Homelessness Marathon blog

... ending homelessness isn't a matter of charity, but a matter of changing the way our society is structured. -- Homelessness Marathon founder, Jeremy Weir Alderson, aka Nobody.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Back from Detroit Again

This latest visit to Detroit was much more intricate and affecting. I do not think this is because of any deficiency in my previous visit, but because the first visit helped me to get located and prepared me for the second. As I don't think I can make sense out of it all at this stage, I will just list some of my experiences in no particular order except for the order they are in on the piece of paper where I jotted down the points I wanted to cover.

The first notation concerns the migratory patterns of residents of Windsor, Ontario. Windsor is just across the river from Detroit. I went there to meet with Adam and Cassandra, the General Manager and Program Director of CJAM, the radio station of the University of Windsor. CJAM is a Canadian Homelessness Marathon affiliate, and they are slated to originate one hour of the Canadian Marathon next year. I asked them if we could make it a simulcast, where we would jointly present an hour to both countries in which a panel of homeless people in Canada and one in the United States compare notes on accessing health care in their respective countries. They liked this idea and we're going to try to make it happen.

I asked them what the situation was in Windsor and they said it was hard hit like Detroit and maybe not much different except for less street violence. They are the ones who gave me the migratory statistic, which has stuck in my head: Eight out of ten times when someone moves in Windsor they move out of town.

The next notation concerns the saddest thing I saw in Detroit until I saw something sadder. I was attending the meeting of HAND, the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. One person made an announcement to the room of maybe 100 assorted people in the field to say that he was the one administering the HUD Rapid Rehousing Grant, and they had stopped taking new applicants. They had received 192 applications and they couldn't process any more and still be rapid.

This is sad because Detroit has an estimated 18-20,000 homeless people several thousand of whom are unsheltered and living in abandoned buildings or God knows where. I am sure I have more to learn about these statistics, what they represent, where they come from, how accurate they are and what not. But at first blush, I do not believe that 192 slots in a program would make even a dent in the overall problem, and it is tragic to think that this program was so immediately filled to capacity. It means there are all kinds of referring agencies looking for resources and not finding them.

This impression about the desperation of referring agencies was only strengthened by the next bit of bad news. Of this 192, 90% didn't qualify, so only 19 were actually being helped. A lot of the referrals were misdirected, he explained. His Rapid Rehousing program wasn't able to help people who couldn't pay their rent or were being foreclosed out of their homes. Presumably, those people weren't finding help anyplace else either.

I must insert here the point that I have interviewed more than one official with a foreign social welfare service. In Switzerland and Denmark, two countries that stand out in my recollection, when you call the Social Welfare agency and say you can't pay your rent, they actually help you with it, even over the long term if need be, though if you are living in a mansion, they will eventually insist that you move to smaller quarters.

A Swiss official sounded quite uncomprehending of the American system, because it seemed rather obvious to him that it was much more expensive to rehouse somebody once they are on the street than it is to simply stabilize them in their current circumstance, so where was the logic in it? Cynic that I am, I pointed out that actually it's much cheaper to let people fall out onto the streets if you have no intention of rehousing them and besides, there are certain advantages to having a homeless population like frightening the bejesus out of workers so they'll accept lower wages and worse treatment just because anything is better than winding up on the streets. He conceded that this explanation made sense.

My next notation concerns the thing that was sadder still, something that actually haunts me a bit. As I was dashing madly around town trying to find a physical site for the broadcast, I stopped at the facility run by the Neighborhood Service Organization. This is on third street, less than a block from Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.  It is an epicenter of homelessness, and not just any homelessness. This is the territory of people who legitimately might be called either "Chronically homeless" or "The poorest of the poor." And it is in such territories that the anti-homeless stereotype is most true, because this is where the homeless people with substance abuse issues and mental health issues are most likely to congregate.

The staff at the NSO facility were very kind to me. I had arrived with barely any notice, and they let me poke around, open doors and what not. The director assured me that they really wanted to do whatever they could to get the word out about their clients and their situation, and I could hear the understatedly anguished sincerity in his voice.

The NSO operates the shelter of last resort in Detroit. On any given night, but especially the cold ones, up to 120 people can stay indoors there, but there are no mats or cots. People have to sit in plastic chairs without arms, lined up auditorium style, facing a tv. In that position, they can slump over and try to fall asleep. The facility could actually hold more people, but they limit it to 120, because they can only afford four overnight staff, and they want to keep the ratio at thirty to one.

Logistically, we could have based our broadcast there, and we certainly want our broadcast to include the voices of the people the NSO serves, but in the end, I decided against this particular location, because the population it serves represents too limited a sample of the homeless community, and it would be hard to bring in enough other types of homeless people to round out the broadcast.

When I mentioned the NSO to other people, people who work in the homelessness field and like me have seen their share of unhappy sights, they agreed that it was a sad situation there and assured me that I hadn't seen the facility at its worst. "In the summer," one person told me, "it's like a third world country, with tents and people lying outside and litter everywhere."

This brings me to the next point, which is how similar Detroit is to Gulf Coast Mississippi. In Mississippi you see a lot of smashed buildings (still) and a lot of empty space where Katrina hit. Similarly, in Detroit you see a lot of smashed buildings and empty spaces.

