Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Good Day For PROACTIVE ADVOCACY; A Bad Day For SELF ADVOCACY

On Monday, March 12th at 10 AM, dozens of people gathered outside of the Wilson Building (DC City hall) to give Mayor Vincent Gray (or his staff) our budget recommendations for Fiscal year 2013. This year we came out about a week and a half BEFORE he is expected to issue his budget proposal to the DC Council, as opposed to the usual manner of reacting to the budget in mid-April AFTER it has been issued. This more PROACTIVE approach is what advocates decided on during a debriefing in June 2011, following last year's budget cycle. I'm glad to see that we're pulling it off.

We got at least a dozen of DC's nearly 7,000 homeless people to come out and self-advocate. Several other people who would be directly affected if the mayor were to make cuts to human services spoke about their struggles. They included a blind, single mother of three and a man whose 7-year old daughter is chronically ill and presently in the hospital. Councilmen Jim Graham, Michael Brown and Tommy Wells each addressed the crowd, stated their support for our event -- dubbed the "One City In Crisis Summit" -- and vowed to vote in favor of our priorities when they vote on the mayor's proposed budget.

But, it was a bit disappointing to see that we didn't have more of the city's poor present. According to recent statistics, 24% of Washington, DC's 620,000 people (about 148,800) are living in poverty. SHARC (Shelter, Housing And Respectful Change) held its regular Monday advocacy meeting shortly after the summit. During that meeting, a couple of people pointed out that the number of attendees at the summit should have been much higher. It was also said by a homeless guest that the 15 people at the SHARC meeting was dismal when considered in conjunction with the fact that we meet in the basement of a shelter that holds 1,350 people.

Well, I've been advocating for the homeless since June 2006; and, it seems that some things never change. When two women told Franklin School Shelter's 240 male residents that then-mayor Anthony Williams planned to close the shelter and asked who would fight the closure, only about a dozen men came forth. The rest said that our opinions and words didn't matter and that the mayor would have his way with us no matter what we did. They felt completely disillusioned and disenfranchised.

In the end, we prevailed against the mayor, though the very next mayor closed the shelter. From November 2006 (when I learned to do e-mail) to the September 2008 closing, I was able to e-mail DC Government and get them to make any needed repairs to the building. Ever since I learned to use a computer, I've also been able to get them to address matters of mistreatment of the homeless. These can go down as victories -- if only small victories.

While advocacy for the poor of the city goes back several decades, local advocates are still new to this brand of advocacy wherein they fight against deep, cuts to human services year after year -- in effect, fighting the complete decimation of services for the poor and needy. Ever since the economy went south in the fall of 2008, DC's advocacy community has been hard at it trying to make certain that the city doesn't balance the budget on the backs of the poor. That year we had an especially difficult budget fight insomuch as the budget for FY 2009 (which began on October 1st, 2008) was cut in November -- after the new fiscal year had already begun. We then made it a habit to react to the mayor's proposed budget in mid-April -- five and a half months before it takes effect. Now we are getting ahead of the ball altogether by giving our input during the writing of the budget. For having only been at it for three and a half years, I'd say we're doing an awesome job.

I've addressed local fights by DC advocates right before and right after the Great Recession of 2008. Now let me remind you that advocacy for the homeless and the poor -- on the national and local levels -- can be traced back to the 80's, yea even the 60's. On October 8th, 1989 thousands of homeless people from all over the country descended on DC en masse to make their voices heard. That's not to speak of the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. was planning a Poor People's March on Washington, DC which was scheduled for April 22nd, 1968 (the day which is now known as Earth Day). Sadly, he was assassinated 18 days earlier. With decades of advocacy for the poor and homeless behind us, many people -- especially the poor and homeless -- are asking "What has been accomplished? What ground have we gained?" Pragmatically speaking, the answer, as far as the directly-affected people are concerned, is an emphatic "NOTHING". Some might go so far as to say that we've actually lost ground. The 3.5 million homeless people in this nation and the masses of people who are on the verge of becoming homeless or are already "couch-surfing" at the houses of friends and family give that argument merit.

