June STREETSHEET article re: D.C. summit

Coalition on Homelessness (coh@sfo.com)
Sat, 29 May 1999 20:45:38 -0800


A CALL TO ACTION

"What is wrong with our attitude toward the homeless is what is wrong
with our attitude toward God, ourselves, and our sisters and brothers.
How can you love God if you can't love all?"
Dr. Joseph Lowry, President Emeritus,
Southern Christian Leadership Conference
May 2, 1999

"If the 157 people who died in our streets last year were buried in a
mass grave and covered with dirt we would be bombed by NATO and accused
of genocide."
Paul Boden, San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness:
in reference to San Francisco's record number of homeless deaths, at the
first National Homeless Deaths Memorial, Washington D.C.
May 3, 1999,

"If people tell you that you can't end homelessness, tell them to go to
hell!"
Anne Braden, Kentucky Alliance Against Political and Racial Oppression
May 1st, 1999

>From May 1st to May 4th over 700 homeless and formerly homeless people,
advocates, and service providers met at the National Coalition for the
Homeless' National Summit on Homelessness in Washington, D.C.  The
conference offered a wide array of workshops and institutes, reflecting
the multitude of dilemmas poverty and homelessness represent, and the
diversity of strategies and practices employed throughout the country
toward alleviating those problems.

For many at the conference, and certainly among homeless and formerly
homeless attendees, the most passionate and powerful gathering of the
first day was an institute  titled "A Call to Action: Protecting
America's Most Disenfranchised Citizens".  Panelists included Pottinger
attorney Arthur Rosenberg, Jeremy Waldron of Columbia University, and a
fifty-year veteran of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty:
Anne Braden of the Kentucky Alliance Against Political and Racial
Oppression.  The room was packed with people who shared their
experiences of how "quality of life" campaigns to criminalize homeless
people were playing out in their own communities.  A revealing moment
came when the Coalition's own Judy Appel was inspired to ask for a show
of hands from people whose communities were portrayed by local
politicians and press as "welfare magnets".  A stunned silence ended in
exclamations and laughter as nearly every hand in the room was raised.
(This question was raised again in a later workshop on welfare
privatization.  The complete list is in the sidebar.)  Following this: a
more sobering moment when Anne Braden gave a first-person account of how
the civil rights movement in America stalled when it turned to the issue
of economic justice.

Speeches and workshops throughout the conference would revisit the
issues of economic and human rights in the U.S.  Day two's opening
plenary speaker, Frances Fox-Piven from City University of New York, had
no difficulty identifying the principal instigators of the war on
America's poor and homeless people: the influential Heritage Foundation
and the Cato Institute.  These right-wing think tanks have somehow
exhumed the "domino theory" of the Vietnam era, adapted it to urban
policy, and renamed it the "broken windows syndrome".  The promotion of
"quality of life" and "broken windows syndrome" have provided the
rationale for, and informed the deadly rhetoric of a society at war...
with itself.  Any society that would place prison construction ahead of
affordable housing and education is truly a society at war with itself.

Dr. Fox-Piven provided some illuminating figures on the success of these
"quality of life" propaganda efforts: twenty years ago the average CEO
made 40 times the average worker's wages, today that CEO makes 326 times
that average worker's salary.  While worker productivity has increased
50% since 1976, the average worker's weekly earnings has fallen from
well over $500 a week to less than $450 in the same interval.  These
facts were then framed in the context of last year's Congressional
testimony by Alan Greenspan, when he stated that a key reason for
America's current strong economy was increased job insecurity and
diminished gains in wages.  She also pointed out the parallels between
America's treatment of its welfare recipients and its prison population:
both groups are fingerprinted and investigated, put into orange
uniforms, and compelled to perform forced labor.

It wouldn't be sincere to characterize the summit as a May Day
love-feast between homeless people, service providers and advocates.
Tensions and frustrations were frequently aired in workshops and the
(non-stop) meeting of the minds ongoing in the lobby (and lobby bar) of
the Crystal City Hilton.  Just as there are differences between the
dozens of communities which came together to learn and to teach, so were
there wide disparities in approaches, tactics, and understandings of the
world-wide problem of poverty and homelessness.  A few promising
approaches discussed at length were: inclusion of economic status as a
protected class in existing civil rights legislation, including homeless
people in anti-hate crime initiatives currently being debated in the
Capitol, grassroots efforts to stop the creeping privatization of
welfare throughout the country, and procedures for reporting human
rights violations against America's homeless people to the United
Nations.  Still, in the midst of all this education and ferment and
promise, very little was discussed in the way of how to organize and
staff the national process to carry these dreams through.  (Or maybe it
just wasn't discussed much with the people there who had been, or were
currently homeless.)

