The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


4 Comments

The Housing Segregation Conundrum

6749719201_b214b81c14_z

I live in a city that is often called “the most racially segregated city in America.” I’ve heard a few different definitions of what that means but the best one explains that in no other city in America does black so thoroughly and consistenly mean “poor,” and white so thoroughly and consistently equate with “middle class or wealthy.” I think about segregation and it’s complicated cousin, gentrification, a fair amount, especially as they relate to housing and homelessness. I see the neighborhoods where my clients–who are almost all African American–end up living and they are filled with other poor African Americans living in run-down houses with few businesses nearby. Then I look at my own neighborhood which is mostly white, with a bit better housing stock and far more vibrant local businesses. The worst crime that happens in my neighborhood is theft and drunk driving. In my clients’ neighborhoods, it is assault, rape and murder. This is the general picture, not the exact details of every block, but the general picture is bleak and clearly segregated.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times rans this op-ed by Thomas Edsall entitled “Where Should a Poor Family Live?” In it, Edsall questions what he calls the “poverty housing industry” for its maintenance of the status quo–keeping poor people in poor neighborhoods instead of moving them into wealthier areas which theoretically offer greater opportunity. He asks, “Should federal dollars go toward affordable housing within high-poverty neighborhoods, or should subsidies be used to move residents of impoverished communities into more upscale–and more resistant–sections of cities and suburbs with better schools and job opportunities?”

Edsall mostly talks about federal subsidies that come through Low Income Housing Tax Credits (which widely enable most affordable housing corporations to build and maintain their developments), although his arguments could also be extended to public housing. In essence, Edsall is raising an immensely challenging, but highly relevant question for today’s cities and towns: Should public and private anti-poverty efforts (in this case, affordable housing) focus on uplifting the neighborhoods where poverty exists, or removing poor people from those neighborhoods altogether? Continue reading


4 Comments

I Will Build This

100715_Uitvinders_Zeehelden 130

After four years working in the field of homelessness prevention, I’ve zeroed in on one big way to help end homelessness. It isn’t education and it isn’t a shelter. (I’ve written before about why shelters are not the solution.) It’s something more attainable and concrete.

I have many dreams (to create an Oscar-winning documentary, to become a bluegrass singer, for example) but the one I am focusing all my efforts towards and shaping my goals around is this: to build high-quality, truly affordable housing as a lasting solution to homelessness.

The “Solutions” That Don’t Work

Why is affordable housing an important solution to homelessness? In short, because welfare is unsustainable and inadequate, and because the minimum wage will take too long to go up. These “solutions” to homelessness don’t work. Let me explain. When I encounter a homeless family that has been referred to the rapid rehousing program at my organization, one of the first things I look at is their income. I will use that to figure out what sort of payments they can make towards rent now, and what sort of apartment they might be able to afford after our subsidy ends. Most clients are either getting by on welfare checks, Social Security Income (because of a serious mental or physical disability that prevents them from working), child support (with payments ranging from $2-$50 a month, i.e. negligible) or wages from a job. Everyone is also receiving SNAP benefits (i.e. food stamps).

So, let’s discuss these potential income streams for accessing housing. Continue reading


2 Comments

What’s in a homeless person’s bag?

photo (1)

If you’re a lady, or you read lady magazines, you’ve undoubtedly come across the “What’s in my bag?” trope. In it, a celebrity or fashion blogger displays and discusses the contents of her purse including favorite brands of lipstick, fancy wallets and so on. I want to share something in the same vein, but with a goal that is entirely different from introducing you to a new make up company. Today I want you to understand a little bit of what it’s like to be homeless in America.

I work at one homeless shelter and volunteer at another because, among the issues that are present in cities, I believe homelessness is one of the most serious, and one that must be addressed before I feel I can start working on things like better parks or mixed use developments. Of course, many of these assets go hand in hand with ending homelessness, but right now I am focusing on the root cause. In my day to day, as much as it feels awkward and uncomfortable, I am often privy to the contents of homeless and low-income individuals’ bags. Whether they are unloading their items as they check in each night at the shelter (in which they literally have to remove everything from their purses) or just sifting through their bags to find a document that will allow them to sign up for food at the pantry downstairs, I’ve noticed a few items that show up consistently. I’m not revealing anyone’s personal information here, just hoping to give you a sense of what a homeless woman (or man) must often carry around with her every single day.

