out the poor and homeless in the name of preserving relationships among the high and mighty. Poor people deserve better, and the people of Seattle deserve better.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sometimes, It's Better To Run.

I finally got around today to opening my copy of Ark Magazine, the quarterly publication of the National Organizers Alliance, and amid the many excellent articles on innovative electoral work that I'll never get around to actually reading was this half-page image from the Northland Poster Collective. It worries me.

Maybe I'm thinking too literally here, but there's a time to stop organizing and JUST FUCKING RUN! I mean, who are these ethnically diverse people, and what the hell do they think they're doing? Those barrels of toxic waste or whatever look like they're about to come down hard on the half-submerged kid on the shoreline, and the little girl in the fighting stance is being seriously misled by her elders.

And what about the baby? Who confronts a tsunami while holding a baby?

Maybe I'm over-thinking here, but I can't help but visualize the scene thirty seconds later. It looks like rubble, bodies, and rescue crews. There's a metaphor in there somewhere. and I'd prefer to not dwell on it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Go With God

Tonight, I attended the annual dinner of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, which this year honored Reverend David Bloom's more than thirty years of service to our community. David laid the groundwork for the ITFH somewhere between his work at the Church Council of Greater Seattle and one of his numerous faux "retirements" while he was employed as the "Faith Community Organizer" at Real Change. While that position wound up being something we couldn't sustain, David's work led to the first Building the Political Will to End Homelessness conference and the deepened involvement of congregations in homeless advocacy and service provision. Over the years, I've learned that seeds that at first don't seem to take can send down roots that remain hidden for years. Then, one day, there's a new tree for people to climb on.

It feels as though the faith community is on the verge of a turning point of sorts. The Church Council of Greater Seattle has new leadership in veteran community organizer Michael Ramos, and is more committed to their social justice mission than ever. More and more congregations are supporting SHARE/WHEEL's tent city work by hosting the encampment on their property. Numerous congregations have aligned with the Sound Alliance organizing effort for economic justice. The Archdiocesan Housing Authority is organizing churches for legislative advocacy on housing issues. Rich Lang over at Trinity is working with faith community allies to engage more deeply in this work and move through charity toward justice. The Rauschenbusch Center for Spirit and Action has roared to life and is starting to hold public speak-outs in Westlake Center.

Tonight David spoke of the difference between optimism and hope. He is not optimistic, he said, over our prospects of ending homelessness. This pessimism is well-founded. Bullshit pronouncements from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness aside, things have been getting worse for approximately thirty years, and that trend line shows little prospect of changing.

There is, however, reason for hope. Optimism under these circumstances is just whistling through the graveyard. Hope, on the other hand, is an exercise in prophetic imagination. Hope is visionary, and is less about belief than will. Hope, said Emily Dickinson, is "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all."

When Michael Ramos spoke on behalf of the Church Council at Camp4Unity last June, it gave me hope. That hope is sustained and furthered whenever I see people or institutions extend themselves in the service of justice. We're not winning yet, but the tide, it seems, is beginning to turn. Michael's speech is reproduced below.
In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read, “God says, this rather is the fasting that I wish; releasing those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke. Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and homeless. Then, your light shall go forth like the dawn and your wound shall be quickly healed.”

The Church Council of Greater Seattle mourns the deaths of the more than 250 women and men who were homeless and who have died in recent years. A county and city as prosperous as ours can only be considered great when we are moved with radical compassion such that the most displaced are valued with the most affluent, and that our very selves are offered as a bridge to mend the unconscionable gap between rich and poor in our midst. Homelessness is, from a faith and human perspective, a scandal that calls for a conversion of heart in all of us, lest we grow complacent and tolerant. Behind each death is a name and a life, that that to the Women in Black, Church of Mary Magadalene and Real Change, matter. In memory of these people, let us stand so that others may not fall.

