NCH Conference Report [Jesse Putnam, Spare Change] - your reports?

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 11 May 1999 15:08:43 -0700 (PDT)


TO POST OR REPLY ON-LIST, MAKE SURE TO-LINE READS <HPN@ASPIN.ASU.EDU>

FWD  Tue, 11 May 1999

[Jesse's article below will soon appear in Spare Change street newspaper.

Others who attended the May 1-4 conference:  Please consider sending HPN
your reports on the workshops you attended, plus your overall impressions
of what happened there -- and where we'd best go from here in our quest to
end homelessness.

-- Tom Boland]


NATIONAL COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS CONFERENCE:
BRINGING AMERICA HOME AGAIN
WASHINGTON SUMMIT CONVENES ADVOCATES FROM AROUND US

by Jesse Putnam <jputnam@homelessempowerment.org> / Spare Change, Cambridge, MA

On the afternoon of May 1, 1999 a group of homeless advocates checked into
a Washington, DC hotel to begin their three day stay. They would soon be
joined by another group of colleagues, and another and another. By evening
over seven hundred people were ready to begin a conference that would offer
each an opportunity to share their thoughts as to how we might help the
movement that seeks to put an end to homelessness. Among those gathered
were twelve representatives of three Cambridge based organizations -
Solutions at Work, Bread and Jams and Spare Change / Homeless Empowerment
Project. The Spare Change contingent included vendor Lewis Williams, board
member Dimie Poweigha, writer Paul Frohock and staff member Jesse Putnam.
The following is a summary report of the conference.

Civil Rights and the Poor: A Call to Action
The agenda for the first day consisted of several Institutes, one of which
focused on the civil rights of the poor and growing concerns that those
rights are being violated. In particular the panelists focused on incidents
where homeless people are being arrested for "creating public disturbance"
when, in fact, many are merely sitting on a park bench or sleeping in a
public area. Arthur Rosenberg, an attorney with Florida Legal Services,
spoke of a case he handled that began with the arrest of a homeless man and
ended in a forced settlement - ending in favor of the person who was
homeless. Other institute participants addressed the issue of
criminalization of the poor, saying that the homeless are often targeted
simply because they look a certain way or are unable to afford alternatives
to street life. Explaining that homeless people are often forced to urinate
outside (which often results in arrest) because they have no alternative,
Jeremy Waldron of Columbia University stated that "US cities alone are the
only [modern] cities in the world without public rest rooms."

One of the panelists, Ann Braden of the Kentucky Alliance Against Political
and Racial Oppression, spoke of her experience with the civil rights
movement in the sixties and compared that effort with the movement to end
homelessness. "If people tell you that you can't end homelessness tell them
to go to hell!." But she then warned that where once the power structure
divided people by race they are now dividing by other means. "The civil
rights movement stopped after accomplishing so much when it got to the
issue of economic justice." That, she said, they couldn't solve.

One of the most passionate moments of the institute came when Jim Peterson,
once homeless and now an advocate, spoke of the incident that compelled him
to work for this movement. "I was sleeping in Fargo, North Dakota one night
and a police officer woke me up at gun point, tossed all my belongings into
the river and told me to cross the bridge to Minnesota. Well, I got there
and called the press." The story, needless to say, was covered and Jim
began his advocacy work. "I was homeless and had money but nobody would
rent to me because I was homeless," Peterson said later; his comments
making this writer think of Spare Change vendors who have been rejected in
a rental application because the landlord didn't like what they did for
work.

Frances Fox-Piven: On Economic Inequities
On day two of the conference participants were addressed by Frances
Fox-Piven, noted scholar and researcher from City University in New York.
Ms. Piven focused her comments on economic trends and the state of the
national economy as it relates to the poor. She told how today the average
chief executive makes 326 times what the average employee of his/her
company earns compared to twenty years ago when top executives made 40
times average worker wages. She highlighted the fact that in 1976 the
average weekly earnings for workers was well over $500 and today the
average earnings are below $450. She went on to show that despite this
reduction in compensation, worker productivity has increased 50% in the
same time period. Noting that since 1979 middle income families have
increased their annual workload by 387 hours (8 weeks) Piven suggested the
toll that takes on family time and questioned the sincerity of a 'family
values' political platform that allows for that degree of economic
inequality.

Noting that welfare reform laws are supposed to make people stronger, Ms.
Piven showed that while welfare roles are shrinking, poverty is rising. To
make the point that services to the poor do not, as some suggest,
participate in a decline in economy, she noted that in Nordic countries
like Germany and Austria the benefits for the poor are better than in US
yet worker wages are stable or rising. In her presentation she cited a
startling comment made last year by Alan Greenspan who, while testifying
before Congress, stated that a principle reason for our strong economy was
"a heightened sense of job insecurity and subdued wage gains." Piven went
on to question how the US treats the poor, comparing it to the treatment of
prisoners. "What do we do?," she asked, "We fingerprint people who apply
for welfare. We investigate them. We put them into daglo uniforms and place
them in work crews."