As you read over these items, consider the weight of them—literally and figuratively. What would it feel like to carry these items around with you every day? Consider also, how these items are not so different from what a wealthier woman might have in her purse, yet serve different or additional purposes.

So, what’s in her bag?

Every important document she possesses — The first thing to know is that when you’re homeless, you are constantly in need of documentation. You have to show it to the shelter where you’re hoping to get a bed. You have to show it to the cop who tells you you’ve been sitting on that park bench for too long. You have to show it when you arrive at the government office to sign up for food stamps. Not only do you need your own social security card, ID, and birth certificate, but you need the documents for all your children and any other relatives that might be with you. You carry it constantly in a folder, or sometimes in a plastic bag in case of rain. We’re not talking about making sure you have your driver’s license in your pocket. We’re talking about every important document mapping out your entire life, carried with you at all times.

Cell phone and charger — If you see a homeless person with a cell phone, you might initially think it’s a frivolous expense, but actually it’s one of the most important items to have if you’re without a permanent residence. Thankfully, most homeless individuals I have met in this country do figure out a way to afford a phone. Unfortunately, whereas homeless individuals could probably make better use of a smartphone than anyone else (being able to look up directions to a food pantry, respond to emails for job interviews, etc.) it’s rare that I come across anyone with an iphone or android in my line of work. Still, those trusty cell phones will help people through many a tough situation, and provide a way to connect to family who may be far away.

Make up — Everyone wants to look his or her best, including people who are struggling to get their basic needs met. She will undoubtedly have job interviews or meetings with social workers where she wishes to present herself in a certain light, and make up can really help with that. Access to basic hygiene is a huge issue for homeless people. Imagine not being able to feel clean each morning by taking a shower, or not being able to afford deoderant when you run out, or not having access to a bathroom when you need to change your tampon (there was recently an enlightening article about that topic in the Huffington Post). Not only are you without the safety and comfort of a permanent home, but you also lack the amenities of a permanent home. Make up is a small way to take strides in the direction of personal hygiene and dignity.  

Tissues and napkins Similarly, having tissues or napkins with you (probably grabbed from a cafeteria or soup kitchen) can be an important way to keep clean. If your days are not spent inside a home or office or school, you’re likely on the streets or moving from place to place, anywhere that will allow you to hang out. There’s only so many times you can use the bathroom at a mall or McDonald’s before someone tells you to “move along.” I wrote about the need for better public access to restrooms in this post, but until that time, tissues will likely be found in the bags of homeless people.  

Candy, condiment packets, other small food items — When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, every little bit helps. Whether it’s a Snickers bar you bought for a dollar from a vending machine or even some condiment packets you grabbed from the checkout line at the deli, keeping forms of sustenance with you is vital. A homeless person cannot just head for her kitchen cabinet when she gets hungry for a snack. Furthermore, for homeless individuals who experience illnesses like diabetes, having food available can mean life or death.

A few cigarettes — You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who has so little money spend her precious dollars on expensive, unhealthy products like cigarettes? In fact, there are several reasons. First, if you were a smoker before you became homeless, its unlikely that in the midst of all you’re undergoing—what with trying to find housing and income and support—you’re going to decide that that’s the right time to try to quit smoking. It would likely only add to your stress. Second, when you’re undergoing the trauma of being without a home, probably juggling a few children, managing a health issue, trying to keep it all together—it’s natural to want a momentary stress reliever. These are two reasons why you might find cigarettes in a woman’s bag.

So, there’s a look into the life of a homeless American. Think about the weight of it. Think also, about how it’s not so different from what a wealthier person might have in his or her purse, but everything serves a much more life-and-death purpose. You’re not carrying around lipstick so you can freshen up on the way to a date; you’re carrying around lipstick because it’s a minute way to make yourself feel presentable for a job interview that could dramatically change the course of your life. You’re not bringing along a candy bar in case you get hungry in between the gym and your dinner plans, you have that candy bar for when you can’t make it to the soup kitchen in between doctors’ appointments and food stamp sign-ups, and you’re facing a night without supper.

Homelessness directly impacted more than 600,000 Americans last year, many of them children. That’s equal to the entire population of Washington, DC. I hope this post gave you a small sense of how homelessness is both normal, and not so normal, for many Americans–women, men, white people, black people, children, seniors and more.


