Search for “Poorest Person in Northeast Ohio”

by Dan Shramo with Alex Grabtree

            In an effort to shine light on the absurdity of the glorification of vast amounts of monetary wealth, The Homeless Grapevine set out to find the “Poorest Person in Northeast Ohio.” The intention was to remind the general public that the “have nots” are just as important as the “haves.” After an extensive search, we were able to locate a few individuals who were willing to share their experiences.

            In this time of unprecedented wealth and record corporate profits, we reflect on the growing debt in the United States. Major media celebrate the “richest men in America” or the “richest people in the world,” while this month the Grapevine celebrates the “Poorest Person in Northeast Ohio.” October is the United Nations’ World Poverty month, which is an appropriate time to talk about the poverty that continues to pepper the American landscape.

            As part of World Poverty month, street newspapers from around the world are all featuring the artwork of Connor Cullinan of South Africa called “Enough to Go Around.” Street papers in South Africa, London, Montreal, Chicago, and Edmonton are participating in featuring a common cover for their October issues.

            Our winner for poorest person in Northeast Ohio is Michael Bogan, who is a member of the crew that makes their home on Superior in front of the welfare building. Bogan asked that his picture not be used.

            Michael Bogan has been living on the streets for 15 years. When he was 15 months old, he had a benign tumor removed from his brain. His family was compensated $80,000 from Social Security to pay for the medical expenses. Instead of paying the hospital, Michael’s parents used the money to pay off a large gambling debt. Now, decades later, Michael is still paying for his parents’ decision. Bogan is paying back the $80,000 slowly, with $32 each month coming out of his check. At the current rate, he should be clear of the debt in 208 years.

            He is stuck in a frustrating cycle of wanting to work but unable to afford to live if he does. Michael resorts to panhandling for extra income. With his large medical debts and a couple of other debts, Bogan has earned the title of poorest person in Northeast Ohio. “My social security income is $369 a month; every time I go to work at a legitimate taxpaying job, SSI takes money out of my checks. I need that money to live.” To get off the streets, Michael estimates he would need roughly $700 a month. This is almost double the amount he makes now. “I sleep on a mattress in front of the welfare office. I’ve been living on the streets for 15 years: I want out.”

            A couple of runner-up candidates include David, who has a completely different outlook on the homeless situation. As the self-declared “President of the Homeless,” David isn’t interested in talking about his past, lack of money, or debts, but would rather focus on the future and taking care of the people. “Not only am I the President of the homeless, I’m also the supply officer. If somebody on the streets needs something, they can come see me and I can help them out. I have clout in this city. Instead of using it to make money, I use it to help the poor. The homeless are the fastest growing community in the country. We’re a nation within a nation, homeless for the homeless.” David believes that homeless people should be independent of the system, and therefore he never uses shelters as a place to stay. “I live off the land,” says David. “Everything I need is all around me. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a shelter.”

            Another candidate is a very unique gentleman who goes by the name of “Chief.” Chief was born to Native American parents. He was put up for adoption and “bounced around from family to family,” in a series of foster homes. He eventually stabilized contact with his birth father, who assisted in Chief’s acquisition of a degree in architecture from Miami University of Florida. His father died in 1994 and left Chief and his three brothers and sisters 30 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Chief is not interested; he’s content staying in his hut on the place commonly referred to as “Camelot.” Chief is pretty well known in the neighborhood where he lives, both by other street people and by areas entrepreneurs. He takes his role of “Chief” very seriously, and devotes much of his life to assisting fellow street people. “Last winter I was sick for a month, because I gave away all my coats.” Although Chief has virtually no financial debt, for the past year he has been staying on private property and has yet to pay any rent. So far, this hasn’t been a problem for Chief, as most of the community surrounding him knows and accepts his presence.

            The final runner-up, Robert Igoe, is 31 years old. He’s been on and off the streets for the last seven years. He has had a place to stay on various occasions, but fines and other financial difficulties have hindered his transition off the streets. He owes fines in excess of $1000, including tickets for trespassing and driver’s license reinstatement fees. In addition, he has several pending court dates pending and future fines and court costs to contend with. He has been rousted and ticketed for sleeping in the public parks in downtown Cleveland.

