Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Jobs Aren't There!!!!!

In the course of history, more than a few people have found that they've been sent on wild goose chases or realized that they've been given a bum steer. Sometimes the misinformation is given intentionally. Other times it is given out of sheer ignorance. Sometimes it results in a person trying for years to do what can't be done -- the impossible dream.

Consider the recent resignation of Robert V. Hess, the former director of New York City's Dept. of Homeless Services. He took on the job in 2004, with Mayor Bloomberg having set the goal of reducing homelessness by two thirds by the end of 2009. Six years later, there are actually MORE homeless people in the city than there were in 2004, due to a spike in family homelessness. (While homeless individuals are often blamed for their situation with some of them having used drugs or indulged in some other form of delinquent behavior, homeless families are understood by most to be victims of the economic downturn.) The economy went south. The housing bubble went "Bust!". Unemployment skyrocketed. These and other factors account for the spike in family homelessness. But the fact of the matter is that, no matter how well Mr. Hess did his job, it just wasn't within his power to decrease the number of homeless people in New York City. As he and his underlings did what they could to move people out of homelessness, new people were coming into homelessness at a faster rate.

Then there are those who take on big jobs and set lofty goals which they never meet -- a self-induced wild goose chase of sorts. Just consider how President Obama and Congress are trying to fix the economy in the face of overwhelming objective circumstances -- a futile endeavor indeed. I'm left to wonder if our national leaders are even vaguely aware of the objective realities that they are up against.

The fact of the matter is that Capitalism is in its final throes. Coincidentally, some of President Obama's solutions to the problems being faced by the nation are quasi-Socialistic (but not without Fascistic capabilities). Government simply taking over corporations doesn't make that government Socialist. It depends on whose interest it is being done in. If it is being done for the corporatists/middle class (bourgeoisie), that makes it Fascistic. If it is being done for the working class/under-privileged (proletariat), that makes it Socialistic.

My good friend and fellow homeless advocate Steve Thomas recently found himself in a similar situation -- trying to do the impossible. STREATS has been working with the U.S. Dept. of Labor to employ the homeless and make them self-sufficient. Steve and DOL began to discuss the types of jobs that the homeless would be trained for. But before that conversation could move forward, they had to decide on a definition for "living wage": the amount of money that one would need to make in order to live in Washington, DC (preferrably without needing to depend on public assistance).

Steve said that the living wage in DC is $24/hr. DOL said that was too high and that they couldn't guarantee that they'd be able to employ anyone at that level. Steve mentioned that the national living wage is $17/hr. DOL said that was still too high. They finally settled on $12/hr. Though this is half of what it takes to live in DC, Steve said, "OK, let me see what jobs you have that pay at least $12/hr." As it turns out, the Dept. of Labor had only 2 jobs that it was prepared to train people for that paid at least $12/hr. -- auto mechanic or truck driver. When Steve and I met again, he explained, "Here I am trying to get the homeless jobs that will make them self-sufficient; but, the jobs aren't there!!!"

I immediately let him know that my friend Walda Katz-Fishman who has taught sociology at Howard University for 40 years would be so proud of him. She and other Marxist friends of mine have long since realized that Capitalism has met its fate and that the system is unraveling. Jobs are either going overseas to countries that have more lenient labor laws or they're being lost to robots and computers which replace people.

I told Steve that I'd had a conversation about self-sufficiency and living wage with Laura Zeilinger of DC's Dept. of Human Services. When I pointed out to her that most of the homeless people would never get jobs that would pay a living wage, she mentioned several programs that were in place to help them make ends meet -- food stamps, rental assistance, HUD housing and the like. It became apparent to me that her definition of self-sufficiency included perpetual dependence on public assistance. This presents a stark difference between her and STREATS. It also begs the question: How exactly should we define self-sufficiency? as someone being able to make ends meet with public assistance? or as someone being able to make ends meet without public assistance? Regardless of your personal opinion, one thing is for certain: The (living wage) jobs aren't there!!!

This makes it necessary to chart a new course -- one that considers the objective realities of the present economy. Many jobs are gone for good. They're not coming back. Many of the homeless are either unskilled or have skills that have become irrelevant due to modernization. Retraining them is not an immediate option. Their lives have been reduced to a daily struggle to just get by -- to find adequate food and shelter. To make matters worse, the social safety net is quickly eroding.

As it turns out, because of labor-replacing technology, U.S. productivity is up even as unemployment skyrockets. This results in there being an abundance of goods that the unemployed, under-employed and under-paid can't afford to buy. (Companies reduce their overhead by laying people off or cutting their pay; but, then they lose some of their customers -- their former employees or those who can no longer afford to buy the goods they continue to produce.)