Our faith traditions call us to prioritize those who are poor. The measure of our economic and social decisions is our impact on those who are most vulnerable. What is done FOR the people most affected? What is done TO the people most affected? How do they take part in the decisions that affect them? When more than 2,600 people can be counted on the streets in our county as homeless on a given night, a 15% increase in the same areas over last year, we must ask ourselves how we are addressing this priority. When one night in May, 42 people are turned away from Operation Nightwatch, a final sanctuary for those without a place to stay, the crisis is lack of shelter, not a few tents in the woods. The principle must guide the policy must guide the practice. The people who are marginalized, neglected, abandoned, homeless need to be made the basic criteria for a continuum of care that provides for shelter first even while we create new sources of housing.

As a key partner in the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, we too believe that housing is a right and that we need to come together to provide the home and the support services for each in need. More than 150 of our congregations demonstrate their commitment to this vision each year, as well as our own programs. Yet, when there is nowhere else to go, even the legitimate health and safety considerations for our public spaces must yield to the demand for survival of those who camp in order to live. As sweeps become a matter of policy, it is these people who bear an inherent dignity who must have a say.

We appreciate the 20 additional shelter beds and the case managers who visit the tent encampments. But, the primary concern for safe shelter has not been adequately addressed. We ask the city to revisit the Tent Encampment policy so that the loopholes in it not serve as an excuse for further harm to those with whom we ought to be concerned. That would be a thoughtful follow-up to another memorial for those whom society judges, but whom we uphold and affirm as people whom God deems worthy and valuable in his sight.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

BigDog Creeps Me Out

One of the creepier visions that Star Wars offered of the future, other than Luke falling in love with his sister, was of the Robot Armies: vast battle fields of killing machines, relentlessly unleashed by the Dark Side to do the bidding of pure evil. These ranged from skeletal humanoids (battle droids and super battle droids), to over-sized automated killer insects (destroyer and imperial probe droids) to more unassuming boxy little robots that would just as soon kill you as look at you. They offer all the sociopathic violence of war with none of the emotional ambivalence or potential for compassion.

Military robots are nothing new. The German Goliath was a remote controlled demolition vehicle used in Normandy in 1944. More recent models, which resemble small tanks with cannons and machine guns, have problems with recognition that have led to serious battlefield trust issues, but research is very much underway to develop better working models. The future, more and more, is now.

Boston Dynamics just released a video of BigDog, "the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics family of robots," that is, well, creepy in the extreme. As the technology of killing machines grows more and more sophisticated, the Star Wars future of robot armies is feeling less and less sci-fi
BigDog is the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics family of robots. It is a quadruped robot that walks, runs, and climbs on rough terrain and carries heavy loads. BigDog is powered by a gasoline engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system. BigDog's legs are articulated like an animal’s, and have compliant elements that absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule, measuring 1 meter long, 0.7 meters tall and 75 kg weight.

BigDog has an on-board computer that controls locomotion, servos the legs and handles a wide variety of sensors. BigDog’s control system manages the dynamics of its behavior to keep it balanced, steer, navigate, and regulate energetics as conditions vary. Sensors for locomotion include joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load, a laser gyroscope, and a stereo vision system. Other sensors focus on the internal state of BigDog, monitoring the hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine temperature, rpm, battery charge and others.

In separate trials, BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, and carries a 340 lb load.

BigDog is being developed by Boston Dynamics with the goal of creating robots that have rough-terrain mobility that can take them anywhere on Earth that people and animals can go. The program is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

As we more toward a future of urban slum warfare and military conflict over essentials like water and food, technological "advances" such as BigDog fill me with dread. It's not a stretch to imagine something like this, mounted with high-powered automatic weaponry, on the streets of Mexico City or anywhere else "on Earth that people and animals can go," by 2050.

Friday, July 11, 2008

We Won't Shut Up, We Won't Back Down ...

