Friday, April 27, 2007

Still Waiting

I haven’t been on a public bus in over a year, but today I was having the radiator in my car replaced so after a homelessness meeting downtown, I walked over to Court Square to catch a bus and guess what? No bus stop anymore. I assume it’s part of the city’s effort to keep the homeless and other poor people out of downtown.

The park benches were removed from Court Square almost two years ago as part of a park renovations project. The project was finished but somehow the benches were never returned. I remember the park commissioner insisting the benches’ removal had nothing to with the homeless.

But the benches are still gone. I didn’t see any homeless people in the park. I didn’t even see any pigeons.

Our public transportation system (Pioneer Valley Transit Authority) is truly pathetic. When I was a kid, the Belmont bus ran every ten minutes till quarter of one in the morning. By the time I was dependent on a bus to get back and forth to work, busses ran less frequently and, of course, cost more. How well I remember standing in the rain, shivering in the snow, burning up in the summer heat, waiting for the bus, watching my eight hour work day turn into ten or eleven hours away from home. Pace around a bit. Watch other people. Count cars. Light a cigarette to make the bus come faster. If you haven’t had to do it, day after day, just to make a living, you just don’t know.

Today’s city-sponsored meeting was to come up with a plan to deal with the May 30th closing of the Rescue Mission’s shelter on Taylor St. and the planned demolition of the York St. jail, which now houses the Warming Place. That’s about 130 people out on the street. Gerry McCafferty, the city’s homelessness and special needs housing coordinator, said today that the city’s plan to place 140 homeless people into housing is very far behind—can’t find landlords to participate.

We brainstormed possible solutions. Ron Willoughby, Director of the Springfield Rescue Mission, won’t take any state funding (don’t blame him) but would stay open if he could find the funding—about $500 a day to shelter 40 men. Kevin Noonan from the Open Pantry may have identified a possible site to relocate, but it’s still up in the air. We talked about vacant buildings, basements in city-owned property, other possibilities of increasing unlikelihood, so I had to add the possibility the city could sponsor—or at least look the other way—at another tent city. Of course nobody liked that idea, including me, because it was a lot of hard work for those of us who provided material and spiritual support—Arise chiefly, but also the Catholic Workers, Nehemiah House, the Open Pantry and many others. I want better than that for homeless people this year. But, if Arise had to do it again, we would.

On the other hand, “better than” is certainly relative in warm weather. At least homeless people had some control over their own environment in Sanctuary City, and some folks who’d been camping on the riverbank chose to come and be part of a community.

Bill Miller, Executive Director of Friends of the Homeless was at the meeting. I liked Bill when I first met him and now I find myself in my perpetual struggle to separate my feelings for a person from the positions he/she takes when I believe those positions are hurtful to poor people. I suppose that’s part of my spiritual work in this world and, boy, am I imperfect. I remind myself of my striving in this regard, but often it is after the fact.

Bill is not alone in his belief that if he and other homeless providers actually had the power to turn away non-city residents (which they don’t, not if they take state funding, anyway,) that it would force other communities to take responsibility for their own residents who become homeless. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. But for sure it would mean that many people would be left to the riverbanks and abandoned buildings, pawns in a political game that’s “all for their own good.”

After I got home tonight, I got a call from a fellow who’d like to involve me in a new group about housing that he and a few others are forming—I think he called it the Metropolitan Civic Association, said they’d be getting up a website, had done a presentation at a local church, etc.

He’d mentioned to me in an earlier phone call that the group was concerned about the resegregation of Springfield, so in tonight’s call I asked him to explain a little more about what he meant.

It turns out that his group means housing developments that were built to be mixed-income but which are now entirely subsidized and entirely occupied by poor people.

Now, in theory, mixed-income developments and neighborhoods are certainly more stable and better places to live for poor people. (I’m not sure the residents of East Forest Park, however, with the highest median income in the city, would be likely to see the benefits of living with poor and working class folks.)

So I explored a little more.

“What would you do about it if you could?—to end this resegregation?”

“Well, we could change the rules so that developments had to be mixed-income and not entirely subsidized.”

“Seeing as we have not developed any new subsidized housing in this city in years, where would the people who are displaced now go?”

No direct answer.

“We need working people in these developments also,” he said.

“Well, you know, you can be working and be eligible for a subsidy.”

“Yes, I guess so, if you don’t make very much.”

“Well, lots of people don’t. Let me put it this way: one-quarter of Springfield’s residents are officially poor. That’s one out of four residents. Then there are the people just above that line who are struggling—now we’re up to one out of three. In a subsidized apartment they are paying 30 to 40% of their income for rent. In the private market, they’ll pay 50 to 90%. What will happen to them if they are pushed out of these developments?”

We ended our conversation by my saying that I felt I just wasn’t in basic sympathy with their mission. In theory, I agreed there was relevance to their issue. In practice, they would change the policy at the expense of the people—just like Friends of the Homeless. All for their own good.

I ask myself: Where are the people to go? What are the people to do?

It’s now midnight, time to end. A bit of Buddhist wisdom and my own more conflicted view:

Wisdom tells me I am nothing.
Love tells me I am everything.
Between the two, my life flows.

if you ask me to act out of love
then I feel I’m betraying my class
love is not what has helped me survive
and each day must be shackled afresh
is the hunger that's always alive
that slips from the cell to the street
to apportion itself to the poor
in the name of the one who won't speak

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