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.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

arriving home

The broadcast is over now.  We were happy that it went well and people made nice comments.  I have a few more things to say about it, but for the moment, I will only report on something I found out about upon my return home.  We live in a rural area, and before I left for Detroit, I bought a new pick-up truck.
          By "new," I mean new to us.  We are a bit more flush these days than we have been before.  We bought our first pick-up off a junkyard lot for $400, and it ran just fine for a while before dying.  This one, a '97 club cab with four-wheel drive, cost $2200 from Clayton, who lives around the corner, does agricultural work, fixes up cars and is a friend.  I had him add-on a four wire towing coupler, and he had a truck cap that more-or-less fit, so the whole thing will come to around $2400.  At that price, you don't ask for a good paint job, though this one is in pretty good shape, bright red with a stripe down in side.  I have reminded everyone that you can pick up women in a truck like that, and Clayton, displaying the local dry wit, reminded me that Ellen could drive the pick-up too.
          Because the truck needed a final brake adjustment, it was to be delivered to me upon my return from Detroit, and I had visions of my new life, tooling around in the bright red pick-up, but the beginning of my new tenure as a well-wheeled country gentleman will have to wait.  A thief struck and stole the muffler and catalytic converter off my soon-to-be truck.  There's been a little rash of that around here.  It is a reminder that you can't even drive around in a showy, high-off-the ground '97 without being a lot better off than some folks who will get under it with a torch for the risks and rewards of stealing its parts.
          We are living in increasingly desperate times, and doing the Marathon never fails to remind me how fortunate I am.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

First Thoughts After

The broadcast is over now.  It went reasonably smoothly with few technical glitches and ended with comraderie between those involved.  But the funny thing about doing this is that after months of work and staying up all night to make it happen, I really have no idea how it sounded.  Being a host is not the same as being a listener.  I don't listen to the broadcast in the way that the audience does.  I listen for the verbal cues that permit me to take the broadcast in this direction or that one.  I won't know to think until I review the recordings, which will take a while.  For now, it is enough to have gotten through it and feel okay about what has happened.  I am content.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

nerves, butterflies and what forges iron

In the end, on the night before the broadcast, I am just another guy on the eve of an event.  There are differences, of course, between this and getting ready for battle or for a sporting event or a theatrical performance, but they all have their similarities too.  One of them is being on the verge of something you don't know what it will mean in your life, because you can't know how it will come out.
          In between trying to sew up last details, I think about what is the "this" and what is the "life" in the question of what will this mean to my life?  These days, I am happy in my life, and that helps me along.  And in the background are the people this show is for, which is to say my family, my country and especially its poor.  They are not in the foreground, because just like a soldier or an athlete or an actor, one has to keep ones mind on the task ahead and on maintaining the mental ability to engage it.  But at the same time and at the risk of sounding insufferably sappy, I think that, amidst all the mysteries of the cosmos, love is still the best explanation for a lot of what we do if not all of why we're here..
          As to why, when love is everywhere, there should be such suffering in the world, well, being up late at night may fill you with questions, but it doesn't make you wise.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More On Race

