Thursday, March 29, 2012

Congressman Conyers Presents "Jobs Bill" to Congress

Great news! Congressman John Conyers, Jr. presented his jobs bill to Congress at 2:30 PM on March 28th, 2012. John Conyers, Jr. is in his 80's, served as the lawyer for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and is presently serving as the congressman for Detroit's District 14. His jobs bill presently has two names as well as two bill numbers. It is known as the "Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act" as well as the "Work Opportunities and Revitalizing Our Communities Act". Until March 28th it was bill number H.R. 870. (H.R.= House Resolution.) It has been assigned a new number: H.R. 4277. Many people call it H.R. 870/4277 in order to avoid any congress-induced confusion. (The numbers don't correspond with the names.)

The bill aims to employ any and all Americans who are ready, willing and able to work, offering job training when necessary. You're probably wondering how it differs from any of the other jobs bills being considered and why it is that neither Congress nor the president is able to end unemployment. Well, this may come as a surprise to you; but, Congress as a whole, for a very long time, has not been interested in ending unemployment -- probably from before I was born. It might also come as a surprise to you that Congress does the math so as to determine whether or not it is "fiscally sound" for them to create jobs for all Americans -- or to do things that would benefit Americans in other ways. Then again, maybe you're not surprised at all. This begins to explain their lack of effectiveness as a body. It also highlights their ulterior motives and the fact that they are not making decisions with our best interest at heart. Obama is on the record as having told Congress to "do the math". He was making the point that we must raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in order to provide social services to the needy. Congress is doing the math alright, though it's not the math that the president wanted them to do.

What's more is that Obama has been accused by some members of Congress of fighting "class warfare" from the White House. He should have called them out on their implicit lack of concern for those in need -- and still has the chance to do so. "Class warfare" is a Marxist term which refers to the fight by the poor and their allies to redistribute the wealth of a nation so that all people will have their most basic necessities provided -- through meaningful employment and/or social programs. That said, Congress was implying that President Obama shouldn't strive to have people's needs met. This was a prime opportunity for the president to confront Congress and ask them who they are really working for -- for the wealthy only or for all Americans whether rich or poor. His failure to do so only reinforces the notion that he is just a pillar of the failed capitalist system. Nonetheless, he has time to save face before November.

All of this brings us to the strong suit of the Conyers jobs bill which is its ambitious goal of employing all able-bodied Americans. Congress, in recent history, has refused to make any effort to bring unemployment below 4%. Their "logic" is that, once unemployment has dropped to 4%, it costs more to employ a person than they will collect in tax dollars. Therefore, it is not "worth the effort". Howbeit, 4% of the American work force is six million people! Let's bear in mind that the actual number of unemployed people is always higher than what the government reports it to be, as they only count those who are receiving unemployment benefits. This number doesn't include those who are unemployed but not receiving benefits. Neither does it include the under-employed, part-time workers or day laborers. Some estimates put the actual unemployment rate at twice what the government reports it to be. The Conyers bill says that it is the right of all Americans to have a job and that the government will continue its efforts to employ people until every person who wants a job has one. (Much remains to be said about living wage.) It behooves the government to get as many people as possible working since governments feed on tax dollars. And if that's not reason enough, there is the moral obligation that Congress has to do what is best for its constituents. But who ever said that Congress was moral?

Oddly enough, Republicans tend to use the "morality" of working hard and holding your own as their reason for cutting social programs. They want people to "work hard and pull themselves up by their boot straps" (assuming they have boots in the first place). Yet, they don't want to ensure that there are enough jobs to go around -- in essence, sending people on a wild goose chase. They'd much rather watch a person who is strapped for cash and can't afford the gas or public transportation to do a job search or travel to interviews spend what little money they have looking for a job that is not there, while losing everything they own (including their home), than to provide social services or create jobs. To their credit, they've created the "hard work" that they want Americans to do, though a failed job search doesn't exactly qualify as meaningful employment.

Living in Washington, DC, I see that both the federal and local governments share at least one negative character trait. Both have a tendency to cut social services while failing to provide sufficient jobs or job training. (This seems to be a national trend.) It is as though they seek to provoke the people to revolution. Let's face it: At the end of the day, people's struggles and the demands that they place on government are mere manifestations of their will to survive. And they need jobs or social services to do so. When the government provides neither, it has proven itself to be insufficient -- whether it is due to incompetency or intentional disregard for their constituents. Long story short, the governments of this and any nation MUST provide jobs or social services for everyone -- allowing them to survive. The longer they fail to do either, the closer we come to revolution.

Furthermore, the same members of Congress who want Americans to work hard have themselves proven to be "morally lazy" by failing to aptly consider what new value system might be pertinent for our time. They tout longstanding values which most Americans were taught by their parents while failing to acknowledge the impossibility of living by such values in the current economic moment. The current moment brings with it a new moral imperative -- one which places the onus for creating a new societal structure that enables people to acquire their basic human necessities squarely on the shoulders of Congress. If they weren't so "morally lazy", they would have figured out that an individual can't be blamed for failing to hold their own or contribute to their society unless conditions exist which allow them to do so. And when such conditions don't exist, it is the job of the government to create them.