Let's sweep the Mayor out of town. Favorite line. "Screw the police and the parks department, if you want to take my home build me an apartment." The Radical Cheerleaders at Camp4Unity last month. Oh to be twenty again. But forty-seven ain't half fucking bad either.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

For People Who Are Homeless

Tuesday I went to a meeting of pastors that was convened by Rich Lang to begin a dialogue about how churches could perhaps take the work on homelessness up a notch or two and maybe even fight for justice when they're not too busy making sandwiches. Lots of my favorite people were there. Rich joked that I was invited as an honorary pastor to talk about Real Change's Organizing Project, and offered to have everyone do a laying on of hands to seal the deal. He also offered to convene an exorcism if that might be more helpful.

As an honorary pastor, I got to help read the closing prayer. It's from a radical minister in Atlanta named Eduard Loring, and appears in the collection Prayers For the New Social Awakening. I quite like it.
Hungry are we, Oh God of the oppressed, for justice.
Thirsty are we, O God of liberation, for human rights.
We come before you on this day-for-free.
Oh Creator,
That you are making
In the midst of the Empire's weapons
of mass distraction.

We come
to focus,
to commit,
to act,
to struggle,
to fight,
to love,
to shout as loud as we can,
to wage peace

for your abandoned ones
who wander the mean streets
with nowhere to go
in this nation at war
with Iraq, at itself.

You Companions of Compassion
who dearly love
beggars & prostitutes
children fighting rats under bridges,
starving mothers whose milk cannot nourish,
prisoners who sit in abandoned hell holes,
without the visits that your son commands.

You who
come to us in the stranger's guise as
drunks and addicts,
widows and orphans,
beggars in velvet,
mumblers and incoherent poets of your word of fire,
lost lawless lawyers whose bar code is: Out,
teachers who dared to tell the way the truth the life,
veterans who fought our war abroad,
& have no homes in their homeland (no security, no
patriots act for them.

You, Oh God of justice
cry out
like a woman alone in childbirth:

"Housing is a human right
Go tell it on the mountains
in the sanctuaries
on the streets
at the courthouse and the halls of congress,
House my People today,
I say,
In the fierce urgency of now.

Woe to you prosperity preachers,
Woe to you blind cruel police
who hurt and harm my unhoused.

Woe to those who own two houses while I sleep
in a barn.
Woe to the rich while I suffer from poverty.
Woe to the well-fed while I stand in a soup line.
Woe to those who cheer for tax cuts while
my people have nowhere to go but jail."

Help help help
us not simply to endure.
Grant us the strength to build the beloved community
on earth.
Carry on with love & struggle & sacrifice
on the streets.

Grant us dignity
as we build a destination of righteousness & justice,
of love & peace,
of equality and housing for all,
of human rights.

In the name of the one who lifted Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.
to be the brightest light of this nation
As he followed in the footpath of Jesus the Human
And as King confessed with his back against the wall:
"But amid all of this we have kept going with
the faith.
that as we struggle, God struggles with us
& that the arc of the moral universe, although long,
is bending toward justice."

In the names of
Abraham and Sarah,
Jesus the Human One,
Harriett Tubman,
Malcolm & Martin


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lipstick On A Pig

There was a time when I believed in what I’ve come to think of as Seattle Exceptionalism. This was the belief that while other cities around the nation become upscale islands of affluence that pursue the interests of the most affluent at the expense of the most desperate, we, here in eco-obsessed, liberal, and excessively polite Seattle would never go there.

Within the largely depoliticized, often victim-blaming framework through which homelessness is commonly understood, it’s easy to miss that the modern period of homelessness is largely a product of economic restructuring. Since 1973, inequality has only widened. This trend has accelerated most precipitously at the very top and the very bottom.

The urban landscape has changed. The logic of deindustrialization and the two-tiered economy has spawned a widespread reinvention of the city. Urban centers now exist as centers of upscale consumption and culture for those who can pay the price. Those who have been left out of the economy altogether are widely viewed as unsightly and dangerous indicators of social disorder. This victim-blaming ideology has become the common sense of our time.