It is a bit peculiar to me to find myself writing about race less than 48 hours before the broadcast.  I think this is an occupational hazard of doing a blog and being a white guy in Detroit.  Detroit is certainly known for more than its economic decline and one of the other things it is known for is its vibrant black culture.  So the idea that I would have an encounter with race doing this work in Detroit is hardly a startling one.  What's more startling -- to me, anyway -- is that this possibility never occurred to me.  Be that as it may, I do actually have a few things to say about race, so I think I may as well say them.
          When I wrote that last post about how the thought that I might have any appeal to a black audience just about made me giggle, I felt like I might be misunderstood.  If anybody is going to not like what I say, I would hope it would at least be the thing I actually said, so I will try to offer here some explanation, whether or not it is actually necessary.  I have had black people in my life, and the way I would summarize those relationships is that, for the most part, they had nothing whatsoever to do with stereotypes.  So when I say I wouldn't think of myself as the kind to be popular with black people, I mean I wouldn't expect myself to be the type to interact with black people in the stereotypical ways white people might be portrayed as interacting with black people or the ways in which white people, themselves, might think they ought to interact.  I would hardly be the first to be involved with black people without trying to act like a black person.  There's lots of people, for instance, who have fallen in love across racial lines when they weren't expecting to, so involvement with another race isn't something you have to be looking for in order to find it.
          Before I go any further down that road, I must mention that this series of happy experiences with black people hasn't let up.  We were on the ropes as far as having any kind of a video webcast was concerned, and all of a sudden, we have a crew of four or five black people working on this.  It is just extraordinarily fortunate that we have them at all, and it is even more extraordinary that everybody seems to like each other.  I will happily throw in a plug for them.  They go by the name of Pulsebeat TV and I just genuinely like them all.  I might add that I haven't actually met anybody I don't like in Detroit, and I've never been accused of being just like Will Rogers.  That's just the way it has worked out here, which is a big reason why this has been a very happy experience.  It's been so happy, that I cant let my fear of a crash landing keep me from enjoying it.    
          Anyway, to get back where I was, I don't know any rap songs and I don't know any black slang, but then, of course, the question arises as to why would anyone think those things should be the hallmarks of a white person being involved with black people?   It is a well-known phenomenon that scads of white youth affect black mannerisms; listen to hip-hop and rap and what not; dress in the latest African-American styles, which the last I knew involved baggy pants, though it has probably moved on long ago; and even walk down the street, whether that street be in Peoria or Pocatello, like they are strolling down 125th.  What are they doing?
          Surely a part of what they're doing, or at least, what some of them are doing, is a genuine tribute to black culture.  It seems like African-Americans have given America half of everything it holds sacred, though that is surely an exaggeration.  So why shouldn't white people focus on this perennial wellspring?
          Just the same, my own theory is that the largest part of it has to do with white guilt.  At a certain age, I think everybody realizes that there are oppressed and oppressors here in the Land of the Free.  America's white children, just like Anne Frank said of everyone, are genuinely good at heart, so they want to identify with the oppressed instead of the oppressor.  The trouble with that, though, is that it's just a phase.  For the most part, after a few years of pretending to be gangstas, they go on to take their places in the existing order without challenging it.  There's nothing new in this.  I personally lived through the shocking revelation that not everyone who ever said "Groovy" in the 60's stayed a hippie.
          Otis Maclay., an engineer and computer person (among other things) who is helping us and is associated with the Pacifica radio network, was sitting in my room last night talking about the importance of the 73rd psalm, so with Michael also listening, I read it from the Gideon Bible in my room.  I recommend it.  Otis is right to focus on that one.  Others psalms and other parts of the Bible have other messages, but this one speaks powerfully about how nothing has changed in the worldly world.  The ways by which people abuse each other certainly haven't.
           I don't think anybody will contradict me when I say that in this society we are all screwed up about race, though I do give America a lot of credit for getting farther in dealing with it than a lot of other countries.  It is actually, I think, one of the few ways in which we still lead the world.  Many people would rightly argue that we have yet many steps to go, and from my own, non-philosophical perspective, I will vouch for the truth of that.  I may be a white guy, but I'm a white guy who regularly visits the poorest parts of town, the soup kitchens, and the shelters, and who once a year, sees before him a line of desperately poor and homeless people.  I can state, as a simple matter of fact, that what I have seen is disproportionately made up of people of color.  So if anybody says we have further to go delving into issues of race in this country, I for one agree,  but even so, I think the focus on race no longer serves us well.
          There have certainly been times when the focus on race was absolutely necessary, none greater than the period leading up the Civil War, when it was impossible to discuss slavery without noting, one way or the other, that the slaves were of African descent.  But that is not where we are now.
          Those for whom the need to resolve the issues posed by race is synonymous with the quest for social justice have found themselves outplayed and trumped by people who would manipulate racial issues to perpetrate injustice.  To my mind, this was never clearer than during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.  You had Strom Thurmond, a longtime segregationist, standing staunchly behind a black man married to a white woman, something which, in Thurmond's youth, had been a de facto capital offense in his native South Carolina.  Had Thurmond changed his stripes?  No, if he had, he might have given some credence to Anita Hill.
          My own conclusion was that during the Thomas-Hill hearings, you could see the economic skeleton under the flesh of race hatred.  As I see it, the powers that be wanted Thomas because he would do their bidding, and they hid their wolf beneath his black sheep's clothing.  Nonetheless, there were black people who believed and even testified, in so many words, that, ultimately, Clarence Thomas would do the right thing because he was black.  They were wrong.          
          Without Clarence Thomas's vote halting the Florida recount, George W. Bush would not have made it to the presidency, where he launched a war on Iraq under false pretenses with the help of a black National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, and a black Secretary of State, Colin Powel.  If you approve of the war and are a supporter of the Bush Administration, that's your right, but it would be hard to argue that the actions of Thomas, Rice and Powell had anything to do with righting the wrongs of the Middle Passage, no matter that   Thomas invoked the specter of a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks" in accusing anyone who opposed him of racism.
          Today, you cannot discuss racial issues on their own, without explaining why what you are talking about is different from what Thomas, Powel, Rice, and now Michael Steele represent.  And you can't explain that without invoking the issue of class, so as far as I can see, you may as well just invoke the issue of class right from the start.  It is more inclusive -- people are suffering so broadly now that we should be focusing on everyone -- and it is also more precisely targeted on the challenge before us.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Detroit for the Broadcast

We are in the thick of it now.   As always, the final stages of preparation for the broadcast are very intense.  We arrived at the broadcast site to find that the phone block was of a type we were unfamiliar with.  So there was some immediate panic and a quick call to the phone company to make sure they could send a repairman out to install the jacks for us.  But after a while, we figured it out, and in the process of doing so, realized we couldn't find two of the lines we had ordered.  So it's a good thing the repair guy is coming, even if we don't need him for the jacks.  But the point is that, in that moment, we were confronted with something that could take down the entire broadcast.  It didn't, but for me, at least, it's a shock to the system, like hearing that the plane your uncle is on might just have crashed and then hearing an hour later that no, it was another plane.
          Immediately after that, my e-mail account crashed, and of course it would only do that right when I am awaiting e-mail confirmation as to whether or not the City of Detroit will send representatives for an on-the-air dialog with the homeless people on site.  The answer to that turned out to be yes, but I only got the e-mail after frantically calling people at my very good ISP until finally the boss took care of it.
          In other words, it's just one shock after another, and I think any event planner will recognize this as a more-or-less normal kind of scenario, although other planners may have a higher percentage of routine events than we ever seem to be able to pull off.  But for all of that, I've been enjoying myself immensely.
          My son, Michael, is our chief engineer.  He has been involved with every broadcast, sleeping outside on the pavement in sympathy with the first one, when he was just thirteen.  Oh well, you know, tomorrow who knows what will be with any of us, but so far, it's been a blast being with him, and I feel like a lucky father to have this event that we can share.
          The people at Cass Community Social Services are incredibly nice, really all of them.  I have kind of given up trying to be something other than a gorilla, at times, but I am striving these days to be a gorilla who can stay in the social preserve. And one of the nice things about being at Cass Community, is that whenever I look my wildest, they have a kindly glint in their eyes like they saw sixteen worse cases before breakfast.
          And I've been having a lot of singular experiences.  Driving to Detroit, for example, I was interviewed twice on one of our affiliates, WRFG in Atlanta.  It wasn't really the most advantageous time for interviews, the first for half an hour and the second for a full hour, but they were trying to help promote the broadcast, I certainly wanted to help them with that, and Michael drove while I was talking on the cell phone.
           As it turned out, the two interviews went extremely well, and for the second one, I was interviewed by three people at once, or maybe there was a fourth, and they really seemed to like the things I was saying, and I really enjoyed talking with them.  What made this more than just a good interview was that WRFG is a community station for a community that is largely African-American.  So it resonated with my performance at the COTS shelter, and it just seemed so funny to me to think of myself as someone who's really down with black people.  I wouldn't describe myself that way in any case, but the thing of it is that I am so pathetically unhip that the mere thought that I might have any appeal to a black audience just about makes me giggle.  I have to add, though, that, if it turned out to be true, I would just think that was great.  Who wouldn't?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More on the Capucin Cash (Holy) Cow

