Monday, April 30, 2007

Impeachment/ Being Poor

Neat event on April 28, Ocean Beach, San Francisco by BodiesCount:

Found this on a great website by John Scalzi-- here are some of the ones that rang a bell with me:
Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.
Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they're what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there's not an $800 car in America that's worth a damn.
Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.
Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.
Being poor is knowing you can't leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.
Being poor is hoping your kids don't have a growth spurt.
Being poor is Goodwill underwear.
Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.
Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet.
Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger's trash.
Being poor is not taking the job because you can't find someone you trust to watch your kids.
Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.
Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.
Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

Tent City Fundraiser

Yesterday I got an email from a woman whose address I didn’t recognize offering me a tarp, a couple of pillows and some sheets in case there has to be an emergency tent city in Springfield. Last night I went up to Mt. Holyoke College where a group of students were having a “Tent City Fundraiser” for Arise.

I told students I hoped that a tent city would not be necessary this year—but who knows? In this morning’s Republican, it says Western Mass has lost hundreds of subsidies in the last two years, with more than 10,000 people on a waiting list for affordable housing which is becoming scarcer every day.

For those in Springfield who think that subsidized housing is a breeding ground for crime, I must ask why crime continues while subsidized housing declines?

For those in homeless shelters hoping to receive one of the city’s 140 vouchers any time soon, I want to say, Don’t hold your breath. Is it going to be back to the drawing board for the city’s Homes within Reach plan?

Sen. John Olver, chair of the House Appropriations' Subcommittee on Housing, is tackling the subsidy shortage, trying to get appropriations back to the 2004 level.

In a statement released last month, Sen. Olver said, "In fact, if we merely adopt the president's budget for tenant-based rental assistance, it is estimated that we face a shortfall of $300 to $600 million. In other words, we would lose 40,000 to 80,000 vouchers currently in use. That translates to 40,000 to 80,000 families, elders and people living with disabilities that would be out on the street next year."

= = = = = = = =

Tom Devine has an interesting post on his blog about the mid-eighties efforts to uncover corruption in Mason Square that is still playing out today.

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

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Woke up to
nails scattered on the floor:
catnip liberated from its secret drawer:
Jets and Sharks flick their tails
from chairs and windowsills
Speaking of intoxicants: I heard Ethan Nadelmann from the Drug Policy Alliance on National Public Radio a week or so ago. He was commenting that what elected officials and policy makers say behind closed doors about decriminalization and medicalization of marijuana is very different from what they feel they can say publicly.
An estimated $4 billion is spent annually on the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of marijuana offenders.

For one law officer’s take on the War on Drugs, check out former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper’s book Breaking Ranks.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Making 100+ people disappear

REJECTED: I found out today that the City of Springfield has rejected a proposal from a board that I’m a member of (32 Byers, Inc.) to turn the long-empty Spruce Manor Nursing Home on Central St.(which the city now owns) into 40 one and two-bedroom apartments for people who want to get out of homelessness.

Instead, the nursing home will be torn down and HAP will build two or three houses as part of its home ownership push. Very nice, very nice. Too bad most of the people I know don’t own and will never be able to own a home.

I did talk to HAP Executive Director Peter Gagliardi a few months ago, and asked him (quite nervy of me, I suppose) to withdraw his proposal so that ours had a better chance of succeeding. After all, HAP has done 70 one and two-bedroom homes in the recent past, and Spruce Manor Nursing Home is the only property in the city’s portfolio large enough to be rehabbed into more than eight units. Except for one eight-unit apartment building, everything else is lots or houses. In other words, plenty of room for HAP almost anywhere else. But NO room anywhere else for a project like ours.

Peter listened politely and said he’d let me know and a few weeks later when he called saying HAP was going to go ahead, I wasn’t surprised.

Arise has a little history with Spruce Manor. It’s only a few blocks from our office on Rifle St. In late 2003 we had been collecting signatures asking the Mayor to give homeless people a building to fix up as a place to live. Spruce Manor looked good, and we thought a clean-up would help to show that we really were willing to work hard to make our dream come true. Six weeks before Sanctuary City was born—before we even knew there was going to be a Sanctuary City— Arise, homeless people, and students did a clean-up at the building. We trimmed brush, picked up trash, and spraypainted over graffiti. We talked to a lot of neighbors. Most wanted to see Spruce Manor be converted to housing.

