The language of economic justice has grown more and more AWOL

May 28, 2014, Vol: 21, No: 22

On May 21 and 22, three Real Change staff members and three vendors drove to Yakima to attend the annual statewide housing and homelessness conference. The gathering brought together the varied strains of our movement to build a world where, as the latest national 10-year-plan phrasing has it, “occurrences of homelessness are rare and brief.”

Both the bureaucratic and activist traditions were amply represented.  Amid the U.S. Commerce Department statistical updates and workshops on rapid rehousing, coordinated entry and housing first were sessions on organizing for a Homeless Bill of Rights, recognizing class cultures in our organizations and bringing economic-justice organizing into our work.

During the economic-justice workshop, the Washington State Budget and Policy Center’s Remy Trupin described how income inequality has reached historic heights and the dire need for a progressive agenda that includes wage and tax fairness.

My own contribution was to note how, over the past two decades, the language of economic justice has grown more and more AWOL from the movement to end homelessness.

We are out of balance, I said, and need to consider our role in this work. Are we partisans, taking action against the war on the poor, or are we more like the Red Cross: offering relief on the front lines of a disaster, but navigating the conflict as neutrals?

While we have our insurgents, we are mostly the latter. The work is defined and directed by a federal framework. Originated during the Bush II administration, the program collects and parses reams of data, clinically subdivides homeless people into various categories in need of “treatment” and mostly assumes that the roots of mass homelessness are located in the individual rather than the system.

I talked about the reality of a growing disposable class that is largely outside of the workforce, and how mass incarceration and the shelter industry have combined to contain the millions of people who have little hope right now of ever attaining meaningful employment.

I described how growing homelessness represents a “legitimation threat” to government by offering evidence of a thoroughly broken system, and how the 10-year-plan framework counters this by appearing to offer cost-effective and systemic solutions. I said that our effectiveness at mitigation has come at the expense of a political agenda.

I talked about the various mechanisms that are aimed at economically devastated communities of color, the formerly incarcerated and those who receive any form of federal or state assistance, and how these mechanisms entrap the poor in a web of surveillance and harassment. I talked about how our silence equals complicity and assent.

We see ourselves as helpers, I said, working to create opportunity and stability for those who lack housing, but our industry has a shadow side, where we are merely the wardens of a system that contains, manages and punishes those who have been tossed aside.

On the day the conference started, the Yakima Herald ran a three-paragraph article on the extension of Yakima’s panhandling ban, which levies a $95 fine on those who dare to beg in any of 26 identified intersections.

In one of those areas, the article reports, three panhandlers “were recently arrested on suspicion of loitering to purchase heroin.” Suspicion of loitering to purchase heroin? Really?

These are the crimes we invent to punish the poor.

Four hundred homeless advocates descended on Yakima just as this city enacted one of the most draconian panhandling ordinances in the state, and we didn’t take a stand. We should be asking ourselves why.

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