Monday, June 22, 2015

Race, American Style

I was born in the mid -1950s, so I grew up and came of age in the 60s and 70s. An era that saw many American cities, from Watts in California to Harlem in NYC,  go up in flames as long simmering racial tensions exploded like a powder keg.

The first place I lived, where I grew up, was a working-class manufacturing-based city. Like my parents, most of my neighbors were first or second generation Americans from Ireland, Poland, Italy, Germany.  Blacks lived in their own sections of the city, cut off socially and economically. Something I, we, didn't understand.

The Blacks, or Negroes, as they were called at the time, did not populate the places where my family and neighbors immigrated from. So American Blacks to them -- who lived in the worse and most run down sections of the city -- were viewed with curiosity, suspicion, fear, and incomprehension.

This was in the Northern United States, so there was not the racial animus of them toward us or us toward them that exists in the American South due to their peculiar tragic history. We simply lived in two separate worlds within the one America.  Seemed to be just the way things were done here. What we knew of slavery was that it was unpaid labor. My dad, like most of the other men in our neighborhood, were trade unionists. They all agreed that was a raw deal. And we were taught in school that slavery was the cause of the American Civil War that then 'freed' the Black American slaves.

We moved when my mother received a modest inheritance from her family in England to a ‘working-class suburb’, something I’m not sure exists any longer.

The town was divided roughly 50-50 between Whites and Blacks. But once again the Blacks lived in separate sections of the town that were run down and derelict compared to the white neighborhoods.
I was a teenager now and athletic, so many of my teammates and friends were Black. I certainly didn’t see anything different in their character, intelligence or anything else. So why were they living like they were?

I honestly didn’t get it (and I know that most white Americans don’t ever get it) until I read Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (which would earn her a Nobel Prize). The plot of the novel unfolds around  the true story of a Black woman so maddened with  despair and fear that she intentionally kills her two-year daughter when she thinks that the child will be taken away from her and, like her, raised as a slave.  Death was the better, bitter option. Consider the level of crazed fear that it would take for a mother to do that to her child? Changed my perspective on slavery completely

In the way only Toni Morrison can convey, she describes -- in harrowing detail -- how someone could come to feel that way. What the impact of generations of enslavement does to the human psyche.  A brutal, sadistic and systematic dehumanizing of a part of the American population simply because they were Black.

This is not what we were taught about slavery in American history classes.

Another telling thing I heard recently that sheds much light on our present situation  in America is that Blacks were enslaved in America longer than they’ve been free (by a hundred years). You don’t – I don’t care who you are – get over that kind of trauma in two or three generations. Especially when the virulent and vicious racism that characterized the slavery era did not end with the Civil War of the 1850s or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Just look at the nightly news or drive through the 'black section' of any major city in America.

I experienced this just last week when I went to the State House in Trenton, N.J. (the state capitol) to lobby for housing rights and affordable housing. In order to get to the lavishly appointed State House from the highway I had to drive through a neighborhood that was no different in kind than the blighted ghettos of the 1960s that sparked the riots.

I went to college in the South and have lived in the South as much as the North. I know people who are proud of their Confederate heritage without being racist. In order to comprehend that you have to understand that the Civil War was  about the South trying to become independent of Northern economic dominance and exploitation. Slavery was a part of that economic equation.

There is a line in the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier in which a young woman from the North confronts a Southern Confederate soldier and asks him how he could fight against freeing the slaves. He replied, “Ma’am, if you think that’s what this war was about than you have a much higher regard for human nature than I do.”

Like all wars, it was basically about money. But even with that said, I think it is time for Southern States to remove their Confederate flags from State buildings and public places. They should be removed now if for no other reason than as an admission of the extraordinary damage that the centuries of torturous enslavement did to a large part of the American population, and continues to do; as well as a concession to the demands of Black Americans to finally live with the respect, dignity and equality they earned by enduring centuries of  blood, sweat and tears while at the same time making invaluable contributions to the distinct political, artistic and cultural life of America.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Social Services Misuse Tax-Payer Money & The Public Trust

Even though the liberal and progressive policies initiated in the 1960s and 70s did effectively reduce poverty and homelessness in America, they also created a system that insists poverty be resolved almost exclusively through the political agencies of the federal and state governments.

To be clear, the extent of poverty in America is much more than local communities can deal with on their own.  The need for federal intervention is therefore not based on a political philosophy – as many claim – it’s a necessity. But anti-poverty policies too often isolate people in poverty and force them to work through an insulated, technocratic bureaucracy that most people receiving assistance call  “social services.”  

In 2009, after caring for a terminally ill parent, I became homeless and destitute due to circumstances beyond my control.  Social Services  provided Special Response Emergency Housing,  a motel room.  Motel owners located where I live on the Jersey Shore subsidize their incomes during the off-season (winter) by taking in ‘clients’ from Social Services.

So I am in a motel room in a seasonally deserted town I’m unfamiliar with and told that I have three months to find permanent housing. Social Services would provide rental assistance through a federal permanent housing program if I could find an apartment owner willing to accept this arrangement.

I soon found out that most apartment owners would not take me in under these circumstances, for three purported reasons. One, they claimed that if they took me in then they’d be legally obligated to take in anyone Social Services sends to them; and, two, they said Emergency Housing Assistance is unreliable and they take forever to pay rents. Also, as I would soon learn myself, Social Services is notorious for arbitrarily changing its policy regarding housing assistance.