We gave the mayor a couple of thousand signatures, but nothing came of it—Kathleen Lingenberg, Director of Housing, told me the building was structurally unsound and would be torn down. And before we knew it, the Warming Place ran out of money and shut its doors; 60 people were unsheltered, and the need for Sanctuary City was upon us. We thought briefly about occupying the building, but we thought the city would be pretty merciless about evicting and arresting, and the building was full of mold. We didn’t want to put people’s health at risk.

Jump ahead three years. The city is now in the first stages of its ten year planning process to end homelessness. The first quantifiable target is to place 140 “chronically homeless” into subsidized apartments with case management. Of course this is all existing housing—tightening up the market for people who need affordable housing, and who very well may be homeless without it.

Under these circumstances, doesn’t it just make too much sense to create 40 affordable apartments as opposed to two or three single family homes?

The city seems to think that there is a finite and static number of “chronically homeless” people, and if only those people could be “placed into housing,” we could pretty much end—or at least control—our homeless population. I have yet to hear, at any of the many meetings on homelessness I’ve been in, any serious effort to look at underlying causes of homelessness—poverty, lack of health care, lack of housing, to name the big ones. There’s a fair amount of recognition of the special needs of “chronically homeless” people, and some good tactics for dealing with people one on one. But unless the city starts connecting the dots, people will continue to fall into homelessness.

For a good critique of the Chronic Homeless Initiative, see a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Meanwhile, the Warming Place shelter, run by Open Pantry Community Services, is reporting about 100 men and women stay over each night. The WP is housed in the old Hampden County jail on York St. The city has given the shelter a June 30th eviction date. The jail will be torn down to make way for riverfront development.

Is it magical thinking on the city’s part that they can place 140 people by June 30th and thereby (at least in the city’s way of thinking) making the Warming Place unnecessary? The city’s plan is already behind schedule.

Is the city going to make another Sanctuary City inevitable?

Monday, April 9, 2007

One version of what Don Imus could have said….

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the remarks that came out of my mouth the other day about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

It was so easy to say, I’ve had to ask myself: where was my self-censor? You know, there are some things I know I would never say—I’d catch myself—sexual remarks about little girls or boys, for example, or making fun of people in wheelchairs. Either I was brought up to know that would be wrong or I learned it as I went along in life. So why didn’t I learn that about Black people? And why would I think of a group of strong, talented women as whores?

I’ve said that I was “a good person who made a bad mistake.” I think I have to go further, now, and say that I am a good person raised in a racist society and I have not paid attention to the ways that that has shaped my thinking and my language.

A friend asked me why I have been so emphatic in saying I’m not racist. She said, “Come on, Honey, there’s just about NO way a white person can grow up in this world and not have some racism in him.”

“But I’m a good person!” I said again.

“So?” she said. “You think that both can’t be true at the same time? You think that being a good person lets you off the hook?”

This is really hard, and a big blow to my self-image, but I think I want to stop making excuses, now. I think I want to dig a little deeper into why this stupid, ignorant—and yes, racist—comment came out of my mouth. Maybe I won’t like what I find, but I don’t think I can change it until I own it. That’s the least I can do as a person of power and privilege for those people who are still looking for the level playing field. I’m sorry.

Back to Michaelann: I drove home through Springfield’s South End today and felt very sad. Housing is run-down, businesses are struggling or absent, trash blows in the streets. I can imagine that many Italians with deep roots in the South End have looked around, remembered the past, and asked themselves, “What’s different?”-- and then decided, “It’s the Puerto Ricans!”— because Puerto Ricans are what they can see. Much harder for people to see is what isn’t there: the factories, stores and area farms that used to provide decent jobs for hard-working people, the tax base that’s been stolen by the higher-ups. Even harder are concepts like globalization and the military-industrial complex, let alone being able to understand how they affect their neighborhood.

Any corner tells the story If we knew how to see:

Where did the steel in the street sign come? Who made it? How much were the people who made it paid?

What about the concrete in the sidewalk? The glass in the newsstand window? The magazines on the store’s shelves? The clothes in their pages? The orange dye in the Fritos? The printing on the lottery ticket?