            Robert broke his hand recently, which has added approximately $300 to an already existing medical debt of $200 for previous x-rays. He doesn’t know how to pay for all this, but he’s hoping that a job he applied for recently at a local establishment will help. He currently acquires money from odd jobs and temporary employment services. In addition to these fines and medical expenses, Robert also has to contend with an outstanding credit card debt with various companies.

            Even if he gets a full-time job, Mr. Igoe estimates it will take him at least a year to pay off his debts. Recently, Robert has seen no income, due to his trust fund being cut off entirely until his grandmother’s estate has been settled. He has been written out of the will and does not expect to receive any more money.

            In response to the rising debt around the world, a campaign is developing to cancel all debts of third world countries around the world in the year 2000. The Jubilee 2000 movement, as it is called, dates back to biblical tradition, when slaves were set free and debts cancelled every 50 years. The Jubilee year, as it was called, rectified social inequalities; land was returned to its original owners and debts were cancelled. The campaign is an attempt to cancel global debt that developed in 1982.

            Campaign organizers point to irresponsible creditors, corrupt borrowers, and poor planning among governments as the cause of the huge international debt. The reality is that governments of impoverished countries are servicing their debts by diverting resources from meeting the basic needs of their people.

            The campaign is supported by church groups, including the U.S. Catholic Conference and National Council of Churches and grew out of the Summit of the Group of 8 governments in Denver in June of 1997.

            Information about Jubilee 2000 can be found on the Internet at . The specific plan is a “cancellation of the crushing international debt in situations where countries burdened with high levels of human need and environmental distress are unable to meet the basic needs of their people or achieve a level of sustainable development that ensures a decent quality of life.”

            Other proposals include definitive debt cancellation that benefits ordinary people and some monitoring of international lending to prevent “destructive cycles of indebtedness.”

Copyright NEOCH for the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999

Reading Unites Homeless Families to Learn Together

           While many people spent Wednesday nights last summer watching a sandlot baseball game, attending a pops concert in the park, or riding the roller coaster at an amusement park, homeless parents and their children experienced the fun of reading and dramatizing books through a program called The Reading Company.

            The Cleveland Municipal School District Project ACT (Action for Children and Youth in Transition) and The Cleveland Playhouse began a new literacy program from homeless parents and children in June. Their collaboration resulted in The Reading Company, a project to get children and parents reading together by creating a family activity that dramatized selected stories from the school district’s Summer Literary Academy. A different book was enacted each week on Wednesday evenings in the Studio One Theater at The Cleveland Playhouse. The evening performances allowed parents who work or attend school to participate.

            The presentations included enactment of Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott, Abiyoyo by Peter Seeger, Crow Boy by Taro Yashima, and Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood.

            “We used African tales like Abiyoyo and Crow Boy, the story of an Asian child who is isolated by his differences from the other children in his school,” said Marcia Zashin, coordinator of Project ACT. “We tried to select books that represented the diversity of the population of families that Project ACT serves and to present a multicultural experience for children and families.”

            Each week, more than 100 people participated. Most of the children were in kindergarten through sixth grade. The Reading Company is funded by the Cleveland Municipal School District, Division of Compensatory Education.

            The Cleveland Playhouse has been a partner with Project ACT on several other projects since Project ACT’s inception in 1993. Funded by the Ohio Department of Education, Project ACT provides tutoring, educational enrichment, and support services to homeless children and youth in temporary emergency shelters. The two organizations collaborated on a play about homeless children called Shelter, and produced the award-winning video, Even You, based on the play which documents that homelessness can happen to anyone. The video states that on any given night as many as one million children in this country are homeless. William Hoffman, education director of The Cleveland Playhouse, wrote and directed both the play and the video.

            “We wanted to encourage children to read and to make parents realize how important it is for them to read with their children. Parental involvement is the key to education if children are to be successful in school,” said Zashin.

            The cast of The Reading Company was comprised of students from The Cleveland Municipal School District. Under Hoffman’s direction, the cast acted out the parts in each book first, and then parents and students from the audience were invited onstage to dramatize the books. The cast members were Christal Christian, Thomas Davis, Herbert L. Hostetter Jr., and Shane Marshall.

            “I liked the high spirit of the young actors,” said Cheryl, one of the mothers who participated in The Reading Company dramatizations. “They really helped the children get involved in the storytelling.”

