On this eventful thirteenth anniversary issue it is time to put down on paper the knowledge that we have gained over the nearly three years of operation.
A Homeless Newspaper.
Surprise, Surprise the Homeless are Entrepreneurial... The Grapevine was intended as an alternative to panhandling and a forum to build partnerships to put together businesses. The homeless, like every red blooded American, took the competitive road and initially set up territories and tried to outsell the competition. The territory issue was resolved, but selling the Grapevine certainly did not build partnerships. The vendor's each became independent business men and women developing sales techniques and even economical hours of operation.
There are always bad apples...The Grapevine is not immune to unscrupulous activity and thieves. In every system there are those that abuse the benevolence of others. Even though NEOCH makes no money in the publication of the Grapevine, and is basically controlled by the independent vendors, there are those few that try to rip people off.
The Grapevine vendors had to start wearing badges to try and show the community that this is the legitimate enterprise. People were using the Grapevine name to raise money for shelters, homeless children, and other charities. Grapevine vendors only sell the paper, and all but $.10 goes to the vendor.
Cultivating leaders...The regular Grapevine vendors are the more recognized homeless in Cleveland. The regular vendors have had to stand up to a great deal of adversity, and have developed confidence and leadership skills. Four of our vendors or former vendors are now members of the NEOCH Board of Directors. They work to motivate other homeless individuals to stand up and be counted, and to move back into the system.
The Homeless are From Another Planet...There is this myth that has grown since the early 1980s that the homeless are illegal aliens, or slackers who have no cares in the world, or criminals or aliens from outer space. Everyone carries one stereotype that fits all homeless people.
Activist in the 1980s were able to bring homelessness to the national spotlight by separating themselves from the anti-poverty groups that grew out of the 1960s. Homelessness was not seen as the extreme form of poverty, but almost a disease or a unique social phenomenon.
We lost touch with the idea that the homeless were our brothers, our neighbor, our mentally ill family members, or our high school infatuation. When the homeless were no longer our friends, we dehumanized them. It became easy for the police to push them around. It became policy to warehouse a group of people in shelters (not houses). It was only a small step to criminalize homelessness. In other words, those that could not find housing were presumed to be criminals.
Shelter is not the answer to our woes...Some believe if we had more shelters all our problems would be solved. This is similar to saying that if we produce more tires our transportation problems will end. Shelters are necessary for those experiencing temporary emergency shelter needs, but they are vastly inadequate for addressing homelessness. Moving people around in 30 or 60 day cycles sustains the duffel bag industry but does nothing for getting people into housing.
The goal of every shelter should be to close as soon as possible. And the goal of every shelter worker should be to move each person they have contact with into a permanent facility. The problem is that there first has to be a stock of housing units to move to, but supply is not meeting demand. The national Coalition estimates that there is a shortage of 4.7 million units of affordable housing on a national level.
Most Politicians lie about the problem...Those that consider themselves liberal portray the homeless as these saints that are entirely innocent, and victims to be marched out when it is time to sink a few more dollars into the coffers of their friends back home.
Those politicians that call themselves conservative go to the opposite extreme and yell and scream that no one takes any responsibility anymore for their lives. They claim that the homeless are lazy, criminals that are illegally entering the middle class without any effort. Or they are mentally ill that need to find a way to stay with their family or reside in some charity hospital. The answer is to end all the government financed programs and deal out some tough love.
When the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There are criminals that abuse the system (Not a majority). There are the lazy homeless (Not a majority). There are people who have made the wrong decision. There are helpless victims (Not a majority). They all make up the community known as the homeless. They are as varied as the population in general. There are a couple of my uncles that I would not trust with wallet, but this is certainly not representative of my family.
The Cadillac driving, second home in Palm Springs welfare cheat homeless woman...Two facts that you can take to the bank. No one is getting rich off of welfare except those that administer the program (Ross Perot). And there is no such thing as a homeless person receiving too many benefits. In a county of surplus, abundance and decadence, those that are forced to spend a night on the streets or in a shelter will never be compensated enough by this country. The measly $300 food stamps received and the small amount of welfare each month would never equal what our society owes those that we cannot provide proper shelter to.
Our country was founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and yet we provide none of the tools to achieve any of those goals. Our health is managed by an insurance agent, and distributed to the deserving--those with money. We provide a sub poverty minimum wage with no stability and no incentive for working. Housing, like health care, is a commodity that must conform to the whims of capitalism. Each day it seems that the direction for our life falls in the hands of others.