Who benefits and who pays?

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Shopping Cart Wars

At its last meeting, the Springfield City Council approved a zoning change to prohibit new bottle redemption centers from opening anywhere but in industrial areas in the city.

Council Domenic Sarno said he wished the rule could go further, forcing existing redemption centers to relocate (with the city’s help, he says).

The South End Citizens Council approved of the zone change, saying the sight of overflowing shopping carts isn’t helping the South End rebound.

I too find it terribly disturbing to see poor and homeless people, in the dead of winter, pushing shopping carts through the snow. They don’t make snow tires for shopping carts so it’s not easy going. Sometimes people will not only fill a cart, but also fill green garbage bags and tie them to the sides—but even so, making as much as $20 is exceptional. And it’s hard work.

After people get their money, they will then spend it on cigarettes, food, alcohol, gloves, bus fare, aspirin, cough medicine or crack.

For a lot of homeless people, a shopping cart is the centerpiece of their home.

The carts may hold the last remaining vestiges of an old life plus all the new and possibly useful stuff given to them or scrounged from the trash. It may include rope and a sheet of plastic to form the roof over their heads that night, with the cart as a back wall.

One of the city’s most visible homeless people, let us call her Bella, was in an endless struggle with the Springfield Police over her shopping cart. More than once other homeless people would find Bella sitting on the sidewalk, crying, her belongings in a heap around her where the police had dumped them out and confiscated her cart. The rationale here is that the carts are stolen property—you can’t go to a store and buy one, they all belong to some business. (Designboom held a contest and came up with some great ideas for shopping carts for the homeless. That doesn’t mean they’re being produced, though.)

Bella now has her own apartment, one of the first “chronically homeless” placed by the Mental Health Association under the city’s new "Homes Within Reach” plan. My name is listed as a contributor to that document, as I was, but not in the way one might think. More on that later.

My nephew is home on leave from the Navy and I am off to have dinner with him and my Springfield family.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Losing the war?

I didn’t write yesterday because 1) I was too upset and 2) I was too busy

On Tuesday, an apartment house fire in Springfield left 43 people homeless. I was wondering how many of them would wind up in shelters. Most poor and working people don’t have enough money saved to handle a disaster like this, and family members and friends, who tend also to be poor, don’t usually have a spare room. I checked into Springfield’s forum on MassLive later in the day and was immediately sorry I did—the first poster to mention the fire wondered why so many Hispanics were “victims” of fires…quotation marks courtesy of the poster…followed by posts about how 43 people could possibly live in 9 apartments (that’s actually less than five people in a household) and if only these Hispanics would stop breeding, then there would be fewer to be displaced…..I kid you not, this is the level of dialogue most common on MassLive.

Tuesday night about 11 pm. my sister called me with an urgent message: “Quick, turn to Channel 22.” I saw the tail end of an interview with Bill Miller, Executive Director of Friends of the Homeless, saying that the shelters were no longer going to be taking referrals from agencies outside the city. I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was—I’d seen Bill at a City Council meeting a month ago and had actually called him on an interview he’d given to a reporter a few days before, where he had seemed to imply that it was wrong for people who come from outside Springfield to stay in “our” shelters. He said he’d been taken out of context and that he’d been talking about sex offenders….a whole other story…

I won’t bore you with the round of calls I made the next day to figure out what was really going on. At some point I talked to Gerry McCafferty, the city's deputy director of homeless and special needs housing, who stressed the need for “a regional approach” to solving homelessness, stating that the Friends of the Homeless approach would at least pressure other communities to start dealing with their own homeless problem. She said that other communities either need to take care of their own, or pay Springfield for taking care of them.

All this sounds good…but Holyoke, Westfield and Northampton actually have shelters, and I could make a case that seeing as Friends of the Homeless receives much of its funding from the state, people in the communities Gerry mentioned—Chicopee, Ludlow, West Springfield and Longmeadow— actually do pay—their state taxes, which are then redistributed, and some of which wind up at F.O.H.

What continues to astound me is the absolute shallowness of analysis that pervades this city about the causes of homelessness and poverty. Without that analysis, we find ourselves in a situation similar to the Iraq war. Military and political analysts are saying that it doesn’t matter how effective our tactics in Iraqare , if we lack strategic goals, our tactics can actually work against us.

