What Good Is Our Advocacy for the Poor and Homeless Doing???

"We the advocates can do better at making government do better by the poor who want to do better for themselves."

I was asked on April 20th, 2016 by someone in DC Government [PARAPHRASED]:

"Eric, why do you think it is that some recent hearings that pertain to issues being fought for by the Fairbudget Coalition and related groups around poverty and homelessness are not well-attended???"

I posed this question to a staff member of the Fairbudget Coalition along with some of my thoughts on the matter and got a rather interesting reply. Then the Fairbudget Coalition had its monthly meeting on May 4th and different attendees mentioned ways in which they believe that our advocacy is either weakening or has never been strong to begin with.

It's worth noting that the government employee didn't refer to the Fairbudget Coalition by name. However, since FBC is the biggest and strongest advocacy group fighting for the poor of Washington, DC, I decided to address the aforementioned question to them and to use them as a reference point for this topic.

Before I get into the more volatile discussions that were raised at the May 4th meeting, I'll list the reasons for low hearing attendance that I set forth in my initial e-mail on the topic, followed by the list of reasons that were sent to me in response:

From me (Eric Sheptock):

1 -- People aren't getting the word (reading e-mails about advocacy events in time).

2 -- Folk just have really busy schedules and can't make it to DC Council hearings.

3 -- There's a reason for which they don't figure it to be worth their time to attend hearings.

4 -- An FBC meeting attendee said during the March meeting that any mayor's first budget is usually pretty progressive; but, all budgets thereafter are often quite unfavorable. That might explain a sharp drop in hearing attendance; as, folk may feel that they've accomplished all of the progressive goals that they can accomplish with this mayor who took office in 2015.

5 -- Being the old hand that I am at advocacy (hell-ebrating 10 long, hard years in mid-June), I know that the advocates used to remind each other of the victories we'd won through direct action and that would serve to boost morale for the next go-'round. I don't see much of that happening anymore.

6 -- I've heard different people say that they thought the budget engagement sessions [during which Mayor Muriel Bowser allowed the general public to weigh in through guided discussions on the budget she was drafting] were one big farce. As a matter of fact, they said it at the March FBC meeting. This might offer some insight into how people are relating to the Bowser administration, with the mayor's honeymoon being over now. They felt that the forums created a facade of public input which only served as a cover for a system of "inverted totalitarianism" wherein a matter is put to a vote in a way that guarantees that the will of the chief executive or a small cadre will prevail under the guise of democracy. It's not to be confused with its kissin' cousin "Bourgeois Democracy" which promotes the will of the wealthy minority and of those who control large sums of money over the will of the masses.


7 -- I'll mention an idea that I know I've mentioned in the past which is: We shouldn't end our budget season engagement after money is handed off to the various departments; but, we at FBC should have committees that correspond with the DC Council committees and/or DC Government departments and should further engage at the next level so as to help guide policy and how money and resources move within a deputy mayor's cluster or within a department.

8 -- Something that I've thought about often for many years now is the need to have and to advocate from a concrete social theory such as Marxism, Socialism or even Communism. After all, the GOP-revered Ronald Reagan used Keynesianism (Trickle-down Theory) as the basis for his Reaganomics and his legacy is not completely unraveled. That said, multiple people have told me since mid-April 2016 that they see the need for advocates and service providers to stop just "putting out fires" and to work proactively from a broad but well-defined vision of what society should be like. Maybe we just need to begin a Marxist study group and develop our social theory as a way of reinvigorating people.


9 -- I tell people in my many speeches and conversations that getting mad at government and storming out of the Wilson Building (City Hall) with a supposed "threat" not to return doesn't bring us any closer to the system we want. It makes it easier for crooked politicians and their cronies to do what they do and get away with it. Staying involved in some way, shape, form or fashion is the only thing that MIGHT get what we want which is for everyone to have what they need. When we walk away, people in power cover their mouths as they laugh us to scorn.

10 -- In closing, I maintain that a benevolent dictatorship such as the one that Hugo Chavez once considered creating is the only form of governance that works well for the poor; and, capitalism is an oppressive, though not monolithic, system.

A certain person responded with:

Hey Eric, 

1 -- I, myself, have been feeling (and I think this feeling may be shared by others), that hearing's haven't been feeling like a productive use of time or all that effective. I've still been testifying and attending, but it's incredibly time consuming for only getting 3 minutes to actually speak, and it's getting more and more difficult to get community members to feel like it's a productive use of their time.

