[Hpn] Poor People's Summit Grounds Global Community in NYC - by Heather Haddon Haddon

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Mon, 20 Nov 2000 14:45:18 -0800 (PST)

FWD via Independent Media Center <http://www.indymedia.org> [All IMC content is COPYRRIGHT FREE to noncommercial users] POOR PEOPLE'S SUMMIT GROUNDS GLOBAL COMMUNITY IN NYC Friday 17 Nov 2000 CC REPLIES TO author: Heather Haddon <hhaddon@hotmail.com> summary From November 15th to the 18th, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union is hosting the "Poor People's World Summit To End Poverty". Their mission: to amass power through mobilizing those who experience poverty and homelessness directly. An expected 500 folks from Indiana to India will arrive in New York City, if they can get past INS, that is "After the summit's conclusion, we will have ended world poverty." Cheri Honkala, founder of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), knows how to incite a crowd. She has masterfully mixed the macabre with the motivating. As the 40 volunteers gathered to help the Poor People's World Summit To End Poverty-running from November 15-18 in NYC-laughed along, they also acknowledged the necessity of having such a lofty vision. With more than 500 registrants, representing 30 international groups and every state in the U.S., the summit stands as a do or die proposition: do New Yorkers really care enough about the world's poor to skip work? And further, do they notice the rampant poverty that plagues even their own urban jungle? Global forums are en vogue. Whether for the purveyors of neo-liberalism and globalization, or the protesters that picket and puppet these policies, "the whole world is watching" this dramatic duet. Yet on the very surface, both constituents are remarkably the same: financially privileged and mostly white. Conferences specifically addressing issues of poverty, homelessness, and hunger also include a select audience. While some are isolated in the ivory towers of private agencies, others are laden in the lofty rhetoric of the UN (as Richard Falk stated at the International Forum on Globalization, "The only reason the UN Declaration of Human Rights was adopted because it is politically impossible to enforce"). Through the coordinated efforts of the KWRU, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, and the International Campaign for Economic Justice, this convergence seeks to directly include the people closely effected by structural adjustment or governmental neglect: the poor themselves. "If your not in the boxing ring, you can't understand what the punches feel like," is Honkala's well-tested analogy. Her personal history is a map of black and blues: Honkala fled an abusive home situation to begin a decade long struggle as a homeless mother. In the infamous north-side of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's poorest district, Honkala lives where Kengsington's gutted buildings give a landscape of war-time Dresden. The local slogan that "one could find work in a matter of 5 minutes" has been replaced by another motto: "Kensington is the badlands of Philadelphia," summarized resident Brian Wisniewski. Rooted in the larger economic ills of America circa 1960, Kensington's demise originated in the departure of its core industries (textile and beer brewing) for cheap labor pools overseas. The local economy bottomed out while homelessness and poverty rose. "Welfare and drugs are the biggest two incomes in Kensington," noted Galen Tyler, Chair of KWRU's Organizing Committee. Some residents opt for the informal economy, selling scrap metal or raising chickens in vacant lots. With the high crime rate and low standard of living, Cheri testified that "I never thought I would attend so many funerals in my life." The Kensington district is not an American anomaly. The University of the Poor <http://www.universityofthepoor.org>, a link on <http://www.kwru.org>, illustrates America's disparities. As documented in a 1998 Economic Policy Institute study, The United States has the highest overall poverty rate among the world's advanced economies. While the richest 10 percent of households in the U.S. have profited by raking in 85.8 percent of the stock market boom, situations for the middle class and poor have only worsened (loosing 1 to 14% in overall incomes respectively). "The Widening Income Gulf" study by Isaac Shapiro and Robert Greenstein, listed 1999's underreported benchmark: the top fifth of the U.S. population is projected to receive more after-tax income than the rest of the population combined. America's under-privileged are slipping through the economic cracks; they are also absent in the media. Honkala draws the parallel between America's invisible poverty and the "disappeared" in Latin American", the generation of protesters against their authoritarian governments who were systematic removed or killed. While "many people feel they've insulated themselves from the problems of urban life by moving into a prosperous new suburb," observed The Utne Reader's editor Jay Walljasper, older suburbs, inner cities, and rural areas further suffer as media attention, along with public and private monies, are rerouted. "People wail at the scenes of poor Brazilians on TV," notes Honkala, while the same visibility or pity (although often stemming from condescension) is not given to the American poor. When media attention does address the lower class, it highlights their inaptitude. In an interview with 20/20, Cheri checked the argument (familiar to New Yorkers living under the Guilani administration) that the homeless are lazy or scheming panhandlers. "The majority are not homeless because of mental health or drug addiction. The majority of homeless in this country are women and children." The KWRU was born out of the inexhaustible energy of these homeless mothers in 1991. Since then, it has expanded to 40 core volunteers and an amalgam of projects all