            Prior to the performance, Hoffman asked children in the audience to come up front and make a big circle, stretch, bounce, and to move their shoulders up and down to limber up.

            “The students stretched their minds and bodies, and were introduced to new books,” said Hoffman. “The joy expressed by the audience, and the knowledge that we were imparting the idea that reading can be fun, made this a pleasurable experience for me too.”

            The Reading Company offered an evening out of the shelter for the parents and children. Following the performance, the children asked the actors questions, like how old they were when they started acting, what it is like to be on stage, and what was the actor’s most difficult part.

            “When we get back to the shelter, my kids keep asking me to read the book to them. They want me to read it over and over again,” said Bobbie, another mother.

            Zashin believes The Reading Company provides an opportunity for homeless children to interact and emphasizes that it is important for them to feel comfortable in cultural settings such as The Cleveland Playhouse.

            “People need to understand that children are not homeless because they have done anything wrong,” Zashin said. “They are in a very difficult circumstance.”

            She noted that parents must be role modes and reinforce their children’s reading. When children see parents reading they will want to read themselves. Project ACT makes sure that the shelters have libraries so children have access to books. Teachers from the Cleveland Municipal School District, who work with Project ACT during the summer and in an after school tutoring and educational enrichment program, also try to reinforce the importance of reading.

            At the conclusion of the evening, the audience was served refreshments and each child left with the book featured during the evening. Throughout the summer, about 500 of the books were distributed to children. The program’s participants were encouraged to continue reading when they returned to the shelters.

            Community volunteers and teachers from the Cleveland Municipal School system helped make the evenings with The Reading Company a success. During the presentations, parents who needed to make telephone calls to check on the status of jobs and housing were able to use cell phones donated to Project ACT by Sprint PCS.

            Children and parents were enthusiastic about The Reading Company and returned week after week to participate. Many parents felt that their children’s interest in reading had increased as a result of the program.

            “This is a great treat for my children and me,” one mother said. “Other kids can attend these things because their parents can afford to take them to plays. My kid occasionally attended plays with their classmates but never with me. This is something we can do together.”

            Based on the success of the program, plans are underway to continue The Reading Company on a monthly basis during the school year.

            For more information about the Even You video or other issues about children, contact Marcia Zashin, coordinator, Project ACT, by phone at 216-574-8203 or by email at .

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999

NEOCH Holds 7th Annual Homeless Stand Down

by Alex Grabtree

            For seven years, homeless people have gathered at one location to receive a wide spectrum of services.

The Stand Down, an all-day service fair for the homeless people of Cleveland, has traditionally been held at Cuyahoga Community College Metro campus. This year, the August 20 Stand Down was held at the Bishop Cosgrove Center, and over 400 homeless people attended the event.

Over 40 social service organizations offered services during the day, from pro bono legal assistance to medical care. The most difficult service for homeless people to obtain on the streets is haircuts. Thus, the haircuts offered by the Lake Erie Barber College students were very popular. For many, the Stand Down is the one opportunity to get a haircut for the whole year. Thonne Devison, who attended the Stand Down, said, “The Stand Down is a good thing to have. [It is] nice to have a shower and a haircut. The agencies were very helpful.”

The Cleveland Bar Association provided legal advice, Care Alliance provided a medical clinic, and Prevent Blindness offered eye screenings and glasses. There were over 35 volunteers who assisted with “compassionate and prompt services” to those who attended the Stand Down, according to event organizer Angelo Anderson.

The Veterans Administration provided staff as well as a large amount of donated clothing and supplies. MetroHealth hospital provided much needed dental care with their dental van, while the Social Security Administration was able to provide information to homeless people about the status of their disability application or eligibility. The Healthy Family/City of Cleveland MOMobile screened young mothers.

The staff at the Bishop Cosgrove Center provided three meals and hygiene kits for the shower. “I’m glad to see people reaching out to people who are homeless,” commented Gary Wallace, a customer at the Cosgrove Center. Jeff Marshall said, “The Stand Down was informational. It should happen more often.” Actually, the comment that there should be a regular or quarterly Stand Down was echoed by many of the people attending the Stand Down.