Leave a comment

Milwaukee, WI: The City That Contradicts Itself

Milwaukee's Third Ward in Winter

My boyfriend and I have this debate about his hometown. He’s tired of it, ready to get out soon, disgruntled by the vast majority of its bro-y residents, and skeptical about its insurmountable segregation. Meanwhile I relish every opportunity I can to adventure in Milwaukee (and not just because he’s there). I’ve visited enough times now to have a favorite breakfast spot, a favorite neighborhood, a favorite park and a favorite corned beef sandwich (of course!), but I think what fascinates me most about Milwaukee is that it is a city of urban contradictions. It’s established and exciting enough to draw a national audience, and yet the population is mostly Wisconsinites. It’s an attractive, inviting city in many regards, and yet it’s still widely affordable to live in. It’s got a progressive sensibility and a fairly successful economy, and yet it’s the most segregated metro-area in the nation. These contradictions make Milwaukee a captivating case study and an important city to pay attention to as other Midwestern cities rise and fall (here’s looking to you Detroit). It’s a hidden gem, with some dark secrets.

First, what’s attractive about this place? Milwaukee has incredible assets: a gorgeous lakefront, high-quality public transit, hundreds of affordable and delicious local food options, proximity to other important cities like Chicago and Madison (and rail transit to these as well), plus local industries to be proud of like world-famous beer factories and incredible cheese companies. Talk about products that we’ll always have a demand for! Moreover, Milwaukee does all this with not an ounce of pretension or snob. It’s the friendly guy from down the block that your parents will definitely approve of when you bring him over for dinner (but he secretly has a motorcycle).

It surprises me, then, that more people haven’t figured out how cool this place is and driven the prices up for the rest of us. I think it’s the Midwest curse—if you’ve never actually stopped in the “flyover states,” you have no idea what you’re missing out on. Outsiders think the Midwest is just mountains of snow, plates of hotdish* and caricatured accents, but the truth is, it is far more nuanced and diverse. Then again, maybe people aren’t moving to Milwaukee because its industries aren’t flashy enough; it is not home to any health care conglomerates, famous nonprofits or big banks—just the Harley Davidson factory, a slew of beer companies and the small bits-and-pieces manufacturing that this nation is built on.

Yet another possible reason for why Milwaukee isn’t quite as popular as it could be is that it’s got serious competition in nearby cities like Chicago, Madison, and even Minneapolis. Why would you move to Milwaukee—a town of 600,000—when you could live in Chicago—a metropolis of 2.7 million? Answer: Because you might actually be able to afford it. It’s utterly strange to walk through a pleasant neighborhood with lovely, old houses in close proximity to a downtown and find out that they aren’t all $1 million. It’s equally strange to see a handful of warehouses converted into trendy condos, but dozens of warehouses still being used for their original purpose.

IMG_1164

What’s more, Milwaukee isn’t gentrifying—or at least, not nearly to the degree of other similar metro areas. You hear rumblings about this or that development, but for the most part, the transitions are happening to vacant buildings and empty lots. A revitalization of the city is good news and I think gentrification here is minor enough that it can be stopped before it prices anyone out of their neighborhoods. Sure, a few people are starting to move into neighborhoods where they hadn’t formerly lived, and new businesses are cropping up in previously exclusively-residential areas, but that should be heralded as good news. Continue reading


3 Comments

Concepts of Homelessness: Interview with Abbilyn Miller

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about homelessness: society’s views of homeless people and their needs, our faulty shelter system, and how we might move toward better solutions. Today, I share an interview with Abby Miller, who works for the Housing and Urban Development Agency in Washington DC, and who authored the thesis I talked about a couple weeks ago. Her unique insights into popular conceptions of homelessness and how they affect policy have truly changed the way I understand home and homeless people. And her work is based on years of on-the-ground research.

In case you find terminology in this interview that you’re unfamiliar with, please consult the Urban Lexicon. I added some definitions pertaining specifically to housing and the federal government. Important disclaimer: All views shared in this interview are Abby’s personal opinions and do not represent the opinions of the Housing and Urban Development Agency.

abbylin_miller_laugh

Q: So, Abby, what have you been up to since finishing your PhD?

