Throwing the baby on the river
I told the river baby story last Sunday. I was at Alki United Church of Christ, saying that as homelessness gets bigger, our solutions seem to grow smaller. The new mantra is do more with less. Service providers must be smarter and more efficient, because we all know that budgets are tight and getting tighter.
The first time I heard the parable was in 1988, in a lecture hall at Radcliffe College. Boston urban minister Kip Tiernan had a Bunting Institute fellowship to study the structural roots of homelessness. A small group of activists and academics was in attendance.
“Cui Bono?” Kip rasped in her smoker’s voice. “Who benefits?”
Bennett Harrison and Barry Bluestone had just published “The Great U-Turn,” their seminal book on the deindustrialization and restructuring of America. Also published that year, in Socialist Review, was Peter Marcuse’s scholarly “Neutralizing Homelessness,” which described mass homelessness as a problem of surplus people in the age of the global economy and, with remarkable prescience, foretold how that would be managed.
Kip told of a village where babies floated downriver in baskets and of the charitable rescue operation that became preoccupied with its own best practices.
If she told the story now, she would describe how the River Baby Rescue Coalition held a historic march in Washington, D.C., that won federal funding for emergency river baby services and how, as those services grew more specialized and technocratic, river baby advocacy devolved into an annual competitive scramble for program funding.
She would detail the bizarre workings of the River Baby Management Information System and how the demands for data require huge, useless expenditures of time and money, but this data is needed to justify the funding for the services.
And she would no doubt get to the part where someone like me stands up and says, “Hey, we all know that, just a couple miles upstream, there’s a bunch of bankers, property developers and corporate CEOs who are throwing these babies in, and half the time they don’t even use baskets anymore. Can’t we like, um, regulate them or something?”
At that point in the story, the River Baby service providers would turn and say, “Oh, sure, Socialist Boy! And while you’re off having your ‘revolution,’ we’ll be right here, rescuing these needy babies.”
“Come ’ere, little feller! Coochie coochie coo!”
So, when I see the latest innovations in service delivery — coordinated entry, rapid response and other programs that present themselves as the newest magic bullets in the long, one-sided war of attrition that is modern homelessness — I see river baby rescue.
I see a system that manages misery without taking on inequality. I see a “homeless advocacy” complex that would rather surrender that fight than risk its funding. I see service providers who are more comfortable blaming the victim than the system. I see a bureaucracy that can ratchet itself down indefinitely to meet the expanding limits of our moral tolerance.
And I see who wins, out of sight and upstream, getting away with murder.
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