Now that I've addressed what Congress as a whole DOESN'T care about -- people who aren't wealthy -- , let me address what they DO care about. Wall Street has become something in the way of a sacred cow and Congress is willing to pump hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into its coffers -- even when they are essentially throwing good money after bad. H.R. 870/4277 flies in the face of this governmental tendency by levying a .25% (quarter of a percent) tax on all stocks and bonds that change hands. So, for every $400 that change hands on Wall street, $1 would go toward funding H.R. 870/4277. Though this is a minuscule tax, it may be the very reason that the bill doesn't pass. But let's hope for the best.

The contents of this post make it very clear that I don't have what it takes to become a "relevant" member of Congress -- much less a Republican congressman -- and that I actually have characteristics which pretty much ensure that I wouldn't last long in Congress, if I could get elected to begin with. I'm honest and moral. I'm concerned with the poor, homeless and those who are not wealthy. My moral considerations go beyond the simplistic -- but important -- morals that I was taught as a child. I've studied social theory. I've imagined a new society in which all people survive and thrive -- not just a few ultra-greedy corporatists. It would also seem that Congressman Conyers is one of a dying breed of legislators who is putting the final touches on what he hopes will be his crowning accomplishment. Let's hope that the moral imperatives which would be satisfied by the passage of H.R. 870/4277 prevail over the capitalistic tendencies of our governing body.

But don't just hope. Take action. Now that the bill has been presented to Congress, it is time for us to spread the word far and wide that a new jobs bill is being considered. We need to create a national movement in support of this legislation and pressure Congress into passing it. Our work doesn't end now that the bill is before Congress. in fact, it has only just begun.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Powerful Proactive Political Protesting

We had the Arab Spring in early 2011 followed by the Occupy Movement last fall. The latter is planning a resurgence which will begin on March 30th and has been dubbed the "American Spring". The winds of change are blowing and it is clear that people all over the world are becoming "socially conscious" -- knowing that something is gravely wrong with their respective societies as well as the world economy as a whole and wanting to do something about it.

But, as the movements grows, it is important to learn from the mistakes of the past. I would dare say that the movement's biggest mistake is its failure to develop the elements and components of the new system which we are fighting to create within the existing system which we are fighting to dispose of -- not its insufficient level of social theory. In order for a revolution to occur and be successful, these are two of the things that MUST happen:

1 -- The existing socio-economic system must have run its course. There must be unresolved and unsolvable problems.

2 -- The elements and components of the new, emerging system must be developed within the old system.

Well, we know that the world economic system is in its final throes; so, I won't belabor the issue. However, the Occupy Movement has failed woefully when it comes to developing the elements and components of the new system within the old, though they've had many missed opportunities to succeed. (I don't know enough about the revolutionary organizations of North Africa to make a sweeping assessment of them in this matter.) The demands of the Occupy Movement can be summed up as the demand for government to ensure that all of its constituents will be afforded their most basic human necessities. However, the Occupy Movement has failed to practice what it preaches to the extent to which it is able to do so.

It is common knowledge that many homeless people have moved into the various Occupy encampments across the country and around the world -- some as active participants who are fighting for positive change; some for the free food, tents, blankets and other goods. Encampments have, in many cases, made rules against people moving in just for the hand-outs and have insisted that all those present must actively participate in direct actions against the system. This has caused many of the poor and homeless to be pushed out. However, if we are fighting for a system that guarantees that all people will have their most basic human necessities, we need to begin to offer those items to people in need -- yes, even those who don't choose to involve themselves in any of the direct actions.

We need to take a lesson from the successes of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Both have been declared by the largest terrorist organization in the world -- the U.S. Government -- to be terrorist groups, for what that's worth to you. (I guess it really DOES take one to know one.) Both have social welfare arms that provide for the poor, take care of a fighter's widow, invest in hospitals and educate children. Both organizations have mastered the art of developing the elements and components of the new system within the old. What's more is that both organizations are well-liked by the people of their respective countries as well as other middle-eastern countries. So, let's take one from their book.

The Occupy Movement can come back stronger if it changes its ways by:

1 -- putting less effort into opposing the existing system (maintaining that effort nonetheless)

2 -- making a more robust effort to provide people's most basic necessities.

They need to gather as many donations as possible from all who are ready, willing and able to give and then distribute those goods to all people in need who present at the Occupy encampments. This would cast the movement in a more positive light and cause the poor to utterly love them. Furthermore, people whose bellies are full are more likely to join in discussions about social theory, the problems with the existing system and the new society which we are fighting for. (This is not a far cry from the long-standing Christian principle of witnessing to the lost through your behavior until they want to know what drives you to do what you do.)

After people's needs have begun to be met by those who are fighting for change, the Occupy Movement should begin studying social theory and planning the new society. After all, if we rid ourselves of the existing system without having first developed the elements and components of the new system, we will only create chaos and give rise to all-out, overt dictatorship as a means of regaining order.

This brings to mind a problem which I see all too often at protests -- participant's inability and/or unwillingness to articulate their cause. I've happened upon protests whose purpose I didn't know and approached participants to ask what it was about. In some cases, the person that I approach can't give me an elevator spiel (short explanation) about the purpose of the protest. in other cases, they even seem to get a bit of an attitude. Everyone present should be ready, willing and able to explain the purpose of the protest to any passer-by who might ask. This would prove to be an effective tool for increasing the number of supporters.