The system is not working so end it...The most ill-conceived federal plan since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution is welfare reform. Turn welfare over to the states? Dennis Miller reminds us to never forget that the states are the ones responsible for our roads. They can't even maintain or build a highway system. How can we trust them with the care of those in poverty. The welfare system sucks, and welfare reform is making bad legislation worse.
Women on welfare, who on average have a lower birthrate than the population, are going to be penalized for not getting off the public dole. There are no jobs available that pay a livable wage. Child care is expensive, and men in the inner city have no background or incentive for maintaining the family structure.
Mothers are booted from the public dole after two years. Where do they turn? It seems the message is to put what money they can scrape together in life insurance, and "accidentally" find their way to the morgue. After welfare, homelessness, and finally being stripped of their children, there is only one place left to go that is free.
There is no one that would argue that the welfare system is working, but amputation is not the answer. Real welfare reform would build communities charged with nurturing and educating children. Real welfare reform would move the population out of poverty, and provide universal healthcare, universal housing, and universal work. Real welfare reform is a pipe dream as long as we live in a society in which building stadiums is more important than educating our children.
Let's Make a Deal...Why is it that the bad decisions of our government officials cost them little, if anything, while they take a large toll on our poor neighbors? Frank Gaul is convicted of dereliction of duty and fined $700. His dereliction of duty cost the county millions of dollars, which translated to a hiring freeze, a cut back in services, and my brothers and sisters waiting in a long line at the department of entitlement services. My friends could not get in a shelter for the night, or could not find a shower because of Frank Gaul's bad decisions. My neighbors found the Inn had no vacancies or was closed because of Gaul operating out of his league.
There is no accountability for the decisions of law makers. The General Assistance program was cut, and that did not mean squat to Gary, Dick, Patrick, JoAnn, and all the boys and girls that dress up in their suits and play government down in Columbus. To Mr. Banks, Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Lorenzo, and Ms. Ogletree that meant the difference between looking for a job or waiting for the noon meal. It meant a night away from the street or the floor. It was a new coat that actually fit or a pair of waterproof boots.
Gary, Dick, Patrick and JoAnn threw some table scraps off of their table called the Adult Emergency Assistance Program to ease their conscience. That fraternity down in Columbus actually expects Messrs. Jefferson, Lorenzo, Banks and Ms. Ogletree to jump threw a few more hoops then say thank you to get these table scraps. Maybe the French were not so far off in dealing with Marie Antoinette's dereliction of duty.
Hello, do you have any pathetic looking people we can exploit...The media has fallen so far from the Morrows', Huntlys' and Cronkites. They were the keepers of the Fourth Estate, the government watchdogs and have become the keepers of OJ's Brentwood Estate, the government lapdogs. They pander comic book journalism and dress it up as trend watching or responding to the desires of the populace.
Every other week we get a call asking the most bizarre questions from the media. For example, a homeless person killed another homeless person, and the media called NEOCH. They asked, "Do you have any idea why a homeless person would kill another homeless person?" WHAT? This is true. Then they asked, "Well, is crime in the homeless community a big problem?" I could only ask are cat fights a big problem at the anchor desk?
Then we get a call from a TV station. The reporter said, "I saw a piece on a Los Angeles TV station about runaways, and we wanted to do a story about that in Cleveland. Are there runaways in Cleveland that sleep in abandoned buildings?" This begs the question do reporters cover the news or make the news?
At the Vigil, a homeless memorial day, a reporter said, "Excuse me, we wanted to put a human face on the event. Could we interview a homeless person, maybe a woman?" I took her to a well spoken formerly homeless vendor that could deliver a good message. She said, "No, I need to talk to someone who is currently homeless." The story as it appeared on the air glossed over the event, and concentrated on the human interest side of the story. The message of the day was lost.
There was another reporter searching the crowd asking every woman with a child in the crowd, "Excuse me are you homeless? No, oh, I'm sorry we heard that there was a homeless woman with a child here today." They are leeches that cannot be trusted with a complicated thought. But in the words of Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedy's don't get angry about the media, become the media, and that is what we have done.
Well, Mr. McFeely, it is not a beautiful day in this neighborhood, and it is by no means a neighborly day in this beauty wood. We will continue to deliver the news from the streets of Cleveland and Cincinnati, and all our vendors and volunteers hope that you will support our efforts.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published January – February 1996 Issue 13