Some customers of the Stand Down were dissatisfied with a number of aspects of the event. Tony Porty, who attended the event, was critical that more housing information was not provided. “How much housing is being provided for the homeless? There’s nowhere to stay; we need housing,” said Porty. Stacey, who did not give her last name, said she preferred the Stand Down at CCC Metro campus.

Cornell McCray confirmed that after seven years the Stand Down is getting better. He said, “It was better organized than last year.” The Coalition for the Homeless is planning another Stand Down in March of 2000 to raise awareness of the importance of signing up with the U.S. Census.

The only thing to mar this year’s event was the unfortunate towing of a couple of the cars of volunteers who parked in the wrong lot.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999


Mental Health Services to Open Emergency Shelter

by Joan Danes

Editor’s Note: Mental Health Services is planning to take over operation of the overflow shelter in the basement of the Welfare building-Project Heat Site D. They will move it to a better facility and convert it to an emergency shelter. The new shelter will be located at 17th and Payne and is currently under renovation. Latonya Murray is program manager for emergency services at Mental Health Services.

Homeless Grapevine: What is the new shelter going to be like and what services will it offer?

Latonya Murray: The new shelter will be operating in place of Site D of Project Heat and provide a bed, a place to sleep overnight, not a mat. There will be no direct services except staff will try to assess people for what their needs are. Staff will be licensed social workers, trained, and more sensitive to the people coming. They will calm people down when there are disturbances and maybe remove them from the situation if necessary without making them leave the shelter. Staff will hopefully be able to handle different situations.

Currently we operate an evening drop-in center and outreach programs during the day. We assess clients if they are not already involved in our programs. We help them to receive entitlements they need. We provide money management assistance; we run a payee program. We get them psychiatric follow-up services if they need them and follow-up medical services, and we find them housing. So there is the shelter program overnight and these other programs are day programs.

HG: Will you go over again how you provide outreach to people now?

LM: We provide mental health services and assist with a wide variety of disability services. We have an outreach program funded by the Department of Mental Health which targets mentally ill people who are on the streets, homeless, and resistant to services and are not linked to any other program. That’s the Path Program. We also have a program funded by HUD, a payee program for a wide variety of disabilities if homeless. We apply for entitlements and walk them through the process. If Social Security determines they need money management, we can become their payee. We help them find housing and follow up with them regarding maintaining their housing.

HG: What about the Money for Mailboxes Project?

LM: The agency used to be called that, but they stopped using it. The official title is now Mental Health Services for Homeless Persons. We are a third-person party payee for SSI and SSD. Social Security determines that the person can’t handle his money alone; if a person has a bad credit rating, then we can become the representative and budget their money for them. Our services can extend to helping them grocery shop or to getting them an apartment, which the landlord will accept if they know we are the payee. We would pay the utilities and the person would get a certain allotment of the money. We help them develop their skills or if unable to do these skills, we could link them to other services for ongoing support. This agency used to use this address for persons to get their check but now we don’t do that.

Bishop Cosgrove Center and West Side Catholic Center will let you use addresses where checks can be sent.

HG: How about help with housing?

LM: All of our mental health service programs work to help people get housing. Most of the programs focus on whether or not you have psychiatric disorders. As a stipulation in order to be funded in HUD we do outreach to people with a variety of disabilities and help them to find housing. Prior to that, if they have a verifiable disability and don’t have income, we help them get income. Third-party payee services can help them if they have a bad credit rating or need a payee in order to get an apartment. We have access to Shelter Plus Care for people with mental illness, access to all HUD housing, and slots for housing for the elderly and homeless. For the chronic homeless resident resistant to treatment we refer to Safe Haven housing, transitional housing, which is an eight-bed house on Broadway. Case management services are provided for seeing a psychiatrist regularly, taking medicine regularly, and learning daily living skills there, like cooking and other skills, to reacclimate them to living other than in a shelter or on the street.

HG: Regarding psychiatric services and other services in order to get help—what are the rules or stipulations?

