Fw: action: New York homelessness

ICAN! America (icanamerica@email.msn.com)
Tue, 28 Dec 1999 07:38:53 -0500


----- Original Message -----
From: <colist-admin@comm-org.utoledo.edu>

[ed:  James offers more perspective on the New York homelessness issue and
some information on the protests around it.]

Dear CommOrgers:

I don't know if I am more troubled by the implication from Avani Shah's
message that prisons are an adequate substitution to the provision of
affordable housing or social services, or by Randy's suggestion that this
view might somehow be indicative of social work schools.  Since I am
unqualified to address the latter, this response will be to the former.

First, prisons are not housing.  We need to be clear about this. Prisons
are nominally where people who have demonstrated themselves to be a danger
to others are sent (although see Angela Davis's or Ruthie Gilmore's work on
this issue to get a much more useful understanding of the role that prisons
play in American life).  And while prisons may put a roof over somebody's
head, that does not make them a "home."  But I think American society sees
prisons as places to put problems we are unwilling to deal with (it should
be stressed that the crime of homeless people is principally making middle
class people uncomfortable with their own class position and consumption
patterns - which is not yet a crime in any part of this county).  The
solution to homelessness must rest in the provision of affordable housing,
and the social services needed by those among the homeless that need such
services.  And as for the homeless being mentally ill or chemically
dependent, according to the most recent data I've seen (Culhane, Metraux,
and Wachter's chapter in Michael Schill's "Housing and Community
Development in New York City." SUNY Press. 1999.), only 7.8% of New York's
shelter system in any given year require treatment for mental illness, and
only 30.2% require treatment for substance abuse.  Now while it is clear
that longer-term (or "chronic") homeless people suffer from higher rates of
these illnesses, the chronically homeless are only a small fraction of the
total homeless population.  For most homeless people, being homeless is a
relatively short-term condition, usually precipitated by the loss of their
homes either through long-term disinvestment by their landlord, or
gentrification-led displacement.

Second, the idea that entering the shelter system can be a way towards
financial stability, the acquiring of a permanent home, and decent job, is
a great one, if it were true.  And for the short-term homeless the services
provided by the shelter system can help, but they are badly underfunded,
and I have not seen evidence that they are particularly effective in making
the improvements in people's lives that Avani Shah seems to suggest they do
(although if anyone has this evidence, I would love to see it, because it
would make a compelling argument for increased funding of these services).
Also the idea that working for free for the city will somehow, "increase
their status and self-esteem," and thereby allow them to get jobs, is
highly questionable.  This has been the justification for Mayor Giuliani's
workfare program (called the Work Experience Program, or "WEP"), and the
evidence from this program has clearly demonstrated that people do not
leave WEP for full-time employment.  Numbers on this are difficult to
acquire - largely because the mayor refuses to make public any data on WEP,
and the only data we have has come from lawsuits filed by advocates, and,
in some cases, City Council Member Steve DiBrienza, who couldn't get the
data any other way - but recent estimates from the Urban Justice Center,
and others, are that only between 8-15% of the roughly 40,000 people in WEP
leave it for full-time employment.  This is why WEP has not been replicated
in other places, it simply does not move people from welfare to work.
Instead it is simply a way to cut government costs, break the municipal
unions, and give formerly good union jobs to WEP workers.  We do not need
to replicate this oppressive failure of a public policy.

The worst part about this whole debate is the mayor, as part of a larger
nationwide shift, has changed the conversation from, "How do we solve the
problem of homelessness?" to "Where do we put the homeless?" This is a
question that assumes a permanent homeless population (which is
historically not true - for while there have always been some homeless
people, there is no question that the problem we are facing now dates to
the late 1970s.  Hardly a permanent or intractable problem!), and, in so
doing, allows the government to wash it hands of its responsibility to its
people.  The fight should not be about whether or not homeless people have
the right to piss on the streets, it should be about how we, as a society,
will construct enough adequate, affordable housing to meet the basic human
needs of our people.

As a final note, the protest went okay, with about 2,000 people showing up
(the police estimated 1,100 and the Coalition for the Homeless estimated
about 3,000), but it was much lower in energy than I would have hoped.  A
few speakers generated some real energy among the crowd (the Rev. Al
Sharpton, for one), but the crowd was both smaller and more subdued than it
should have been.  Also, there had been talk of an all-night vigil in Union
Square after the protest, and also talk of a tent-city being set up on City
Hall Park (directly across from city hall), but, of course, the City denied
permits for these and vowed to arrest anyone staying in either park
overnight.  These sibling actions were also poorly coordinated, and even
among those at the afternoon protest, it wasn't clear what was to happen
that night.  I do not know what eventually happened, as I was unable to
stay late on Sunday (if anybody knows, please let me know, either privately
or through the list).

Best,

James


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