Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Putting poor people to good use

Today Liz and I went to a hearing held by the Dept. of Housing and Community Development on the new HomeBASE program, which is supposed to help eligible families avoid homelessness.  The hearing focused on the regulations themselves, and how they might be fine tuned; we were there mostly to talk about the implementation end.

To put that in human terms, when a young woman with a baby (apartment lost in the tornado, didn't know about FEMA, staying for 2 months with a friend in subsidized housing whose own housing is now at risk because of her presence) goes down to the Dept. of Transitional Assistance to apply for Emergency Assistance (necessary before you can apply for HomeBASE) and is twice told she is not eligible and turned away with no written explanation, then something is wrong with the implementation picture.  It was not until she came to Arise with her story and we gave her a flyer (thanks, Mass Law Reform) about HomeBASE, with certain key parts highlighted, and sent her back down to DTA, that she was able to get help.

The hearing today wasn't huge.  Some advocates came, and some agencies charged with administering some aspect of the program, and a couple of poor people.

One of the testifiers (this was an official hearing) is the head of a local housing agency.  Among other things, he spoke about how the housing rate is set too low, and may, through the law of unintended consequences, concentrate poverty in particular areas.  I've heard him speak about the need to have our neighborhoods economically diverse before; and while I agree with some of his analysis in theory, it's really a much more  complicated scenario.  So i thought i knew where he was going.  But I was wrong.

"Poor people should be able to live in more affluent neighborhoods," he stated, "because they need people to hire for the low wage jobs."

My mouth fell open.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  And he went on later to speak about how many homeless families are coming from out of state, and shouldn't these scarce benefits be preserved for the people on his long housing waiting list, a point nicely countered later by someone else who said that studies show a statistically insignificant difference between the needy families who come to our state and our needy families that go some somebody else's state, which also has long waiting lists., etc.

I've been pondering  his remarks all evening.  Let me get this straight: at least a few of us (not too many, mind you) should live in affluent neighborhoods so we can do their dirty work?  Can we all get hired to become maids and gardeners?  Can we wander their snowy neighborhoods with shovels?  (Actually, we do that already.) Work in the convenience  and mega-drug stores?  (We do that already, too.) And wouldn't affluent people really prefer we commute rather than live next door?

As classist, serf-like and  preposterous as his idea is, it also belongs to an era long gone, never to come again.  This isn't the Fifties. Most people's fortunes have been rolling downhill for decades. Sure, we still have a few affluent neighborhoods in Springfield, but they're ragged around the edges, and in a city where nearly thirty percent of us live below the poverty level, there just aren't enough affluent people to go around-- not here, not anywhere.  

Even the HomeBASE program, rotten with good intentions and riddled with  regulations, is predicated on the belief that, starting basically from zero, a homeless family can turn its life around in just one year.Do these policy makers and administrators read the same news that I do?  Is anybody predicting the economy will recover in just one more year?

I have a lot more I could say about we what we, as poor people, need to do, but that's another post.

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