With this, certain strategies have become typical. Most cities now have “urban ambassadors” who move the homeless along. Panhandling ordinances have proliferated. Sweeps of homeless encampments are commonplace. Feeding people in public is widely outlawed. Public toilets are defined as vectors of crime and removed. The meanness keeps getting meaner.

And yet, even as cities from Los Angeles to Boston and Dallas to Tampa continually upped the ante on attacking the very poor, I thought Seattle was different. I was wrong.

The Mayor is fond of trumpeting Seattle’s commitment to “ending homelessness,” even as he ruthlessly attacks homeless campers without providing viable survival alternatives.

This pig is wearing a lot of lipstick and eyeliner, but it’s still a pig.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm Not Paranoid. I'm Just Right.

Sometimes, one prefers to be wrong.

I was on the phone yesterday with Paul Boden in San Francisco talking about how activists in other communities are dealing with the criminalization of survival. Paul came up from the streets to spend seventeen years as ED of that city's Coalition on Homelessness and currently heads the Western Regional Advocacy Project, a grassroots organizer's coalition that brings homeless activists together from LA to Seattle. I speculated on why, despite Seattle's aggressive sweeps of homeless encampments over the past year, so few actual citations have been issued.

"Here's my paranoid vision of the future," I said. "I'm looking deep into my crystal ball, and I see the City using the recurrent encampment clause of the sweeps protocols to define every major camping area as defacto no-go zones by late-fall. That's the priority for now. Their focus is on aggressive continuous sweeps of encampments, and quickly triggering the gloves-off loophole so that the rights offered by the protocols become irrelevant. For now, since most people leave once clearance notices are posted, they don't really need to issue citations. The citations will be their tool once the gloves are off. They'll just go into the permanently posted areas without offering any notice, issue citations to whoever they find and trash their stuff. That's the next phase."

"You're not paranoid," said Paul. "You're just right. That was the pattern in Portland, Oakland, and other places. It's how they do it. You're not paranoid. You're right."

The painting above, The Clairvoyant, is by Brazilian artist Marcelo Halmenschlager.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Gettin' Her Janice On

"Where the hell has Tim been," some of you might ask? Over the last year and a half, I've kept the OCD Gods happy by posting more or less daily, even when mere mortals may have said "Fuck it, it's only a blog." I have, however, met my match in the form of bacterial pneumonia.

Being one who has some trouble keeping things to himself, I magnanimously shared this with my girlfriend. This hasn't been all bad. We have transcended, and turned illness into art. As her normally dulcet-toned voice began to resemble a five ton truck driving through a gravel bed in low gear, we said, "Sing!"

Here's Revel, recorded for posterity, getting her Janice on.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Peking Spring

This, from 1979, is the earliest video of Mission of Burma I've found. As an early post-punk band, Burma set the stage for groups like Fugazi and Nirvana but was largely unknown outside of Boston. The band was formed by Roger Miller in 1979 and broke up in 1983. This corresponded to the years I was in the Air Force and stationed at Hanscom Field, a small research and development oriented airbase that sat unobtrusively between Concord and Lexington.

I was lucky enough to have a friend who got what they were doing. I fell in love. My first Burma show affected me like a handful of speed downed with a tumbler-full of scotch. I saw them a half-dozen times, and even spent a bittersweet evening at what was billed as their final concert at Boston's Hotel Bradford. I was sure I'd never love another band quite this much. Eventually, I moved on, but it was hard.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Officer Friendly

I never know what my Real Change vendor friend Michael is going to say, but I always want to listen.

"I was downtown with my friend Kurt, and he went up to a restaurant window and put his lips and tongue right up to the window and starts licking the glass, and says to the people inside, 'Can I have some food?" and wouldn't you know it, there was a cop right there."