2 -- Often, we hear that they have really negative experiences, especially when Councilmembers ask them questions, and in the end, it's really not clear if their input made any meaningful difference. 

3 -- I do think we need to reassess our strategy to figure out the most strategic and effective use of our time and resources (and I agree that we need to do a much better job at tracking and following the money).

*****End of edited/abbreviated e-mail thread*****
*****Beginning of comments from May 4th meeting*****

On May 4th a certain Aaron who often attends meetings (and asked that I DO use his name in this post) spoke passionately about the fact that there were approximately 25 White non-profit personnel in the room and only three Black people including himself. He mentioned how that, in spite of the fact that most or all of the homeless families at the DC General Family Shelter are Black, most of those speaking up about the issue are White. Aaron asked, "If Black people were to fill the meeting room, would they be heard???".

(I responded by telling him that we have to FORCE people to hear us.) Aaron made other relevant points about how there is more than just an income disparity between Blacks and Whites -- that there is a disparity in terms of how often the opinions of either race are heard and taken seriously. (I would add that, while Blacks are the poorest race in this country percentage-wise, there are actually more poor Whites.)

A female attendee mentioned how "risk-averse" many of the advocates seem to be. She pointed out that the non-profit for which she works has often taken the lead on matters that others might find risky for personal reasons and/or in terms of their non-profit's funding sources -- the latter of which is often government. With her sitting right next to me, I pointed out that I am not risk averse. I don't work for a government-funded non-profit and I have nothing to lose.

I sometimes question the motives of certain non-profits. In addition to the fact that many non-profits stand to lose funding if they were to oppose the government, there is the fact that non-profits can use the disabled homeless population as cash cows in ways that they can't use the able-bodied homeless. The disabled will go from using shelters and other programs for the homeless to being placed in Permanent Supportive Housing complete with case management from a non-profit. The able-bodied homeless, if connected to living-wage jobs and affordable housing, will no longer be under the auspices of any non-profit. I'd have to assume that the non-profits have known this for a long time. It begins to explain why there is more energy in the advocacy community around housing for the disabled than there is for affordable housing and living-wage jobs to assist the able-bodied. It is also the reason that I have begun to focus my energy on the issues of A-bods -- especially those at the CCNV Shelter.
So much for the non-profits. The topic of stupid questions from council was also raised on May 4th. DC Councilmembers have been known to ask directors of different departments of DC Government if these directors agree with the mayor's budget. in lieu of the fact that these directors stand to lose their six-figure jobs, it would be counter-intuitive for them to state their disagreement -- making the question from a councilmember a stupid one. Councilmembers have also asked single mothers who were testifying about their need for social services where the father of the children was -- thus showing no regard for how the mother might not choose to divulge that part of her story to the public during a televised hearing. While I'm doubtful that such stupid questions are the reason for a decrease in hearing attendance, the stupidity and dysfunction of government should be documented and dealt with.

Yours Truly said that we should hold the mayor to her word concerning the creation of a path to middle class for the city's poor and concerning her administration's 5-year plan to end all current homelessness in the city -- making homelessness "rare, brief and non-recurring". Many meeting attendees are highly doubtful that the mayor will succeed in either respect. The city's poor have more obstacles to obtaining living-wage employment than the administration has admitted to or planned to overcome thus far. That's not to speak of the fact that the DC Council would need to fund the creation of 2,000 units of housing for the homeless annually (minus those who self-resolve); but, are only funding one-fourth to one-third of that. The administration has devised a plan that the council has agreed to but fails to fully fund. Go figure.

It is with this in mind that I asked FBC if they think we should shame the government into doing better by getting an article in the Washington Post about how the council should put its money where its mouth is. I told people that I really don't mind being mean and went so far as to promise to use my mean streak to help FBC begin this difficult conversation in earnest: the conversation about how we the advocates can do better at making government do better by the poor who want to do better for themselves.

Since I've planned for a couple of weeks now to convene a May 15th meeting of DC homeless advocates so that we can get on the same page about a number of issues, we now have just a little bit more to talk about. But I'll domy best to ensure that we do much more than just talk. We'll discuss the aforementioned issues and many more and chart a path forward that forces government to do better by its poor constituents. STAY TUNED.

Eric Sheptock's Cell: 240-305-5255


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