I’ll be taking a break from regular posting over the next few weeks, but wanted to let you know I’ll be back – possibly right before the elections, possibly right after, depending on how plans for the further evolution of Deedspeakout evolve.
The blog will be moving platforms – to a website proper, fully-searchable by topic and date. During the transition, I’ll continue to post on Deedspeakout’s Facebook page – for those of you who don’t use FB, no problem; it’s a public page which doesn’t require you to join Facebook. Posts there are more frequent; they cover the same range of topics as the blog, but there’s a lot of variety.
I’m also considering changing the name of the blog/site/FB page/Twitter feed, and reader suggestions would be very welcome and appreciated.
At this point, I could simply say that events have overwhelmed me, and that would in a sense be true. Given the areas covered here, namely health and healthcare, the environment, justice, and education, the last six months have been brutal: the public health crisis of Covid-19, climate change-related extreme weather events (wildfires in the West, flooding in the South and Southeast), protests surrounding police brutality (the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the wounding of Jacob Blake), and the largely disastrous efforts, in absence of any nationally-coordinated policy, plan, and funding to re-open K-12 schools and universities.
In short, there’s been plenty to discuss and reflect upon – maybe too much.
But more than this, the approach of the November elections is beginning to taint and distort what’s being reported and how it’s being reported in the legacy and progressive media which form the basis for commentary here. When I came up with the name for the blog, “Deedspeakout,” the idea was to let the facts on the ground, namely the verifiable consequences of longstanding and inequitable policies, tell their own story – after all, “actions speak louder than words.” But at the moment we’re drowning metaphorically in a sea of partisan words, and that sea of partisanship is drowning out the facts themselves.
I want to step back, do more background reading on the subjects I cover – in the future, book discussions will become a regular feature – to rethink the ways(s) the four main topic areas, plus a new one – housing – are presented. Over time, I’ve come to realize how tightly intertwined health and environment, education and justice, really are. The stories I select for discussion almost always illustrate more than one inequity – in fact, the five topics are constantly crisscrossing one another in a complex skein whose individual strands are very challenging to untangle and present as a coherent narrative.
In addition, my own life is about to enter a transitional phase – a new and challenging phase I’m looking forward to, but one which will absorb a lot of time. When the transitional period is completed, I’m hoping to be able to devote even more effort and time to study, reflection and writing, but to achieve this some substantial regrouping is necessary.
Finally: when the website goes live and related changes have been made to the Facebook page, original blog, and Twitter feed, I’ll be switching to the first person. The past three years have inspired me to continue identifying and reflecting at length on the many crossroads of injustice in society, and I’ll be signing my posts – I stand by them.
Here’s hoping you’ll join me on this journey.
Deborah Brown Kazazis
*Update: This post was completed a few hours before the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020), an event which SCOTUS experts and the political world anticipate will trigger a major crisis in the U.S. just forty-four days before the November 3 elections.
“I got to go find work, I got to get my health coverage. Because I got a lot of people depends on me. I got a wife, I got grandkids. I got kids. I got a lot of people and I can’t fail them. I can’t fail them.”
– Rodney Watts, Georgia resident
It’s been some time since we’ve written a healthcare post, so today’s the day.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that 6 million people have lost healthcare insurance since the pandemic began – and since most workers have spouses and children, the total estimate of those who’ve lost insurance is 12 million.
Newly-unemployed workers may not be ineligible (“too rich”) for Medicaid, which uses the federal poverty level as its baseline, although even the cheapest Affordable Care Act (ACA) Bronze plans are out of reach financially for many newly-unemployed. This leaves millions of people caught in the middle – too much income for Medicaid, too little for a private plan. [Note: we’ll have to wait some months before that figure – of those who end up uninsured entirely – becomes clear. There are already around 30 million uninsured in the U.S., and another 60 million under-insured.]
The HEROES Act, passed by the House in May, included full funding to allow the newly-unemployed to retain employer-sponsored healthcare (employer + employee contributions), but the HEALS Act voted on by the Senate last week contained nothing. In any case, it failed, so this is now a moot point.
But there are also millions of people whose income has fallen off the cliff and are newly eligible for Medicaid – a public-sponsored healthcare program partly funded by the federal government and partly by individual states. To date, 38 states have voted to “expand” Medicaid, making the program available to those with more resources than previously.
In Nevada, hit especially hard by the pandemic given its reliance on the entertainment and hospitality industry (the state unemployment rate in April was 30.1%, the highest monthly rate ever recorded for a single state), Medicaid enrollment went from 644,000 (February) to 731,000 (through August) in a state with a total population just over 3 million:
“That 13.5 percent increase places Nevada among at least three states, along with Kentucky and Minnesota, where the cadre of people on Medicaid has spiked that much, including families … who have never before asked for government help. But increases are widespread: Caseloads had risen on average 8.4 percent through July in 30 states for which researchers have enrollment information. And in 14 states with enrollment data through August, the average is 10 percent.” [Emphasis added]
While about one-third of Nevada’s laid-off workers are back on the job now, many are working too few hours to qualify for benefits, including healthcare. (The state’s unemployment rate in July was 14%, still higher than the highest unemployment rate registered during the Great Recession.)
Here’s the rub:
“The spiraling demand for Medicaid is colliding with a diminished ability by the state to pay for it. With Nevada confronting a $1.2 billion deficit and a requirement to balance its budget, the legislature has taken steps to slow the program’s spending — notably, curbing payments to doctors, hospitals and others who care for Medicaid patients to save $53 million through next summer. That 6 percent rate cut is the largest so far in the nation.” [Emphasis added]
The state of Nevada is cutting $233 million from Medicaid spending (which accounts for about one-third of the state budget). Gone are: adult prosthetics; optometry services; most dental care apart from children and pregnant women; physical therapy (limited to 12 sessions). And providers received a 6% pay cut.
This in turn puts added pressure on providers (physicians, hospitals, specialist care providers), who are now facing the prospect of providing care that costs more than reimbursements provide.
And this is just the beginning:
“Nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about 27 million in total are at risk of losing coverage during the coronavirus pandemic, and could be left struggling with COVID-19 or other illnesses along with a lack of income that can make paying medical bills nearly impossible.”
So: an estimate by the EPI that to date, 12 million have lost their employer-sponsored coverage, and KFF estimating that by the end (and when is that, pray tell?), 27 million will have lost coverage.
KFF projects that four out of five newly-unemployed and uninsured persons will be eligible for either Medicaid or the ACA. We have some doubts about the “affordability” of the latter, especially in light of the fact that if the pandemic continues for another six months, unemployment will continue to rise – there are entire sectors in the economy which will fail almost entirely; even when they start up again, it will be on a much more limited scale; think “aviation” and “entertainment” and “tourism” for starters.
Medical Economics published an estimate (July 16, 2020) that as many as 48 million non-elderly people will be part of a household where someone lost their employer-sponsored health insurance by December.
Based on work done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “…projections show that an estimated 3.3 million of those will regain their employer-sponsored insurance by being added to another family member’s policy. Another 2.8 million people will expected to enroll in Medicaid and 600,000 are expected to enroll in the individual market, mainly through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace.
“But still, 3.5 million are expected to remain uninsured.”
As of July, there were 8 states where unemployment was above 20%:
· Texas (29 percent)
· Florida (25 percent)
· Oklahoma (24 percent)
· Georgia (23 percent)
· Mississippi (22 percent)
· Nevada (21 percent)
· North Carolina (20 percent)
· South Carolina (20 percent)
It hardly needs repeating that the U.S. will get sicker, take longer to recover, and endure more severe long-term consequences from Covid-19 on the health of its people and economy than countries where healthcare is universal and free at point of delivery.
On September 9 and 11, the New York Times published stories devoted to education. They illustrate the outer limits of extreme inequity in U.S. society, an inequity which filters straight down to the youngest among us in a health-and-financial crisis like that we’ve been experiencing the past six months.
Let’s start with the most privileged among us. Wealthy New Yorkers are arriving at agreements with their condominium management to “occupy” (the irony, the irony) luxurious and capacious common spaces and turn them into private (super-private) educational “pods” in 2020-2021. These spaces – which aren’t being used by residents right now – include rooftop gardens and decks, music rooms, meeting rooms, lounges, gyms (“fitness centers”) … you name it, entrepreneurial New Yorkers (mostly mothers) are commandeering it.
“Ms. Phillips, 38, finds that she is most appreciative of the roof deck, where her 7-year-old son, Finn, has been able to spread out with other children in the social pods that she has set up for him. Ms. Phillips … has spent the summer connecting with other families in the neighborhood and the building, looking for children interested in joining board-game sessions at the roof deck’s long tables.”
The first gathering happened in early September. She is now working on setting up a learning pod for a group of five to seven children, with plans to hire a tutor once the school year starts at P.S. 234. When the weather cools, she hopes the children will be able to study in an indoor lounge, providing it is open.” [Emphasis added]
“This whole experience with this pandemic has forced me to engage more and to really tap into every possible resource that I have. Because if you have it, use it.’” Indeed.