A: I’ve been working at HUD. I started out in Office of Strategic Planning and Management, working on HUD’s homelessness goals. Shortly after that, I continued working on those goals during a rotation* to the Philadelphia field office, working in Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. I got to see some of the very real barriers to getting better housing there. Then I came back to DC.

Q: What’s it like working for the Federal Government after operating on the local level during your PhD program?

A: I expected to come here [the Federal Government] and not really find a place for thinking about the stuff that I was thinking about and researching [in Champaign, IL], because I spent so much time with individuals who are really outside of the government funded system, the guys who are not really able to work with transitional housing programs. I saw coming to HUD as […] filling out a different part of the work.

Q: Have you seen any of your ideas being implemented back in Champaign where you did your thesis work?

A: The tent city dissolved while I was working, but I continued with my advocacy and I taught a class that worked with the tent city. It was an iterative class, an action-research course for upper level students to dive into a project. After the tent city dissolved, I had the students building bodies of evidence to make cases to the city council for the types of housing stock that we didn’t have in our community. One of the things we didn’t have was any apartments with a Housing First approach.

Across the US there has been a persistent increase in the amount of permanent supportive housing and a steady to slight decrease in transitional housing, but our community did not follow that trend at all. We had over 400 beds for single men and they all had sobriety requirements. They were getting transitional housing funding from the federal government but the housing was set up like shelters […] There was a total mismatch with what people actually needed —affordable housing and affordable housing with services. So seeing this gap, I worked with my students to put together a report that we pitched to the Champaign and Urbana governments and tried to get some people hooked.

Q: Have you seen any of your ideas being implemented at the federal level?

A: Since I came here, my current boss thinks about space. She thinks about what something feels like. Something [else] I’ve been really encouraged by […] is a Medicaid final rule on home and community-based services. Medicaid has this program that allows states to apply for waivers so that health services can be provided in the home instead of in institutions. In the final rule, they actually define what a home […] is. This is the first time I’ve seen the federal government saying, “A locked door is a home. Freedom from a landlord coming into your space is home.” These are actual qualitative elements of what makes something a home [ …] For me, it was really powerful to read because a lot of the elements they talk about in this are elements that I found people wanting in shelter spaces and not having. I came here hoping that there would be room to exercise my knowledge of design and space, and I think it’s happening. I think we’re getting there. 

Q: What do you see as the relationship between local justice work and national policymaking? Where is the best place for social justice activists to engage?

A: I think it depends on your disposition. There is more flexibility at the local level, but larger impact at the federal level. There are certain pieces that should be handled by the localities and other pieces that should be handled by the feds.

In my research, there is one thing that was crystal clear to me: In the six projects I looked across, when the conservative factions of the community said to the people who were thinking more progressively, “We don’t want to do this” or “We don’t want to make this change,” the federal government’s anti-discrimination policies protected the people who did the work. I found that to be a very powerful tool to wield on the local level.

Q: How fast can change occur at the local level versus the national level?

A: I would say it depends on political will as to how fast something gets done. Right now, we have a president who has declared that he wants to end homelessness. That’s the best possible mandate we could have. We can get more done in a progressive environment.

If the federal government keeps its eye on innovative programs they can scale up, but I think the innovation is going to happen on the ground, with the people interacting with individuals.

Q: Is there still a place for homeless shelters in America? Will we ever be able to transition away from them?

A: Champaign is conservative and racially segregated. There’s a strong mindset that “this is the way things are done” and the shift to the idea that we can end homelessness is in direct conflict with the idea that we can ameliorate circumstances. There are some people that will not have their minds changed.  I saw way too many shelter and transitional beds, and not enough affordable housing with transitional supports, no employment programs, none of the stuff that’s going to change peoples’ situations. However, I do not profess to understand the workings of larger cities. I think it is probably the more rural, conservative areas that have the mismatch.

The bottom line for me is that we have never made a serious investment in socialized housing in this country. We’re not comfortable with the idea that people are provided with housing because they need it. We look at someone who is homeless differently than someone who is poor and needs housing, like they need treatment. The very miniscule amount of socialized housing that we have now is under fire. There’s not enough of it. Poor people need places to live. They need safe, private homes, whether they find themselves actually homeless or whether they are doubled up. We need more housing and it needs to be affordable to the people who make the least. It’s a broader systemic problem.