I just spoke to Roy Hoelscher.  He's the man who made the announcement at the DAC meeting that they, the Capucins, would be accepting contributions for Haiti.  He made a mistake, he said regretfully, in terms of the timing of the announcement, because he miscalculated when checks would be arriving.  But be that as it may, the results are in. 
          The soup kitchen serves on the order of 300 every day for breakfast, 500 for lunch and 600 for dinner (what do those numbers, at just one establishment, tell us about Detroit?).   The DAC contributions were mixed with the contributions of other patrons, but the patrons are pretty much in the same social strata.  Some are squatting illegally, some are in shelters that don't serve meals, some have marginal housing and have to save money, and some, maybe at the top of the heap, are people who have been widowed and come more for the companionship.   But even these relatively wealthy widows and widowers are in no condition to be chit-chatting over hors d'oeuvres  and aperitifs at the yachting society were they not otherwise engaged at the soup kitchen.

          Out of this group, the Capucins were able to raise over $800.  I think it is best to provide that figure without commentary.

Monday, February 8, 2010

An Odd Thought

An odd thought came to me, and it brought me back to this blog.  The thought was "What if Detroit listened to me?"  This thought came to me because I submitted an Op-Ed to the Detroit Free Press.  I told them that it was kind of a manifesto for the upcoming broadcast.  I got a reply from an editor saying she was interested in the piece.  Like everyone in Detroit, she wanted to know who I was, and she also wanted to know about the broadcast.  I sent her some information, and I haven't heard anything back yet.  I can tell you that if you ain't used to disappointment, you ain't used to being a writer, but whatever happens, she got me thinking.
          The piece was about why we should pay attention to poverty.   She said that might be all well and good, but if I was going to say that, then I should say what I thought "the most constructive actions" would be.  The thought never even dawned on me that anyone in Detroit might offer me a platform to declaim on what I think ought to be done.  I can assure you that I told her I would consider it an opportunity.  That's when it occurred to me that, you know, I've got this blog, and if anybody's interested, why couldn't I just set myself down and write right here about a few most constructive actions?  
          So I will set down here what I think the City of Detroit (and cities around the country) should do, but in making this declaration, I must stress that these are my views alone.  These are not the official views of the Homelessness Marathon, which has published its own "Declaration of Principles."  More important, the fact that I hold these views doesn't mean that these will be the only views presented on our broadcast.   I am in the minority.  I think anyone following discussions about homelessness in America will know that the positions I espouse, or positions akin to them, are gaining ground, but many guests on our broadcast, including many homeless people, probably will not fully share my views.
          So with that disclaimer, here is my six point plan for Detroit:

1 - First do no harm.  Stop causing evictions by shutting off water or anything else.  This freeze can be for a limited term, say a year, with the understanding that people will not be evicted again until there is some alternative plan in place for them.

2 - During the period of this eviction moratorium, the city should commission a study as to whether eviction is even cost effective.  This doesn't have to be some jackass commission that drones on interminably.  A good reporter could prepare a dossier on this in a month.  The queston is, what happens when people get evicted?  Do emergency room health care costs go up?  I believe that more than one study has shown that emergency room costs go down when homeless people are housed, so it stands to reason that emergency room costs go up when housed people are made homeless.  The costs of policing go up too as does the cost of remedial education for children made homeless in this way.  Knowing the relative costs involved doesn't alter the moral imperatives, but it may make them easier to attain, and beyond that, having a lot of, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" type discussions creates the misimpression that poverty issues are only of philosophic and not practical importance.  For all the City of Detroit knows (or pretty much any American city knows), it may be shooting itself in the financial foot every time it evicts someone.  Isn't it a no-brainer for the City to at least find out?

3 - Adopt a "Safe Address For Everyone" (SAFE) approach to municipal homelessness.  Leaving your own people to die in the streets so destroys the soul of a city that one wonders how anyone thinks Detroit can have a renaissance just by bringing in developers and walling off the rich part of town from everyone else.  These are the schemes of quick buck artists not civic boosters.  If anyone was asking me, I would say that Detroit should lead the nation by looking around and saying, "We've seen the results of people just watching out for themselves and we're not going to do it anymore."  Oh God, wouldn't I like to see it.  Detroit, you could be raising the torch of hope for our entire nation as surely as the Statue of Liberty beckoned to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

4 - Immediately implement SAFE policies, aimed at getting all of the homeless people into safe spaces. This work must begin immediately, because people are dying and it can't wait, so a great deal of the planning and cost analysis will have to be done on the fly.   A multiplicity of approaches will have to be tried.  In some places, tent cities can be erected (there's plenty of vacant land) with a central warming shelter for when it's too cold.  In some places, people can be moved into abandoned homes.  In some places, abandoned businesses can be turned into dormitories.  In some places the city can build a trailer park or pay landowners to host trailers.  In some places, apartments can be turned into group residences, and so on.

5 - Pay for getting everyone into a safe space.  There are lots of twists and turns to the question of how much this will cost, because, for one thing, it is not altogether clear that a SAFE policy will cost the city a cent.  Here are some reasons:

          - Getting everyone into a SAFE space will probably reduce emergency room costs, and the crime rate is likely to drop (though there would surely be policing costs involved with the new SAFE spaces -- whether tent cities, dormitories or whatever, these spaces should be treated as regular neighborhoods with regular patrols).