Building management is being very accommodating:
“And some buildings are stepping in to help, partnering with local arts, sports and education organizations to offer exclusive programming to keep children occupied during the school day and well into the afternoon. Others are setting aside resident lounges where learning pods can gather.”
Mutually-enriching partnerships being forged:
“And 30 Warren, a Tribeca luxury condo, had already partnered with the Church Street School for Music and Art when it opened to residents this month. Condo residents get discounts on the school’s in-person and virtual programming, including a day-care program where, for $120 a day, children can be supervised when school is virtual.”
Re: Kelly Sullivan, lifestyle director of Waterline Square (Riverside Boulevard between 59th and 61st Streets):
The complex disports of “100,000 square feet of shared amenity space, with indoor swimming pools, basketball and squash courts, an indoor soccer field and skate park, and a music studio.”
So far, it’s all been good:
“Ms. Sullivan focused on the complex’s 2.6-acre park for setting up socially distant activities outdoors open to residents and the public, like sunset yoga and cardio kickboxing. With the school year starting, Ms. Sullivan is lining up an activities schedule for the school-age crowd.
Among the activities planned exclusively for residents is a series of classes for children run by Green Food Solutions, an urban farming company. Participants will sit at tables in the park beneath tents and heating lamps and learn to make pickles, cultivate mushrooms, carve pumpkins and make cranberry preserves.” [Emphasis added]
Clearly, these parents (and their oh-so-fortunate offspring) live in residences that provide a superfluity of “amenities” in good times, and in bad times they can take advantage of these to benefit themselves and their children. How many parents fall into this group of super privilege? Perhaps somewhere between one and five percent. (Three-bedroom condos at One Hundred Barclay and at Quay Tower in Brooklyn Heights run for about $4 million).
As Ms. Phillips noted, “Because if you have it, use it.”
Clear your mind of privilege, because we’re now about to encounter its opposite:
The story’s focus is on several children and their parents, including a 9-year-old boy, Prince, and his 29-year-old mother Fifi. When schools closed in early March, Prince clocked in to his remote classroom from Fifi’s cell phone (this isn’t rare, either for homeless or for poor housed children – the only internet access available to them is via a cell phone subscription). (Note: over the two years this story was being researched and written, the author spoke with/followed over a dozen homeless students and their families to gain an understanding of the hurdles they encounter to find housing and keep their children in school.)
Prince and Fifi have been living the homeless life since Prince was a baby– by the time the pandemic struck, he’d attended five different elementary schools: “For nearly all his life, he had lived under the curfew imposed by homeless shelters, with no visitors or play dates allowed at his home, and had adapted to long, endless waits at city agencies.”
The writer of this feature (Samantha Shapiro, a first-rate investigative reporter) first met Prince in March 2019, when he was in second grade at a school in East Harlem. All his teachers concurred that he was scholastically gifted – school was easy, he was a natural achiever, and his favorite class was Math. But the day the writer met him, he was headed with Fifi and her boyfriend Manuel (Prince calls him “Dad”) to the PATH (= Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing) intake center in the Bronx – think of PATH as the “family homeless services” of NYC. And like the city itself, its ways are labyrinthine.
The stats on homelessness aren’t looking good – and remember, the federal rent moratorium is still in effect:
“The number of homeless New Yorkers has risen to the highest point since the Great Depression, and the largest demographic within the homeless population is children. As a result, the number of homeless students has increased nearly 70 percent over the last decade, according to the Department of Education.” (Note: HUD measures homelessness differently; the NYDOE’s figures are much more accurate and revealing: “A federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, requires that public schools ask incoming students about their housing status; at the end of last year, families in New York City reported that 114,000 school-age children met the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness: lacking a ‘fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.’”. HUD, on the other hand, uses a system called the “point in time” count – on a single day/night each year – which is out-of-date by the time it’s submitted. Also: families who are homeless try to avoid the streets if at all possible, and many rural areas don’t even have shelters.)
NYC is the only city in the U.S. which has a “right to shelter,” but the sheer numbers of people involved make the system impossible to navigate efficiently: “In New York, this right has created a … sprawling, incoherent megaplex that involves at least six city departments, which sometimes work at odds with one another, and has a presence in hundreds of buildings in the city, offering very different levels of supervision and support.”
There’s an unfathomable amount of bureaucracy involved just in qualifying for shelter under PATH’s restrictive requirements – all kinds of documentation stretching back for years. In 2018, 40% of applicants didn’t even qualify for assistance because they couldn’t provide the paperwork. Infuriatingly, school-age children must accompany their parents to PATH appointments, even if they’re missing school – that week in March 2019, Prince was at PATH with his mother rather than at his beloved East Harlem school.
And even when they are “sheltered” (in a shelter proper, or camped out in a relative’s apartment, which is where Prince, Fifi and Manuel stayed for several nights while trying to get a new housing assignment), homeless children are chronically absent – too far from their assigned school to get there easily [a bus assignment can take months to be fulfilled], forced to go to social services appointments with their guardians, or simply exhausted from the stress of a continually nomadic life – 43% are chronically absent (= more than 10 days without an official excuse), compared to 16% of students not living in poverty.
Because homeless children miss so much school (and change schools so frequently) they tend to get further and further behind, which contributes to their dropping out early. Only 62% of homeless students in NYC finish high school, compared to 77% citywide (a percentage that isn’t anything to write home about). Failure to graduate from high school increases likelihood of ending up homeless as a young adult by a factor of 4.5.
Things are only going to get worse when the moratorium expires on January 1:
“According to data compiled by the N.Y.U. Furman Center, whose research focuses on housing, 239,000 very-low-income renter households are at ‘high risk’ of becoming homeless. If they experienced job loss because of the pandemic, they’re currently protected by an eviction moratorium, which has been extended to the end of the year, but they are most likely amassing unpaid back rent.”
The NYC shelter system is already at capacity for families. What’s going to happen in January when tens of thousands of additional families join the already-homeless? And this will occur in January, one of NYC’s coldest months.
Following a series of heartbreaking misadventures at PATH (remember, Prince and Fifi are just one mother and her only child – multiply the heartbreak by 114,000 to get some idea of the suffering among homeless families in New York City), which included a mistaken assignment to a shelter in Queens, where they couldn’t be assigned (Prince’s abusive biological father and his family are in Queens), they were back at PATH the following week.
And Prince was hungry. He “could not stomach the food he’d had in the past at PATH — a still-frozen bologna sandwich and a small cup of warm juice with a foil lid, which ‘tasted like medicine.’ He focused all his boredom and frustration on this matter. ‘Mommy, can you get me something to eat?’ he pleaded and whined over and over as the day passed. ‘Mommy, please, can you get me something to eat?'”
(Note: Remember our first example above, that of Ms. Vanessa Phillips? She’s the CEO of a company called “Feel Good Foods,” gluten-free meals and snacks in frozen form – her company will be providing food throughout the day to the 7-year-olds in her son’s “pod.”)
If you want to read what happened when Fifi ran out to buy some McDonald’s chicken Mcnuggets for Prince after realizing he hadn’t eaten anything since the previous night, link to the full piece and search “McDonald’s” – it’s just too heartbreaking to re-convey here.
The family ended up getting a “placement” in a “cluster house” in the Bronx, which, thankfully, was an easy subway ride to Prince’s old school. They were overjoyed – it was a place of their own with a bedroom (Fifi and Manuel slept in the living room), the oven worked, and there were no rats under the radiator.
The rise in homeless individuals and families in NYC since 1970 (when there were somewhere between 250 and 1000) has been phenomenal, and not in a good way. Much of the rise can be attributed to drastic cuts by the Reagan Administration, including slashing the budget of the federal agency charged with funding and overseeing low-income housing, HUD.
One might well wonder “What’s happened to this population of 100,000 since NYC schools closed in March?” It’s been so, so hard. Homeless advocates tried to persuade the city to allow homeless students to attend regional enrichment centers set up for the children of essential workers – that failed. Only around 21% of homeless children’s needs were being met in the spring. One – exemplary, given the circumstances – group of homeless shelters set up classrooms for remote learning, but the DOE changed the ipad password for the platform and “forgot” to inform the shelter.
The writer, Samantha Shapiro, had a young son who’d started kindergarten while the research for this piece was ongoing, and his best friend was a boy who became homeless in the course of the year (as a result of gentrification). His mother’s desperate search for an affordable (Section 8) apartment landed them, eventually, in Staten Island – but the first place they moved to there had black mold, so they ended up in another apartment.
Shapiro’s concluding thoughts:
“School was an exposure to the wider world of our city in unanticipated ways; to the truth that there was no place for a family that had lived in our neighborhood for generations amid the new, understated charcoal-gray houses, and that more broadly, the enormous wealth of the city would not insulate its vulnerable citizens but rather accelerate their destabilization, and that the adults involved, myself included, were seemingly powerless to help children no different from our own.”
America cares about some of its children, but it doesn’t care about its poorest children, its dispossessed children. All demonstrations of concern are “performative” at this point, nothing more.