working to build an "indigenous-led poor people's movement". Marching across city, state, and continental borders, the KWRU's tent cities-encampments reminiscent of Depression Era Hoovervilles-mushroom on the face of American wealth. Structural analysis of such disparities is at the core of these actions. The "process of concentrating resources and wealth into fewer and fewer hands is central to everything else which is going on", stated KWRU Education Director Willie Baptist. The KWRU works to tie solidarity struggles beyond just the local. While on a bus caravan in El Salvador, a Kensington resident's testimonial to her beleaguered situation startled their Southern sisters. "One woman began to cry," remembers Honkala. "Not only because she couldn't believe that poverty existed in the U.S," but, in contrast to her El Salvadorian community, "because of how little organization exists among the poor of the U.S." Organizing first requires acknowledgement and experience of a problem; then, as social commentator Francis Fox Piven puts it, "protest uprisings develop beyond just big banners, but into crisis moments of popular anger." With this collective anger, there is personal empowerment. As Taylor says, "the KWRU broke the isolation I was feeling as a poor person in this country." The KWRU is combating this alienation and stigmatization as loudly as possible. Their "reality tours" of the economic and social downgrade of Kensington thoroughly submerge visitors into an environment of decay, and how globalization and national neo-liberal policies tie into it. As Cheri stated, "when the visitors from Sweden cried during these tours, it is not just for these dark scenes, but for the shock of how bad things have gotten in the U.S." Collaborating with the National Employment Law Project, the Urban Justice Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights, KWRU is also solidifying their grievances legally. Angered by the Clinton's passage of welfare reform in 1996 (where "to be poor, to be a criminal" as put by Cheri), the groups' petition cites the U.S. Government's as breaking the UN's oft-ignored Declaration on Human Rights in its treatment of the poor. As noted by Honkala, this pending case is the first in the world to try economic violations as a human right case. Whether "tourguides" or legal aids, KWRU members are firstly community members. So too will the world leaders at the summit be the impoverished themselves. "We don't want just bodies giving testimonials," critiques Honkala conceptionalizes other social services treatment of the poor. "We want people to understand why they are going to rallies from the underlying causes of their poverty, by training them to grasp these issues." Too often the stereotype that "if you are articulate, if you can talk about your situation in a larger economic context," continues Honkala, "then audiences think your are not from the ranks of the poor." One of the summit's greatest challenges has been grappling with the red-tape of the city authorities, the INS in specific. "We were told that people could not get visas because they were not of economic contribution to the U.S.," recounts Honkala. The INS is currently denying the entry of participants from several nations, especially Indonesia. "They assumes that if you come to the U.S., you're trying to stay here to live out the 'American Dream.'" Gatherings such as the September UN World Summit saw New York City as a willing host to international forums. Yet the poor cannot open the doors that diplomats do, bemoans Honkala. Whether it is not allowing people to grow their own crops or polluting their land, the hegemony of "the IMF, the lies spread by media, and the global leverage of the U.S. make the poor invisible," and powerless. She sites a tee-shirt parody of corporate greed, "homeless is big business, and someone is making a killing." While logistics are a headache, many of the summit's registrants live in a long-term migraine. When one participant in their March of the Americas campaign from Bolivia returned back to her country, she was arrested. In Honkala's opinion, this was due to "her photograph on the front page of an American paper." These situations inspire KWRU's style of direct, often illegal, organizing. "When I was 16, I tried make change through the legislative process," reminisces Honkala. "Now I think taking over abandoned buildings for the homeless is more effective." Such a style has pushed her into the spotlight, including articles in Mother-Jones and George Magazines. Some community members resent this, thinking that reforming institutions creates more widespread change. And some would rather co-opt her spunk: Philadelphia offered her a 100 grand yearly to direct the city's homeless initiatives immediately prior to KWRU's march at R2K. Cheri scoffs at anything but direct action. Unfortunately, such drive does not translate into dollars. The summit has received no public and little foundation support. Honkala's note that "I'm loosing all my friends from asking for donations," is a plea based on real need: the KWRU is more than 45,000 in debt. Regardless, KWRU's work for a multi-sectoral people's movement continues. The summit is 4 days of people-driven workshops, reality tours, and a rally at the UN on Friday. Day care, translators, housing, and meals will also be provided. Cheri's vision, much to the exhaustion of her organizers, is already extending beyond this forum to the next coming year. In promising "three days of global action" fpr 2001, the KWRU will continue their struggle for economic and human rights to unmask "the invisible" of America, and the world. END FORWARD *********************************************************** 9000+ articles by or via homeless & ex-homeless people INFO & to join/leave list - Tom Boland <wgcp@earthlink.net> Nothing About Us Without Us - Democratize Public Policy ***********************************************************