          - The City could open the door to volunteer labor.  If it wasn't for volunteer labor, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi wouldn't be nearly as rebuilt as it is.  People I talked with down there variously estimated the contribution of the volunteers at 80-95% of the help with housing construction.  There's a lot of people who would like to help rebuild Detroit, too, if they only knew what to do, and this would give them some direction.

          - A SAFE policy could bring business to Detroit.  I'm a New Yorker, and I must say that, as much as I love New York, it amazes me that all you had to do was sing a jingle about "I love New York, " and people came.  The adoption of a SAFE policy in Detroit would attract tourists who want to see the work in progress.  It would attract capital from private donors and foundations that want to be a part of this new development.  And Detroit will have succeeded in doing what every business-minded city in the country wants to do, which is to make itself stand out.  And what a way to stand out!  What better climate could there be for attracting business than to be the city where people are committed to taking care of each other and there's a new spirit of enthusiasm about the future?

If Detroit has to pay out some money at first or even in the long run to implement a SAFE policy, the City does have some budgetary resources it can apply.  Giving everyone a chance to survive is more important than filling minor potholes, and if most people feel that way, a few bumps on the road to a better city won't be so painful.  Detroit can also take money away from municipal expenditures on  permanent housing, because getting everyone into a safe space is more important than getting a few people into permanent housing, especially when, as is currently the case, a small amount of permanent housing is purchased at the cost of leaving thousands of people on the streets.  Most funding for permanent housing doesn't come from the city, though, but from the State and Federal governments.  The City of Detroit should be prepared to impound those monies and other Federal monies to fulfill SAFE goals.    
          The idea of impounding money may seem radical, but when it comes to allocations for the poor, it's old hat.  Cities around the country have many times just been unable to figure out how on earth to spend money intended for the homeless, and the unspent monies have then gone back into general funds so that they could be used for stuff like picking up garbage in rich neighborhoods.  During the Reagan Administration, when Sam Pierce was the head of HUD, ten or twenty billion dollars intended for low-income housing were siphoned off to build golf courses and shopping malls for rich Republican donors.  In that case, Pierce's deputy and others went to prison, but that's the exception to the rule.  More recently, Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, impounded roughly six hundred million dollars worth of Community Block Development Grant funds intended for post-Katrina low-income housing and spent it on expanding the port at Gulfport.  Well, he hasn't gone to jail, and I don't see anyone putting Dave Bing in jail either, if he reverses this process and impounds Federal monies intended for other uses and actually spends them on the poor.

6 - As everyone in Detroit is getting into some kind of SAFE space, Detroit should have a conversation with itself about what comes next.  The steps I have outlined here are only a start.

There you have it.  With beliefs like these, some people will think I probably can't walk and chew gum at the same time, and, unfortunately, they'd be right.  The last time I chewed gum it pulled a crown out, so I can't even chew it sitting down anymore.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Third Time Is The Charm?

I am back from my third visit to Detroit doing advance work for the upcoming broadcast.  I cut this visit short because my 88-year-old mother was hospitalized with pneumonia.  Without getting further into her condition, there is much that troubles me, and one result of this is the feeling of wanting this broadcast to be really, really good just in case it is the last one I ever get to tell my mother about or she gets to hear.
           I have already had the pleasure of telling her about one experience I had on this visit to Detroit that surely ranks with the greatest experiences of my life, but I will save it for the end of this entry.  It is not the one that stuck in my mind upon my departure.  What stuck in my mind was being at one of Detroit's two Capucin soup kitchens for a meeting of the Detroit Action Commonwealth.  The meeting was of about 100 or so of the organization's purported 1500 homeless members.
          When I came in, I asked one of my hosts just who was in this group, and I was told that many of the members were squatting in abandoned buildings, while some were in shelters or other arrangements.  What stuck in my mind was the announcement made during the meeting, by a member of the Capucin staff, that they would be taking up a collection for the people of Haiti and that some of the members would be getting checks at the beginning of the month and it would be good if people could make a contribution of a dollar or fifty cents.
           In one of the more inappropriate moments of my childhood, I remember a first or second grade teacher reading our class a story about some festival where everyone was supposed to brings gifts and lay them before a statue of Jesus, and a clockmaker made his greatest clock, but it was taken away by a rich noble who wanted it to be his gift, so the clockmaker just offered an apple and it was for that apple that the statue reached out its hand.  It was inappropriate, because that was not the sort of story that should have been read to a class of mixed faiths in, of all places, a heavily Jewish New York City elementary school, but nonetheless, I remembered that story at the Capucin Soup Kitchen and thought to myself that if there were any statues of Jesus around accepting gifts, those few dollars from the Detroit Action Commonwealth might well be what one of them would reach for -- for the heartfelt significance of the gift, I mean, not because I think Jesus wants the cash.
           Racing around Detroit, I had lots of other noteworthy experiences.  For example, I got to sit in on a planning meeting for the upcoming U.S. Social Forum (USSF), which will be bringing thousands of activists to Detroit in June.  I can't really talk about their plans, since some of them aren't official, much less public yet, but being there reinforced the feeling I have had for a while now that there's an anti-poverty movement in America that's getting ready to grab some attention, much the way the gay rights movement took off after Stonewall.
           The hardest thing to figure out isn't why it has come to this now but why it has come to this at all.  When you read, for example, how they imprisoned the suffragettes and force fed them brutally when they went on a hunger strike in prison, all you can think is, "Why?"  As far as America's homeless policy goes, you can save yourself decades of waiting and ask "Why?" right now.  It ain't like it's likely to look any better in 100 years.
          The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) had me on their television show which is on a local UHF station and, thus, also on various cable systems around the city.  Maureen and Marianne, were the two hosts from the MWRO and they must have built up a loyal following, because calls came in quickly.  I probably should have something intelligent to say about the on-air discussion, but actually, I think Maureen and Marianne must rate their guests by whether or not they know a fraction as much as the two of them know already, so I can only hope I contributed something.  It was fun, for sure, and I found myself in a strange confrontation with the monitor.
           I'm a radio person, and even when I've been on TV, I haven't been in a position to see myself in real time, but at this studio, they had a monitor directly in front of us.  All I could think about was my propensity for talking with my hands, which might be a bit quirky for a radio host, but which, I thought, looked really silly on television.  So after a little while watching my hands flashing on the monitor like a a couple of bloated butterflies loose in the studio, I tried to be good and keep them folded in front of me on the table we were all sitting at, but it quickly became impossibly confining, like I was trying to keep my composure while sitting on a hot iron.  Finally, I just said to heck with it and went natural.  No one complained.  Nonetheless, I don't covet a television career.
          This visit to Detroit wasn't all fun and games, though.  There was a sensitive situation with our host station, WHFR in Dearborn, that had to be resolved.  Those folks have been great to us, so I was surprised that an issue came up at all, and the fact that it did says all kinds of things, I think, about Detroit. What happened was that I distributed a press release. It's the same one posted on the Homelessness Marathon's website, but for convenience, I will reproduce it here:


will interview losers in the global economy and ask why Detroit doesn’t care for its own.
The 13th Annual Homelessness Marathon will originate from Detroit, MI, starting at 7pm, ET, on Tues., Feb. 23rd and running overnight until 9am, Weds., Feb. 24, 2010.
At any given moment, there are at least 13,000 to 14,000 homeless people in Detroit, of whom 60% are families with children.  Shelters there cannot keep up (in 2002, well before the current economic crisis, the shortfall was already estimated at 7500 beds per night), and the situation is completely out of control.   For example, Alternatives For Girls, a Detroit non-profit that tries to keep homeless young women between the ages of 15 and 20 from a life on the streets, reports that last year it had to turn away 800 otherwise qualified candidates for shelter because no beds were available.
Worse yet, the framers of Detroit’s “10 Year Plan To End Homelessness,” acknowledge that their plan will not accomplish its stated purpose.  The plan’s “Expected Ten Year Outcomes” include, “Increased funding dedicated to long-term solutions,” and “Increased numbers… moving…into permanent housing,” but there is no expectation that homelessness in Detroit will actually come to an end.   In other words, Detroit’s plan to end homelessness is actually a plan to leave thousands of people on the streets!
          “We chose Detroit,” explains the Homelessness Marathon’s founder, Jeremy Weir Alderson, “because it is the center of America’s meltdown.  American jobs were shipped abroad with nothing in place for the American workers who were losing them.  Surely the American people ought to look at what created this social disaster and ask if the nation might not be better served on a different course.”
The broadcast will originate from 12025 Woodrow Wilson St. in Detroit, a building in the Cass Community Social Services complex.  Homeless people will be gathered there so that they can speak directly to the nation.  The broadcast will also feature the voices of diverse experts, callers from around the country and, if possible, politicians.
WHFR, 89.3 FM in Dearborn, Michigan, the radio station of Henry Ford Community College, will be the on-air host of the broadcast.  Other participating Detroit area radio stations will include WHPR, 88.1 FM, in Highland Park, Michigan, and CJAM, 91.5 FM in Windsor, Ontario.
The Homelessness Marathon will also air on around 100 American radio stations and will be simulcast, in part, over the 45 or so Canadian radio stations carrying a parallel Canadian Homelessness Marathon, now entering its eighth year.  The broadcast will be made available to stations free of charge over the Public Radio Satellite System, the Pacifica satellite Ku-band and through a webcast.
More information about the Homelessness Marathon, including schedules and sound clips from previous broadcasts, can be found at: http://www.homelessnessmarathon.org/.
Acclaim for the Homelessness Marathon can be found at:  http://homelessnessmarathon.org/2008/09/thank-yous-acclaim.html

