Tuesday, March 29, 2016

50 Years Following the Poor People's March: A Campaign to Broaden Prosperity

2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign.  As you may recall, the campaign was conceived by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It evolved into a movement to bring together a diverse amalgam of the poor – Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians – in a common goal of achieving economic equality.  King was assassinated the year after the campaign was launched.

We have unfinished business.

 I propose that those of us who will be involved in planning, organizing and participating in events commemorating this significant historical milestone start creating a narrative for it now.

Last year we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and we saw what happens when we don’t create the narrative. Those who oppose continuing progressive policies and programs for ending poverty got out in front of the issue and framed it more or less, like this: 50 years, billions of dollars spent and we still have poverty. ‘We lost the war.’  

Of course that’s not true. The Great Society programs adapted as part of the War on Poverty kept untold more Americans from falling into poverty over the last five decades, and many of the policies and programs were interrupted and terminated due to a lack of political will before they had a chance to succeed.

I’d like to begin by changing the name of the campaign from a Poor People’s Campaign to a Campaign to Broaden Prosperity. This reflects much of what we’ve learned about poverty in the last fifty years. Basically, that poverty is not caused by character flaws, gender or racial inferiority, or lack of initiative. Poverty in a modern economy is due more to the fast pace of technological change and the emergence of vast pools of subsistence wage earners in the global labor market. People, workers, need help adjusting.

We also know now that poor people are not dragging down the economy nor diminishing the nation’s overall economic prosperity. America continues to be the wealthiest nation in the world while it no longer  ranks in the top ten among the world’s most prosperous nations .  This is because ‘prosperity’ takes into account quality of life issues such as the availability of health care, access to higher education and the amount of capital  devoted to improving physical and social infrastructure. The problem is, clearly, that  America’s wealth is being squandered on a small percentage of  its population, negatively affecting overall prosperity.   

This results in a wide variety of social ills that go along with high poverty rates: illness, crime, violence, and how do you measure the cost of poor children growing up with lives based on what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the wounds of despair and disappointment”.

I do not feel qualified to recommend what specific policies and programs should be enacted in order to enhance broadened prosperity. Though I do know that there are many in the movement to revive the Poor People’s campaign  who  do. I will yield to them and invite them to share their ideas here. 

I am a grassroots activist for the poor and homeless in my community. I, and others, work civically so that they are not harassed or criminalized for being homeless, are provided with decent humane shelter, food, and medical care.  

On a national level, I contribute my voice to a growing understanding of what poverty really is, and what its actual causes are.

I will tell you what I have learned from experience: that you need to get to know the people you are advocating for. Almost every community in America has poor people, homeless people, or people who are on the brink of becoming homeless. Meet them. And then let their voices and experiences guide your ideas about policies.

I can unequivocally tell you that the poor I know do not want more government programs that don’t work, nor do they want charity, and especially they don’t want pity. 

What they want is a fair share of the American prosperity that they and their families and friends helped create.

(Author’s note: The Kairos Center, through its Poverty Initiative Programs, will be one of the major hubs for organizing events around commemorating and reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. For more information:  info@kairoscenter.org.)


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!


Monday, September 29, 2014

World Homeless Action Day

World Homeless Day takes place on October 10th, 2014.

Throughout the last half of the twentieth century until the present many groups that were being unfairly treated by American society – racial minorities, women and gays – made great strides toward correcting those wrongs by organizing and aligning themselves with movements that in effect forced the American public to hear their grievances as well as acknowledge and act on their demands for change and reform.

What the members of these various groups have in common is anger: anger and resentment about being treated as second-rate American citizens. Black Power, Women’s Liberation Rights, and Gay Rights  were aggressive, forward looking movements. The movements grew and became empowered as the result of a weariness on the part of their constituents to wait any longer for the government to make good on its constitutional mandate to provide all of its  citizens with equal opportunities to live without prejudice and succeed.

