F the #'s: Writer J. Marechal Argues that Poverty Is More than Statistics

F the #’s. I’m not giving you any.

One doesn’t have to look far to see poverty wide. It’s not about numbers.

It is about having to give in to tears when officers are summoned to oust a homeless mother and her three year old from a shelter.

It is two, three people sharing a plate—not an odd occurrence when people live at an economic level such that when and how they eat is scheduled. It is people passing vitamins, antihistamines, ibuprofen—whatever they have—across the table to someone with a cold, on the way to work in rainfall. Then finding an umbrella too. It is guests at a shelter using the top of a piano as a donation spot to leave things they don’t need for others to maybe find something they can use.

While nationally, many states are passing legislation that makes your lack of home and shelter a criminal offense. Which is only part of the reason that odds are better than not that if you lack a roof you are going to be arrested.

Poverty is early morning sleepy fire alarms, bomb scares, and gunshots a block away as well as threats on the morning van from a person you have never seen before due to their only just having arrived in the country. It is timed phone calls, weak Kool-Aid, and peanut butter and jelly. Or, if you are sleeping outside, it is people rousting you from spots of warmth.

It is being unable to afford bail and therefore doing, at the least, jail time before trial. Plea Bargains, Bail, & the Poor by Jim Reagan in the August/September Catholic Worker chronicles why it is unlikely that an impoverished defendant will, as constitutionally entitled, be able to hold out for a trial, and the September 16, 2012 Justice Policy Institute post Bail Bond Companies Profit While Poorest Defendants Remain in Jail By David M. Reutter and Mel Motel expand on the business of restitution.

There and back, it is two buses, two trains, and making an exact time slot, sorting and packing, coordinating with staff—a whole day—to do laundry. This is as mates show you letters to newspapers that ponder what the homeless do with themselves all day.

If you are pled out and have served then employment, for one with a record, will be elusive in a jobless climate. Which will further render you economically marginalized and, in circular fashion: again homeless. These states of being require supervision, probable counseling, possible rehab, and potential SNAP benefits and housing assistance.

That is a lot of paperwork. You’ll need originals (at a fee) and two copies. And many appointments. By then there is a lot of data. There are gift cards for participation in studies. It has been noted that programs with too-rigidly-specialized criteria necessary to access essential resources are asking to be lied to.

New policy makes some of what’s written here a moot point. Recently enacted regulations mean that being homeless is not enough to qualify you for a bed at a shelter. In the October 7, 2012 Boston Globe Yvonne Abraham recounts perilous circumstance for a young mother after her appeal for shelter for her family was denied in A Safety Net That is Leaving More People Out; and fellow Globe writer Brian McGrory details the byzantine obstacles a married couple faces (even with a whole community pulling for them) in their efforts to find affordable housing in Couple Still Waiting for a Happy Ending in the October 10, 2012 edition.

It is getting attached to shelter mates or advocates and total strangers though never knowing if or when you’ll see them again. You meet dozens of new folks every week, sometimes in a day.

The aspiration is to remember each and every name, but there are so many it isn’t close to possible.
So many impoverished are being displaced globally that the group inhabitants.org enacted an International Zero Evictions day—which turned into a month, and seems to have been continued indefinitely, until, apparently, such a day is unnecessary. The site has initiated a video competition in which the call is to submit the best film of people resisting eviction. This is an actual category in which aspiring videographers can compete for prizes, renown.

Poverty is flowers on the desk in honor of recently passed, unmet homeless women.

It is being talked at, instead of with, and fear of losing your bed at a shelter for sharing your experiences and ideas.

It is being startled by the sight of a human being standing up, and out, of a wheelchair. But realizing after initial surprise: It’s the end of the night; they’ve only now finished spangeing up (“spare changing”) just to get by. Because:

It is medical disadvantage, frustration, and risk. Which is rather incomprehensible, thinking scientifically, because illness, like clouds in the sky, recognizes few boundaries.

It is expensive. Massachusetts Citizens for Children and the Annie E. Casey Foundation have partnered to produced visionary reports: “Child Poverty in Massachusetts, a Tale of Two States,” which provides a thorough documentation of how “poverty costs billions of dollars,” and the “2012 KIDS COUNT DataBook” which ranks states on an interactive wheel. (Link to reports via our website).

Poverty is Billerica’s School Department having to hold a raffle of two iPads to foster registration for the free lunch program. Because accepting assistance—even assistance (good nutrition) crucial to educational performance, which everyone agrees is paramount—still leaves one a target for scorn and discrimination. This is the case despite common knowledge of the factors triggering this epidemic of poverty, to wit:

Extreme financial industry malfeasance—chronicled in the documentary Inside Job, narrated by Cambridge’s own Matt Damon; the economic downturn and high unemployment generated by the Bush Administration’s war on Iraq—initiated with false information; and the mortgage crisis—Realtytrac makes the nationwide devastation easily quantifiable.

While most are familiar with the havoc wrought by fraudulent lending practices and mortgages, there are some facets to the catastrophe that have escaped notice. Lower income families, who chose manufactured homes as a more economically feasible option of home ownership, are experiencing damage that surpasses simple foreclosure.