Several principal speakers and organizers of the conference passionately
stated the case for the eradication of poverty in our lifetimes, yet
most of them were far more than a paycheck or two away from the
sidewalk.  Many of us felt so overwhelmed by the process of attempting
to implement programs and services to keep the homeless people in our
communities alive and well that the notion of poverty and the lack of
housing as conquerable social maladies seemed like a fairy tale.  The
majority, however, stood fast in the desire for rights and justice for
people of all economic circumstances.  Most of us understood that we
were far more alike than different.

Our marching orders were delivered to us on the second afternoon by Dr.
Joseph Lowry, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
 Dr. Lowry electrified the audience, calling for a "coalition of
conscience".  He spelled it out in very basic terms: that our national
epidemic of intolerance for poor and homeless people is the consequence
of America's lack of spirituality, coupled with America's love of
materialism at society's expense.  Comparing domestic policy toward
Americans living in poverty to the U.S.-led war in Europe, he
characterized both as "smart bombs on dumb missions".  He charged each
of us in this struggle to be activists and advocates, and punctuated his
address with the refrain "activate, advocate, agitate!".  As we stood
wildly cheering at the end of his address, some of us in the San
Francisco group couldn't help but wonder how this man's inspired
leadership and the posturings of San Francisco's own self-acclaimed
"veteran of the civil rights movement", Rev. Amos Brown, could possibly
be so widely divergent.  Were these two men in the same civil rights
movement?  If Dr. Lowery came to San Francisco, could he inspire in Amos
Brown what we felt right then?

At 8:15am on May 3, a somber group gathered to remember the many members
of our human family who have died homeless.  For some, it was a litany
of those personally remembered through lifetimes of service.  For
others, the grief was raw and present and angry.  For everyone from San
Francisco, it was an opportunity to vent our rage at the staggering
numbers of senseless, needless, preventable deaths we witness and record
each year.  Words were spoken, candles were lit, and everyone was given
an opportunity to write the names of the remembered on a giant banner
proclaiming "NO MORE HOMELESS DEATHS".  The healing that took place in
that room was in equal measures of comfort and resolve renewed.  That
was when the bigshot arrived to cut the ceremony short.

HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo (and his entourage) arrived to offer all of
us little people an opportunity to "step outside the box" as he
delivered (I am not kidding) a PowerPoint presentation, liberally
seasoned with geographically-specific factoids about homelessness and
pithy little sound bites.  As we watched and listened, a change crept
over the room.  It felt like the summit had been subverted into a trade
show, and here was this guy trying to sell us something.  This would not
have been so bad if the Secretary could have clearly articulated exactly
what it was that he was selling: maybe he was only selling himself.  Mr.
Cuomo is a very intelligent man who processes an amazing overview of
homelessness and poverty in the U.S.  Too bad his passion is so
obviously harnessed to his own political ambitions.  Too bad he placed
his schedule ahead of some of our most human needs.  It seemed
appropriate, somehow, that this guy would be talking affordable housing,
while funding only shelters with HUD's money.

The final straw was broken during a question-and-answer period following
the presentation.  When asked how welfare reform has impacted
homelessness, the Secretary stated: "there is not an increase in
homelessness because of welfare reform".  Guess that goes to show that
whatever personal political ambitions Andrew Cuomo harbors, he still
knows on which side his bread's buttered, and that Alan Greenspan's
testimony truly reflects President Clinton's agenda.  With leaders like
this, it is little wonder why the war on poverty has evolved into
localized pockets of "quality of life" guerrilla combat, inflicting a
spiraling body count of homeless people.

If we are truly prepared to end homelessness in our lifetime, then we
must be prepared to elevate this national dilemma of homelessness and
poverty to the national political arena.  All the Bill Clintons, or Alan
Greenspans, or Andy Cuomos in the world aren't going to effectively make
any significant inroads into homelessness until we hold ALL of the
policy makers and legislators in our Congress, Senate, and the White
House accountable for the misery and death precipitated by their efforts
to swing the moderate vote by pandering to "quality of life" issues .
Why?  Because, like Mr. Cuomo, this nation's elected and appointed
officials persist in their preoccupation with keeping their jobs by
providing more government austerity programs, prisons, guns, and other
"smart bombs on dumb missions" -- all at the expense of America's
poorest people.

The Pentagon loomed large outside the plane's window as we departed from
Ronald Reagan National Airport.  It looked like the keyhole to the
mother of all security locks.  If we could turn the key big enough to
fit that one, perhaps we could again unlock America's heart.

chance martin,
5/99