"The thing you need to understand about Kurt is that he hates cops. So I walked up to the cop and said, 'That's my friend Kurt. He's alright. What are you going to do?' And the cop says, 'I'm just watching."

"Then my friend Kurt comes up, and he hates cops. He'll just punch 'em. It gets him in trouble all the time. I don't know why he does it. He just does. And he comes up the the cop, and I'm standing there, and he says, 'What do YOU want,' and he's just standing there like this, up in his face."

Michael demonstrates. His chest is out. His arms are curved downward tensely out to his sides, ending in fists.

"And I'm saying, 'Kurt, be cool. He's just watching.' And the cop says, 'Are you hungry?' And Kurt gets this great big smile." Michael pantomimes, his electric crazy man's grin at full wattage. "And Kurt says, 'Yes.' And the cop goes into the restaurant and comes out with this big meal in a box, and it was amazing. And Kurt just smiled and smiled. And we walked away."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"A Social Cyclical Clusterfuck"

We recently had the final session of my class on homelessness and poverty. It's a pass fail sort of affair for honors students only. All it takes to get credit is reasonable attendance and a final paper. For some students, the paper is a bit of a blow off kind of thing, and for others it's a heartfelt reassessment of the state of the world. It is these that I particularly enjoy. I made everyone talk by going around the room in order, asking for a summary of highlights.

One student, who wore an expression of outrage and disgust for much of the class, said she now knows that homelessness is "a social, cyclical, clusterfuck," and noted that this was the first time in her academic career that she swore in a term paper. I'd obviously gotten to her. Another said she'd volunteered in shelters for a few years and thought she knew everything about homelessness. She now understood that she knew nothing. That made me happy. I wish that those who run the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness has some of her humility. Another said the class made him want to be a lawyer for social justice. I warned him about law school ruining people.

The assignment was simply to take four pages or so to say what you'd learned or to talk about how your ideas about homelessness had shifted. Here's some of the highlights.

During part of the course, I make the connections between race, poverty, incarceration, and racial disproportionality among those who are homeless. Students were shocked to learn that one in ninety-nine Americans are behind bars, and that the rise of the prison industrial complex roughly parallels the ascension of modern homelessness. I talk about this as a by-product of globalization, and how fundamentally, both issues are about the problem of surplus people in an economy that abandons those who are not in demand in workers. The war on drugs, I say, is the blunt instrument by which poor and uneducated minorities whose local economies have been devastated are criminalized, contained, and disenfranchised, and I describe how this is about the downward spiral of race-biased incarceration and the racialization of poverty. Students were surprised to learn that those with drug convictions are barred from food stamps, public housing, VA benefits, AFDC, and education benefits for life.

This, I said, is about ensuring that those who are down never, ever, get the chance to get back up. One student dragged out his Foucault (ah, college) to focus on the centrality of invisibility to the continuation of this extreme injustice. It's an insight that hadn't fully hit me.

Another, the one who now wants to be a public interest lawyer, compared homelessness to "a spider stuck in a bathtub trying to crawl its way out." Nice. He was "astonished" that city workers would "throw away the only personal belongings the homeless have for protection and warmth."

It's a cruel world out there kids. Get used to it.

One young woman with a fondness for semicolons had a father who warned that classism was the discrimination of the future. He hadn't, however, prepared her for the fact that a college BA meant only access to relatively low-wage work in retail. She remarked that my class had left her with "a pervading sense of hopelessness."
Homelessness is symptomatic of our structural shortcomings in society; the evidence is ubiquitous, in the labor market, prison disparities and educational opportunities; it is no secret what would remedy the problem. In this country ... adjustments are hopeless because they threaten the wealth, power, and identity of the gatekeepers. As long as money and power are grossly intertwined, the homeless will continue to be poor and powerless with no end in sight.
If she ever gets over her despair, she'll make a pretty good revolutionary.