The Springfield business community seems convinced that homeless and poor people are responsible for the lack of economic development in Springfield. Of course there is a relationship, but it is not so simple as Cause and Effect.

I know that if every homeless person magically disappeared from our city today, it would have little or no impact on our prospects for revitalizing our city. The underlying problems would remain.

F.O. H. has to raise money from the business community in order to build its new, city-sanctioned shelter, so this pronouncement is a good move on their part.

I looked up the definition of pander in the dictionary—to cater to or profit from the weaknesses, vices or prejudices of others.

I was watching Jericho on TV last night, a show about a town utterly cut off from communication after a nuclear war. The mayor had decided to drive out 50 refugees because the town didn’t feel it had enough food to share. One refugee is talking to a woman from the town, asking why the refugees had had to stay in a shelter when there were so many empty houses. The woman said, “But those are the houses of our neighbors, who just weren’t in town when the bombs fell.” The man replied, “Well, whatever towns they are in now, I hope they are finding warmth and shelter.”

Monday, April 2, 2007


Not too long ago, a poster on MassLive suggested that if only more prisoners would kill themselves, it would save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lots of money! Glad he's not making the laws... death penalty for writing a bad check, smoking pot, jaywalking....

Inmate, 27, hangs self at Bridgewater hospital/Boston man is 3d suicide in '07 - John Guilfoil, Globe Correspondent April 1

A 27-year-old Boston man hanged himself Friday night in a shower at Bridgewater State Hospital, where he had been sent for a 30-day mental evaluation.

Jarred Aranda , who had been sent to the state hospital from the Bristol County jail, was pronounced dead at Brockton Hospital at 9:30 .

Aranda had been sentenced in January to a year in jail on several minor charges, said Diane Wiffin , Department of Correction spokeswoman.

An independent study of the state prison system released in February found serious shortcomings in the state's handling of inmates who are at risk of committing suicide.

The report, commissioned after a sharp increase in prisoner suicides in 2005 and 2006, concluded that prison policies and practices were contributing to the problem.

The Department of Correction brought in Lindsay Hayes, a prison suicide prevention specialist, to review the department's policies and practices, Wiffin said. Hayes's report gave 29 recommendations and emphasized increased staff training, better communication, "suicide-resistant" housing for inmates, and changes to supervision practices.

"The Department of Correction is committed to the full implementation of the Hayes recommendations," Wiffin said yesterday. The department plans to implement all 29 recommendations and review the way the department manages mentally ill offenders, she said.

A lawsuit filed in US District Court by the Disability Law Center Inc. Contends that one-quarter of the 11,000 inmates in the state prison system are mentally ill and criticizes the Department of Correction, saying it keeps hundreds of inmates in isolation too long.

Aranda's death remains under investigation, Wiffin said. He was the third inmate to commit suicide in 2007 and the 10th in the past 15 months. Those numbers are up from one suicide in 2004 and four in 2005.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Why today?

Why today, of all days, am I finally giving in to the impulse to start a blog?

I've started a new job which takes me away from the minute to minute life of the organization to which I belong-- Arise for Social Justice-- and I'm finding I need a way to share what I see in the everyday life of this city and this country.

I went out today-- Sunday-- to buy food and shades for my windows and as I was driving through Six Corners, I saw in the sky ahead of me what I thought was a bald eagle. I pulled to the curb to watch and soon I could see his white head and and broad black wings. Two guys were walking by, one young and one not so young, and I opened my car door and said, "Hey, you guys, that's a bald eagle!" and pointed up. After a split second of hesitation (Hey, who is this woman?), they looked up and we all watched for a few seconds. "Is that the one nesting on the Memorial Bridge that I saw on TV?" Then he corrected himself. "No, that's a falcon."
I drove on, they walked on, in my rearview mirrow I saw them look up another time.

I've seen three bald eagles in my life, all in the last two years-- one at the Arise office on Rifle St., across from the Mill River, one a quarter mile away on Allen St., and the one today.

I guess Six Corners would be considered one of the "bad" sections of the city. The people who live in Six Corners struggle to live decent lives and are the same people mocked and stereotyped by posters on MassLive who hide behind made-up names.

Under the circling arc of the eagle
we are all free to look up.