Dr. Joseph Lowery: A Coalition of Conscience
The Sunday afternoon speaker provided perhaps the most uplifting moments of
the conference. Famed civil rights activist Dr. Joseph Lowery, President of
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered a passionate speech
on what he called the "new era" - an era that is not yet defined but which
must be led by a "coalition of conscience." Focusing on America's
propensity for materialism and wealth regardless of the social cost, Dr.
Lowery  challenged the conference not to "let the callous only define where
America is going. Constant celebrating of the 'good times' we are enjoying
ignores those experiencing bad times," he said. Proclaiming his belief that
part of what we are faced with is the consequence of a lack of
spirituality, Dr. Lowery suggested that "what is wrong with our attitude
toward the homeless is wrong with our attitude toward God, ourselves and
our sisters and brothers. How can you love God if you can't love all?"
Continuing on this theme Lowery questioned our attitude toward life. "How
do we resolve conflict?" he asked. Smart bombs on dumb missions!"

In closing his speech the esteemed representative of the civil rights
movement bolstered the audience by encouraging them to lead a coalition of
conscience by advocating through demonstration and speaking out. "Agitate,
advocate, agitate," he shouted before bounding offstage and moving through
the crowd which was now standing and cheering.

Andrew Cuomo: The Dual Reality in America
The final day of the conference brought Housing and Urban Development
secretary Andrew Cuomo and an impassioned speech about the lack economic
justice and the reality of poverty in the US today. "Homelessness is less
about housing, it is more about justice in our society. It is about
fairness in our society. There is a dual reality in America today," he
continued, "the Dow Jones is soaring, but if you are one of the Americans
that aren't in the stock market, you don't feel it."

Cuomo made his comments using a visual presentation that displayed the
results of a recently completed HUD research project called America in the
Shadows. Here is some of what was contained in his presentation:
*       62% of residents in public housing are children.
*       95 US cities in 25 states are experiencing significant unemployment.
*       1 in 6 US cities have unemployment rates 50% higher than the
national average; 1 in 3 have poverty rates higher than the national
average.
*       80% of jobs created between 1994 and 1995 were in the suburbs.
*       Detroit has lost 33% of its population since 1970. Canton, OH has
lost 14%
*       East St. Louis has a poverty rate of 44%, has shrunk by 50% since
1970 and now has one hospital with 120 beds for 36,000 people.
*       Rural areas like Hazard, KY and Guadalupe, AZ are hit, too; each
has a median income below $18,000.
*       Pine Ridge, SD has a high school drop-out rate of 70% and
unemployment is 73%.

Using oration that reminded listeners of his father, Cuomo spoke in
sound-bite phrases on health care: "In many US cities the mental health
system for the poor is a park bench;" On education: "The crisis in
education in the US is a crisis in education for the poor. On the rich side
of town you have Pentium processors, on the poor side of town the most
sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector;" and on
Clinton administration efforts: "Under the President's leadership the
federal budget to combat homelessness has grown from $3.5 million to $1.1
billion." After referring to the budget increase, the secretary spent a
moment detailing a proposal that he recently brought to Congress which
would allow for additional affordable housing vouchers to be issued. "We
are asking for a 100,000 vouchers even though there is a need for 5.3
million. We don't think it is an unreasonable request," he said, noting
there was strong opposition to the proposal in Congress.

Before the HUD secretary was able to close his presentation the audience of
advocates, many of whom were lined up at the microphones long before he
concluded his talk, asked some difficult questions - most focusing on
issues and HUD policies and practices that were negatively affecting their
communities. While Cuomo did well to answer some of the questions, many of
the questioners were referred to his senior staff who were there with him.

Memorial Service: No More Deaths
Early in the morning of the conference's last day a large group gathered in
the hotel ballroom to honor those that had died homeless in the past year.
The service began with the testimony of Brian Carome, a shelter operator,
and Tia Breeding, a social worker, both from Fairfax County, Virginia. They
spoke elegantly and admirably about four people - Randolph Sheperd, Stephan
Ward, Michael Britt and Denise Sullivan - who died on March 18, 1999 in a
fire that destroyed the abandoned building they had been living in. As they
spoke many in the ballroom lit candles on a table aside the podium, each
candle representing the life and death of an American who died while
homeless. Later, conference participants were invited to sign a large
banner that read 'No More Homeless Deaths.'

In 1998 a total of 48 people are known to have died homeless in Washington,
DC; 55 in Denver; 22 in Cincinnati; and 62 in Minnesota. Of the record
number of people that died homeless in San Francisco last year, advocate
and NCH board member Paul Bogan commented: "If the 157 people that died in
our streets last year were buried in a mass grave and covered by dirt we
would be bombed by NATO and called murderers."

His comment, like the memorial service, was reflective of the 1999 NCH
conference. It was honorable, honest, useful and born of a senseless and
avoidable tragedy.

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Jesse W. Putnam
Executive Director
Homeless Empowerment Project
1151 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02138
Phone:617-497-1064 / Fax:617-868-0767

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