Aborting the Mission: Churches, Social Services, Non-Profits and Government Fail the Poor

PREFACE: As I sit here and begin typing this blog post, I'm also thinking seriously about taking people up on their suggestion that I write a book. Several people have made this suggestion over the years. Most have not clearly indicated what they thought the book should be about, though it stands to reason that they'd want me to write about the lessons I've learned as a homeless advocate from June 2006 to the present. I've repeatedly thought about how my having been abused from shortly after birth until my biological mother fractured my skull when I was eight months old, my having spent five years in foster care and my having then been raised by a Polish man and Italian woman who had 36 other children (only 7 naturally) would make for a really boring story. So, I'm not inclined to write an autobiography. I've asked myself what type of book by me would even stand the chance of becoming a best seller. Assuming that the book should be a critique of the "socialistic" services that are offered by governments in America and with me being quite familiar with DC's local government, I've wondered what kind of spin I would put on it.

I think I have the answer. A fellow advocate who lives in London told me some time ago that he thinks the United States is "a capitalist beast with a Socialist heart". For those who don't already understand that metaphor intuitively, he was saying that, while the U.S. Government is caught in the [death] throes of capitalism which caters to the wealthy and exploits the poor, the government also provides for the poor to some degree. His succinct summation of American governance leaves much to be said, such as whether the provisions afforded the poor are the result of governmental compassion or they only serve to "keep the lid on the pressure cooker". That is to keep the poor from rising up against the powers that be. Call me a cynic (or a stoic); but, I'm inclined to believe the latter. My British comrade's comment also leaves one to ponder how we might shift away from settling for charity and begin to demand justice -- how we should reject perpetual social service handouts year after year and begin to demand that government do the math so as to ensure that any full-time worker can afford all of the necessities of life. After all, the same governments that provide food stamps (SNAP), HUD vouchers, TANF and other social services are continually reducing (and, in some cases, eliminating) these public benefits as they claim that the recipients thereof are lazy and shiftless. Government, at its various levels, has admitted to creating a "culture of dependency" and has proceeded to try and right their wrong by pulling the rug out from under needy people. The truth is that government realizes that technology is eliminating jobs more quickly that they can be created; that an ever-increasing percentage of available jobs require specialized training or a college degree; and, that many of the poor won't be able to complete such courses -- due to financial and/or mental limitations. All in all, blaming those who lack advanced education and financial resources for failing to advance and then cutting off their sustenance amounts to "passive euthanasia". That said, it seems that "the capitalist beast is having heart problems".

That brings me to the framing of this book for which this blog post can be considered a preview. I will, in the very near future, begin writing this book in which I'll spell out how the U.S. Government as well as the DC Government ostensibly began working "in earnest" to address homelessness in 1987 and 2004, respectively. I'll show how that, as another local advocate would say, "It's all just a shell game". It's quite shameful that, since the feds began addressing homelessness 30 years ago, DC's homeless population has grown exponentially (possibly six times now what it was then); and, since DC Government began "working" on homelessness, it has increased by approximately six percent -- through several ups and downs. So many of those in government who get paid to end homelessness and many of those to whom government awards social service contracts make six figures. Critics of mine have admonish me to call out these "poverty pimps", one man going so far as to post disparaging fliers about me and my advocacy on bus shelters. With me having been somewhat politically correct for the past few years, these calls for me to return to my more aggressive manner of speech are fully justified. It has crossed my mind frequently in recent months that I should redouble my efforts to make government consider its long-term and expensive failures -- irrespective of how many of their heads roll. There's no better time than the present to undertake this noble effort.