Thanks so much to Abby for sharing her perspective and experiences in the field of homelessness.

*The program that Abby works under is called the Presidential Management Fellowship and it involves, among other things, a chance to work in a variety of government offices during “rotations.”


8 Comments

Concepts of Homelessness: What’s Wrong With Shelters and How We Can Change That Picture

“Thinking about “home” leads people to focus on the attendant assumptions of what a home provides—namely privacy, safety and security, permanence, comfort and the like. Thinking about “homelessness” leads people to focus on the attendant assumptions about the individual, for instance, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, poverty, unemployment, and others.” 

–Abbilyn Miller PhD, Determining Critical Factors in Community-Level Planning of Homeless Service Project

roryrory

In my last post, I talked about my experiences with the American homeless shelter system, which is failing to properly meet the needs of the people it seeks to serve. I argued that, with numerous homeless shelters currently standing in as long term housing for millions of people—a purpose they were never intended to fulfill—we should open our eyes to this misguided format of sheltering and move in a new direction. In today’s post, I will share with you evidence and arguments from a well-reasoned thesis by Ms. Abbilyn Miller that deals with many of these issues. She’s a PhD and all-around badass lady whom I know and trust, and her work has a lot to teach us.

Abby argues that however we choose to define the purpose of a homeless shelter (either as a service center, a containment space, a roof over someone’s head, or a “home”), that will guide our creation of shelters and will effect the impact that shelters have on their residents. The input that we seek when determining the best form of shelter also matters. We must ask whose needs are being prioritized during this process; citizens who possess homes and do not wish to see “vagabonds” and “bums” on their streets, or citizens who simply cannot afford traditional housing?

Abby’s thesis compares the independence and autonomy of a tent-community in the city of Champaign, IL with the varying degrees of control, home, and service provided by homeless shelters in the same city. Her project involved years of on-the-ground study in homeless shelters, transitional housing spaces, tent cities and local government circles. I urge you to read the whole paper, but for now, I’ll outline some of her key arguments here and add my own reflections.

The tent community upon which Abby’s work focused was a safe, self-governed community that existed in 2009 where individuals that society would label “homeless” made homes out of tents in an empty lot. When the government of Champaign threatened to kick them out, they fought back. Abby writes, “The spectacle of [this] self-consciously independent and politicized community that made demands upon the local government challenged the belief that “good” homeless people submit to what is offered public and non-profit organizations by confessing their wrongs, developing habits of personal responsibility, and promising to reform themselves” (Miller 7).  Here is the heart of the issue: while shelters conceptualize the homeless as a special population that must have guidance and rules placed upon them in order for them to earn a roof over their heads, alternative housing options offer independence and self-sufficiency for low income, unhoused people. Continue reading


1 Comment

Concepts of Homelessness: Why Shelters Are Not the Solution

In recent years, communities around the U.S. have been faced with an intractable problem of homelessness, dwindling resources, and increasing numbers of tent cities within municipal limits. In this moment of U.S. upheaval, we have a chance to rethink what home means and how local policies can better meet people’s needs of home, particularly for those considered homeless. A common thread unites all community conflicts and decisions about shelters, transitional centers, tent cities and other institutionally created housing for the homeless—core beliefs about what ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ mean. How we think about ‘home’ and what that means for housing impacts how people without access to those dominant types of housing are conceptualized. National approaches to home have implications for all citizens, but particularly for those who find themselves unable to afford the types of accommodations associated with ‘home.’

-Abbilyn Miller PhD, Determining Critical Factors in Community-Level Planning of Homeless Service Projects

homeless shelter-KOMUnews

Homelessness first came into my life when I was young, volunteering at a church soup kitchen with my parents. On Sunday evenings, a line of tired-looking people would snake around the building, waiting for the back doors to open while I poured cups of juice and milk, and the grown-ups prepared food—always the same assortment of canned vegetables, mashed potatoes and chicken. I remember being told that many of the men and women who came to eat were homeless and this sat with me. What did ‘homeless’ mean? Did they all live in the streets? When we left after clean-up, I didn’t think much about their situation, though, beyond being thankful that it was not mine.