I feel that World Homeless Day has the potential to be a seminal event that will help to galvanize all of those fighting to reduce poverty and eliminate homelessness into a Movement called ‘Leave No One Behind’.
It could not come at a more pressing time.  The United Nations estimates that there are more than 200,000,000 people living in the world without secure housing. The National Law Center on Homelessness estimates that more than 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness annually.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, homelessness in America actually decreased by 1% from 2009-2012, while in the midst of one of the most severe economic crises since the Great Depression. This was due in large part to the Obama administration’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
President Obama gets very little credit or acknowledgement for this. Why? Because it is a political liability for any professional politician to overtly initiate any legislation that will help the poor and disenfranchised in America. There is still a place deep in the American psyche that does  not consider or recognize that food security  and housing are human rights, and instead projects onto them all of the fearful notions and misperceptions that came to be associated with socialism during the Cold War.

That is why this Movement has so much in common with those in the past: It is about breaking down dated ideas that have calcified into hardened prejudices and regressive policies.
Who are the homeless in America? Rather than break it down demographically and provide stats and graphs, I’d like to offer just one example that speaks for many, and is also about a special person with the courage to be an open public advocate and leader in the movement to reduce acute financial distress  and end homelessness in America.

Aaron Elijah Colyer is a United States Marine Corps veteran who in July of this year was threatened with arrest and cited with a nearly $500.00 fine for being in violation of the Alameda Municipal Code, section 8-25.1 "Sleeping/Living in Vehicle." He is fighting the fine and organizing a demonstration in Oakland to raise awareness of the criminalization of homelessness. The demonstration will take place on the same day as Colyer’s court date, and World Homeless Day: 10/10/14.

According to Barbara Thomas, Mr. Colyer’s defense attorney, “On behalf of Mr. Colyer, we are asking the City to rescind this discriminatory ordinance and set aside Mr. Colyer’s ticket and focus on the causes of homeless rather than punish those already homeless due to lack of funds, by issuing a $480 citation for doing exactly what the court has already struck down as a denial of due process as guaranteed by both the United States and California Constitutions.” She pointed to Utah’s highly touted ‘Housing First’  program, which provides housing for the homeless rather than citations. 

Aaron Colyer was sleeping in his van that night because he had moved from Tennessee to California in order to be nearer to his 2 yr old son. When he got to California he discovered that he could not afford the market rate for apartments and was living in his van while he sorted things out.

Did the policeman ask Aaron why he was sleeping his van? No. Did he care? Probably not. All he saw was ‘someone sleeping in a van’ and fined him, further setting back Aaron’s chances of finding affordable housing accommodations.

The telling part of this story is not that Aaron Colyer was arrested for being homeless – that, unfortunately, happens every day in America – but what Mr. Colyer is choosing to do about it.
He is extending the Marine combat oath to ’Leave No One Behind’ to his civilian life.  His mission now is galvanize  the groups advocating for Homeless Rights into a Movement that calls on all Americans to leave no one left behind – veteran or not – to the ravages of poverty, homelessness and despair.

How fitting is that?

We can support Aaron and join the Leave No One Behind movement by connecting with him on his Facebook page: Leave No One Behind #Homelessness is not a Crime   and his website The Church of Occupy.

In Aaron’s words: “10/10/14 is World Homeless Day and as many cities criminalize peoples’ rights to exist, we feel it is necessary to rally in remembrance of those who have died on the streets from lack of shelter, to raise awareness for the need for more shelter as the upcoming winter approaches, and to put out a call to action to establish safe harbors.”
It’s time for us as Americans to join Aaron Colyer in this truly patriotic mission and Movement to Leave No One Behind -- on World Homeless Day, and beyond that.  

James Abro  is the author of An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, a personal memoir of homelessness and recovery. He is the founder of Advocate for Economic Fairness and 32 Beach Productions.  He works locally with faith-based Homeless Outreach groups, and nationally as an advocate for Homeless Rights.  He is a regular contributor to Rebelle Society  and Talk Poverty.