On occasion, a passer-by who asks about the reason for the protest or even someone from the opposing camp (a one-percenter) is willing to engage in meaningful conversation with a protester. Unfortunately, some protesters refuse to oblige. I've even had the experience where another ninety-nine percenter disrupts the intelligent conversation which I'm having with a one-percenter. Such actions do nothing to further our cause and even give the other camp reason to write us off as a bunch of heretics.

Then there is the issue of choosing a target for the direct action. Here in Washington, DC we recently had direct actions that were aimed at PEPCO (the DC Metro area's power company) which has some of the highest rates and worst service of power companies nationwide. Following the protest, there was discussion of how the DC Council would've been a better target, as it is they who grant PEPCO the permission to raise its rates. Similar things can be said about those who protest against other corporations rather than the governments that give these corporations free reign and enact laws in favor of corporate greed (the marriage of government and corporations being an element of fascism). It could also be argued that those who are opposed to the sway that Wall Street has over the U.S. Government should demand that the government use the control which it already has in order to beat Wall Street into submission.

That said, this blog post is not intended to be a comprehensive list of instructions for the movement, but rather a starting point for improvement and empowerment. So, in summary, we need to remember this simple recipe for revolution:

1 -- Create the elements and components of the new system WITHIN the existing system. Then you'll be in a better position to overthrow the existing system. After that, you can bring together and further organize the existing elements and components of the emerging system, thus instituting the new form of governance. (It's not as easy as I make it sound.)

2 -- Study social theory together and discuss the new society that we want.

3 -- Be certain that all protesters and participants in direct actions are able to articulate the purpose of the event.

4 -- Be willing to engage in meaningful discussion -- even with the opposing camp.

5 -- Choose your targets well.

Let's hope that the Occupy Movement uses the advice stated herein and becomes even more legitimate. Time will tell.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Useless, Ineffective Government Bodies

We're at no shortage of governmental flaws and failures to talk about -- whether addressing the federal government or state and local governments. We all watched the congressional bickering play out in the summer of 2011 as many people whose lives were destroyed by natural disasters were made to wonder if Congress would add insult to injury by cutting off their assistance, we almost defaulted on our national debt and President Obama urged Congress to play nicely (with people's lives, I must add). While some disasters were averted, Americans (and the whole world, thanks to technology) were made keenly aware of the ineffectiveness of our national government (if they hadn't already known).

My anti-capitalist friends and I are left to wonder how much of the dysfunction of government is due to the shortcomings of our elected officials and how much of it is due to them being unsympathetic, intransigent, war-loving, imperialistic capitalists who are deliberately throwing their poor constituents to the wolves. I like to think the best of people; so, I'll assume that the federal government and other governments of our nation are just plain stupid. After all, if they don't want to be pegged as stupid, they'd have to admit that they are purposefully useless and ineffective -- essentially indicting themselves on charges of societal "murder" rather than "involuntary manslaughter". Who would be so stupid? In either case, the verdict is the same: They're not working for the people and need to go.

While this blog post will address the idiocy which our governments incorporate while "attempting" to address the homeless issue, let us remember that the way in which they approach homelessness is a microcosm of their overall dysfunction. People who address other societal ills could very easily replace my references to homelessness and the agencies which "work to end it" with terms that are specific to their respective issues and the contents of this post would still hold true. So, at the risk of writing a very long blog post, I'll only address the ways in which our nation's governments have failed their poorest constituents -- the homeless.

Feel free to use this post to highlight any and all governmental failures. But be advised that your efforts may last well into eternity.

I was recently informed about a report which was prepared in May 2005 by the Urban Institute of Washington, DC which was subcontracted under Walter R. McDonald and Associates, the agency contracted to perform the study for HUD (the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development). Following the list of defendants...err acknowledgements, the first paragraph reads:

"Homelessness prevention is an essential element of any effort to end homelessness either locally or nationwide. To close the front door of entry into homelessness, the central challenge of prevention is targeting our efforts toward those people that will become homeless without the intervention. Providing prevention assistance to people who would not otherwise become homeless is an inefficient use of limited homelessness dollars."

Do you mean to tell me that it took dozens of well-paid intellectuals, government officials, government contractors and subcontractors doing a national study to arrive at the conclusion that "prevention is the best medicine" and "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? We've known this for eons! Even so, I'm glad they're finally learning what the average tenth-grader knows. But, almost a full seven years later, we've yet to see this age-old wisdom applied on a national level.

And the third sentence is chock full of unconventional wisdom too: "Providing prevention assistance to people who would not otherwise become homeless is an inefficient use of limited homelessness dollars." (For the slow government officials who might be reading this, I was being sarcastic.) Who needs a genius to tell them to only use "homeless dollars" to prevent homelessness for those who are in danger of becoming homeless? After all, countless advocates spend their valuable time just trying to keep GOVERNMENT from taking "homeless dollars" away from ineffective, government-run homeless programs. 'Why would the GOVERNMENT do that?" you ask. There are two basic reasons:

1 -- Neither ending nor preventing homelessness is a priority for our nation's governments.