We can’t change that – would that we could – all we can do is read about and contemplate a shameful negligence, a lack of caring and compassion and empathy (not by all those involved – the story does contain vignettes of people who care deeply), and summarize its contents – and our thoughts on same .
What have we become? Is this who we are as a people, a nation? And what will happen in January when 50,000 or 100,000 more homeless people are forced to exercise their “right to shelter” in a city which has no more shelter, and no more compassion, to give?
Readers have observed that Deedspeakout is often bleak in subject matter and short on hopefulness. We concur – the news in the areas we discuss isn’t encouraging these days – but we have vowed to dedicate one blogging day per month to “stories not entirely devoid of hope.” We’ve chosen the 13th – easy to remember, and with its well-known connotations, we’ll offer a bit of cheer on a day traditionally thought of as unlucky.
We have two stories today, both focused on solutions to knotty (“wicked”) social issues.
The first concerns how a city in Illinois (Rockford, 90 mi. NW of Chicago, pop. 150,000) that decided to eradicate homelessness has succeeded. The second concerns how educators in this time of pandemic can bridge the stubborn digital divide between connected and unconnected.
Beth Sandor, co-director of Built to Zero at the nonprofit Community Solutions:
“I think for so long we believed in most communities that homelessness is just something we are going to have to live with. Rockford is in the process of transforming that idea and really demonstrating what it looks like to live in a community where homelessness is not normal.”
Rockford arrived at a plan and then implemented it: first, reach “functional zero” homelessness for veterans (achieved in 2018); next, reach the same goal for the chronically homeless; finally, reach functional zero for all remaining groups – young people, families, and the recently-unhoused.
The city responded to a challenge issued by the Administration in 2014, and signed on to work with Community Solutions using a new approach, choosing first to focus on homeless veterans. The key to their success was treating every veteran as the unique individual they were, and consulting directly with other agencies with whom veterans interacted to develop a holistic, lasting solution.
Jennifer Jaeger, Rockford’s community services director:
“At the same time, we were taking that data and publishing it monthly, leading to more community accountability. That community accountability led to more community involvement and buy-in. It was really about focusing and crystallizing our efforts on the population—pulling everybody to the table and holding everybody accountable.”
That same process – focus on the individual, with strategies adapted to particular needs – was followed for the other homeless groups, as the collection of real-time data and analysis continued.
Examples: for more tech-savvy homeless individuals, the team turned to social media – e.g., Facebook Messenger – to communicate quickly; in the case of older, chronically homeless persons the goal was developing trust and a personal relationship (one chronically homeless man was persuaded to move to a residency hotel when he learned he could watch Chicago Cubs games regularly).
Every city has its own history (as we say, “same melody, different key”), so Rockford’s approach and solutions don’t represent a “cookie-cutter” formula for ending homelessness elsewhere. For example, the housing market there is more affordable than in a metropolitan center like Chicago; the tangled net of agencies that serve the homeless in LA or NYC makes a “focus on the individual” approach far more challenging.
But here’s what matters:
“The first step for a community is to have the political will to actually end homelessness. ‘Rockford had a very progressive mayor who saw the value of using data to iterate and drive decisions and applying that to the challenge of ending homelessness,’ Sandor[=Beth Sandor, co-director of Built for Zero] says. ‘And now with the new mayor, he has also kept that going.’” [Emphasis added]
Rockford is one of 80+ cities working with Community Solutions’ Built for Zero program, which provides a toolkit for data collection/analysis (real-time data on the homeless is vital, as the once-a-year data collection required to receive federal funding for homeless services is outdated by the time it’s submitted), and an advisor, plus tech support for working with the software the program employs.
How to Bridge the Digital Divide in Education
Our second story is by an ESL teacher who teaches immigrant children in NYC. As someone who’s taught in the public school system there in schools just one zip code distant but a world apart in terms of educational privilege, Elana Rabinowitz has some suggestions (for NYC specifically, but they’re relevant elsewhere):
First: Divide the school year into fairly short terms, and re-assess after each term. In cases where education is going to be online, devote more resources to digital teaching.
“Perhaps we can use this digital age to have schools from different parts of the country converge and discuss the issues with each other—this could be a time for kids to connect around the nation.” She suggests that the same could happen with teachers – inter-school discussion and brain-storming groups as well as professional development. Tech-savvy teachers and staff from schools already well along the digital highway could provide support to those from schools just starting out on their journey: “While not ideal, this would create some equity in education across neighborhoods and districts, by providing all schools access to the same training, resources, and professional development that is already made available to better-funded schools.
Second: Create Wi-Fi hotspots in neighborhoods where families can’t afford a fast Internet connection (and in rural areas where access is spotty or non-existent). Some corporations have provided hotspots, but the movement hasn’t gone nation-wide.
Third: Help children engage in outdoor learning activities: “Consider shadow tag instead of regular tag, outside yoga, anything that can help get our children healthy, active, and safely socialized.”
Fourth: Encourage older teenagers to get internships – many are taking a “gap year” and they can themselves continue to learn through a more adult-like experience – in music, art, academics, all of which can be done remotely. And they can create virtual peer networks for mutual support.
Fifth: If a family is wealthy enough to start a “learning pod,” ask them to consider inviting a student whose family can’t afford this luxury to join the group.
Rabinowitz: “Your child is not going to die from lack of education, but the damage done from separate but equal is irrevocable.”
Just to close on a more Deedspeakout-like note: “separate but equal” is a euphemism for “separate and unequal,” as history and the present demonstrate every day in every way.
Today we reflect on three different stories: one from NYC, a second from Kissimmee, Florida, and finally, we return to a story we’ve already covered that emerged last week from our hometown of Peoria, Illinois. Each illustrates specific knock-on effects of the pandemic on a significant population already precarious before Covid-19, namely the homeless. Six months on, this population has reached the point where “the rest of America” can no longer ignore it – or “be free of it.”
“Hell’s Kitchen … has long been a repository for social maladies”
Our first story, from the Times, is about a strip of restaurants – the focus is on one restaurateur, but there are many in a similar situation along 9th Street below 42nd, known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” This is a neighborhood famed for its small restaurants and ethnic shopping stops; despite gentrification nearby (Chelsea with its “$10 million condominiums” and the massive Hudson Yards development a few blocks to the west), it still retains something of its old New York neighborhood feel – it’s proven resistant to full gentrification.
The owner of the restaurant, which has received dispensation from the city to provide sidewalk seating, is upset and aggrieved because his patrons are bothered – in some cases, frightened – by the homeless who approach, touch, and attempt to interact with them when they’re dining. During the pandemic, NYC commandeered around 60 hotels to house the homeless – commendably, we should note – and several of these are on the West Side.
Nick Accardi, owner of three restaurants in the neighborhood including Tavola and Tavolino, is facing empty tables – he has only seven, and needs them constantly full just to meet payroll – while comparable eateries in TriBeca and the West Village are chockablock even during the “dead hours” between 3 and 5 pm.
“The problem in Mr. Accardi’s view was the vagrancy and disorder furthered by the city’s placement of so many people experiencing homelessness — among them addicts and those who are seemingly struggling with mental illness — in hotels on the West Side of Midtown. Their suffering was obvious and immense. But what was he to do now that his own livelihood and the fate of his workers seemed so precarious?” [Emphasis added]
“Why, he wondered, should his neighborhood have to bear so much of the burden of various mismanaged crises? How was it that the Upper West Side could shout and so quickly get heard? This week Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to relocate 300 homeless men from a hotel, The Lucerne, on West 79th Street, a move that followed an uproar from some in the community who galvanized, hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the city if the newest occupants of the Lucerne were not dispatched elsewhere.”
Accardi started a petition to gain support to “evict” the homeless from neighborhood hotels, but it created further backlash.
“Not long after the petition circulated, the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, in Chelsea, called out its harmful rhetoric and asked for a community-led effort to help mitigate the catastrophes of homelessness. But it also acknowledged the despair of so many who worked in the restaurant industry, some of whom were now forced to rely on Holy Apostles’ services.”
It’s not like Accardi is without compassion – he has contributed to the soup kitchen, and for years has cooked/donated food to St. Francis Xavier’s Church on West 16th Street. But now he’s hurting too – and he’s looking for someone to blame.
The reporter’s conclusion:
“The problems that have arisen there since the pandemic ultimately reveal how lost the city seems to be when it comes to dealing with quality-of-life issues. After the profound and devastating failures of broken windows policing, the city seemed to opt for resignation over a system of empathic solutions. Suddenly, that has become all too visible.”
A rather bleak conclusion, but we were struck mostly that the writer (who had previously worked as fashion critic for the Times, and is now on the “Big City” beat) seems constitutionally incapable of calling a spade a spade: “quality-of-life” issues, “empathic solutions” – hey there, we’re talking about poverty and homelessness, just call them by their name and then say it: New York City has long failed the homeless, and the pandemic has made this obvious to all.