As I grew up, my awareness of people who were experiencing homelessness also grew. Some were on the streets, sure, but many lived in shelters that dotted the downtown landscape of my city. I’d never been inside a shelter, but I imagined them to be warm and welcoming, with beds for each guest. Back then, I saw homelessness as a long-term state and “homeless” as a concrete identity which it might take years for someone to break out of. Luckily, or so I thought, shelters were a constructive solution to this problem, meeting a visible need and housing people who had nowhere else to go.

//

By the time I finished high school, I had learned enough about American poverty and injustice to develop an understanding that without a home, it’s nearly impossible for a low-income person to get ahead in any other aspect of her life. I knew that housing was fundamental for healthy, successful families and for overcoming the persistent inequality in America. And I yearned to contribute to a solution. So, in 2011, I started working at a nonprofit that ran a rotating shelter in different faith communities throughout the Twin Cities. I thought the shelter was providing a way out of homelessness for people in need. What I learned there changed my mind.

For the first time in my life, I put myself into direct contact with homeless people beyond just handing them a cup of juice. I don’t know that my contributions amounted to much more than providing a cold drink, but I did spend time listening to the stories of the people staying there, and I allowed these stories to teach me about homelessness. I met mothers with growing daughters, single fathers with newborns, large families with moms and dads and aunts and cousins; some staying for just a day or two, and others who would be there for a whole season. (Program rules prevented families from staying more than six weeks, but if they did not find more permanent housing by then, they would seek placement in another shelter, or a renewal, and start the cycle again.) The shelter’s guests had landed there due a slew of unfortunate circumstances, and they were exhausted from the sheer weight of all this turbulence and uncertainty.

Children from the shelter playing outside

I remember a woman—I’ll call her Jenny—who had recently separated from her husband and was now in charge of their three preteen girls. She’d stayed with her mother for a while, but when that living situation fell through, the shelter became her only option, and she’d lugged all her family’s belongings in garbage bags to the church. I was doing the night shift one evening when her youngest daughter became ill and threw up all over her cot. Jenny never even woke me, but she cleaned up the sheets, gave her own bed to her daughter and slept on the floor. She was utterly on her own, with three young people relying on her. I could not imagine handling this level of responsibility without a stable place to come home to.

For those of us working at the shelter, our job was to provide, at the very least, rest for people like Jenny and her daughters. Days at the shelter would start around 4pm, as we prepared for a busload of seven or eight families to arrive at the makeshift residence. Once they got there, volunteers (and I) handed out snacks, flipped on the TV, threw together games for the kids to play or books for them to read, and got to know the guests. When evening crept in at the shelter, everyone went to their respective beds and a volunteer stayed overnight with them. Then, in the morning, the families would be bussed out to their respective jobs, schools or a day shelter. So it went, every day of the year.

//

Much has been written about the global charity industry which allows privileged people to donate their time and money to help the “less fortunate” without truly engaging or honestly listening to the people they seek to help, and this barrier between server and served was often present at the shelter where I worked. With the constantly fluctuating populations of volunteers and clients, it was challenging to develop anything beyond a short-term relationship with an individual and so much easier to just sit behind a counter and dole out snacks during your shift. Yet, for each month that the shelter spent at a different house of worship, dedicated members from that community threw themselves into the work. They believed they were providing a valuable service for people who needed a home. Meanwhile, I was on my way to recognizing just how far from “home” the shelter truly was.

Near the end of the summer, I started looking after a rambunctious two-year-old boy at the shelter whose young mother badly needed a break from chasing him around. He was adorable and I was enthusiastic to entertain and get know him. Then one day, I came to the shelter and he was gone; he and his mother had secured a spot at a higher-quality downtown shelter. Just like that, they left us. In that moment, I remember feeling quite hurt that this family wanted to leave our shelter for a different one.

Then I opened my eyes and realized how bad the conditions were. We were basically slapping cots and air-mattresses on the floor of a church basement and calling it a “home.” To make matters worse, every morning when the residents departed, they were forced to pack up all their belongings and carry them with, leaving the place as though no one had ever been there. The spaces they occupied and the amenities they were provided with were often cast-offs, unused because no one else wanted them. Sometimes families didn’t even get their own rooms.

I do not mean to diminish the efforts of volunteers and staff who provided a warm place to sleep for families in need, nor do I wish to write off the impact that the shelter had; I know that those enrolled in the shelter also gained access to employment help, legal counsel and other services during the day. So it’s not as if there was a lack of care. However, I also know that this place was not a home.