2 -- The government is punishing an under-funded, misguided and consequently ineffective government-run program by taking away some or all of its funding in hopes of causing that program to do a better job. They're in effect, punishing the child for becoming like the parent (though governments are hardly under-funded and, if they are, it's only because THEY can't get a handle on unemployment -- i.e. create jobs and connect people to them). Their "hopes" never materialize into tangible results. I'll give you one guess as to why. Have you figured it out yet? Our governments haven't.

When you consider the fact that various states and cities as well as the federal government have Inter-agency Councils on Homelessness (ICH's), it might seem that a rather robust effort is being made to end homelessness. Here in Washington, DC the ICH is headed by the city administrator and consists of the heads of various government agencies (or their proxies) along with various homeless service providers and homeless or formerly homeless people. They convene every two months and meetings are open to the public. There are usually about 100 people in attendance. I am left to assume that other ICH's function in similar ways.

The DC ICH held it's first meeting in June 2006 (the 24th, if I'm not mistaken) at One Judiciary Square. I was there. Five months earlier, DC counted 6,157 homeless people. In January 2007 there were 5,757 homeless people in DC. That number has risen every year since then -- to 6,546 in 2011 (the latest year for which figures are available). I am left to assume that other ICH's have had similar results.

DC Government adopted its 10-year plan to end homelessness in December 2004 with the "intent"(?) of ending homelessness in the District by December 2014 (without just letting them all freeze to death, I'll assume). They've scrapped that plan at this point, though I don't think any of the suits or dresses who got paid nicely for devising a failed plan gave back any of the money they were paid for screwing up. I KNOW that other cities have had similar results.

In January 2008 DC had 6,044 homeless people. In September 2008 DC's Permanent Supportive Housing Program (PSH) became functional and has housed at least 1,500 formerly homeless people at this point. yet, in January 2011 DC had 6,546 homeless people (502 MORE than they had BEFORE PSH). The only way to house 1,500 people and end up with 500 more is for an additional 2,000 people to become homeless in the time that it took to house the 1,500.

Last year Washington, DC's 153-unit, apartment-style family shelter was full. There were 50 additional families who couldn't access shelter. They were put in hotels while DC Government's Dept. of Human Services (DHS) readied an additional 100 units. By the time the 100 units were ready, there were 200 families in hotels -- to the tune of approx. $100/day/family while the average rent for a 2-bedroom in the city is $1,600/month ($53/day). So, while the government made shelter space for 50 families, another 150 became homeless. And who's not slow?

Robert Hess was hired by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as New York City's director of Homeless Services. Homelessness increased on his watch, due largely to the economic downturn and Mr. Hess became a political scapegoat. Michael Kelly, the former director of the DC Housing Authority, in like manner, became a political scapegoat as he lost his job due to DCHA having a long waiting list for housing. While I don't know what Mr. Hess is doing these days, Mr. Kelly is now the director of New York City's housing authority. Maybe he's doing a better job in NYC than circumstances would allow him to do in DC. I've met both men and have nothing against either. However, I'm trying to imagine the conversation that landed the job for Mr. Kelly:

BOSS: Mr. Kelly, why do you deserve this job? What kind of credentials do you have?

MR. KELLY: I failed woefully in DC. We housed about 1,000 people per year and had a waiting list that went from 60,000 to 26,000 by being "purged". (People who didn't reapply were knocked off of the waiting list.) I, in essence, reduced the wait from 60 years to 26 years. That's why they got rid of me.

BOSS: You reduced the wait from 60 years to 26 years! We've never had any such luck in New York City! They call that a failure. You're an absolute success in my book. You're hired!

Now let's get back to the federal government for a minute -- or longer. President Obama signed the HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) on May 20th, 2009. It was then handed off to HUD to be implemented. Two and a half years later, in the fall of 2011, the HEARTH Act was partially implemented, as Congress under-funded HUD for FY 2012. While HUD is the victim this time, it is important to note that HUD's only mission in 1934 was to help people purchase homes; but, the department now devotes a large portion of its funding to maintaining rentals. They've spoken in recent years about purchasing condos for those who receive assistance, but I've yet to hear about any motion on that proposal. It would be a smart move to purchase houses or condos and stop paying rent (though that says nothing for condo fees or property taxes).

The HEARTH Act, when fully implemented, will require municipalities that receive HUD money to actually reduce homelessness. Bravo, HUD! Demand results. But DC Government recognizes about five different types of shelter of which the most popular is "low-barrier shelter". People who enter low-barrier shelter don't need I.D., may give a false name, may enter high or drunk and may be illegal immigrants (undocumented workers) or on the lam. Neither law enforcement nor Immigration will be called, so long as the person doesn't bring alcohol in with them or commit any new crimes while in the shelter. Shelter residents are not required to enter any type of program while in low-barrier shelter. I've told DC Government that, in order to comply with the demand to actually reduce homelessness, the "low-barrier" designation will eventually need to be revisited and possibly need to be done away with when the pertinent portion of the HEARTH Act is implemented. I don't think they heard me. I'll shout it next time. If they don't reduce homelessness, they won't get that pot of money the following year -- which they could then tout as the reason for their continued failure.