“No one deserves to live at the Star Motel”
Our second story in the form of an 8-minute video detailing the struggles of the homeless residents of the Star Motel in Kissimmee, Florida, tells a similar story. The hotel’s residents are largely service workers in Orlando’s tourism industry, and before the pandemic they were mostly working at Disney World in Orlando or one of the big resort complexes nearby (Kissimmee is the working-class town “across the tracks” [freeway] from the resort). They were making around $13 an hour – in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the area, they would have needed to earn three times that – and now, they’ve been making little or nothing for several months due to the resort’s closure (it’s reopened now, but on a very limited scale). The waiting list for affordable housing is three years.
The video vignette is heartbreaking. The Star Motel (situated along a desolate strip-mall expanse of similar lodgings) was abandoned by its owner last December, and residents were left to fend for themselves. The electricity’s been cut four times in the past several months, and part of the video shows residents trying to count out $1500 – in small bills – to get it turned back on. They succeeded that day, but the city then billed them another $9,000 in back payments, and shut the power down again (apparently permanently). One family of three – a mother and her two teenage children who have been motel-hopping for seven years – couldn’t take any more, so they pooled all the money they had to move to a “real” motel – the Magic Castle – a short distance away, where there was power and thankfully, air-conditioning. The 17-year-old daughter works at a Taco Bell; it closed when a worker tested positive for Covid-19, and then it reopened; she wavers between dropping out of school altogether and going to work full-time, quitting her job and concentrating on school full-time – and utter despair. She keeps repeating the phrase “I’m so tired.”
This short video is worth watching in full primarily for the first-hand testimony of residents and an interview with Homeless Services workers (two short clips, very trenchant). Kissimmee is hopeless, literally. The local government response is hopeless, the homeless are in despair, and Disney World – the “happiest place in the world” – is very, very complicit in the general misery of their essential work force.
“Destroying a sanctuary does not solve homelessness“
Finally, we return to a story we covered last week about the unannounced razing of a small community garden run by the Renaissance Park Community Association in Peoria, Illinois. In that story, we quoted the Association’s Facebook page’s official statement on the garden’s peremptory razing by contractors working for the City of Peoria. We also quoted from 2nd District City Councilman, Charles (Chuck) Grayeb’s post and comments on his Facebook page.
When we checked back earlier this week, we were unable to locate his original post (from Friday, September 4) and its 240 or so comments despite repeated searches – it turns out he deleted it (happily, we’ve saved his original statement). Instead, he’s now commenting on the page of a community member, and there was quite an exchange yesterday.
Jennifer Fifer’s own post was short and pointed:
“I championed Charles Grayeb when he cared about and fought against the firehouse closures, but this is more than just disappointing, I have lost the respect I recently gained.”
But Fifer then went on to publish in full a letter to the Peoria City Council by a Main Street small-business owner (Jessica Stephenson, owner of Lit. on Fire Books, about a block from the razed garden). We quote Stephenson’s most relevant paragraph:
“Worse than anything else though, is that our housing crisis has only grown amidst pandemic driven layoffs and closings, and some of our housing unstable community members had found respite and safety among the garden. This was a place that citizens could rest, get some free produce to recharge, and simply avoid arrest because of how our city criminalizes the poor. We have some very important and vital community services who have been actively working with and connecting our homeless population with needed and valuable services within our district and beyond. Those services were not contacted. Instead, the night of our community sit in protest, before the event even began, one of our housing unstable community members who is well known here, was arrested yet again by police. Eugene Graves deserved a chance to be there with us to say goodbye to our garden and venue, and to grieve the loss of our neighborhood’s pride and joy.”
Grayeb doesn’t understand what he failed to do – notify the community association in advance that their garden was scheduled to be destroyed, apologize, and start the process of identifying a new and hopefully, more permanent site. Whether that was deliberate or not, we can’t venture an opinion (Grayeb claimed in his original communique that he’d assumed the organization was defunct, but it did happen just before the wedding weekend of the Association’s President and Vice-President, making it difficult to coordinate their response). Despite several commenters’ irate but good-faith attempts to explain it to him, he persists in accusing them of failing to thank the owner of the lot where the garden was located (they did so in their official statement), and of disregarding/disrespecting various city homeless outreach services (how could that be, since some volunteers were working with homeless service providers on a regular basis?).
One commenter, Chris Schaffner, knows a lot about homelessness in Peoria – as do the service providers at Peoria Homeless Continuum of Care, and the volunteers who knew all the unhoused who frequented the park, and endeavored to connect them with core services provision [shower facilities, for example]. Schaffner has multiple posts on the razing of the garden, plus comments from volunteers who worked there over the course of a decade, including the woman who co-founded the garden, Jessica McGhee.
Grayeb resorts to some odd locutions and responses on Jennifer Fifer’s post (linked above). A sampling:
“…telling people who are doing work daily to help the homeless that you need their help to aid the homeless can come across like you are not seeing or understanding their existing contributions. I strongly encourage you to understand and explicitly thank them for their work when you have dialogue with them.”
“ … Love you all.” (in response to criticism which he couldn’t understand; that “Love you all” did an awful lot of performative service on this thread)
[Note: He also issued a number of dire warnings along the lines of “winter is approaching,” which in one instance became “Winter is coming.” We had to restrain ourselves from responding “What do you think this is, The Game of Thrones Peoria edition? Everybody in Peoria knows winter is brutal, no need to remind us, we’re well aware.”]
A response by Renaissance Park garden co-founder Jessica McGhee:
“The only people that reached out to the ‘wonderful volunteer’ who visited that site every day were the police, letting us know that the city wanted us to move all of those people somewhere else. When we asked where, there were no suggestions made. Just ‘away.’” [Emphasis added]
That’s the key to all of this: “just … away,” just “somewhere else,” somewhere other than where my family and I pass by, or visit the shops, or fill up on gas (does Grayeb understand what sort of ill will the owner of the razed lot has already garnished in advance of any effort to develop it?).
But in a crisis – and all three of these stories, drawn from all over the U.S., are Covid-19 related homelessness crises– the underlying structural inequities become harder to ignore, harder to expunge from one’s line of sight, harder to reconcile with one’s own still-comfortable (or at least, tolerable) life. And so – let them be gone, somewhere, anywhere,anywhere but here.
If you don’t want to have to encounter homeless people, then abolish homelessness – in Peoria, in Kissimmee, and on New York City’s West Side. Is it easy? No, it’s difficult and complex. Is it doable? Yes. It’s a question of political will, and right now my hometown politicians are sadly bereft of that will. It’s shameful.
But as Councilman Grayeb reminded his readers repeatedly, winter is coming. And winter in Peoria will be followed by spring and local Mayoral and City Council elections.
States and Cities Need $1 Trillion: They May Well Get $0
Yesterday there was a post on our go-to Illinois politics site (Capitol Fax) with some discussion about Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and US Senator Dick Durbin calling for federal aid to states and municipalities. The excerpts from the local press included such gems as this:
“The Republican proposal would add $300 a week to unemployment checks, down from the $600 boost that expired last month. Democrat Bernie Sanders tweeted that it also included $161 million ‘corporate welfare to the coal industry.’ But for many Democrats, the biggest objection is that Republicans offer nothing to local governments, such as the state of Illinois, which is warning of layoffs without at least $5 billion. [Emphasis added]
“Big corporations all across the nation have received billions and billions and billions of dollars of aid. But now when it comes to the very social services, the very education, the frontline, you know, first responders–our police, our firefighters–now they’re gonna fall short?” Pritzker said.
“As members of Congress get back to work, some are looking for another COVID-19 aid package. President Donald Trump said he doesn’t support bailing out what he called “badly run” Democratic cities and states, “whether it’s New York or Illinois.” […]
“U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said Illinois should not get a bailout for years of policymakers neglecting the state’s finances before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“‘No one is going to bail out the structural debt and deficit that Illinois has,’ Davis said. ‘That’s not a pandemic expense, that’s not something that’s caused by the pandemic.’” […]
Note to Representative Davis: That $1 trillion wasn’t for structural deficits, as we would hope you are aware. And you should also know that every single state in the U.S. is in more or less the same position as Illinois right now (and a good many are in far worse shape – Hawaii, California and Texas, for example).
Not, about that “skinny” version of the coronavirus relief bill the Senate might vote on tomorrow (or not, who knows?):
The version of the HEALS Act Senate Majority Leader McConnell is shopping around among his colleagues is about half of what it was before the Senate went on vacation in August ($1.3 trillion). What happened in August that persuaded McConnell to cut the earlier version in half? Did Covid recede (190,000+ deaths and counting as of today)? Did the economy recover? Did manna fall from heaven?
So: about $500 billion (maybe $700 billion, but don’t count on it), with $100 billion for schools/colleges to re-open in person, a second Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses to keep employees on their payrolls, and $300 a week to unemployed workers (half of what the CARES Act authorized), through the end of December.
There’s nothing at all for states/municipalities, which means that nearly every state is looking at significant deficits in their current budgets and deficits perhaps twice as large in 2021.
This doesn’t have much to do with what the President and conservatives are putting forth as their main argument against aid to states/cities, for example: “We can’t reward states like Illinois for being profligate and allow them to pay down their public employees’ pension debt,” etc. Illinois is Every Republican in Washington’s favorite whipping-boy, and it’s always the same argument.
