Monday, January 19, 2009
Homelessness, Incarceration, and the Future
For more than two decades, I’ve struggled with creating an approach to homeless advocacy and organizing that does the issue justice. Over this time, there are four truths that have become more than obvious.
One: Homelessness is about the problem of surplus people in a global economy. The collapse and overseas exportation of most American manufacturing has hit the market for less educated and relatively unskilled labor hard. Communities that face racial discrimination have been hit hardest. This clear fact of our economy goes largely unacknowledged.
Two: The bottom 10-20 percent of those who struggle to survive in our economy have been more or less permanently marginalized. There is little expectation that a demand for their labor will ever return. There is an historic pattern of erosion of government support for those at the bottom. As a result, the past three decades have seen an exponential growth in incarceration and emergency sheltering. In times of growing economic desperation, even the most minimal supports that presently exist will increasingly come under attack.
Three: Homelessness and incarceration are fundamentally dehumanizing. Those who endure life at the outer margins of the economy are stigmatized and rendered invisible. They are a frightening reminder of the systemic failures of capitalism, and our response, all too often, is to distance ourselves through victim-blaming and denial. The conditions of the incarceration industry and mass homelessness erode feelings of self-worth and diminish our own capacity to regard those who endure the conditions of these institutions as beings who are fully human.
Four: Approaches to “ending homelessness” that ignore these realities cannot succeed. Until we acknowledge that America has a growing and largely permanent class of throwaway people, and make the connections between structural unemployment, racism, criminalization, and the erosion of even the most minimal safety net for the poor and disabled, “homeless advocacy” will, at best, continue to win the occasional battle while the war rages on. Despite our well-intentioned best efforts, the casualties will mount.
Since the advent of globalization, inequality in America has radically widened, and the trend is accelerating. Class war is being waged upon the very poor by the very rich, and the frontiers of this conflict are expanding to create new levels of vulnerability for an eroding middle class.
The realities of regressive taxation, unsustainable military spending, and government priorities that reflect the capture of democracy by corporate interests mean that the middle class and those who struggle at the margins have a common interest in systemic reform that places the realities of race and class front and center.
Bureaucratic, siloed approaches to ending homelessness, while necessary, are insufficient. We must look toward the more imaginative and holistic organizing opportunities that, all too often, are hidden in plain sight.
Here in Seattle, city plans for the creation of a new municipal jail brings together issues of race, class, a failed education system, economic marginalization, and misguided government spending priorities in a rather neat package. Thus far, public discussion of this issue has been mostly limited to the problem of where this facility is to be located. The larger question of a renewed civic commitment to a failed policy of expanding incarceration has gone largely unaddressed. This reflects a sad failure of moral and political imagination by Seattle’s homeless advocates and, more importantly, the broader progressive community.
The city’s unwavering commitment to expanded incarceration comes when we can least afford it. During a time of increasing economic uncertainty and large deficits at every level of government, the new facility will cost $220 million to build and $19 million annually to operate. Meanwhile, Seattle schools slated for closure are located mostly in our city’s communities of color.
The Department of Justice’s own statistics on incarceration are a travesty, and speak to the role of incarceration as a form of economic containment. One in 99 Americans are presently behind bars, and one in 33 live under the supervision of the penal system. An African American high school dropout has a two in three chance of winding up behind bars by the age of 35.
The Seattle school system’s high school graduation rate for African Americans is a mere 52 percent.
This reality of incarceration being a rite of passage for males who live in economically disadvantaged communities is a relatively new phenomenon, resulting from 30 years of war on crime and drugs. Incarceration rates bear little apparent relationship to crime rates, and are driven by the politics of fear and race.
Such racialized rates of incarceration feed a downward spiral of economic opportunity within already disadvantaged minority communities.
Meanwhile, according to the city’s own statistics, the demand for incarceration has abated. The jail population has declined by 38 percent while overall population has risen by eight percent.
Why, then, the rush to build?
Real motivations, given the opacity of city planning processes, are unclear. Perhaps the promise of new jobs in construction and incarceration play some role. Perhaps the increasingly repressive approach to immigration and limited Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility space is in the mix somewhere. Perhaps the projected increase of community emphasis policing in Seattle, which focuses on low-level drug and poverty crime, anticipates new demand for misdemeanant jail beds.
A glance at the current environment offers an ominous look at the future. State level budget cuts threaten the closure of King County’s one drug and alcohol treatment center that serves the very poor. The governor’s budget threatens to zero out General Assistance - Unemployed. The GAU program offers a paltry $339 a month to around 9,000 people who have successfully navigated the challenging process of documenting that they, one way or another, are too disabled to work and have no other sources of income.
This barbaric approach to economic hard times will, unavoidably, create more instances of poverty crime and will undermine public safety for all of us. The primary victims of increased crime will be the very poor.
At the same time, homelessness in Seattle and King County is growing and becoming more racialized. The 2008 One Night Count documented a 15 percent increase in homelessness over the previous year. During this snapshot early morning January 2008 count, 5,800 people were in emergency and transitional shelter, and another 2,300 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.
It’s been said that the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Seattle’s new municipal jail is a bricks and mortar commitment to continued structural racism and the economic marginalization of the most poor. It’s time to stop the insanity. Attend the Real Change forum on the new municipal jail and commit to being part of a new solution to poverty, homelessness, and structural racism in Seattle.
"Question Inevitability: A Community Perspective on Alternatives to a New Jail" will take place at Seattle University's Pigott Auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 28. This forum by the Real Change Organizing Project will include a broad panel of respected and committed activists and experts on incarceration and its effect on communities.
Silja J.A. Talvi , noted essayist and investigative journalist and author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System.
Aaron Dixon, co-founder of the Seattle Black Panthers and 2006 Senate candidate for the Green Party.
King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, active on issues of social and economic injustice for over 40 years.
Alexes Harris, who has worked with the highly successful Clean Dreams pre-arrest diversion program, a real alternative to incarceration.
Tim Harris, executive director and founder of Real Change
Jesse Hagopian, a middle school teacher in Seattle Public Schools and a co-founder of Educators, Students, and Parents for a better Vision of the Seattle schools (ESP Vision).