And, speaking of DC Government failures, I actually told them about their failures in December 2011. I swear I was nice. Really. I told them about how they now have 500 more homeless people than they did before PSH. I then said, "It's like having your water supply line spring a leak. You don't mop the floor first. You turn the water off and stop the flow. in like manner, you have to stop the flow into homelessness or you'll always be behind the ball". (I, who have never been to college but DID finish high school, said this before reading the 2005 report which I mentioned earlier.) Following the February 2012 ICH meeting, I noticed that people who are contracted under DC Government were shunning me. Now, why would they do that? I'll assume they don't like being called failures, though they don't seem to mind BEING failures. After all, it pays well and guarantees them job security. As long as they don't actually end homelessness, they'll keep getting paid by DC Government to end homelessness.

So, in April I'll offer them some free but invaluable advice:

1 -- Take a step back from what you do and consider what sensible, time-tested principles (like prevention) you haven't incorporated. Start incorporating them.

2 -- Consider what policies and practices are being incorporated by your higher-ups which hinder, prevent and reverse(?) your progress as well as the constraints which are put on you by them. Consider what things fall outside of your purview or mandate but which need to be done in order to end homelessness. Put all of this in your reports to your higher-ups. make it part of a problem statement which appears on the front of your report. let them know that THEY are the reasons for YOU being useless and ineffective. Ask for...err demand broader authority and greater resources. Tell them you'll quit if they don't enable you to succeed. Or do you enjoy the job security that comes with life-long failure?

3 -- Get a city administrator who actually cares about the issue, as Allen Lew is only at ICH meetings because it's the law. Neil Albert was a much better CA. If someone mentioned a problem at a shelter or homeless service, he would call the director of the responsible agency on the carpet immediately and the meeting wouldn't proceed until the matter was adequately addressed. Allen Lew does as little as possible during meetings -- and JUST STARTED doing that much.

I'll venture a guess that the government folk will utterly hate me after I offer the aforementioned good advice. Maybe they'll hate me enough to house me, in hopes of having me shut up and leave them to their own devices. I welcome the effort, though I won't tell you how that story would end. Want to guess the ending? Maybe I'll get swept up in a new policy of housing the "least vulnerable", connecting them to jobs, thus relieving the system of them altogether -- the policy which they've yet to consider, even though advocates have advised them to do so for the last couple of years. That's not to speak of the fact that it would free up tax dollars or that working people actually PAY taxes.

Well, I've humored you long enough with this diatribe on government dysfunction. If you aren't rolling in laughter right now, you're probably a government employee. If so, forward this to others in your government so that they can, get pissed off at me. I'm banking on them being utterly stupid. maybe they'll be stupid enough and get mad enough to say, "I'm so mad at Eric for exposing my failures that I'm going to start succeeding! I'll show him!" Wait -- that would actually be smart! One can only hope. But, as things stand presently, the government bodies of our nation aspire to become at least as useful and effective as that of a 1,000-pound quadriplegic who's both blind and deaf.

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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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Friday, March 9, 2012

The Budget Battle to Fund Human need in FY 2013 Has Begun

This post is an addendum to "The Homeless Mentality: A Need for Love and Empowerment" which is 2 blog post below this one.

I was ABSOLUTELY PLEASED by what I heard DC Councilman Jim Graham (who has oversight of the Human Services Committee) say at a hearing on March 1st, 2012. I was firmly convinced that he was extremely passionate about fighting for the city's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. It's safe to assume that others in the hearing chamber felt the same way. But, before I explain what was so admirable about the councilman's performance, let me describe the worsening crisis that he was responding to.

It's budget season again for DC Government. Same song, different verse. Mayor Vincent Gray (who was the director of the Dept. of Human Services at one time and ran a homeless shelter) is threatening to make deep, hurtful cuts to the human services budget -- in typical mayoral fashion. This is a trend which advocates for the poor and homeless have become all too familiar with. Of greatest concern is the fact that Mayor Gray wants to cut funding for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) by 25%. Needy families which have been on TANF for at least 5 years will have their monthly benefits decreased from $320/month to $240/month on October 1st, 2012 if the mayor has his way.

In April 2011, TANF benefits were cut by 20% from $400/month to $320/month for families which have received it for at least 5 years. It was said that benefits would be cut by another 20% on October 1st, 2011 (the beginning of FY 2012) and this pattern would continue every year thereafter until these needy families receive nothing. However, people came out in force during April and May of 2011, after the mayor issued his proposed budget for FY 2012, to speak out against these and other hurtful cuts to social services.

The DC Council (which votes to approve the mayor's budget and can make adjustments to it) conceded to some of the advocates' demands, suspending the TANF cuts for one year and back-pedaling on other proposed cuts to social services. They found $17 million to almost completely fill the gap for the projected $20.5-million budget shortfall for homeless services. The plans to close all city-run shelters on April 1st 2012 have been reversed. The city will continue to operate year-round shelter as opposed to just sheltering the homeless for the 5 coldest months of the year -- November 1st through March 31st. All of this just goes to show that people DO have power if they organize.