But this is a deceptive argument to say the least: this isn’t about Illinois, it’s about every single state in the country (+ the territories + D.C.), and it’s not about long-term debt (the pension debt), it’s about current fund deficits – in other words, it’s a liquidity crunch that threatens every single state and city in America.
Without federal assistance (the House’s HEROES Act, voted in May, included around $1.3 billion for states/cities) both state and local governments will have to slash state/local employees (think “police, fire, health care, core services) just to stay afloat until 2022. [Note: All states, with the exception of Vermont, are obligated to operate with balanced budgets.]
The irony shouldn’t escape us – many of the states which are going to be hit hardest are not “Democrat-controlled” (like Illinois), but Republican (Texas) or swing states (Pennsylvania).
The inability to meet current (running) expenses due to a massive drop in current (tax) revenues doesn’t break down “Democratic” and “Republican,” and both local/state government officials and citizens who pretend it does are harming any last-ditch lobbying efforts still (barely) possible in Washington over the next few days. Repeat: they’re harming their own state, and they’re harming the entire country.
You don’t have to be politically woke to figure out that getting rid of firefighters (my own hometown just got rid of two “engines,” i.e. stations = 22 firefighters), police, health department personnel and critical services isn’t any way to deal with a country in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.
Moody’s Analytics calculated in June that states will need around $300 billion and cities, around $200 billion over the next two years just to keep afloat.
What’s the plan? We can’t seem to discern one – and frankly, nobody else can, either.
Or maybe there is some rhyme to this total absence of reason: the Hill is reporting today that the relief bill is falling victim to some Republicans’ 2024 Presidential aspirations.
A look at five prime suspects:
Ted Cruz (Texas):
Cruz won a big concession for private school tax credits so that “scholarship tax credits” could continue for two years; in addition, he pushed for tax credits to include those who homeschool.
Cruz for the win:
“‘I made clear to the conference if my legislation providing tax credits for school choice was included I would vote yes and if it wasn’t, I would vote no,’ he added.
Josh Hawley (Missouri):
“Hawley, a rising conservative star, as of Wednesday said he remained undecided on the bill as he pushed for his own idea: a fully refundable tax credit for home-schooling expenses.
“I’m undecided,” he said. “I would like to see us do something for home-school parents and for parents whose kids are learning at home because their schools are all online — something to help them cover their out-of-pocket costs.”
In which Hawley out-Cruzes Cruz, that’s an accomplishment of sorts.
Rand Paul (Kentucky):
“We don’t have any money up here, we’ve already borrowed $3 trillion for this thing,” he said. “If we keep printing up money and giving it to people, no one has an incentive to open the economy.”
Kentucky’s doing itself proud what with enjoying the libertarian services of Mr. Paul and the Majority leadership services of Mr. McConnell. Also: No matter what bill is voted on, Mr. Paul will vote against it, because that’s the libertarian: always vote “No.”
Marco Rubio (Florida):
“Rubio, who also ran against Trump for the GOP nomination in 2016, led the recent effort to include funding for another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) small-business loans in the revamped Republican bill.
“The PPP loans would cover up to 2½ times a business’s monthly payroll costs, up to a maximum loan value of $2 million. The new language simplifies the loan forgiveness application process for current and future borrowers who receive loans under $150,000.
The PPP (=Pandemic Protection Program), of which Rubio was a key architect, is considered a huge success for him (let’s just hope all those $2 million dollar loans actually go to companies that a) need them and b) are going to remain open following the pandemic.
Tom Cotton (Arkansas):
“Cotton, a fiery conservative senator, played a key role in helping to unify the Republican conference behind a relief bill by urging colleagues to listen to the needs of vulnerable Senate Republicans in tough races.
“Cotton argued that it would be better for Republicans to pass a moderately sized relief bill than risk Democrats winning control of the White House and Senate and passing legislation on the scale of the $3.4 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act that the House advanced in May, according to GOP senators who attended the meeting.”
It seems possible that Presidential wannabes are jostling for a position in 2024 here, although the disdain and disregard for individual states and cities is breathtaking – they’re putting personal ambitions and party in-fighting ahead of the economic survival of the entire country (which, we note, is still more than 11 million jobs short of what it had in early March).
This may well end in a total debacle, i.e. no coronavirus relief bill at all being passed. And the Republicans will blame the Democrats and turn it to their “advantage” in November – even though no relief at all is exactly what Republican leadership has clearly been hoping for since May.
Our mission is to consider how the various areas we cover frequently cross paths with one another in ways that heighten the negative consequences in both areas.
Today, we look at a housing-and-policing story concerning Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a tourism mecca due to the great beauty of its old Southern mansions (“antebellum”) and lush vegetation – the city is magnolia heaven, for those who favor the sweet, somewhat sticky scent released by their flowers. In fact, Charleston is home to the oldest public garden in the U.S. – Magnolia Plantation, where Gone with the Wind was filmed.
The city is a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there unless you’re very, very well off. As a consequence of gentrification over the past several decades, Charleston has one of the least-affordable housing markets for the poor – and not incidentally, the top eviction market, too.
And it’s just gotten worse: recently, the Charleston Housing Authority (CHA) turned over two of its managed housing units over to the Charleston Police Department (CPD) to use as a substation, even though there is already a station nearby.
“Activists and organizers see this as both a tone deaf misappropriation of resources and illustrative of a larger push to displace residents of the Gadsden Green community, the predominantly Black and low-income public housing community in the Charleston peninsula’s Westside.
“It reeks of pushing the community out and really creating a hostile environment. It’s precursor displacement,” says Omar Muhammad, executive director of Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for community development and environmental justice.”
The CHA is publicizing its gift to CPD as a way to lessen crime in a crime-ridden area – by giving officers a chance to hold events in the former units, and stop for a snack, etc., they’ll supposedly get to know the neighborhood’s residents, thereby contributing to more understanding, better will, etc.
The neighborhood that’s being targeted for “precursor displacement” Gadsden Green:
“Gadsden Green was a tight-knit and hearty Black neighborhood until the 1930s, when it became the target of land seizure by the city. Through an ‘urban renewal’ project, the nearby marsh was turned into a municipal dump by the 1950s.”
That certainly sounds familiar – a municipal dump deliberately situated nearby a Black neighborhood.
Now, however, there’s a projected new development, a public-private partnership that will drain the marshlands and build new apartment complexes near Gadsden Green. In anticipation of this new (presumably market-priced) housing, the CPD is increasing its policing in the Black neighborhood:
“The connection between over-policing and gentrification makes the police substation all-too anticipated, as over-policing and increased surveillance is particularly prominent as an area gentrifies. In an analysis of New York neighborhoods between 2009 and 2015, real estate-invested neighborhoods were more likely to see intensified misdemeanor policing. Alongside the increase of property values was an increase in arrests for offenses like loitering, disorderly conduct, and drug possession.” [Emphasis added]
On the changing demographics of Charleston in recent decades:
“Black neighborhoods and communities have been consistently left out of the city’s massive growth and disproportionately impacted by rental burdens. The makeup of the city shifted from roughly two-thirds Black to two-thirds white within 30 years, representing a 55% drop in Black population as individuals moved further from the downtown area.”
And did we mention that the city’s minimum wage remains at the federal level, i.e. $7.25 an hour?
Other policies which disproportionately harm the city’s Black residents:
No rent control
No obligation for landlords to accept Section 8 (housing) vouchers
Easy eviction process – you don’t even need a judge, just a magistrate, who may not even have a law degree (not required)
This type of oppression, which today is largely economic, and serves to prevent Blacks in Charleston from even starting to build generational wealth or obtain a good education, is nothing new – after all, the city was literally built by slave labor – 40% of slaves passed through the Charleston slave market. And it was home to the first police force in the U.S. – the “slave patrol.”
A racial audit of the police carried out by the CPD of North Charleston following the shooting of Walter Scott in 2015 yielded the following scarcely-surprising results:
“Black community members were involved with nearly three times as many incidents of police force, racial disparities in traffic stop-rates, search decisions for stops in which a warning was used, and traffic stops that end in citations.”
One issue fairly specific to Charleston – recalling here that every city has its own history of structural racism, though many of the intended objectives (here, gentrification) and inevitable consequences (economic misery, Black flight, over-policing in anticipation of “clearing out” neighborhoods) – is that the city, whose economy is mass tourism-based, literally makes its livelihood by touting its past as a center of slavery.
But that’s going to be a tougher and tougher sell as time passes:
“This city is doubling down on white supremacy and systemic oppression in ways that will inevitably lead to its demise. There’s no way this is sustainable for anyone.” (Tamika “Mika” Gadsden, a local activist and radio show host who runs the Charleston Activist Network)
The pattern is by now pretty clear: gentrification → “precursor displacement” → Black flight / increased housing precariousness of those Blacks who remain → disinvestment in surviving Black neighborhoods accompanied by over-policing and under-protection.