In Mississippi, they came up with this brilliant theory about rebuilding the coast. You see, the Gulf Coast had been something of a poor person's paradise. You could own a piece of cheap land there and pull a beat-up trailer on it, and you could live for practically nothing. But after Katrina, the powers that be got a different idea. Let me preface this by telling you the idea they didn't get. They didn't get the idea to extend the poor person's paradise, no matter that there were now more poor people than ever. They could have said that, after the hurricane, the only logical kind of construction on the Gulf Coast is the most temporary kind; tents, RV's, trailers, the kinds of things that can quickly be moved to emergency safe havens if a storm was bearing down. They got the opposite idea.

Instead of finding a rationale for extending the land available to the poor, they got the idea to extend the land available to the rich. They couched this in architectural terms. It wasn't going to be important to be able to evacuate everyone, because people who might need to be evacuated would be discouraged from living there anymore, and the only structures that would be built would be the massive ones that could withstand a storm, and these were, just coincidentally, the Views-And-Balconies condominiums of the wealthy, often out-of-towners seeking a beach place.

You walk three blocks or so over from Martin Luther King Blvd., and you come to a somewhat less broken down street with a theater and other buildings, but nothing much. On this street too, you have empty spaces and blasted structures, but you also have signs of rebuilding. On this street I saw two of the only three such signs I saw in the area.

As in Mississippi, no one is advertising a paradise for the poor. There weren't banners declaring, for example, that there is a new SRO (Single Room Occupancy building) with rooms for rent cheap. No, the first of the two rebuilt properties was a series of refurbished lofts with a banner saying that they started at $200,000 and beyond that was a development of condos that had a banner saying they started at $150,000. The third example of urban renewal I saw was nearby on a cross-street. It was an historic townhouse that a developer had restored and was now offering for lease.

There was also a third element of the Mississippi Gulfscape that was mirrored in Detroit. The other building projects, the industrial ones, if you will, are casinos. All over the Gulf Coast, it's empty spaces, debris piles, small businesses and little houses towered over by Casino behemoths. In Detroit, if you look up from the NSO, a block-and-a-half away you see the hulking MGM Grand Detroit, and it's giving you its back.

Now isn't it obvious that a staunch Republican of 100 years ago would have had his stomach turned by this peculiar civic arrangement? Wouldn't that money conscious metropolitan have asserted that you can't run a city on poor people and casinos, just like your meals should begin with fruitcup, because it's good for your bowels? But somehow a mix of casinos, condominiums and homelessness has become the civic-planning playbook from Mississippi to Michigan.

I walked down to the Central United Methodist Church, which is an activist church that houses the offices of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. I ran into a guy by the name of James, who one might presume had ever been a meth head because of the condition of his teeth and who alluded to a previous time in his life when things had not been as good as they are now. We struck up a conversation and I mentioned something about my consternation with the condominiums and he said, "Yeah, 'affordable housing,' affordable for who?"

James is a smart guy, I think. He now works out of Central United Methodist where he's a job counselor, with what organization, I don't know. He says he advises people that they have to get the entrepreneurial spirit because there aren't going to be any jobs anymore and people are going to have to find some kind of hustle to survive, but he didn't use the word "hustle." I think he's right, by the way, but then, to my surprise, he turned into Yogi Berra, saying, "That's gonna be the future."

The last note I would like to share with you concerns a rather remarkable thing that happened on my way home. I had been awakened two hours early by a robotic voice on my laptop declaring that my virus data base had been updated.  As a result, after my first hundred miles of driving, I pulled into a highway plaza sorely in need of more coffee. Coffee had been the theme of the day. When I had first pulled out, I found myself driving in the half-light behind a tanker truck with an advertisement on the back for it's parent company which runs a string of highway service area concessions. The ad was that they had the best coffee on the highway, but the word, "Coffee" was in bigger letters, and it was the only word I could see from my distance, so for a moment it looked like a tanker truck full of coffee, and I just thought "Thank goodness."

Then I pulled into this stop, run by another company, that had a kind of circular rotunda, half of which was the food court, and along that half were booths for Starbucks, Popeye's Chicken, the Great something-or-other and Potato Company, a Panera and maybe one other food outlet. When I walked in, all over the rotunda lights were flashing and a loud grating noise was being emitted from attached speakers. Some people were covering their ears, though it didn't bother me as much. I asked a woman at one of the food counters if that was their fire alarm going off. Yes, it was, she said, but it was only smoke from a baking operation at Panera and it would be all right.

I retreated to the rest room, where the alarms were fainter, but they were still screaching full bore when I got back to the food court. Finally, when I got to the Starbucks counter, the noises stopped. I want you to know that I only infrequently go to Starbucks, but this was one day I was not denying myself a Venti Latte, and while it was being prepared, I asked one of the people behind the counter how often this happened with Panera. She said at least once a week.

I said, "All the employees of these other restaurants should tell them to get their act together."

"We can't,": she replied, and here it seemed as though time froze for a moment as I wondered what she could possibly say to explain why anything was keeping her or her boss from telling those people at Panera to stop their assault. Then she said that they couldn't because, "We own them."

How silly of me. All of these concessions must be operated by a single company, so you can't tell "them" anything, because "them" is "us." I didn't go into the question of why the workers didn't immediately unionize or conduct a wildcat strike. There didn't seem to be any doubt about that one. The workers feel powerless and need the jobs. To me, that was sort of a paradigm for what's going on in both Mississippi and Detroit.