Now back to the March 1st, 2012 hearing. As Councilman Jim Graham discussed the impact of the proposed TANF cuts with Dept. of Human Services Director David Berns, he was clearly upset by the mayor's decision. He passionately stated how that he and the director, both of whom make comfortable salaries, would be upset if their pay were cut by 25%; while, the mayor wants to decrease the income of needy families by 25%. He promised to fight the proposed cuts to the bitter end.

Councilman Graham asked Director Berns about his plans to assist TANF recipients in finding employment. Director Berns stated his plans to assist the heads of households in finding employment, even if it's only part-time. Mr. Berns didn't seem to think that he could assist the poor in finding full-time living-wage jobs; but, was hopeful that he COULD help families to at least find enough work to make up for the $80/month that they may soon lose in TANF benefits. (One would hope that any part-time job paid more than $80/month, not to speak of the transportation and other costs associated with going to work.) This speaks volumes to the fact that many people will never make enough money to hold their own. There are people who will always need SOME help -- even with their best efforts. Government should plan accordingly.

But the poor and homeless community of DC shouldn't be surprised by the fact that a mayor with a history in human services would forsake the needy after becoming mayor. They felt the same way after Adrian Fenty became mayor. While a councilman, Fenty had oversight of Human Services. While functioning in that capacity, he did his job well -- so well that advocates were able to get large numbers of homeless people to attend events associated with his transition to the office of mayor. A year and a half into Fenty's term as mayor, the poor and homeless were grossly disappointed with him for a variety of reasons. But, to his credit, he actually began 2 housing programs before closing 2 shelters (though 1 program has since lost its funding and the other is not without funding troubles). Vincent Gray (whom many thought would be better than Fenty) has proven to be more willing than his predecessor to throw the poor to the wolves insomuch as he has proposed to defund social programs without creating any other forms of assistance.

The proposed cuts to TANF for FY 2013, his proposal last year to scale back shelter to only 5 months per year and the myriad of other hurtful cuts which he proposed last year give us a window into the mind of the mayor. Advocates have begun to worry and to organize in earnest and fight against other hurtful budget cuts which we may find out about as early as March 13th or as late as March 23rd. The mayor's behavior toward the poor is cause for concern. The fact that this is being done by someone knows the in's and out's of human services only adds insult to injury.

But, it doesn't stop there. Mayor Gray plans to complete his budget early this year. By DC Law, he must publish his budget for Fiscal Year 2013 by April 1st, 2012. In past years the advocates have waited until AFTER April 1st to respond to his budget. But, following last year's budget cycle, the advocacy community determined that we needed to change our ways by giving our input during the writing of the budget. This year we did just that. In response, the mayor decided to publish his budget by March 23rd. Then he said it would be done by March 10th. He then had to add 3 days; because, the March 10th date proved to be a little too ambitious. It is safe to assume that he has chosen to publish his budget as early as possible so as to give the advocacy community the least amount of time possible to give their input. Mayor Vincent Gray is a slick one -- to be sure.

On Saturday, February 11th, 2012, DC Mayor Vincent Gray held his "One City Summit", which was ostensibly for the purpose of finding out what Washingtonians felt needed to be done to make this one unified city that serves people of all economic strata. Through instant polling that took place at the event, approximately 2,000 people indicated that their primary concern was the lack of affordable housing in the city. Since that event, I've been to several meetings where I saw people galvanizing around the fact that so many city residents are demanding the creation of affordable housing -- the lack of which is the primary reason for homelessness in the U.S. There are many working people in the city who are on the verge of becoming homeless. This speaks volumes to the fact that people are not necessarily homeless due to laziness or some other personal vice; but rather, many are homeless due to the lack of affordable housing combined with the lack of a living wage.

Unfortunately, neither of the last 2 mayors this city has seen (both of whom have histories working in human services) has demonstrated the political will or determination to create affordable housing in DC. Fenty made a token effort by creating an affordable housing task force. The chairperson of that task force lacked sufficient authority to do the job and he quit in less than a year. His position remained unfilled for the remainder of Fenty's term. Gray has said he would create an affordable housing task force. Can anyone guess how that might go?

All of this makes it more important now than ever for DC's poor and homeless community to take heart, as people all over the city are beginning to galvanize around the need for affordable housing. It was recently suggested to me that leading a successful campaign amongst the homeless to have all disrespectful staff fired would show the homeless how much power they really DO have and would energize them for the much bigger fight to create affordable housing. I fully agree.

The local fight is not the only one for which the homeless need to be empowered though. I was recently contacted by someone from Capitol Hill and am now working with the staff of Congressman John Conyers to create 2 pieces of legislation -- one that will create jobs and job training for all and another that will create housing for women, children and families. I'll soon need many people to rally behind me and apply pressure to Congress to pass this legislation.

So, if it takes too long for the homeless to reach down deep inside of themselves and find the abdominal fortitude to join the fight, they'll miss the boat. It's time to empower the homeless for "the lion's last stand" -- the final battle. I would hope that they choose to "take heart and take part". At the end of the day, the question is: "Will the homeless merely fight for their daily sustenance or fight for the necessary systemic change?" So, if you love the homeless, don't just feed them. Empower them to be the change they want and need to see in the world.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

How The City Might Shut Down The Tent City @ 7th And R Streets NW


For some strange reason this old post from 2010 reverted to "draft". Republishing.....