One could perhaps make an argument here that Charleston, by virtue of its history and current economy, is somehow unique. But it’s not – the details might be unique, but the overall arc of the story is the same as what has happened in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Peoria – the subject of yesterday’s post, where we could now characterize the razing of Renaissance Park Community Garden as “precursor displacement,” too in anticipation of a $25-million federal grant to “redevelop” Main Street.
Our hometown of Peoria, Illinois suffered a small crisis due to an indignity foisted upon a small community garden this past week.
Here’s the big picture: Renaissance Park Community Garden, located at 622 W. Main Street near Sheridan, had been operating for a decade on a small plot of land belonging to the owner of the gas station next door. Note: the owner lives in Wisconsin. [Update: the latest communiques would indicate that the gas station has recently been sold, along with the lot at 622 W. Main where the Garden is situated – presumably, it’s the new owner who wants to develop the lot in some fashion. Question to self: If this is the case, then why was it seeded with grass after razing? Also: Who is the new owner? Are they local?]
A dedicated leadership and corps of volunteers maintained a vegetable garden, donating food to community members each season. [Note: the garden is in Council District 2, which is officially a “food desert.”] The space also served as a respite for homeless individuals, particularly during the pandemic, when the main library and its branches remained closed. [Note: apparently the only place neighborhood residents can purchase food is the gas station’s market.]
On Thursday, September 3, the garden was razed and its furniture and art works – created by and for the garden over the course of years, and the property of RPCA – were summarily put in a storage facility belonging to the City of Peoria.
This happened – after a decade of community building and hard work – without the City of Peoria even notifying the officers of RPCA. Here’s the group’s statement, which was released on Friday, September 4 (from their Facebook page):
OFFICIAL STATEMENT ON COMMUNITY GARDEN
Renaissance Park Community Association
Statement drafted by Per Ellingson, President RPCA and Angie Ostaszewski, Vice President RPCA, with support from Jessica McGhee, Founder, RPCA and Lula Peoria, Adam Gasper, Treasurer, RPCA, and Jay Ritchie, Garden Coordinator
Please direct questions and media inquiries to Adam Gasper, Treasurer, RPCA
Yesterday, September 3, 2020, Renaissance Park Community Association (RPCA) was shocked to learn the community garden was being razed by a City of Peoria contractor. We immediately began a calling campaign to understand what transpired for something so heartbreaking to occur. We would like to outline the facts for our community in the hopes that we can come together to create a solution from this tragedy.
President Per Ellingson would like to share, “This action is not representative of our community. We believe West Main is a diverse and inclusive area that celebrates all of its residents. We are a community of artists, gardeners, volunteers, and more. We believe in dignity and respect for all of our neighbors, and we will find a path forward for the garden because of the incredible support within this community.”
The Renaissance Park Community Garden was founded by Jessica and James McGhee ten years ago with volunteers and community support. The plot is owned by the adjacent gas station land owners who gave permission for the lot to be used as a community space. Volunteers cleared the lot and transformed it into a garden space. Since then, it has served as an urban park, a place to obtain fresh and free produce, a music venue, an art space, and a resting spot for many members of our community. Every object in that space was lovingly created and placed, including, most recently, a stage for performances that was hand-built by volunteers with materials funded by the City of Peoria Innovation Team.
On Friday afternoon, our president Per Ellingson received several calls that the garden was being razed. This was the first time anyone in our organization had been notified that this was taking place. He immediately went to the garden and began a string of phone calls to gather information on how this happened. Below is an outline of what we learned.
-The contractor razing the garden works for the City of Peoria. The city worked with the owners of the lot to arrange for it to be razed in preparation for business expansion.
-When we spoke with Councilman Chuck Grayeb as to why we weren’t informed, he said he assumed the organization was defunct. We would like to make it very clear that, although we have not hosted events in the garden for several months due to COVID, it was still an active space and was tended to regularly by our garden coordinator and community volunteers. City representatives have our contact information as it is listed in the City of Peoria neighborhood association directory, and it is easy to find and contact us via our website and social media, which is still active.
-City representatives on site told RPCA that all equipment would be taken to storage and we would be given the first opportunity to pick them up, while other workers on site notified RPCA that the items had been committed by the city to go to another non-profit. We have heard from Ross Black, City of Peoria Community Development Director, as of this morning that the items are in storage. Again, RPCA was not involved in any discussion prior to this regarding the ultimate destination of our belongings.
-While arranging for the plot to be razed, neither Councilman Chuck Grayeb nor any other city representatives involved coordinated support or alternative options for the homeless individuals who visit the garden on a regular basis.
In order to try to accurately and concisely communicate our position, we would like to share what we believe should have happened.
-As soon as city representatives were aware that the plot would be repurposed for business expansion, they should have notified RPCA. RPCA would have arranged to haul all materials safely, without damage, and began a proactive search for a new garden location.
-We also believe city representatives should have reached out to one of many extraordinary non-profits that support our neighbors experiencing homelessness and arranged proactively for service and support for those losing a resting place. If RPCA had been notified, we would have offered to coordinate the involvement of these organizations as well. During a pandemic, it is even more difficult for homeless individuals to receive basic services, or find places to even use the restroom or obtain water.
-Unfortunately, these non-profits now have to react to this tragedy and coordinate resources as quickly as possible rather than being given the opportunity to be a proactive part of the solution. This is the time we should be coming together to help our most vulnerable rather than shutting out community advocates who are willing to put in the work.
-With notice, the community would also have been given an opportunity to provide input on this decision and have closure. Many of us were shocked to tears seeing a beloved space wiped away without warning. Unfortunately, the manner in which this was done was extremely divisive and we believe this could have been prevented.
We’d like to close our statement by sharing a few calls to action for those who want to take a next step on this issue. We are grateful to the owners of the plot for allowing us to use the space for a decade. We do not take this for granted and understand and support their decision to expand their business. Where our frustration originates is the manner in which this transpired, and we place that blame on 2nd district councilman Chuck Grayeb. If you are interested in supporting the garden, we ask that you consider doing the following:
1. Contacting 2nd district council Chuck Grayeb to share your dissatisfaction via phone at 309-213-6629 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Reach out to Renaissance Park Community Association via Facebook and volunteer to help us find a new home for the garden. We will be forming a working committee to bring together our energy and passion to create a new and welcoming garden space.
Also on Friday, a “competing” statement was released by the District 2 City Council member, Chuck Grayeb (also released via Facebook):
“The City and conscientious proprietors of business will not permit gardens that are untended and strewn with garbage, weeds, litter, and discarded needles on West Main or anywhere else. Citizens who live in the area should not have to watch folks urinating and defecating as they drive by or witness drug deals going down. The property owner of the gas station is looking at an expansion at Main and Sheridan and has been working with City Staff. I am happy to work with any organization which has the CAPACITY and work ethic to maintain an unblighted area. Also, in this time of Covid, there were multiple violations of CDC and Illinois guidelines at this site. For many years, the volunteers did the hard work. This garden area remains private property, and we must thank a very generous proprietor who did not have to allow any such use in the first place. The City does not own the property and cannot compel ownership to do anything, if any land remains after the new gas station/ store is built. I do stress that the City will work with any responsible organization if another plot of land is located that is being offered. I remain very proud of our West Main merchants and West Bluff neighborhoods and know that they have a huge stake in this area. I will also remind the former owners of Blue that we helped them abate issues at a neighboring business when they were on West Main.”
When Grayeb was informed that members of the Association were upset (distressed, actually), he simply noted that he’d assumed the association was defunct – but Grayeb is an experienced member of the City of Peoria government and knew very well how to contact the officers of Renaissance Park at any time; after all, they’re listed in the City’s Neighborhood Associations, and he could have picked up the phone and called the President (Per Ellingson, who lives on Douglas Street off Main). But he didn’t.
Whose responsibility was it to notify the Renaissance Park Community Association that the site was to be razed? The (new) owner’s or the city’s?
Shouldn’t the City of Peoria, and specifically the Councilman for District 2, have taken the initiative to notify the interested parties once he knew the owner hadn’t? Grayeb claims he thought the Association was “defunct,” which is the ultimate excuse for failure to notify. If the RPCA no longer existed, neither the owner nor the City (through Grayeb) had any responsibility to notify anybody – it was analogous to clearing an abandoned property. [Note: the City of Peoria hired the equipment to raze the site, not the owner, and the Association’s property appears to have been stored in City storage.]
Here’s a message from Thursday (?) purportedly written by Grayeb (signed with his initials) and forwarded to someone (“Pinck KT” in the comment thread on Grayeb’s FB page):
Note: “MBRA” = the Moss Bradley Residential Association. For those not familiar with the neighborhood, it’s worth scrolling through the photo gallery on their home page to get an idea of what it’s like, because that plays a role in how we interpret the chain of events that led to the garden’s destruction. [Here’s a typical Moss Avenue property for sale to give a sense of property values in this neighborhood.] [Sid Ruckriegel, an at-large colleague of Grayeb’s on the Peoria City Council, is the MBRA Treasurer.]