LM: There are a lot of new medications on the market but none of the programs force them to take medicines. If the client is not willing, we work with them where they are. We are tolerant and encourage them. I don’t work with the psychiatrists directly, but I do know they try to give the lowest dose. Some people can benefit from medication. We want to help people be contributors to society. We are excited about the opportunity to operate a shelter, a better place where homeless persons will feel safe. We’ve encouraged our clients until now to go to the mission or VOA when they have been unhappy with the shelter and needed a place to stay. Our staff is excited because we have a place now to offer people to stay. And then we want to encourage them to move on and not have to remain homeless.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999

Many Judged Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Commentary by Angelo Anderson

Editor’s Note:  Paul is a representation of many different people in Anderson’s neighborhood.

             Paul had just gotten paid; it was his first check for new job on the outside.  Mostly his attention was elsewhere.  He had a spring in his step as he breathed in the good air of freedom.  There is a feeling of euphoria that comes with not having a guard watching every move and with being able to come and go as you please without restrictions and time limits, and he was basking in the glow.

            It was just sunset and Paul had taken a shortcut down one alley that let to the alley that he lived in.  The check cashing placed was on Cedar, and he should have been paying more attention, because he suddenly heard a voice say, “Stop right there, Mothafuckah!”

 He looked up to see a young man not more than twenty but built for power.  “Stop right there.  Gimme the money an’ you might get off with a ass whoopin,” the man said.

 But Paul had already stopped.  He spread his legs wide enough to give him both stability and power as the young giant approached.  There was nobody else in sight, and even if there had been, Paul doubted if they would have interfered with the trouble about to come down.  He wasn’t a man but a killing machine built on the body of a boy who had been sent off to jail and forgotten.

             “You could try to stop me,” the young man said as he reached for Paul’s neck.  Paul tried to block he hand but was slapped down to the grown.  The older ex-con rose up delivering a powerful uppercut to the mugger’s abdomen but he might as well have socked an oak tree or a granite rock.  The next blow was a fist that sprawled Paul out on the floor of the alley.  Two kicks followed in quick succession.

             Paul felt himself being lifted from the ground, but even that powerhouse couldn’t lift Paul from his feet.  There was more than two hundred and sixty pounds to the Cleveland ex-con.  He le his full weight hand dead, and the mugger was forced to drip him.


            “All right,” Paul yelled from the ground.  “You can have the money.”

             With that, Paul, who had never lost a fight because in the world where he came from there was no rematch, picked himself and produced the envelope that contained two hundred sixty-nine dollars and eighty five cents.

             The mugger took his prize

            “Turn out yo’ pockets, old man.”

            “That’s all I got,” Paul said

            “Empty out yo’ pockets, else I’m gonna hafta hurt you.”

             The mugger slapped Paul across the face with the back of his hand.  It was too fast to block, so Paul didn’t even try.  The mugger was so smug that he didn’t see the palm-sized stone that Paul had picked up with his left hand, and once the slap was delivered, the mugger had no limb to block the hard rock from crashing into the side of his head.

              Paul felt the bone crunching.  He heard the high-pitched wheeze of the boy’s last breath.

             Paul put the bloody stone in his pocket, reached down to retrieve his envelope and walked the few back alley blocks to his home.

             He washed the stone and threw it away.  He put his pants into strips and flushed them down the toilet because of the blood in the pocket; then he sat in a chair and waited for the police to come.

             The police always came.  They came when a grocery store was robbed or a child mugged.  They came for every dead body with questions and insinuations.  Sometimes they took him off to jail.

             They had searched house and given him a ticket for not having license for his two-legged dog.  They dropped by on a whim at times in case he had done something that even they couldn’t suspect because Paul was guilty, guilty all the way around.  He was big and he was black; he was an ex-convict and he was poor.

             The police were coming, so he sat in a chair and waited wondering if there was some other man like that mugger waiting for him in jail….

             Most people didn’t know what it’s like to live in a world like the one Paul lives in – a world where good jobs better housing and better neighborhoods are out of reach because you’re an ex-con, and although you’ve done the time, you are still labeled by society with a label that follows you no matter how hard you want to leave the past behind.

             I recently testified before the State Senate on the need to have this changed.  Because of the testimony of myself and others, and the hard work of Sate Representative Barbara Boyd, the Senate passed House bill 484.  It will study ways to improve the future of non-violent felons by easing restrictions on in place, opening the door to better jobs, providing he chance for people who have worked hard to better themselves – the opportunity to work and live in the manner which they’re entitled to.