In this blog post and eventually in the book, I'll attempt to convince those who are just now becoming socially and politically aware that, well before but especially during the "Trumpolini" era, the way in which social services are structured in this country is prefaced on not wanting to disrupt capitalism and on wanting to ensure that the super rich class can continue to exploit the poor and others in the working class. The capitalist class averted full-on tragedy following the economic downturn of 2008; but, they are still in crisis mode -- for more reasons than I can spell out in a single blog post of reasonable length, thus the book. However, I will note here and now that technology has made human labor; concessions to labor unions and to the working class as a whole, and the provision of social programs for the currently-unemployed less relevant. It is less likely now than it was 30 years ago that dozens of workers threatening to strike will force the employer to bargain or barter with them. The capitalists are only willing to cut deals for what they want and need; and, they neither want nor need the large numbers of workers that used to define factories. The reduced need for human labor is also the reason that those who actually do get hired are often offered wages that are far below what one would need to earn in order to pay the average rent for that region. It also explains many employers' reluctance to offer health benefits and paid family leave. It's worth noting that, like the aforementioned poverty pimps, these low-wage-paying employers and high-rent-charging landlords are making out like bandits. Nonetheless, the governments that reluctantly provide social services to both the working and unemployed poor also make every effort to allow the laissez faire market to remain intact -- by raising the minimum wage at a fraction of the rate at which rents and the overall cost of living rise. Furthermore, we now have a pseudo-president who is trying to greatly accelerate the rate at which the interests of business are codified into law and made into federal policy -- all this, in spite of the detriments such actions would present to the poor. It's fair to say that all aspects of American governance are designed to give the rich all that they want, even if the majority of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and one or two percent are wondering where they are going to sleep tonight.

In times past, governments and corporations would take steps to sustain unemployed people who they'd eventually need to work for them again once business picked back up. However, as the capitalist class' need for workers diminishes, so does their willingness to assist the poor -- with employment or sustenance, though they might help the disabled in order to save face. Let's bear in mind that, once we correctly identify the motives that drive government and the wealthy, it will be easier to predict their moves well in advance; to devise our plans with the concepts on which the capitalists' plans are premised in mind; and to more deliberately and successfully thwart their plans. Then again, "Donito Trumpolini" is quite unabashedly promoting and implementing fascist policies; and, it might be too late to stop this train -- without another American Revolution. What's more is that it is our electoral system -- but not the popular vote -- that gave us this monster. Democracy -- the current American form, anyway -- has failed us.

There are many ways in which one can tell this story, to be sure. The disease of capitalism has many symptoms that have many variations. Keeping up with the evolving antics of the capitalist class is a full-time job -- for the masses. There is "inverted totalitarianism" wherein a government's constituents are afforded a false sense of choice; but, the reality is that a small cadre of people is actually making choices that affect the masses -- as was the case with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Locally, this concept manifests as what I'll call "NIMBY meetings" wherein someone like DC's Mayor Muriel Bowser arranges public meetings to discuss replacing a large family shelter with several smaller shelters but she only seems to attract those who are against having this social service in their neighborhoods to these meetings. As a result, she can now claim that it was her constituency that came out against the replacement shelters -- and leave us to wonder if that was the outcome she sought all along.

As of January 20th, 2017, she also has some "right-side-up totalitarianism" that she can tout, as Donito Trumpolini's emerging policies threaten to deplete the city's $13 billion budget of $1.2 billion in one fell swoop and thereby offer her a viable excuse for slicing social services to bits. Even DC's homeless are now talking about how she put a half million dollars toward supporting undocumented citizens even as she took steps in late 2016 to bar those whose last known address is not in DC from accessing shelter in the city. Immigrants aren't necessarily poor or in need of social services; so, they are more welcome than people who might have lived in DC before being evicted and sleeping on Mom's couch in neighboring Maryland or Virginia. Being somewhat cynical, I am all but convinced that Mayor Muriel Bowser is flaunting her "love of immigrants" with the full knowledge that Trumpolini promises to stop funding sanctuary cities like ours, even as she hopes that he'll make good on his promise -- which he has shown some propensity for doing. That would, all at once, take the burden of assisting the poor and the blame for failing them off of her. The DC mayor has a game of shifting blame -- just like she did following the 2016 homeless count, blaming the one-year 1,052-person increase in homeless people on the draconian policies of the previous mayor whereby homeless families were prevented from accessing shelter and forced to live doubled-up with relatives in sometimes overcrowded conditions until her policies increased shelter access in early 2015. Her argument does have plenty of merit; but, it doesn't gauge the full scope of unmet, hidden need or get past mere blame and to actual solutions that bring about a just system and reduce the need for charity.