                                                         -- 30 --

          Let me begin by pointing out that press releases are supposed to be a bit provocative, and that while you might say I am a lousy writer, a poor provoker, and an all-around jackass to boot -- none of which would I argue over -- you can't say that this release in any way resembles, "J'Accuse."   By the standards of the Homelessness Marathon itself, this was pretty tepid.
          For our tenth Marathon, I issued a release that read, "'We picked Fresno... partly because of the extraordinary cruelty with which homeless people are being treated there."
          For the 11th Marathon, I penned the immortal words, "We must never forget that Nashville, like the rest of the country and especially the South, once embraced the cause of slavery, and it was the powerful folks, not the powerless ones, who brought that shame upon the city."
          For the 12th Marathon I wrote, "Contrary to the claims of politicians that post-Katrina (and Rita, Gustav and Ike) reconstruction has gone well, it has actually been a disaster... Thousands of destitute elderly and disabled Katrina survivors in Mississippi, along with single parents and their children, may soon be put out on the streets as their temporary housing is taken away."
           For all of those releases put together, I got only one complaint, from FEMA, saying that it did not have any plans to evict anyone, and that they didn't even have an eviction procedure.  They were lying, though, and a few months later they began evicting people (I am given to understand that they pulled back only after lawsuits started getting filed.)
           I got a much more heartfelt negative reaction to the release about Detroit.  Some of the people associated with WHFR -- which is the station of Henry Ford Community College, not some lefty cooperative -- were concerned that the first few lines of the release seemed to be blaming Detroit.  To me, it seems self-evident that, if you've got thousands of people sleeping on the streets, you're not taking care of your own, but apparently people felt it was like I was criticizing their best efforts.
           One person even said it was like I was criticizing Mitch Albom, who is known nationally for such books as, "The Five People You Meet In Heaven," and locally as a WJR talk host who is involved with trying to help homeless people.  In point of fact, I had already invited Albom to be a guest host, though thus far he has not responded, and besides that, I regularly praise the good spirit of the American people.  I'm a big pontificator (don't knock it until you've tried it), and I love to intone, "In this country we've got a failure of our leadership, not our people." .
           Questions were also apparently raised by some of WHFR's friends about who is this guy, coming in from the outside and stirring things up?  Mind you, this was all very friendly.  The station isn't responsible for everything I say, and no one ever even hinted that they might withdraw support for the broadcast, but be that as it may, I was surprised to get this reaction.
          Maybe I was careless in drafting the release, but I had the feeling I was encountering something I didn't quite know what it was.  I sought to find out by asking Linda Lash, the director of community services for the UAW if she saw anything offensive in the release, and she didn't, but she hadn't had any reason to pass it on to a lot of people the way WHFR did.  Maureen from the MWRO told me that she didn't see anything objectionable about it either, but she did allow that when she had passed it on, some of her people had also asked questions about who I was.      
I asked Maureen why she thought these questions were coming in, and she said that this was because too many people had come to Detroit to exploit its suffering.  Some people felt that even Jesse Jackson had passed the hat and left town, so now they're skeptical.
          I began to divine that there are differences in the Detroit mindset from other cities we've  been in, and the first part of it I would call, "The Buffalo Blues."  I live in upstate New York, and we all get snow, but Buffalo is the city that is always the butt of jokes about it.  I think the people there would probably just as soon not be getting all this attention, and in a much more serious way, I think Detroit suffers from some of that.      Many cities have widespread poverty, but Detroit's problems seem to have gotten a lot more negative attention in the media.  Time/CNN has even set up a special Detroit office, like its a bathysphere descending into some exotic world instead of a regular U.S. city.
           The whole "poor Detroit" scenario is, at root, counterproductive.  Detroit doesn't need a pity party, which will produce nothing (what have they gotten for all the sympathy sent their way so far?).  What Detroit needs is a national government determined to address the problems of America.   Of course, that's just me talking, but a government that, for example, passed legislation to help our cities, would automatically be helping Detroit, even if Detroit was never specifically singled out.  In such a scenario, Detroit would be getting help but not attention.  As it is now, I think Detroit must feel like it's getting attention but not help.
          I am so far from being an expert on Detroit that my ramblings on this subject may amount to nothing more than the chronicle of my ignorance, but you know, fools rush in, and at this moment of my understanding, I do sense other dynamics to Detroit's psychology.   One other thing I think I may be seeing is what I would call, "Schindler's List Syndrome," in which people save who they can save, but don't try to take on the big picture of what's gone wrong.
          The Homelessness Marathon crew did a special half-hour show, as a first edition of what we hope will one day be a weekly program about poverty.  In it, we ran my own report from my last visit to Detroit, and in that report, I interviewed several shelter operators who were perfectly candid in saying that the local homelessness situation is completely out of control.  They don't think for a second that their collective efforts are adequately filling the need, but at the same time, you don't see a lot of millitancy.
           The situation is so bad that Detroit activists told me they had supported Dave Bing for mayor, even though they opposed his policies, because they thought that, at least, he would be an honest man.  That kind of desperation has got to hurt the pride of a once-great city.  I'm not so sure that Detroit isn't still great, but it's current docility is hard to figure.  Is there a feeling of, "We rioted in '67, and after that, everything just went to hell, so we've learned our lesson and we don't want to make waves anymore?"  I wonder if that could be a part of it, but I really don't know.
            I do know that the powerlessness in Detroit runs deeper than not having anyone to vote for.  The MWRO points out that people are being driven from their homes by water shut-offs and that the city controls the water.  In other words, the City of Detroit, itself, is forcing people into homelessness.  So far, the MWRO has been unable to stop the city from evicting people, so the chances of getting the City of Detroit to end homelessness altogether seem pretty slim.
          There may also be a particularly ironic element in Detroit's peculiar psychology.  I think part of the reason that I got strange reactions to what I said about Detroit actually could be because more people care.  That's the funny flip-side of things, where as they get worse they get better.  My gut feeling is that the problem in Detroit isn't that nobody cares but that everybody cares.  Maybe some of my earlier press releases didn't arouse negative reactions because the people who might have reacted didn't care enough to pay attention.  In Detroit, maybe it's that most everybody is genuinely concerned, and even if they don't know what to do, they are all paying attention.
          When I shared my thought that there might be a peculiar mindset in Detroit with Faith Fowler, the reverend who runs Cass Community Social Services, our host on the ground, she just laughed and made some comment along the lines of I had "discovered America."  That's pretty much how everybody has reacted when I've brought it up.  Regardless of how rudimentary my understanding of it may be, the Detroiters themselves seem to think their city lives in a special psychological space.