Mr. Grayeb’s Facebook page is rife with rumors and accusations flying back and forth among some commenters (though some, we should note, are gracious and high-minded and polite; apparently, though, the Councilman has been deleting comments for the past 24 hours – there are quite a few commenters noting that their initial comments have “disappeared”).
A sampling of comments:
“Sorry I had to comeback to say one last thing. Since when is it the responsibility of a group of volunteers to clean up used needles and human excrement, isn’t that the kind of streets and sanitation responsibility of the municipal government? You denigrate Renaissance Park Community Association NFP as irresponsible and lacking capacity and work ethic, then thank the land owner for letting volunteers clean up his mess and provide community services on his neglected property, but not a word of gratitude to the volunteers that funded it, built it, and maintained it and the garbages and planters along the West Main corridor, doing the city’s job for ten years.” [Marcus Fogliano]
“It really saddens and angers me to see the complete disregard for both the community members that created this space and the folks who were most currently using it as a safe space. The problems that those folks may have are not erased by removing a garden. Are you working on a solution for that?” [Jackie Henson Armich]
“Instead of acknowledging the loss, all I see are baseless accusations and widening of divisions. Furthermore, instead of listening to constituents, you are deleting comments. It’s alarming, to say the least.
“What kind of person fights so hard when people are obviously aggrieved over something that literally would have taken 5 minutes. Like… even if the place still had to go, you really can’t apologize when it’s pointed out you lacked almost literally the least amount of courtesy possible?” [Angie Ostaszewski, volunteer and wife of Renaissance Garden President Per Ellingson – a notably gracious comment, given that Ostaszewski and her husband were stalwarts of the garden.]
We sense that Councilman Grayeb caved to more powerful (i.e. monied) interests, and we believe it improbable someone so knowledgeable of City government didn’t bother to contact the Garden’s officers for the reason he cited (“assumed it was defunct”). More likely, the pandemic led to some neglect, both of the garden as well as of the trash that was accumulating in and around it, including refuse left by the homeless who used it as a refuge during the past six months. This is not a criticism of the officers and volunteers – social distancing would have meant that not as many people came out to help on a regular basis from March to June-July. But it’s clear from comments on Grayeb’s FB page that there were at least some efforts made to keep it maintained, do some planting, and clear refuse (this stretch of Main Street tends to get messy). Volunteers did what they could in a very challenging time for the city, the state, and the country.
The presence of homeless individuals and accumulation of refuse (both human and man-made, including, according to some – not all – commenters, syringes) probably led residents in the wealthy Moss Bradley neighborhood to complain to at-large City Council member Sid Ruckriegel (who lives on Moss Avenue), although some members of the Moss Bradley Residential Association claimed that the topic wasn’t raised at the meeting held outside on the front lawn of the Pettingill-Morron House on Wednesday (?) night. [Note: Who’s telling the truth here? Who knows, at this point?]
There was no possible justification, apart from the excuse of indifference (and that’s an explanation, not a justification) for the failure to notify Peoria’s Homeless Services (Heart of Illinois Homeless Continuum of Care) in advance of the razing. When volunteers returned to the site after the garden was destroyed, the homeless people who had found respite there had dispersed, and no one was able to locate them.
The Renaissance Park Community Association board has stated that it will be looking for another site to start a new garden in future, the implication being that they’ll be looking for another owner to donate land for cultivation (and other community activities – art exhibits, concerts, etc.). We would suggest instead that they request that the City make one or more Peoria land bank properties available to neighborhood residents – and while they’re at it, why not extend the offer of one or more plots of city-owned land to some of District 1’s neighborhoods too? The City should undertake to clear and turn the soil in advance of any property’s being turned into a garden, the soil should be tested to make sure it is free of contaminants, and we would suggest that such lots be planted in nutrient-rich cover crops for one year before cultivation proper begins. This time could be spent in re-incorporation of the RPCA (perhaps as a cooperative), in professional development, in community outreach, and in training volunteers.
Two types of disrespect were demonstrated by the City (and Council member Grayeb) towards its residents here: (1) towards the Renaissance Park Community Association itself – both its Board and its volunteers, as well as the neighborhood residents who had felt themselves a part of a vibrant community, and (2) towards the homeless population who took refuge in the Garden when the pandemic had shut down other refuges/public venues.
Footnote: In 2018, the City of Peoria erected a “parklet” two blocks further west, in the 800 block of W. Main, outside an ice cream parlor called “Las Delicias”:
“For months … the city Innovation Team or I-Team met with area residents, neighborhood groups and businesses to get their feedback on some ideas to revitalize the area. The parklet was seen as an inexpensive method to link the areas north of Sheridan Road to the areas closer to the Bradley University campus.”
This is a stretch of Main Street located not far from Bradley University which is struggling mightily to gentrify. Clearly, however, the City is expending effort (and money – the cost of a parklet runs between $5,000 and $10,000) to make this section – roughly, six-eight blocks between Sheridan and University Street – more attractive (“upscale”). There are small boutique-like shops, some ethnic restaurants, a charity shop, a Habitat for Humanity Restore among others along this stretch currently.
But apparently a community garden didn’t fit into the plan. We’ll close with another quote from Coucilman Grayeb, reporting on initiatives in the neighborhood as of August, 2018:
“The upscale 25 million dollar Muse Housing Development has been approved by the City Council. It will serve the UofICOMP and BU student clientele with 330 more people residing, studying, and spending disposable income in our neighborhoods and great City, come August of 2020.
“The historic Larkin Building at Main and Sheridan is undergoing a facelift. The experimental Bloomberg grant parkelet— a people oasis— outside Las Delicias was a great success and look for more of them.
“We have applied for 25 million dollars of federal money to do a complete rebuild of West Main from Laura Bradley Park to Water Street. Features will include a bike path and wider sidewalks and more exciting al fresco dining opportunities for our restaurants.” [Emphasis added]
The keywords here: “upscale,” “facelift,” “oasis,” “complete rebuild” and “al fresco dining opportunities” all spell “gentrification.”
And when gentrification comes, there’s no place for the homeless among us.
The Kentucky Derby will, to the surprise of many, be run this Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The 150,000 or so rich fans and assorted hangers-on will be absent, however – no fancy hats and $1,000 mint juleps this year.
Louisville (population 600,000+, of whom around 25% are Black; the Black poverty rate is 35%) had originally planned to have 23,000 spectators, but due to Covid-19 and pressure from local activists, this plan was squelched. So there will be no one there.
Readers will recall that Louisville was also the site of the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was shot in her own home while in bed last March 13 when three LMPD officers broke into the home with a no-knock warrant and her boyfriend (who wasn’t even the person they had a warrant out on) fired a shot believing that intruders had broken in (he also called 911 to report a break-in). The police officers then fired 20 rounds. Breonna was hit (at least) five times, and survived for a few minutes while her boyfriend was frantically calling in the shooting.
As of early August, the city had undergone 75 days of protest, with the core demand that the police who killed Taylor be arrested and charged with murder (to date, one has been fired and another two have been reassigned to admin positions; that’s it). The LMPD has been typically unforthcoming about the incident – they were searching for two drug dealers (neither of them, however, were at the home – one was a former boyfriend who’d left some time previously, and he was already in custody when the warrant was [incorrectly] executed) and purportedly suspected Breonna’s home was being used as a drug drop. (It also seems possible that they hadn’t bothered to verify whether the ex-boyfriend still lived there at all.)
“No justice, no Derby” is the latest meme in Louisville, joining “Say Her Name”, as activists condemn the decision to go ahead and hold a “celebratory event” as if nothing had happened in the city.
The Derby is the first of the three “Triple Crown” thoroughbred horseraces held each spring in the U.S., and is traditionally held on the first Saturday in May; the second is the Preakness Stakes ([Pimlico] Baltimore, Md, held on the third Saturday in May), and the third is the Belmont Stakes ([Belmont Park], Elmont, NY). If a three-year-old wins all three races, then they become the “Triple Crown” winner; only 13 horses have won it. The stud fees for winners – which is where the real money is to be made – can reach $200,000, and a stallion may “cover” (live breed with) as many as 200 mares a season in North America, and then travel to South America and do the same again – for a total of $8,000,000 in a single breeding year. [The race itself has a winnings pool of around $2 million, two-thirds of which goes to the winner.]
In a city whose large Black population continues to grieve an entirely unjustified / unwarranted killing of a young Black woman who was loved and known in her community, it seems like pouring salt in the wound to hold the Derby at all – nearly all the economic benefits to the city will be lost anyway due to the absence of spectators, and it’s very hard to comprehend the reasoning behind the decision at all – the official public statement was insensitive:
“Officials’ unprecedented announcement in late August, which described the Derby as ‘a time-honored American tradition … about bringing people together,’ did little to quell efforts to boycott or disrupt it.”
The bitter irony of it all is that while today, thoroughbred horseracing is a rich man’s sport, with tickets starting at around $1500 for a halfway decent view of the track (2019 prices) – no one from the city’s Black community can enjoy the event, and all it causes is a weekend of traffic nightmares in the lower middle-class mixed-race neighborhood surrounding the Downs), during the first quarter-century of thoroughbred racing in the U.S. at Churchill Downs, Black jockeys reigned supreme, actually winning the Derby 15 times between 1875 and 1902. In a very real sense, they made the sport we know today.