Some of you received a shorter version of this message on July 31st. That portion is in brackets "[ ]". I've added some more recent developments such as an encounter that I had with Mayor Fenty this morning, August 2nd.

[ The tent city at the intersection of 7th, R and Rhode Island in northwest DC is over 3 weeks old now. Many people are surprised to see that it hasn't been shut down by the city yet. It is firmly believed that Mayor Fenty doesn't want the images of protesters being arrested for defending their human right to housing plastered all over people's T.V. screens and that that may be the reason for the longevity of the camp. Let's bear in mind that he is fighting for his political life and that such images could be his political death knell. Some of us were actually anticipating getting arrested and that may still be a prospect.

On the evening of July 30th, a DC Government employee named Pat Handy stopped by the tent city. She works for DC Government's Dept. of Human Services as the Homeless Outreach Manager. She is the troubleshooter for various homeless services. She managed the process on September 10th, 2008, as Franklin School Shelter residents were made to sign papers stating that they knew about the impending closure of Franklin. (Some people stood in the check-in line for 5 hours that night.) She managed the process the next morning as 50 or so Franklin residents were placed quickly (and in some cases haphazardly) in Permanent Supportive Housing. She was the one who was called to tell the homeless people at 14th and NY Ave. that they couldn't sleep on the 14th street side of the building anymore (right after a homeless person was seen on T.V. testifying against Fenty and his administration). And now she might be the one to close the tent city. However that is not a clearly cut-and-dry determination.

Pat stopped by the tent city on her motor scooter around 9:30 PM. She explained that she had seen the tent city while on her way to U Street and decided to stop in on her return trip. She asked me why we were there and I explained that it was in protest to Mayor Fenty's broken promise to build affordable housing there. She called someone on her cell phone, though I don't know who. She then said,"I hope they don't send me to close this down".

Pat explained the process that would occur if she were to shut down the tent city: If someone in the neighborhood complains about the tent city, then Pat will be contacted. She would then post a 14-day notice at the tent city. On the 14th day, she would return with the Dept. of Public Works and have them to tear down and dispose of everything.

One of the things that stands out to me is the fact that someone in the neighborhood has to complain. On the one hand, the city could lie and say that someone complained. This would give them the pretext that they need to move in and shut it down. On the other hand, we could make friends with the neighborhood, gain their support and have them alongside us to protest the closure on the 14th day.

Then there is the 14-day notice. That gives us plenty of time to contact the media and to have people who want to retrieve their belongings come and do so. It also gives us time to mobilize people to protest and to call Fenty on the carpet about his broken promises, his failure to meet with his poorer constituents and his failure to provide a sufficient amount of affordable housing as well as other needs of the not-so-well-off community.

Those of us who have been involved over the past 3 weeks and during the planning phase have discussed our demands on the Fenty administration which include an interim use for the land while we wait for construction to begin on the promised 94 units of affordable housing. The ideas include an eco-village and a community garden. Some of us plan to reach out to the Shaw community to get their input on what the interim use for Parcel 42 should be. This process should be expedited due to this most recent development.

In closing, I must say that we haven't lost this fight and we won't so long as we stand our ground. In lieu of the mayor's apparent character flaws, immoral decisions and spurning of the poor, we are bound to garner much support for our cause. So let's continue to fight the good fight.]

Pat Handy also explained to me that, so long as the tent city seems to be nothing more than a "homeless encampment", it is her duty to shut it down. However, if the tent city is categorized as a "political action", it is no longer her job to deal with it. (My guess is that responsibility for dealing with the "protesters" goes to the Special Operations division of the Metropolitan Police Dept.) This just goes to show how classist our government is -- how it is that they divide people into different classes and then bestow different levels of privilege and punishment upon them, in effect using a double (...or triple...or quadruple...) standard. That said, it behooves us to remain "political" insomuch as that seems to be buying us time. (Even those who are there merely due to being homeless and needing a place to sleep can gain -- in more ways than one -- by posing as political protesters.)

I'd like to remind you of the fact that the tent city is run by donations. There are a few homeless people staying there. But those of us who are confronting the mayor about his broken promises remain involved (with me fitting into both groups). Donations have gone toward the purchase of water, ice, food and hardware. Feel free to call or e-mail me for info on how to donate. Cell: (240) 305-5255. E-mail: ericsheptock@yahoo.com .

My Meeting With The Mayor:

On the morning of Monday, August 2nd at 10:45 AM there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Watha T. Daniels Public Library which is across the street diagonally from the Tent City. There were over 100 people in attendance -- among them: Mayor Fenty, Council Chairman Vincent Gray and Councilmen Harry "Tommy" Thomas, Jr.(Ward 5); Jim Graham (Ward 1) and Jack Evans (Ward 2 -- where the library and tent city are). Coincidentally, the podium from which they each spoke was positioned so that it was facing the tent city -- which was a victory in and of itself. It was impossible for them not to notice their poorer constituents now -- if only for a short time.