          I can't say, though, that that special psychological space extends to the management of WDET, Detroit's main NPR station.  They act like their allegiance isn't to Detroit, but to a more general NPR mindset, a mindset which I am just plain sick of.
          By way of illustration, I will tell you that, a couple of years ago, NPR switched to a new system by which affiliated stations could access content on the Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS).  They came up with this thing called "Content Depot," which works through a website.  It's kind of a big pain in the neck, but I guess it's better for the stations than the old system.  As I am a producer who distributes a show via the PRSS, I've got a password for Content Depot.  Like other producers, I enter my show in the on-line catalog and hope that stations will subscribe.  The Content Depot web site is designed to help program directors  search for shows.  Stations can enter terms into a search engine and come up with a list of programming which matches the keywords.
          In other words, when you enter a search term in the Content Depot search engine, you are searching through the information provided by every single show that uses the PRSS, and there's a lot of them, including many syndicated weekly and even daily shows (you may also pull up ancillary materials like promos for these shows).  The system is still kind of new, but the records go back at least three years.
          The "Homelessness Marathon" broadcasts only once a year, plus we've done one special over the PRSS.   Yet when you enter the term "Homelessness" on the Content Depot search engine, the first nine entries that come up are generated by the Homelessness Marathon.  I find this shocking and pretty much indicative of what's wrong with NPR.
          The simple fact of the matter is that NPR broadcasters don't act like they really care about the hundreds of thousands of homeless people who are struggling to survive in America every day.  I've kind of been pissed with NPR about this for a long time, and I've done some research.
            A few years ago, I made an experiment with a different NPR search engine, the one on their website for the public.   There you could enter a search of everything that was carried on an official NPR show, like "Talk of the Nation" or "Morning Edition."  That's a lot less than what is carried on the PRSS, which also carries scads of specials and syndicated shows.  But a search of the public site, though smaller in scope, focuses more precisely on programming that NPR itself has created.   In 2002, this search engine of NPR's inner core yielded 30 hits for "homelessness," the exact same number of hits you got for "Martha Stewart" and "Jewelry."  "Aliens" had 188 stories, "Dogs" had 212 and "Fish" had 490.
          Let me state for the record, that I have not always been of good temper or good attitude, and I don't want to make light of my anger at NPR from any perspective.  In my own personal case, there is a great deal of room for improvement in terms of how I approach things, and I will not present myself here as a white knight battling the forces of evil.  Sometimes, I am just an angry person, but fortunately, at least, sometimes I get angry at the right people.  So, leaving aside my imperfect nature as a messenger, what do these numbers say about NPR?
          You know, to me, it seems like NPR ought to be critical of itself.  I often say that the only thing they're good at is pretension, so I am probably not the right one to comment on this, but just the same, aren't they the network that has the show "All Things Considered?"  How are they "considering"  "all things" when fish get their attention 16 times more than homeless people?  Actually, it's a little worse than that, because the precise term "homeless people" got only 27 hits, but in any case, are fish stories more important than human stories?                      
And why has it been left to the likes of me to bring this up?
          Mind you, I am still just getting warmed up to what I don't like about WDET, but first let me tell you another thing I don't like about NPR.  I have to deal with the part of NPR called the NOC, or "Network Operations Center."  It just so happens that I really like the folks down there.  They are total professionals.  I'm sure they do make mistakes, but I've never seen one.  So far as I know, they're everything we used to think of NASA, except that is, on the top administrative level, which, perhaps, better resembles what we learned about NASA after the Challenger disaster.
           The NOC is where you send your signal, especially if you are doing a live show.  The analogy with NASA is especially apt, because they take your signal and put it up "on the bird," which is to say that they uplink it to their satellite channel, from whence it is downlinked by dish antennas at NPR affiliates around the country.  The problem is that before they can uplink your signal, you have to send it to them, and they are the ones who determine how that will be done.  You have very little choice in the matter.
           Once upon a time, there were several independent uplinks that could send stuff to the satellite, but around the time when the PRSS switched over to Content Depot, it also abolished the independent uplinks, so there's no one you can deal with now but the aparatchiks of NPR's one-party fiefdom.   And guess what.  These aparatchiks decided that they would design their operation to accommodate rich broadcasters while disaccommodating, shall we say, the poor ones.
           The technology of radio is evolving quickly, but just three or four years ago, you had three basic ways of transmitting your signal to the NOC, which, just to confuse matters, was called the STC back then.  You could send them your signal via satellite, so they would be downlinking it from wherever you sent it from before uplinking it again for distribution to the NPR system.   That's the gold standard, and NPR was well equipped to receive signals in this way.  The next most expensive thing you could do was transmit your signal using ISDN lines, which are special electronic data transmisison lines, and that pretty much exhausts my technical knowledge on the subject (I am the Ted Baxter of our operation).  What I do know is that you need an expensive device to send an ISDN signal and that the lines themselves are expensive.  NPR was well equipped to handle these transmissions too.
          The cheap technology involved using a POTS line.  POTS stands for "Plain Old Telephone Service."  The devices you needed to send signals over telephone lines were a lot cheaper than the ISDN devices and the lines themselves are ubiquitous and inexpensive.  The only problem is that NPR is not equipped to receive these signals.  The head of operations at NPR Distribution explained to me once that there were too many kinds of POTS devices to be able to receive all of the different kinds of transmissions people might demand of them.  At the time he spoke, though, one manufacturer was advertising a POTS device that was compatible with more than 90% of the other POTS devices on the market.
          To this day, we use a POTS device as our back-up means of transmission, and to this day we have to send the NOC a sister device for our dedicated use, because otherwise they just don't have this equipment.  By the way, our primary device these days facilitates transmission over the internet, which has been a game changer in radio just has it has been in so many other ways.  Before I leave this topic, I want to mention that NPR Distribution once sent around a letter that they were looking for consumers of their services to sit on some panel or board.  I wrote in saying I wanted to be considered for one of those positions, but I never received any acknowledgment.