This is because manufactured-home owners have no right to a date in court, or to correct the arrears—simply a notice and then someone driving away your home and all your possessions. Non-profit ConsumersUnion posts how in Alabama, one such homeowner (who had to sue to be heard) told a judge how “‘they told me to leave, I went to the front door, and the stairs were gone. I jumped out of a moving home.’” Further, many end up facing wage garnishes for the home even after it’s been driven away—bankruptcy protections don’t apply. Because poverty is also:

Fuck the numbers—I’m not giving you any. Meaning as a default attitude to the poor. The poor have been categorized as criminal, crazy, lazy, or stupid while widespread frauds are perpetrated. At what point does a property grab so massive that the inability of the seizer to actually possess, sell or use said chattel—leading to it’s subsequent neglect, rot and vandalism, destroying neighborhoods and lowering quality of life for all—become not just suspect, but obscene?

And where are the articles or discussion linking these precursors to homelessness? Instead three issues are cited as the ineluctable prompts of the situation: substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health. When in actuality those issues are societal issues and affect all economic classes. The stark truth is that society has abdicated responsibility for these issues, as they are rooted in inequalities and injustices and belief systems that it does not want to be held accountable for. It also responds to these issues in vastly different ways, depending on the economic class involved. It uses the idea that these social problems cause homelessness as a convenient way to avoid addressing the institutionalized financial inequities that result in poverty.

And it is a gross patronization of the impoverished class. Because also silent in the debate on homelessness is the fact that, even amidst the tragedy and injustice, and horror, moments of grace and beauty are plentiful—of boundless generosity, conspicuous manners, and indefatigable respect. There is sharing, laughter, healing acts, emotional intelligence and instinctive collaboration as the norm. Yet no one who speaks of the homeless speaks of this aspect of the experience, the underlying nature of cooperation that exists. Always the homeless are cast as a problem community that needs solving, fixing.

Stating that poverty and homelessness are ineradicable because they originate in behavioral factors gives you a pass from looking at them humanely. If you approach the matter from the recognition that every person has a human right to housing, and enact programs that provide ownership of energy efficient homes in safe locations of personal choice, the social issues referenced lose much of their bite. Whatever social problem someone is facing, how much more progress can be made regarding it when they are not struggling, night to night, to have a roof over their head and, perchance, a pillow under it?

It is unfortunate when people state that they are making certain slash and burn political choices based on business reasons, for it is nothing but sound business to eradicate poverty. It is the smart response for the strength of our social fabric. And it is imperative to sustain civilization in this challenging world. It’s not that we don’t have need of social programs; it is that we need programs that are creative and thoughtful, not moralistic or Machiavellian.

It has been related to me that homeless programs use to operate differently, that homeless people who needed housing assistance were given two annual payments of the equivalent of a years rent. We’ll posit the number up (as the rental market ever is) to $15,000 per year, or $30,000 total.

Now follow that with the happenstance of the purchase price of a small mobile home equaling $30,000. This mobile home would be environmentally sound and of contemporary design, such as a variety of the home described in the Boston Globe’s October 29th “Giving Back to the Grid” on energy efficient dwellings. Ownership would include placement in communities that the owner deemed safe and desirable to live in. The call would be for both dedicated neighborhoods and individual standings of the homes. The homes would be mobile (which would be advantageous as regards increasingly problematic weather the world over), but would also attach to the land. The latter is important for community, advanced function of the homes, and to protect homeowners from the lack of legal protections prominent in the manufactured homes industry.

The contemporary designs could have a choice of interiors with some corresponding to each other, like Legos, for arrangements that produce larger dwelling space for extended family living. This would address how extended family living has been a casualty of current housing regulations, which decree singular occupancy, which promotes social isolation, a trigger for the very social problems used as a scapegoat for homelessness.

Small, mobile, home ownership as opposed to indefinite rental assistance can save municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars. Energy self-sufficient homes can provide part of the solution needed for environmental concerns, and geo-political issues due to fossil-fuel dependency, a timely issue in view of the coming peak oil calamity (see Michael C. Ruppert’s in the 2009 film “Collapse”). Further, how the homes attach to the land could be designed to be of great efficacy for future weather emergencies.

During the interim of implementing a mobile home purchase program to facilitate safe and secure home ownership, a program can be instituted to place homeless people into the millions of homes rendered vacant and abandoned due to the foreclosure disaster. One corporate bank might make a good show by enthusiastic participation in such a plan.

Even after implementation of a comprehensive housing-as-a human-right project it is possible there could still be a small contingent resistant to settling down. Those who are often derogatively referred to as “chronic homeless” should be renamed in such a way that reflects their valid status as an itinerant culture—history is rich with nomadic souls. Current homeless shelters would remain relevant by meeting the needs of this population.

The poet in me feels poverty is as someone once said to me during an ordinary, casual perusal of a RIPTA schedule: “Bennett Alley is where the buses live when they’re sleeping.”

I saw a human being stand up out of a wheelchair and reach high.

I blinked, transfixed, and took in a breath of wonder. I imagined that it was possible for a person to leave the chair because society had decided it was important to allow them to—had opted to let a person walk upright, with no interest in keeping a body down.

It was a miracle.

—J. Marechal

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