After the ceremony I was able to waylay the mayor as several of my fellow-tent city/affordable housing supporters and others who wanted to speak to the mayor stood nearby. I told him that ONE DC (the organization that began the tent city) still wanted him to keep his 2007 promise to put 94 units of affordable housing on Parcel 42 and that the affordability rate should be tiered so that people who make 25 to 50% of the AMI (Area Median Income) can live there. I told him that the original plan called for 110 units of affordable housing and then was lowered to 94 units and then to 54 units. I also told him that, most recently, I'd been told that he nixed the plans for affordable housing and planned to build condos there. I asked him if that was true, to which he said, "No." I asked Fenty if he was still committed to putting affordable housing there, to which he said,"Yes". I pointed northward across R Street to the Lincoln Westmoreland II Apts. which are presently HUD housing and told him that they are about to go co-op, thus leaving the public housing stock. Then I pointed northeastward at the tent city and told him that he broke his promise to put affordable housing there -- that the Shaw neighborhood would lose a large number of public housing units as well as the promised affordable housing, to which he said, "No promises were broken".

Aside from his aforementioned pat answers, Mr. Fenty just looked at me with a grim look as I spoke. He then said, "I've answered all of your questions and now I need to speak to others." I refuted,"No you didn't" and asked,"When are they going to begin construction on the affordable housing?" Fenty told me to speak to the project manager for further details. I told him that ONE DC and others still wanted to meet with him and that our one-on-one conversation doesn't count as the meeting that we've been asking for. With that, he moved on and began to speak to the others who were gathered around him.

I didn't leave that conversation with any more information than I had going into it. Nonetheless, the mayor was confronted about the need for affordable housing one more time. But, most importantly, the impoverished community of our nation's capital is one step closer to realizing that the government (at any level -- federal, state or local) is not going to be there for them and that they must look in another direction for relief from their state of destitution -- revolution.

On a lighter note, DC renters have won a long-fought battle to level the playing field in landlord-tenant court -- where landlords always win. DC now has Housing Conditions Court which is presided over by Judge Melvin R. Wright. Presently, HCC only convenes on Mondays at 9 AM. The court has only been functional since May 28th, 2010. Judge Wright is looking for community input pertaining to the needs of tenants and for help from concerned citizens to get the word out about the HCC. His office can be reached at: (202) 879-8336.


PRESS RELEASE: CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLE FOR DC’S HOMELESS CONTINUES IN FEDERAL COURT

Wednesday August 4th at 9:00 am
US District Court for D.C., 333 Constitution Ave., NW in Courtroom 16

Contacts: George Rickman (202) 723-3955
Jane Zara (202) 390-2449

Plaintiffs from Franklin Shelter will have a hearing on Wednesday, August 4th, concerning pending allegations of Fair Housing Act,
American with Disabilities Act & DC Human Rights Act violations. The need for this case to move forward increases daily. The most recent
point in time study released by Metro Washington Area Council of Governments indicates continued increases in the numbers of homeless
persons in the District of Columbia.

And while these numbers have increased, the availability of shelter space and permanent supportive
housing has remained stagnant and does not to begin to address the rising need. The result can be seen in a commensurate increase in the
number of unsheltered homeless-persons living on the street by 176 persons as detailed in the same MCOG report. Other reports and
anecdotal accounts not only confirm this statistical picture, but also reveal circumstances more injurious to the health and safety of greater
numbers of homeless persons than are indicated in the report.

Recent newspaper accounts report overcrowding at the District’s one family shelter, leaving some families with children either on the
street or living in uninhabitable conditions. The conditions and the numbers at the men’s shelters, while not widely reported, paint a
similar picture. Not only are the men forced to live in overcrowded conditions, for those who choose to stay at one of the city run
shelters, but care-providers report many who are displaced and estranged from the needed services. It is widely known that persons who
cannot provide a fixed address cannot obtain services from a service
provider.

An appeal on behalf of plaintiffs was argued in the DCCA and submitted to a panel of that Court on April 1, 2010. No opinion has been rendered by that Court,
and there is no basis to believe that the DCCA will render any opinion in the near future. There are no rules governing the
promptness with which the DCCA addresses matters before it, and there is nothing to suggest that they view this case with same urgency that
plaintiffs now face.

Homelessness itself is a degrading circumstance that often leaves emotional scars. “Living on the streets,” as some refer to the
unsheltered homeless, exacerbates these circumstances, and in and of itself, causes or worsens already debilitating mental illness. By not
providing ready access to much needed mental health services, physical treatment, and psycho-social counseling, the District not only violates
federal law, but also denies persons the basic human dignity owed to all members of our community.

After months if not years of promises, the District’s homeless remain in a precarious state either going to jail for minor offenses only to
return to the same circumstances that led to their arrest, or to wander the streets. Indeed, as plaintiffs spell out in their complaint by
removing persons from areas where much needed services are available the District defendants violate provisions of the Fair Housing Act, the
Americans with Disabilities Act, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and the United States Constitution.


Eric Jonathan Sheptock (click)
Cell phone: (240) 305-5255
425 2nd St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-2003
My Blog (click) @ S.T.R.E.A.T.S. (click)
(including my explanation of "Exit Strategy" on CNN)
For "Take Back The Land DC" updates (click)
Parcel 42 Tent City
My Blog (click) @ Change.org (click)
MAYOR FENTY has a headache and his headache has a name -- ERIC JONATHAN SHEPTOCK. (Click)