Another aspect of the American system of governance that I'll describe here is what I'll call "inverted fascism". Whereas it is the national government in a fascist system that usually implements the most draconian and oppressive policies, it has become the norm for municipalities to implement these types of policies here in the U.S. where fascism is still in the nascent phase -- some cities jailing people for feeding the needy in public spaces and jailing the homeless for sleeping outdoors. The federal and state governments might issue notices of "guidance" which lack the force of law and which only try to dissuade local governments from creating oppressive policies -- without forcibly mandating that local governments treat all of their constituents humanely.

"Of the aforementioned tactics used by government, the one that is rearing it's head the most right now in Washington, DC is that of inverted totalitarianism -- like what DC's current mayor is using in the family shelter replacement plan and what ushered a 71-year old baby into the White House."

Aborting the Mission: Churches, Social Services, Non-Profits and Government Fail the Poor

Though it's taken me quite some time to get around to writing about it, the negative concept that initially inspired this post was a pattern that I've begun to see emerging where churches, social service agencies, non-profits and governments are aborting their stated missions. Governments like DC's municipal government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars -- possibly $2 billion or so in DC -- since declaring their intentions to end homelessness; but, they've failed to decrease it substantially (if at all) in 10 years or more -- much less, end it. DC embarked on such a journey in 2004. As of the May 2016 publishing of numbers from the homeless census that took place four months prior, we'd actually seen a 427-person increase over the 2004 numbers.

With this blog post having already become quite lengthy and me planning to write a book, I'll very briefly describe some of the systemic flaws that have the local social safety net on the verge of total collapse -- in my opinion, anyway. Decide for yourself if you think that the agencies referenced below are.....

"aborting the mission":

1 -- As stated earlier, DC Gov began "working" on ending homelessness in 2004 when DC had 8,253 homeless people. They developed a 10-year plan that FAILED. (They actually stopped paying attention to the plan about three years in.) In May 2014 it was determined that there had been a one-year increase of 889 homeless people, going from 6,859 in 2013 to 7,748 in 2014. When I called out the city's failure at the end of the June 2014 ICH meeting during which this group of government officials, non-profits and others skipped their usual mid-year discussion of homeless census results, city administrator Allen Lew softened the blow with a euphemism, saying that the city was "not failing" but rather "working on" [ending homelessness]. By the way, I hate euphemisms!!! In 2016 we INITIALLY figured DC to have 8,350 homeless people but found another 330 later on. (8,680 total). Government's euphemisms as well as their way of avoiding hard discussions about grim realities, about the overall thrust of the system and about their own failures leave me to conclude that many of these high earners are nonchalant and might even prefer that the problem that they are ostensibly attempting to solve actually be perpetuated -- giving them job security.

2 -- The Dinner Program for Homeless Women sat next to the MLK Library in a church basement and fed breakfast and men before relocating and changing its name to Thrive DC. It served 400 people six days per week and provided healthcare, employment assistance and other services -- as well as TV's that served to keep the homeless out of the way of the business community above in DC's Chinatown. The church was closed in January 2007 and torn down later that year. The rebuilt church was forbidden by the financier to have a similar program and accepted the terms. It just seems so counter-intuitive for a church to accept that it will be forbidden to assist the poor, with Christ having been a Communist who commanded us to help those in need -- with a job, when possible.

3 -- The MLK Library will close on 3/4/17 for a three-year renovation and this will create a disruption in the daily lives of the many homeless who the city drops off there day after day and picks up there every evening -- having done so for many years. This is happening a full 10 years after the church next door stopped serving the homeless, save a tiny outreach office. The city essentially moved many of the homeless from the church to the library next door in 2007 and must now move them from the library elsewhere -- not yet being fully certain as to where elsewhere is. These high earners in government (across several mayoral administrations) have only been moving the problem around and keeping it out of the way of the capitalists -- not solving it quickly enough to get ahead of the ball.