No matter what economists or politicians say about the recession being over, the poor are still reeling from its lasting impact on their lives. The government's "fix" made the rich richer and the poor poorer. What may have been a recession for most of the world is turning into a full-fledged depression for the poor who were struggling to stay afloat even when the economy was "good" for most people. That said, the dollar doesn't go as far as it did before 2008; the poor are getting less of those dollars; services for the poor are being hacked away at by the governments of this nation; and, jobs are either scarce or out of reach for many unemployed people -- a mix of circumstances which you might expect to stir the poor to revolution. But the poor have lost all of their fight.

In an effort to ensure homeless participation in the summit, fellow homeless advocates and I did outreach to shelters on the two nights preceding the One City in Crisis Summit. We ran across those who felt that they didn't have any power wherewith to effect positive change. but we also encountered those whose stated reason for not participating was that the homeless men in the bunks around them were too lazy, apathetic or disillusioned to join the fight. They didn't want to stand up and fight for those who wouldn't fight for themselves. So, the poor refuse to fight either because they feel that they themselves lack any power or because others in their class lack power. Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture?

I often tell people, as I did during the aforementioned outreach, that they need not give up. When they give up and walk away, they're playing right into the hand of the politicians and making the jobs of elected officials easier -- by letting them get away with not doing their jobs. I encourage the poor to remain involved and to MAKE the politicians work for them. Many of the homeless work, pay taxes and vote. If you vote and/or pay taxes, you have helped to put your political leaders in power and this gives you the right to make demands. Truth be told, a politician is supposed to help any and all constituents -- even those who didn't vote for him or her. We need to make our politicians work for us.

A good friend once said to me, "If you put a bug in a jar and put the lid on, that bug will spend the rest of its life trying to get out. It will never give up". He used that analogy to explain how homeless people should never stop striving to improve their lives. More recently, a man told me, "If you put a bee in a jar and put the lid on, that bee will fly up and hit its head on the lid just so many times before it gives up. Then, after you remove the lid, the bee won't fly out; because, it has learned that it can go just so far before it hits its head". He used this analogy to explain why many homeless people have lost their fight and accepted homelessness as their lot in life. It would seem that most of the nation's poor have become like the bee in the latter analogy. The lid has been taken off of the jar of indefinite homelessness and extreme poverty; but, the poor and homeless refuse to participate in events that are designed to make public officials adequately address their needs.

It was recently suggested to me that advocates empower the homeless by having them come together to effect the dismissal of an unruly, disrespectful shelter employee. When people see that they are able to get rid of oppressive shelter, they'll then feel ready to take on a bigger challenge. While I don't doubt the effectiveness of such a plan, I am keenly aware of the fact that DC's homeless community tends to react to crises. They are most likely to participate in direct actions when there is a credible and immediate threat to their survival. Anything short of that is not likely to stir them to action.

But if they don't develop a capacity for seizing the moment, they stand to lose a lot, as we are in a political moment where positive change is a reality. The Occupy Movement has voiced the concerns of the masses and is planning a resurgence later this month. Wall Street and the federal government have been called on the carpet. The needs of the poor are becoming a larger part of the political discourse. Many local governments -- like DC Government -- are being inundated with people's demands. And, as far as Washington, DC is concerned, homeless and housing advocates are galvanizing around the fact that a large percentage of Washingtonians are demanding that the mayor create affordable housing.

So, while it's great that the non-profits and other professionals who've never experienced homelessness are being more PROACTIVE in their advocacy efforts, much still needs to be done to empower those who are directly affected by cuts to social programs. I wish more than anyone else that we didn't need those programs. I prefer to take housing off of the free market -- to decommodify housing. Every landlord should have to completely justify the amount of rent he charges and be limited to a 10% profit margin. However, that is a bigger demand than any local government in this country COULD meet and the federal fight hasn't yet progressed to a point where it is likely that such a demand WOULD be met.

That said, we are left fighting to sustain social programs. The silver lining in all of this is that we can't possibly lose. If our demands for social programs are met, then the poor will be sustained for another year. If the rug is pulled out from under the poor, they'll have to fight as a means of survival, in which case, we'd up the ante by demanding complete systemic change and an end to capitalism. (Heck, if you need to fight to survive, you may as well go for the gusto.) in hindsight the government would wish that it had met the lesser demand for social programs. As sadistic as it may sound, there is a part of me that would rather see the government drastically cut social services than to fund them, as this would be cause for revolution and the resulting complete systemic change. Nonetheless, I -- like others -- continue to fight for the continuation of social programs. Maybe more will join us.

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