//

If you read the founding documents of most homeless shelters, you’ll actually find that the majority of them are intended to be “emergency” housing, meaning that they are a temporary fix for a person who didn’t make rent last month and needs somewhere to stay while she gathers the funds for next month. Some shelters are safe havens for domestic violence victims who are supposed to be relocated to permanent housing once the situation with their abuser is dealt with. Some shelters are specifically for men or women recovering from addiction who need a clean space for a few weeks. Regardless of the circumstances though, most homeless shelters were intended to be temporary solutions for temporary problems.

What has actually happened is that they have become long-term housing situations for hundreds of thousands of Americans. These children and adults bounce from shelter to shelter when their stay-limit is up, spending months on end in a system which was never designed to accommodate them for more than a week or two. Cots on a basement floor may be enough for a few rough days between paychecks, but they are not sufficient to house people long term. We can’t fault the shelters for failing to shift away from their original purpose, but neither can we allow these inadequate, unproductive living conditions to persist.

//

Homeless-we-dont-need-coins-we-need-change2

Homelessness is a critical issue that I have dedicated my life to combating, and I hope it is something that matters to you too. However, we cannot hope to bring justice into this situation without unpacking our perceptions of homelessness and truly listening to the people that we have labeled as “homeless.” Only then can we determine the best ways to meet their housing needs.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about the thesis quoted at the top of this article, and how we can move towards broader concepts of home in order to create more opportunities for everyone to have one.

Photo credits: KOMUnews, me, blog


5 Comments

My Role in Gentrification

IMG_0633

I knew I would confront gentrification in New York City, but I didn’t think it would be this swift or this persistent. The fact that I can stand next to an H&M while simultaneously staring up at a thirty-story housing project is a juxtaposition I’m still wrapping my head around. My afternoon jogs take me past taquerias, corner stores, laundromats, then—suddenly—trendy coffee shops.

And I’m still trying to figure out how I fit into it. As a middle class white woman who moved in a month ago, I know I’m checking lots of gentrification boxes. I sometimes placate myself with the knowledge that I haven’t driven up the cost of living by moving here since my housing situation mostly exists outside the market. (I live in a church for a very discounted rate.) Nonetheless, my white face in a Dominican neighborhood shifts the topography. I stand out. On a weekday morning, I’m one of the only people wearing business clothes as I walk to the subway. And I don’t speak Spanish (though I badly wish I did).

I am also an outsider to the personal experience of gentrification: For generations, my family moved around the country and the world, so we have no roots—no neighborhood filled with history to be kicked out of. The neighborhood I grew up in was white and has been for as long as I can remember. I attended college in a town that was built by the most vicious kind of gentrifier: a pair of missionaries who wiped out the Cayuse Indian tribe that had been living there for centuries. I have never faced foreclosure or eviction. I have never lost my apartment to an upscale developer.

I have, however, witnessed a movement of white young people into neighborhoods that they might never have set foot in before the recession and I wonder about the effects of their migration. As the recession presses on and young people of all races fail to secure well-paying, full-time work, I know they will continue to turn to more affordable neighborhoods for housing—particularly if those neighborhoods are close to employment options in a downtown. It makes sense for these young people, but it becomes problematic if their presence encourages landlords to raise prices, eventually bumping out long-time residents, or if they begin to build new businesses that take away profit from existing stores. That’s Gentrification 101.

I’ve been struggling with this tension between housing demand and neighborhood history ever since I talked to Anna and learned about the in-your-face gentrification taking place in certain neighborhoods of Detroit. It’s also happening in Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, and every other city you can think of. For example, long-time residents of my current neighborhood tell me that although it is broadly Latin@ now, fifty years ago the people who lived in these apartments were African American and farther north, they were Jewish immigrants. Time and again, one community gains economic ground and more freedom to live where it chooses, while another must make do with what’s left.

So what is the role of someone like me in these places? Is my presence so harmful that I should relocate to a white, middle class neighborhood where I “belong,” or can I be an informed, respectful resident? This is the answer I’ve come to so far: If gentrification is the act of pushing out existing residents, then the key to socially-just living choices is making your home in such a way that you do not exclude the people who already live there.