          Another point about NPR is that, though they cultivate an image of people who pinch the pennies donated to them, they're pretty good at gorging from the trough.  In 2002, their five highest-paid staffers (four of whom were corporate marketers) were making from$191,299 to $242,411, while their president made $228,322 plus $76,665 for expenses.  To put that in perspective, those people earned more than the entire operating expenses, including the GM's salary, of the radio station that launched the Homelessness Marathon plus the cost of every broadcast the Homelessness Marathon has ever done.  Some folks at the affiliates were compensated even more generously..  In 1999 or, maybe it was 2000, Laura Walker, the president and CEO of WNYC in New York City, made $361,119.
          Personally,  I've never been paid a cent for doing the Homelessness Marathon, and the most we've ever paid anyone for a broadcast was $500.  That went to engineers before we had engineers who would do it for free.  In the last couple of years, I've taken to paying a couple of people $250 for their weeks of work, so as to limit their loss of money for the time they put in, especially leaving other work to come to the broadcast site.  I've told them I'd like to give them $500 this year.
          I've had very good relations with NPR folks further from the centers of power, but not so much with the ones from big cities.  Take Mikel Elcessor, the general manager of WDET.
          I first contacted him when he was the PD (program director) of WNYC in New York City.  We had a leisurely process during which I tried to introduce him to the Marathon, I sent him a packet, and I tried to soothe him into taking an hour or two as a trial.  I complimented him on how open and fair he was and he complimented me on how patient and considerate I was.  Then I accidentally caught him in a meeting and, under the pressure of the moment, he just basically said no-way-no-how would WNYC ever run any portion of our broadcast.
          This time I wrote him a letter and offered, essentially, to let his station develop its own hour within the structure of the Marathon.  They could send their own hosts to interview the homeless people we'd have on site.  They could send their own engineers.  And they didn't have to carry any hour of the broadcast besides the one they were originating.  I did not receive the courtesy of a reply to this invitation.
             I've always said that I don't care if stations take our show, but I do care if they cover homelessness.  After Elcessor turned his nose up at us, I got to wondering just how much other coverage of homelessness WDET was doing, and just how much Elcessor was getting paid.
          I filed a Freedom of Information request with Wayne State University, which owns WDET, and according to Wayne State, Elcessor gets a compensation package worth a little over $180,000, which isn't bad for one of the most impoverished cities in the country.  The funny thing, though, is that they don't want to tell me how much coverage they've done of homelessness.  First they told me that the labor of identifying the appropriate documentation and the costs of copying it would come to $687.59.  Then, when I asked them just to give me the number of minutes of news and public affairs programming they had done, without the documentation, they refused, saying that "the Michigan Freedom of Information Act 'does not require a public body to make a compilation, summary or report of information' that is not kept in the ordinary course of business."  Of course, if such a summary is not kept in the ordinary course of business at WDET, what they're saying is that they have no idea how much programming they've done on homelessness and would consider it out of the ordinary to even figure it out.
          Still, we can get some indication of how Mikel Elcessor views the problem of homelessness by looking at his record from WNYC.  In 2007 -- when Elcessor was PD and, by the way, CEO Laura Walker's salary and benefits had risen to $486,688 -- WNYC ran ten stories on homelessness.  At least, that's how many come up on their search engine (WDET doesn't have a search engine on its site).  These stories had seemingly contradictory titles like, "City Begins Turning Away Homeless Families," and "City Provides Essential Services to the Homeless."
          That same year, WNYC ran nine stories on fish, including, "The Zen of Fish," and "Kid Safe Seafood."  Hmmm.  Ten stories on homeless people versus nine stories on fish.  Those were the station's priorities when Mikel Elcessor was directing its programming, the same Mikel Elcessor who couldn't be bothered to answer my invitation to originate an hour of the Homelessness Marathon.
          Since I started filing Freedom of Information requests with Wayne State and, I must admit, sending sometimes hostile e-mails (e.g., I sent one to Elcessor that ended, "Shame.  Shame.  Shame."), WDET all-of-a-sudden announced that it was doing some kind of homeless awareness week.  From what I heard, it didn't amount to much, just five minutes three times a day, and one has to suspect it was only whipped up to counter anything bad I might say about them in public, should I choose to raise this issue.
           I am still researching WDET, in case this does turn into a pubic spat, but I don't really want to get into a fight with them, certainly not over being snubbed by Mikel Elcessor.  If all the people who've ever snubbed me attended a convention, they'd have to walk all over the place just to run into anyone they knew.  I am more concerned with the issue of mass media ignoring the poor, but I don't think it's for me to raise this issue regarding WDET, since it would have the appearance of being just something I was doing to promote our broadcast.  I think it is a better issue to bequeath to the USSF, when it arrives in Detroit in June.
          In any case, to return to where I began, that announcement at the Capucin soup kitchen didn't happen by accident.  It was created with some leadership, not least from the Capucins, whose spokesman at the meeting said they were following the teachings of St. Francis.  Not least from the homeless people themselves, who seem serious about this effort.  And not least from Greg Markus, a professor at Wayne State who introduces himself as having studied organizing with the same guy Obama did.  He obviously inspires people, including students and ex-students who attended the meeting and were just as attractive and sincere as idealists at the beginning of adulthood could possibly be.
          The irony is that, in Greg Markus, Wayne State actually has an asset when it comes to public relations about homelessness.  Any problem that might arise for Wayne State, should it ultimately be revealed that WDET turned its back on the poorest-of-the-poor, could be offset by saying look, here's someone else from the university and see the excellent work he's doing.  I will happily make that point for them.  Now I wish they'd do something for me and inspire those malfeasant broadcasters of theirs to give a damn about something besides their own wallets.
          Finally, let me tell you about my once-in-a-lifetime experience.  In Detroit, at the age of sixty, I played my very first gig as a singer-songwriter.  This is something I've been working towards for many, many years, and I was fortunate enough to find, at my wife's urging, a mentor who encouraged me that it was time for my songs to get out.  So I called up the COTS shelter and volunteered to put on a performance, leaving out the part about it being my first one.  The response I got from Didra Farr, their spirited shelter director, made it immediately clear that the bar wasn't going to be set very high.  She more than anything wanted to be sure that I wouldn't be like the last two volunteer performers, who had made appointments but hadn't shown up or even called to say they wouldn't be there.  
          When the moment for my performance arrived, I walked into the room, fortunate to have the company of Lynn Grunst, the program director of WHFR accompanying me.  The crowd filed in, and it consisted of maybe 50 - 75 people, including both sexes and some children.  All but two were black and, of course, it flashed through my mind that maybe my repertoire was all wrong for this, but in fact, it couldn't have gone any better.  I'm sure they would have been well disposed towards any live entertainment, but I also thought they liked me. They even cheered several times during my 45-minute set.  It was like losing my virginity with Marilyn Monroe.