 Paul’s story will continue in the next issue of the Homeless Grapevine.

  Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 38  October – November, 1999



Loeb’s Challenge: Volunteer to Change the World

This is Part 2 of an interview conducted in August, 1999.

Brian Davis: You talk in [your book, Soul of a Citizen] about the time constraints that people have. This is a time when we are told that many of both parents have to work and your job is not secure, so you always have to be on the lookout for that.

Paul Loeb: And you have to work fifty hours to make sure that you keep your job; you aren’t going to make enough money unless you work fifty hours a week.

BD: Exactly. And you have to plan for your retirement because there is probably going to be no Social Security around for you. How much does that play into the time that you can spend on helping out?

PL: It is a big factor. That tremendous amount of overwork and overstress is very real.

Robert Putnam, at Harvard, studied not just political involvement but all the indexes involved in community participation. You know, how many people go to PTA meetings, how many people are actively involved in churches. The animal clubs, the Lions, the Moose, the Elks, whatever, all of this participation has dropped. I just met him at a conference recently, and he said the year that this all started to drop was around 1977, and that’s when this economic shift started to occur. When the wages started dropping, the hours started lengthening.

That’s when all that stuff starts occurring, and because of that it is much harder to act now. There are only so many hours in a day.

I look at that from two ways and I try to respond to them, by first just acknowledging that it is real. And the second thing is that there are things that we can do even within the boundaries of those time frames that are still powerful.

If we go back to some of the great social movements of American history when people were working seventy, sixty, or eighty hour weeks, they had less time than we do now, and they still managed to organize, so as hard as it is—it is still possible.

The other side is that, I think is that one of the major political issues has to be that complex of stress. As I’ve been traveling around I’ve been thinking about it more and more. Everyone asks the question of time because it is real and touches everybody.

Real family values. Conservative radio hosts ask it, and everyone knows that it is an issue. If I look at America’s history, the cutting edge of most of the fights in the labor movement was for the length of the work week. They fought from the 80 to the 70 to the 50 to the 40-hour week. Some of the bloodiest labor battles and the most hard fought, were fought over the length of the working week. There were always two arguments that were made. One was that people wanted time with their families. And two was that if they wanted to be citizens of this democracy then they needed to participate.

BD: Do you see advocacy and community organizing as a dying art form? In the sixties there was training around this. In Cleveland there are a couple of organizations and the activists who come along with them. But you don’t have the broad range of different activities in this community.

PL: I see a lot of impulses for people to be involved, but again it is a contradictory picture. I mean the labor movement is certainly far weaker than it was 35 years ago. On the other hand, the new leadership is sincerely, perhaps out of self preservation, but definitely out of a far-reaching vision, committed to saying either we are a social movement or we are not.

I see people going into labor organizing who never had before. People who didn’t go to college are going into labor organizing knowing that basically we have to either be able to take back some power at the workplace or we are going to continue to be squeezed. So I see that as a hopeful development over the past four or five years, and there is definitely renewed energy and there are people trying to do things. In Los Angeles 100,000 home health care workers have signed up with the service union. That was the biggest block of people signing up with a union since the 1930’s. That’s genuinely hopeful, and not some marginal phenomenon. I see gains like that going on.

I also see a lot of interest in environmental issues: we are up and down but there is a consistent thread of people trying to get in to work on those issues, particularly when they are given the opportunities. One of the interesting things I write about in Soul of a Citizen is about Adam Warbaugh, the 23-year old president of the Sierra Club, and during his two-year term the Sierra Club dropped its average membership [age] by ten years. Not by losing the people at the top, but by bringing in people who are younger, who were just not reached out to and taken for granted. Adam, being 23, basically said we’ve got to bring people in and he did by reaching out; that is a hopeful phenomenon.

In any time historically there is going to be something of a mixed picture. I think of my 101-year old friend Hazel whom I write about. She started out at age 11 wanted to play basketball and they said “you’re 11 and girls can’t play basketball,” and she said “give me the equipment and I’ll show you.” Then in the 30’s she was a labor activist and she pioneered the first model program for Social Security, and she lived off Social Security for almost 35 years because she was a secretary and never made any money. And then she’s been working for the last forty years on a lot of environmental justice issues. I’ve known Hazel for almost 20 years, which is a good chunk of my life; a smaller chunk of hers. There have been points when I’ve told her, “these seem like hard times.”