I’m not completely convinced that it’s possible, given the economic and racial hierarchies already entrenched in our culture and the top-down, all-encompassing manner in which gentrification pollutes a neighborhood. However, the best I can say for individuals who live in neighborhoods with the potential for gentrification is to be intentional about your attitude and your actions towards the place. Get to know all your neighbors. Learn the history of the area. Familiarize yourself with the systems, services, and leaders that govern there. Frequent diverse businesses to strengthen the existing economy. Dismantle your sense of entitlement, fear or superiority. Educate yourself about warehousing and land speculation. Join grassroots movements that combat the effects of gentrification. Most of all, recognize your role in the process and resist the allure of complacency at every turn.

Update: Some interesting and intelligent dialogue related to gentrification is going on right now (April, 2014). Check out 20 Ways Not to be a Gentrifier, then this response by Daniel Hertz.


2 Comments

Interview: Anna’s Word on Detroit

My cousin Anna is an inspiration for a lot of people, and one of the ways she inspires me is through her activism for racial reconciliation and economic justice. She spent the past two summers in Detroit for that very reason, and I told a bit of her story last month. In today’s interview, Anna digs deep on the causes and effects of Detroit’s economic struggles, as well as potential paths forward. Sincere thanks to Anna for sharing these powerful words.

1015836_10151448781430653_1436817932_o

Q: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

A: I grew up in a suburb about 15 minutes outside of the city of Detroit, called Farmington. The past two summers, between my semesters at school in Chicago, I have lived in Detroit, in an impoverished neighborhood in the heart of the city. It’s been eye-opening to see the differences in resources and opportunity between the city I grew up in an where I’ve been living. I was privileged to go to a high school where I was well prepared for college, when right next door in Detroit, there is a graduation rate of just under 65%. Besides education, there are stark differences in employment opportunities, racial demographics, public services, police activity and access to fresh food.

Q: Can you describe your neighborhood in Detroit?

A: The Detroit neighborhood I lived in is ridden with abandoned homes and buildings. Before I lived here, I had never seen a place with paralleled vacancy. There are only a few businesses, and since the city itself is lacking in adequate public transportation and businesses that would offer jobs, there is not a lot of opportunity for people. But in the midst of this struggle, people fight on. There is also a sense of community that I’ve never experienced before. There are regular neighborhood gatherings, and it is common to see many people gathering together on porches and in parks. People in my neighborhood love being together, and they welcome each other, and that is something that was less prevalent in the community I grew up in.

394759_10150928634850653_1744571249_n

Q: What did you do in Detroit?

A: Both summers I have been working for a Christian community development corporation that creates affordable housing, runs parenting and homeownership classes, helps start small businesses, provides affordable produce, runs many programs for children and youth and more. During the summer, their main youth program is a day camp for kids in the city, which is a way for kids to have fun, be safe, eat hot meals, learn, and experience the city while they are out of school. The day camp is also an employment opportunity for teens in the city. I spent most of my time in this area, specifically helping with the children’s activities in the organization’s community gardens. Continue reading


1 Comment

The Company Town

400000000000000257943_s4When a friend introduces me to a new city, one of the first questions I like to ask him or her is what sort of companies are headquartered there. Which industries employ the most residents? What fuels the economy? I find that these inquiries can tell me a lot about the city’s culture.

Hardy Green’s book The Company Town traces the history of the industries that literally built dozens of American cities, from Hershey, Pennsylvania to Kohler, Wisconsin. It’s mainly about what happens when a people who are in the business of creating chocolate bars or plumbing fixtures try to create a city. The model goes something like this: When a company wanted to locate its operations on new land near cheap, available resources it needed to draw laborers to the area, or at least provide housing and food for the workers. This was at a time (nineteenth and early twentieth century) when much of America was still untrodden ground. Consequently, the company leadership would contract for the creation of housing and other services and populate their own little towns for the sole purpose of production. In remote mining towns, this might look like little more than tents and a general store. In more substantial ventures, a town could include schools, hospitals, movie theaters and other services that were supervised by not directly controlled by the company. Some of these towns grew beyond their corporate beginnings and remain destinations—at least for tourism—today. But others like Gary, Indiana and Kannapolis, North Carolina lost most of their income when their central industries faltered. Continue reading