Commentary by Daniel Kerr
It is clear by all indications that we are in the midst of an economic crisis as the recession deepens. And it is also true that within every crisis there is an opportunity. Several city officials have taken the opportunity presented by our current calamity to discuss how we can resolve the intransigent problem of homelessness. While this is certainly a noble effort, it will only bear fruit if we unflinchingly look back and come to grips with the stark reality that homelessness is not only a phenomenon of recession, but is a social problem that escalated during the so called “boom times” of the 1990s. We must use this current opportunity to restructure the social landscape in a way that addresses the factors that lead to homelessness not only in the worst of times but also the best of times.
Puzzled by the persistence of homelessness in the mid-1990s, I began examining the phenomenon from the bottom up. In the public parks, under the bridges, on the sidewalks, and in the shelters of this city, I began asking the homeless how and why homelessness developed and persisted as a social problem. Early on, I was presented by a paradox and a challenge by John Appling:
It takes the efforts, man, of all of us homeless people to get together and try and come up with solutions. But they don’t want to hear our ideas. We go on homeless marches. We go on homeless outings. And we tell them what’s the problem. We know what the problem is. But they don’t listen to us. You know why? Because there’s big dollars involved now.
The problem cannot be addressed by simply knowing causes and solutions; it can only be addressed by challenging significant economic interests invested in the status quo. But how could anyone be profiting off of homelessness? Isn’t homelessness a condition of severe poverty? The answer to this paradox has been consistently hammered home to me in hundreds of interviews with homeless people in the city of Cleveland. The challenge to address this oppression is one for all of us to take up.
The nexus of homelessness has been broken down to me as having five interlocking aspects. The first has to do with the establishment of a downtown playground for the rich. While the city has paid hundreds of millions of dollars for new stadium complexes designed for the super rich, the basic needs of the residents of the city have languished. Many of these projects, such as the Gateway complex and the Cleveland State Convocation Center, have been built over districts that used to contain the city’s working-class hotels where poor people could obtain rooms for a few dollars a night. Ironically the projects that have undermined the survival base of working class Clevelanders have been funded by one of the most regressive forms of taxation – “sin” taxes on alcohol and tobacco.
Secondly, the massive expansion of the prison industrial complex, based on the so-called war on drugs, has ensnared a growing number of non-violent offenders who come from economically devastated neighborhoods. Not only does the criminal justice system disproportionately warehouse working-class people of color, when ex-offenders finish serving their time they face major barriers in finding housing and jobs because of their criminal records. As a result many ex-offenders are pushed into the ranks of an emerging “untouchable class” and forced to depend on the shelter system and temporary day labor agencies.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the substantial majority of homeless people in the city of Cleveland have family, friends and roots in the city. When asked where they grew up, most of the homeless in the city’s emergency shelters can name the streets and neighborhoods where their family owned homes or rented apartments – frequently located on Cleveland’s eastside or near west side. On many of the same plots of land that the current homeless used to live, one can now find $300,000 single-family homes. Many of these homes have been significantly subsidized by the city through tax abatements, land giveaways and demolition costs. The “revitalization” or more aptly the “gentrification” projects have caused severe housing shortages that have caused overcrowding in the remaining working-class districts. Displaced residents have either fled to deteriorating inner ring suburbs, been “housed” in the state’s prisons, or have found their way to the downtown shelters.
While housing is no longer in the reach of many working-class Clevelanders, they have also seen a significant deterioration in their working conditions in the past thirty years as a result of massive economic restructuring. Businesses have sought to cut their costs through a series of management strategies based on flexible or just-in time production tactics. Rather than building loyalty and providing economic security to a large base of permanent workers, these companies have become dependent on a temporary labor pool that they can let go at a moment’s notice without worrying about benefit packages, workers compensation or unemployment insurance premiums. A large portion of the companies’ risks has essentially been displaced onto the workers. As a result the temporary labor industry has skyrocketed in the past thirty years and engaged in some of the most unscrupulous labor practices. Homeless day laborers spend fourteen hours a day waiting, traveling and working and come back to the shelter with 27-30 dollars in their pocket after agency fees have been subtracted. These are the workers who, with minimal safety protection and training, do the region’s dirtiest, hottest, most labor intensive and dangerous jobs.
To meet the most basic housing needs of this growing population of displaced working-class Clevelanders, the city has developed a series of homeless shelters and services that are concentrated in the warehouse district just east of the city – a homeless segregated district for Cleveland’s untouchable citizens. These shelters provide just enough to keep the homeless alive and mollified so that they can go back to work another day. They are run by non-profit agencies which angle for government contracts and consistently refuse to allow shelter residents to have any control over their living situation. While on one hand politicians rave about the value of deconcentrating the poor, usually while they are giving away land and subsidies to the rich, these same politicians do not dare allow housing for the homeless in their wards. Ironically they have created with the establishment of the emergency shelters a hyper-concentration or institutionalization of the poor. It is no wonder that many homeless term the shelters “open penitentiaries.”
While non-profit service agencies benefit from government contracts to operate shelters, downtown and neighborhood developers cash in from the displacement of working-class Clevelanders, higher up drug dealers, police, prison guards and contractors benefit from the rise of the prison industrial complex, and area businesses and labor agencies profit from the exploitation of their workers, an entrenched system of homelessness continues.
The matrix of oppression looks bleak. The traditional means of dealing with poverty in the twentieth century are not available to us today. Requests for assistance from the Republican controlled federal government and the Republican dominated state legislature are unlikely to bear fruit. Many of the social service providers who have been managing the homeless have little interest in seeing things change. While an analysis of homelessness from the bottom-up provides a cogent understanding for why so little has changed in our efforts to address homelessness in the past twenty years, this analysis also provides a glimmer of hope. To see this glimmer, we need to look another direction.
If the city is serious about using this present crisis as a time to establish systemic change that can do away with institutionalized homelessness and provide the means for people to live their lives with dignity and respect, it will have to tap into our most substantial resource: the homeless themselves. First the city and county will have to guarantee the right of the homeless to organize within the shelters that they pay for and so that the homeless residents can have some control over their present living conditions. Supporting the day laborers initiative to set up an alternative non-profit hiring hall as an alternative to the abusive day labor agencies would provide a substantial second step. These two initiatives could be linked up into a broader strategy to develop sustainable housing for the homeless through a city sponsored homesteading program.
Ironically, while thousands of Clevelanders are homeless, the city has a surplus of vacant and abandoned housing that could provide the basis for a solution to the homeless crisis. By designing training programs through the community hiring hall in conjunction with the building trades and linking these programs to city sponsored tool lending libraries, the homeless could provide the skills and labor necessary to construct and rehab their own homes. Support services evaluated and approved by the homeless could be tied into these networks. Facilities rehabbed by the homeless could provide a base for social services, cultural facilities and organizing in the surrounding neighborhoods.
At the root of our hope is the basic fact that all the issues important to the homeless are issues that impact the broader community. Organizing around these issues potentially draws into a movement large segments of the working class in the region. It is our challenge and opportunity in this current moment to build a grassroots movement that can mobilize this base and transform the city’s social and economic landscape.
Copyright The Homeless Grapevine Issue 59, February-March 2003, Cleveland, Ohio