I remember about ten years ago we had a wonderful congressman who was a social justice visionary, and he was always trying to get people involved. If there was a march he wouldn’t just show up and leave; he’d march the whole 3 or 4 miles or whatever it took. He lost by a small margin to a generally vicious person. He’s mean to the bone and he scapegoats environmental issues, and native Americans. It’s a politics of meanness that he embodies.

We knew what he was when he ran, and we knew that his victory was a defeat.

I was giving Hazel a ride home from the election that morning. I was pretty down, and I said, “Hazel, this seems like a hard time. What do you think?” And she laughed and said, “I’ve been through worse. You should have seen the McCarthy period. Yeah, this was a defeat, but I’ve still seen a lot of progress in my lifetime.” And she just talked about all of the things that have changed in the last 100 years.

BD: Do you think there has to be a low point before people will mobilize?

PL: I don’t know. You see, people can mobilize in different circumstances. They mobilize when the stories get made reality. How do the stories become reality? Sometimes when it happens to them. Or it happens to someone close in their community. Such as when Virginia’s story wasn’t real to her until this old woman dies, who was worse off than she was. I look at this woman I wrote about in Long Island who was involved in the campaign against sweatshops and picketing the Gap stores. They have these young girls in Central America working for 30 cents an hour and barely have enough food to eat, let alone enough to buy their clothes.

BD: In Ohio we have the phenomenon of forced volunteerism in exchange for food stamps. Many places don’t accept volunteers anymore because they are so overwhelmed by people who are trying to get food stamps, especially here in Cleveland.

And in our state the Welfare Reform legislation passed unanimously in the House.

So the children’s advocates, and the people who have traditionally been allies, they weren’t even willing to cast a vote against something that we in Ohio see as one of the most draconian pieces of legislation in the country.

We sanction the whole family, we take all of the money away; if you quit a job it is an automatic sanction, and even if you get another job you are still sanctioned for three months.

PL: Was there a public debate? Was there significant mobilization?

BD: The big problem with public debate in Ohio, was that a lot of the social workers supported it either out of fear that the political establishment would cut their programs or because they are funded by government.

PL: I’ve seen this and it’s very disturbing. In the social welfare sector I’ve seen a newfound timidity for fear of retaliation.

BD: Or the other was that they had developed this “us and them mentality” that said, “I made it, I lived on the edge for this period and I made it and you should also not be relying on welfare.”

So we were very lonely in saying, welfare reform is going to hurt our community.

PL: This is hard, because when you say that and if I’m a legislator I’m going to feel like, well, there’s no one mobilizing on this side, so I’m not going to take a stand of conviction that I’m going to get shelled on in the next election.

So it is easy not to be courageous. I think it is partly because an attitude of fear and intimidation breeds off itself. So the more people feel like someone might retaliate, someone might cut the funds to my agency if I speak out, the less voices there are. If I define a democracy, it’s a place where people can speak the truth without sanction. Part of what was reprehensible about the Eastern European regime was that if you spoke truths you risked being imprisoned. Intimidation is always a feature of power, and such as during the civil rights movement people were thrown off their land, sharecroppers were fired. But through all of this the people had enough cohesiveness that when an incident like that occurred it produced more outrage. The same held true for the labor movement; when they brutally attacked the strikes people became more outraged.

So one of the things that we need to be able to do is to demand of ourselves that we have the moral courage to speak out, even in difficult situations. Because then it makes it easier for other people. And if every agency is speaking out about this then they can’t go targeting that many. But it is much harder for a single agency to speak out alone. That says that for all of us who are in the human services field, and teachers, and concerned citizens in the community, we need to be able to look in the mirror and speak the truth as much as we know it. And if we say we can’t because we feel intimidated because of our job, then we should feel outraged that someone has the arrogance that puts us in this position, and say, I’m sorry, do not say what you believe, keep it to yourself. That is not a democracy, that is a dictatorship.

So we need to be able to be outraged by that kind of intimidation, and the moment somebody starts to exercise it, to mobilize as many people as possible to do that.