Most people in a situation like I was in give up and return to whatever it is they were trying to get away from – abusive spouses, violently dysfunctional families, drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods. And then there are those – such as the survivors of natural disasters, and those who lost jobs and had homes foreclosed, and veterans who were denied benefits –  who have no place to return to and all too frequently end up wandering the streets during the day and setting up tents on public land at night. Because these people are no longer enrolled in any housing program, this is a statistical ‘success’ by the officials administering the program, even as the number of homeless people rises.  This is a cynical misuse of tax-payer money and a betrayal of the public trust in Social Services to work on behalf of the members of our communities  facing financial crises and housing insecurity. 

While I was still in my home and recovering from the loss of my mother, I became a member of a small nondenominational church that administered a community homeless outreach program.  Local apartment owners utilized the outreach as a way of ‘screening’ prospective renters. They were willing to rent to people with rent subsidies, but first they wanted to be assured that they are not opening their doors to former rent truants, violent criminals, drug users, or other problematic tenants. 

That’s how I secured ‘permanent’ housing within three months. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had not been able to combine federal government assistance with community support.

But then I received a letter from The Board Ocean County Social Services last year informing me that the “permanent” housing program I was in was being terminated. No explanation was given; no recourse offered. Trying to find alternatives before I became homeless, I applied to several federal affordable housing facilities. Miraculously, it seemed, just a few days after being told I no longer had an affordable, permanent place to live, I received a letter informing me that an affordable housing unit was available.

People assume that my   local social services board coordinated this move. They didn’t. If you are fortunate enough to find a Social Services case worker who is helpful in assisting you with obtaining SNAP benefits and other basic necessities, as I was, they are still powerless over influencing the outcome of your ‘permanent’ housing situation.  Critical decisions about that are made arbitrarily; and not only to your chagrin, but to that of the caseworker who invested time and energy trying to secure your housing.  These kinds of practices are detrimental not only to the morale of Social Services’ clients, but to its workforce. It’s a top down problem, not a bottom up one. We need social services, and we need the people who administer them to do a better job of providing programs and policies that work in people’s lives.
I work with the homeless outreach in my former community; but seeing as I am a firm believer that poverty and homelessness are both national and local issues, I am in the process of developing an outreach for the poor and homeless in my new community.

When we hear from people who have experienced poverty, we get better policy.  For example, no one who has lived in acute financial distress would have ever come up with a solution as inane as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.  Can you imagine?  “Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll make the process of obtaining assistance more complicated and in the end provide fewer people with less assistance for a shorter period of time!”   Sure, people flew off “the rolls” -- and right into the woods, onto subway platforms and, pen ultimately, into hospital emergency rooms. So many have had their lives cut short because of this. .

Someone recently asked me what my first priority would be for policy reform, and this is it: lobby to get a member of the community who has experienced social service programs such as Emergency Housing Assistance, SNAP, or TANF, on the Board of Social Services. This, I feel, is the only way we can begin to get social service representatives to better understand the needs of their ‘clients’,  and to be held more accountable for their policies and actions.

What we need is another movement  back to people power. One that provides low-income individuals with the political wherewithal  they need to stand up on their own .  In the same way we’ve done it through the legal system for immigrants living in an existential Limbo, and through the justice system for married couples denied their civil rights.  Now we need to find a way to do the same for people living in poverty. Economic viability and housing security are human rights.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Poor Peoples's Campaign & The March for the Homeless

It seems most fitting to mark this year's celebration of Martin Luther King by announcing that there will be a Global March for the Homeless taking place on April 15th, 2015.

Martin Luther King's assassination took place just at the start of his Poor People's Campaign, which called for housing and guaranteed income for the very poorest people in the United States.In his words: "There is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist."

Our political and financial and cultural elite's collective  response to those remarks? 'Sorry Mister King, you can talk about race, you can talk about war, but Good Good Almighty, you may not talk about the poor -- not in in our America!

'Here's what we'll do, Reverend.  First we'll Martyr you, then Canonize you, and in time that will make everyone forget all this talk about the dreadful plight of poor people in America.' 

Boy, did that work?!

When is the last time you heard a major political leader in America talk openly, not dismissively, about poverty and homeless in America. If you said never, you get an 'A'.

Since King made that speech, the federal government has slashed the housing budget by 74 percent, eroded public assistance and, if you take in consideration inflation, cut wages. King would be horrified to learn that today, every major city in the United States has thousands of men, women and children, wandering around with no place to call home.

So if our politicians don't even want to talk about poverty in America, let alone do something about it -- besides  make it worse -- then let's stop banging on that beat drum.


By re-framing the issue of poverty and homelessness -- as Martin King was trying to do before his untimely death -- as moral agendas, as the civil and human rights issues of our time:


This will be the theme of our March and our unequivocal demand. Poverty and homelessness will no longer be negotiable items on the table for politicians to play with when they feel like it. As with other social issues that became human rights issues -- civil rights, woman rights, LGBT rights -- the politicians will get on board after the fact and try to appear as if they were righteous all along.

Fine, let them play their game, but  let us not be fooled into thinking any of them will be leaders on this issue. There's going to have to be a worldwide grassroots movement to end poverty and homelessness. And it starts on April 15th, 2015.

Please join us!