This calls for a new paradigm -- one that replaces the old, out-dated work ethic. People's sustenance and benefits should no longer be tied solely to their work. There should instead be an "abundance ethic": the understanding that, because our nation produces so many goods with so little labor and has so much merchandise that can't be sold (within our borders), those in need will just be allowed to receive from this abundance. If that were the case, we could just put homeless people in the vacant houses, apartments and condos. However, cities like Detroit would much rather tear down whole blocks of houses than to give even one of them to a homeless person. While the jobs aren't there, the human needs remain. With that being the case, we need to figure out how best to meet these needs. Giving from our abundance seems to be the most reasonable way to do that.

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Friday, April 2, 2010

Sex, Drugs and Expensive Investigations At DC Shelters

On March 31st DC Councilman Tommy Wells (Dem-Ward 6) who oversees the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) held a post-hypothermia hearing during which he intended to hear testimony from the homeless and their service providers about homeless services this past winter. As is always the case, people strayed from the intended topic of discussion. Very little was said about homeless services that are specifically related to hypothermia. Much was said about year-round problems.

There were the usual complaints about dilapidated buildings. several women complained about crumbling ceilings at the Families Forward Shelter on the grounds of the defunct DC General Hospital. At least one woman described how she moved her child to a spot where the ceiling wasn't crumbling and placed herself under the hole in the ceiling as a way of keeping the child safe. She was horrified by the thought of rodents falling out of the ceiling onto her or her child. People also described the filth that one sees upon entering the building. The shelter was said to be rat- and mice-infested and residents described seeing mouse feces in the area where small children play.

There were also the age-old complaints about mean, insensitive staff. One must wonder if anything will ever be done about this or any of the other redundant complaints.

One of the more touching complaints which I heard for the first time (being that I don't deal much with family shelter issues) was that of small children having no playtime activities much of the time. A volunteer who sometimes directs playtime activities spoke of there being whole families sleeping in the designated play area when she arrived for duty, due to over-crowding at the shelter.

However, there were also several people who expressed gratitude for the shelter and explained that the staff did their best to serve their homeless clients. Some even teared up as they explained how that, had it not been for the shelter, both they and their children would've been outside in the elements during the harsh winter.

(It is important to note that the director and several staff members of Families Forward were present and brought some of their clients with them. This raises questions pertaining to how much of the testimony of the clients was fixed by the staff. Councilman Wells was sure to ask people whether or not they were told to say what they said and if they were promised anything in return for their testimony, though a "No" answer doesn't prove much. The staff probably told them to say "No" if asked whether or not they were promised anything. It's all part of the deal. Thus, their responses were inclusive.)

A man explained that the New York Avenue Men's Shelter went 35 days without hot water during hypothermia. He said, "If you were a restaurant, you'd've been shut down. You had no hot water for the showers or for the kitchen. They were washing dishes that are used to feed 360 men in cold water." He also explained that the problem was only fixed after a homeless man went to an ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) meeting in November and complained to City Administrator Neil Albert. Though the problem was fixed the very next day, he called for reprocussions for the Catholic Charities employees who allowed the problem to persist for 5 weeks without reporting it to the appropriate personnel. You might say that he wants someone from Catholic Charities to be in "hot water" over the shelter's lack of hot water for 5 weeks.

But the real kickers were the testimonies about drug sales and sex scandals at the shelters. On March 17th, a former employee of the Harriet Tubman Women's shelter (also on the grounds of DC General Hospital) was arrested after selling drugs to two undercover agents -- once at the shelter and once at his home. During the sting, police found crack, marijuana, heroin and several guns at his home. As a result, Catholic Charities is under fire pertaining to its hiring practices. That's not to speak of the age-old complaint about shelters hiring unprofessional, uncaring ex-cons to run their shelters -- a concern which was raised during the hearing on March 31st -- AGAIN!!!

Women from the family shelter described how employees made sexual advances toward them. In at least one case, an employee invited a female shelter resident to his house, though she turned him down. Women also spoke of how that, when they ask for blankets or other needed items or services, male employees often tell them that they can only get what they need if they have sex with these men. Even some of the women who failed to oblige told of instances in which they knew of clients who had sex with staff. Though all council hearings go on the public record and appear on the DC Government channel, Tommy Wells ordered the cameras off during several people's testimonies in order to protect them against any retribution.

While I will save further comments on the topics raised herein for a future blog post, I will end this post with the sentiments expressed by a homeless woman from yet another homeless shelter -- the John L. Young Women's Shelter. As I discussed this hearing as well as maintenance issues at John Young with a homeless ladyfriend of mine, she responded with the following: "We don't need to put all of that money into an expensive investigation or into fixing the plumbing at this shelter. That's money that could go towards giving me housing. What happened happened and it is what it is. So, leave it be and give me housing." Those are wise words. And let's not forget that people complained about various problems at the Franklin School Shelter and the DC Village Family Shelter and they've both been shut down. (The city spent over $2 million fixing up Franklin right before closing it.) It stands to reason that, if people complain about the Families Forward Shelter anymore, then Mayor Fenty will see that as a reason to close it down. Then we'll have even less shelter for a growing number of homeless people during a deep recession. Just a thought.

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