BD: I think I can understand from working with homeless why so many people aren’t worrying, because at the smallest level there are victories. But when you step away to the broader picture, the serious battles that have taken place, we really haven’t done much.

Poverty has increased, we have less freedom, our democracy is not as stable. We don’t have the speech rights that we once had. And greed is absolutely out of control.

PL: But there are countertrends, there is a yearning in a lot of people to turn for something that isn’t just greed. Some kind of more sane existence, that isn’t just chasing frenetically every object in the world. And there is a significant body of people trying to find that now.

I don’t think that I am naïve, but I look at these last 30 years and it is a mixed period. But it is not a period of total entrenchment. In some areas we’ve lost ground, but in some areas we’ve gained ground for human dignity. Such as the gay movement, which 30 years ago was nothing, and to be gay meant you did not just say your story. Sometimes it still carries its dangers, but you are much more likely to be able to say, “look, this is who I am.”

I think what happens is this: we take for granted the victories that we gain, and it’s easier to focus on the defeats.

I write about this woman who pioneered some of the early battered women’s groups, and wrote this book that became the Bible for domestic violence. And domestic violence still exists in this society, no question.

On the other hand, compared to 30 years ago, it was totally people on the margins raising these issues. But it was a non-issue, and the people raising it were totally on the fringes. Now it is mainstream and respected, with debates over how to curb it.

But the issue is recognized, and that is a significant victory of progress. Of rolling back that issue of domestic violence. Does that solve everything in the world? No, it doesn’t. Does it counter all of the significant forces that it was weighed against? Not necessarily.

It does give us something that we ought to celebrate, and when I say celebrate, I don’t mean the kind of celebrating that leads to complacency, but the opposite. To celebrate in the way that gives us strength to continue a very hard fight on other issues.

Some examples I talk about in Soul of a Citizen are things that we take for granted.

But in fact for a very brief historical period of time it was an amazing social transformation, and an amazing victory for human dignity.

I worked some on the nuclear power issue and basically that was stopped. There were going to be a thousand reactors in the U.S. And it was stopped, and people say it basically collapsed under its own weight, but that is nonsense. It collapsed because people held it accountable, then it stopped.

And I look at these kinds of examples, and also international ones such as the anti-apartheid movement, and all of them were difficult, some more so than others.

And to me what they should do is say we don’t know when history is going to turn on something of immense consequence.

I am reminded of Susan B. Anthony, who worked her whole life and was the hero of the women’s suffrage movement, and only a dozen years after her death did women get to vote.

It wasn’t an easy or instant struggle; it wasn’t automatic. But with enough persistence and enough people they prevailed. And you never can tell when history is going to turn. Who could have predicted in 1987 or 1988 that the Berlin Wall was going to crumble? No one can say that.

Copyright NEOCH for the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999



Community Voice Mail is Coming to Cleveland

           The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff has been working since fall, 1998 to initiate Cleveland’s Community Voice Mail (CVM) by 2000. To date, CVM has received funding from Abington Foundation, George Gund Foundation, Murphy Family Foundation and Thomas H. White Foundation. These grants total $85,000 that will compensate for year one of the program. In October, 1999, The Cleveland Foundation generously donated funds totaling $22,000 to secure year two of the Community Voice Mail program.

            Since April, NEOCH has been struggling to secure office space for the program. Issues of NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard) and affordability have kept the staff from moving quickly into a secure and permanent location. NEOCH’s Board of Trustees is pushing the search forward in hopes of housing the program by the end of this month.

            Direct service agencies such as Salvation Army, Mental Health Services and Lakewood Christian Services have already established a partnership with NEOCH so that their clients can have access to the mailboxes. Once the program is functioning, clients of these and other direct service agencies will have access to a personal and confidential voice mailbox. This box will be used exclusively by the client so that potential employers and landlords as well as case workers and doctors have a way to contact the client without having to rely on an agency to take messages.

            In the past ten years, CVM has been replicated in 27 other cities, including Seattle, Houston, New York, and most recently Toledo. The success in these cities proves that Cleveland’s population of people who are homeless is a perfect candidate for CVM. The staff anticipates that once CVM is installed, Cleveland will celebrate similar success.

            If you have any questions about CVM or have a way to help support voice mail in Cleveland, contact Program Director Staci Santa at 216-241-1104.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999