Several reacted to the reading from the Stanford Social Review that, through MRI imaging, found that many people's reactions to the homeless were based on hatred and disgust, lighting up similar areas of the brain as images of garbage on the street. These feelings are more pervasive, one reasoned, than those of racism and sexism, "so why are these feelings of disgust toward homelessness not being addressed?"

This is the sort of excellent question that makes me want to keep teaching this class.

One honest sort copped to being "intimidated and fearful" of me. The roots of this, she said, was fear that she might learn something about herself that was less than flattering. She wanted to hear that "giving change and smiles" was enough, and that the problem was being taken care of. "Having been proven utterly wrong and naive, what remains for me is to alter my own perception of the homeless and subsequently change my actions." Maybe, she said, "you'll see me at some future protest."

One of my favorite papers was from a girl who questioned the callousness of Jesus' injunction that "the poor will always be with you" and went on to ask why the church doesn't get that charity isn't enough. She relayed her experience of wanting to solve homelessness by helping in a shelter and being relegated to peeling fruit. Having learned the economic realities behind homelessness, and knowing homelessness had been solved in the past by enlightened policy decisions, she wants her church to see the light as well. "In order to change the structural realities of homelessness," she said, "we must participate in political activism to influence the public policies that help shape the economic and social landscape of America."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

One wonderful student helpfully offered a eight point synopsis of what she had learned:
  1. Homelessness hasn't always been this way; there is context.
  2. Homelessness today is much more systemic than individual
  3. Economics has a lot to do with it (globalization, gentrification)
  4. So does institutionalized racism and lack of resources for the poor, sick, and mentally ill.
  5. Services are not adequate.
  6. The system does not want to change.
  7. Those in charge prefer to appear to be changing things over actually changing them.
  8. There is something you can do. Volunteer and ORGANIZE!
She planned to be at Camp4Unity. "There is hope," she said. We need to "get enough people angry to force City Hall to do something."

Another, in line with this, drew my attention to an Urban Dictionary term I hadn't encountered: facadomy. This is where the facade of a building is preserved, but all authenticity is lost by the gutting of what's inside. "Cities, specifically Seattle, are making efforst to end homelessness but these efforts seem to be marred by practices of maintaining a beautiful facade of public service and reduction in rates of homelessness while destroying practical efforts." If I had any gold stars to give, this guy would get two, but when I checked the Urban Dictionary entry, the definition was rather more obscene.

Every once in awhile though, someone really, really gets it. One paper, entitled Homelessness: The System Working Exactly As Intended, summed it things up nicely.
City and federal governments campaign to 'end homelessness' do not end homelessness but merely redefine it. By narrowing the definition, highlighting the most dysfunctional, and focusing of data, government can assuage middle-class discomfort with homelessness ... In this way, politicians play the political game by relocating homelessness rather than solving it. We see this in "broken windows" theory which posits the homeless as social blemishes that threaten to push well-to-do society down a slippery slope into urban decay. Hence, we see the trend of anti-camping and anti-sitting ordinances that drive the homeless out of the newly revitalized, glittery urban centers; where they end up is not necessarily a concern when urban elections are held every four years.
This student went on to say that homelessness will be solved when the middle-class — defined as essentially everyone south of the top income quintile who isn't poor (I'd actually start that at least half a quintile higher) — realizes that their own economic vulnerability and that of homeless people are linked, and start pressing for broad structural reform.

Finally, my absolute favorite was from the visibly outraged and disgusted one. I loved watching her. This was, she confessed, the first time she ever swore in a term paper. "Politicians purport that one of their primary concerns is ending homelessness, but it is all just a bunch of bull shit." She also used caps for emphasis: "the causes of homelessness are STRUCTURAL AND POLITICAL!"

She also, with admirable pith, placed her finger on another problem. When homelessness is defined as primarily a matter of bad luck, she said, all one can do about it is to feel pity. "Pity, she said, "does not build houses."