 4 -- The office of Catholic Charities DC sits across the road from the aforementioned church and library. As many as 200 homeless people line up outside of Catholic Charities' office to eat a meal every Wednesday (sometimes less at the beginning of the month). 3/8/17 will be the first Wednesday that they can't wait in MLK or re-enter the library to eat. There might be a colossal "mass" of people gathered on the sidewalk between 4 and 7 PM, either awaiting food or eating. What's more is that, while Catholic Charities' administration has claimed that they want to do more than provide bare bones shelter for the homeless whom they are in contract with the city to serve, a cog in the government-non-profit machine has prevented Catholic Charities from being able to work that out. I won't attempt to figure out right now where the problem lies. It brings to mind a 10-prison strike in Georgia a few years ago and a very recent prison riot in Delaware with prisoners in both cases complaining that they weren't being afforded adult education or job training. Now we have government only providing bare-bones shelter without proactively offering comprehensive educational and employment services. (In DC Government's defense, they've offered employment services as part of a terribly flawed process that was not designed or driven at all by someone experiencing homelessness.)

5 -- There is another church that sits 4 blocks from the library, serves 200 homeless people every Sunday, houses the office of DC's street paper as well as other non-profits and whose wardens have decided against helping the city mitigate the problems that will arise for the homeless when the library closes. So, now we have a church that has said that it won't take on any additional burden when it comes to assisting the downtown poor, although its stated mission is actually "to serve the downtown poor". That's even more counter-intuitive.

6 -- There is a shelter that has served as many as 1,700 people since 1987 (currently about 1,000) but which, since 2013 has:

A -- Refused to let the city build affordable housing on land that the non-profit which operates the shelter owns, in a manner of speaking (through a 30-year federal lease until 2021 -- or '23 given the quitclaim deed -- with a right to renew for 99 years thereafter). The shelter admin doesn't own the building. The city government recently gained ownership of the building after complying with a federal covenant for 30 years. During a nine-month task force process to discuss the expiring leases and covenant, it was suggested that affordable housing be built on the parking lot. The shelter administration refused.

B -- Refused to allow the city's Dept. Of Employment Services to park their mobile unit in front of the shelter so as to assist the homeless with employment. In all fairness, the shelter administration has had reason (due to a threat from a past mayoral administration) to fear that the city government might withdraw its license to operate. Shelter staff have become so paranoid about what may be a dead threat to revoke their license if they don't keep homeless residents from loitering on the sidewalk in front of their shelter that the staff won't even allow the city government's Dept. Of Employment Services (DOES) to park their RV in front and offer services. Go figure. (DC does not have an anti-loitering law; but, the homeless have special anti-loitering rules at the shelters at which they reside. That's why they go to other neighborhoods -- possibly yours. Go figure.)

C -- Refused to allow people to serve food to the homeless on the sidewalk outside of the shelter, though it is not against DC Law to do so. See above.

D -- Refused to allow the city to put a homeless drop-in center in the vacant parts of the building in which the shelter is located, even though the city actually owns the building. (A certain administration official has tried to play nicely in the sandbox with this shelter admin. She wants to get along with everyone. The shelter admin's intransigence and tendency to take her kindness for weakness might be all that's standing between the city's homeless and a solution to this social ill -- if only to the subset of problems created by the library closure.

IN CONCLUSION: I've concluded that city officials are avoiding addressing affordable housing and housing-wage job issues for the working poor. They'd rather see the working poor just leave town, only coming into DC to work. Churches, non-profits and various social services aren't doing any better. (Then there is the federal government -- another beast altogether. By the way, it recently tried to eat its baby, as Senator Jason Chaffetz, R/UT suggested that DC be folded into Maryland.) What conclusion have YOU drawn???

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