But as in so many other fields of endeavor, once big money came into play (betting, buying-selling the horses themselves), the Black jockeys were forced out of the sport. Between 1921 and 2000, not a single Black jockey rode in the race.
“‘Like too many things in America, what African Americans helped start and what African Americans helped become a powerhouse in the economic field, we were excluded from once money was made,’ said Lamont Collins, founder of Louisville’s Roots 101 African American Museum. ‘And that’s the truth of the Kentucky Derby.’”
Jecorey Arthur, a 28-year-old musician who recently became the youngest person ever elected to the Louisville Metro Council:
“Arthur had pushed for Saturday’s race to be canceled unless it barred spectators. Some people reacted as if he had spoken blasphemy, he said, because the race is ‘just such a sacred time for our city. But what they fail to realize is that it has never been sacred for us, for over 100 years now, because we haven’t been included in that celebration. We haven’t been included in that economic impact. We haven’t been included in Louisville.’” [Emphasis added]
We’re reminded of reporting and stories we’ve read about Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood (Tulsa Race Massacre, late May – early June 1921), when the city’s “Black Wall Street” was burned to the ground within the space of about 48 hours, never to recover. And we’re reminded of a story we commented on recently, that about environmental racism in Richmond, Virginia – remember the Black neighborhood featured in that story? Its name was Gilpin, and it too had once been dubbed “The Black Wall Street” of Richmond.
If we were in a position to do something concrete right now, we’d try to organize a movement to found a Black bank again on Chicago’s South/West Sides – and, if Illinois ever gets its Community Bank of Illinois (its public bank, owned by the public and run for the public benefit), we’d lobby at the Statehouse for a dedicated revenue stream to be directed towards backing loans to Black small business owners and would-be owners, and a mortgage stream dedicated to supporting home loans in Illinois’ poorest zip codes, nearly all of which are Black or majority-Black. And if we had power at the national level, well, we’d support federal legislation outlawing single-home zoning in residential areas throughout the entire country, with the goal of achieving fully-integrated, mixed-income housing everywhere, in every city.
And that’s just the start of what we’d do if wishes were horses.
The Derby and Louisville elite who took the final decision about holding the Derby on Saturday have made a grave error. Holding the Derby is wrong politically, it’s pointless from an economic standpoint, and it’s morally culpable.
Our “Further Reading” section today is devoted to two really excellent and deeply moving remembrances of Breonna Taylor, one by her Mother and the other by her sister, 20-year-old Ju’Niyah Palmer:
How Does the Expression “White Privilege” Make You Feel?
“The system does not change until it’s forced to.” – John Oliver
Over at an academic blog, Crooked Timber, which we occasionally read and infrequently comment on, there’s an arcane and convoluted discussion unfolding between one of its front-pagers (Chris Bertram), who’s published two posts in the past week on “White Privilege” (here and here), and the blog’s commenters, who’ve come out in droves to chime in. The first of Bertram’s posts was in response to a piece by Kenan Malik (here); yesterday, Malik replied in a guest post (here).
Whew, now that we’ve got that out of the way: Bertram feels the term – while not perfectly descriptive of the sorts of intangible (and tangible) benefits, aka privileges, conveyed by being white – is useful. Malik, on the other hand, disagrees – mostly, if we understand his argument correctly, because there are many white persons who do not partake of the privileges/benefits deemed to accrue to their skin color.
The reason for this is that they are poor. And despite their skin color, they suffer nearly the same absence of privilege in many respects as Blacks. Malik accepts that racism exists, but feels that “white privilege” is something which is closer aligned to “white economic privilege” vis-à-vis the absence of such privilege of (many) whites and (even more) Blacks.
In other words – we’re simplifying considerably – Malik places the emphasis on “class” (socioeconomic status, SES) rather than on “race,” while Bertram places it on “race.” This is one of the most difficult and troubled disputes in sociological, political, and economic thought in the U.S.
The commenters – who are not all Americans, or even British (Bertram and Malik are British, however, and this may influence their views somewhat, given that racism in America has the unique feature of being the social descendant of slavery) – seem to feel on the whole that the phrase “white privilege” is useful for thinking about the birthright benefits they’ve (largely, unconsciously) enjoyed up to now in their lives. (Note: The blog seems to be read mostly by academics and a highly-educated progressive international Anglophone audience, although we’re inferring this from the level of discourse and the odd personal anecdote; only two commenters have explicitly identified themselves as Black.)
Here are some observations for all those who think it is “useful,” presumably because it’s made them more consciously aware of how they’ve gotten where they are partly because they’re white, or at least, they haven’t had to encounter all the same barriers/impediments as their Black peers:
We’ll start from the “aha!” moment. What, specifically, has realizing you’re a beneficiary of “white privilege” accomplished in terms of concrete actions towards achieving racial equality over the past four months (the term’s been around since 1988, but its use has increased since the George Floyd killing in May)? Do you employ it in speaking with yourself (interior monologue)? Do you employ it in speaking to your family? Your friends? Your colleagues? Do they respond with a similarly “aha!” moment when the light goes on? [Note: If anyone responds, “I’m not a racist, but …” then the light hasn’t gone on.]
More specifically, how is the realization that you’ve enjoyed “white privilege” as part of your racial birthright in America (we can’t speak for Britain) going to change your behavior with respect to the structural roots of that privilege?
Without a massive, concerted and multi-racial campaign to reverse all the state-sanctioned means by which Blacks have been historically discriminated against – in housing, in healthcare, in terms of the built and natural environment, in justice, in education, not to mention the implicit bias which haunts them throughout life – acknowledging that because you were born white, you were in one sense “lucky” (what philosopher Bernard Williams referred to as “moral luck”) and you’ll therefore be more conscious (appreciative?) of that “luck” in future – isn’t going to eradicatethe systemic causes that enable that privilege to exist.
Unless the systems themselves change, your children will wake up one day at a similar (or more violent) moment in history and experience that very same “aha!” moment. In the meantime, the structures that have led to where we are today – structures this blog covers daily – won’t have changed. In fact, they may have become even more rigid and blatant.
Without a mass movement for structural change, white privilege for some will continue along its historical trajectory. Blacks will continue to own $0.07 for every $1.00 of white wealth, they will continue to be excluded from access to loans to purchase homes and start new businesses, they will continue perforce to live near environmentally degraded sites (petrochemical plants, for example, or county incinerators), because the fact that they lost 150 years in accumulation of generational wealth (in the U.S. this is primarily acquired through home ownership) means that they can’t afford to live somewhere else, even assuming that the consequences of 1930s redlining are no longer “legal”: “wealth” has now replaced “race” as a discriminatory factor. Their schools will be poorer because local property taxes support 50% of school spending on average, which means that it will be harder for them to gain admission to universities – and, given the wealth gap, to pay for such education. It is a circle which has long been unbroken.
Our system – the dominant economic system in the Western world for the past 200 or so years – requires that for profits to continue to accrue to ownership, the costs of production have to be minimized. One way of accomplishing this is to drive down the cost of one component of production, viz. labor. The cheaper the labor, the higher the profits for owners/managers/PMC. And, in the 18th and 19th centuries in the U.S., the cheapest form of labor (until 1865) was slaves, at least in the South. In the North, women’s and children’s labor largely staffed the great Northeastern mills and clothing-production factories. Men built the railroads, the factories, worked in steel mills and automobile factories and coal mines.
Following the labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – up to the period following World War II, perhaps as late as the 1970s, male laborers – a fair number of them unionized – earned middle-class wages. But since around 1980, this has changed. A lot of heavy production (automobiles, for example) and once-female production (the entire clothing industry, from spinning to finishing) has been outsourced and off-shored to developing countries where workers earn pennies a day. This has kept profits high, even as U.S. workers’ income has stagnated or declined comparatively over the past 30-40 years – for example, today the U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25, the same as it was in 2009. If it had kept pace with inflation since 1968, today it would be $24 an hour.
Why this quick overview of U.S. economic history? Because it’s related to Malik’s argument that there are many white people who do not enjoy the “privilege” the term Bertram approves is believed to confer on their race. And Malik’s right. There has pretty much always been a white underclass which, apart from being born white, has had precious little access to the “good things in life” that “white privilege” theoretically should confer.
We are used to thinking of Appalachia as the home to a permanent white underclass – the rural, mountain-locked poor whose only significant middle-class interlude was in the days when Coal was King. But this underclass has now spread far beyond Appalachia, and it’s still spreading; if you want to see where it lives today, just look at a map showing where the opioid epidemic has spread throughout the U.S. in the past twenty years. These are people who once had better- or good-paying production jobs, jobs that enabled them to purchase a house in a neighborhood with good schools, schools from which their children graduated before going on to college.
These people – the traditional underclass + those who have slipped/are slipping into the white underclass with the loss of industrial production over the past 40 years – are those Hillary Clinton referred to “deplorables.” Now they work at Walmart and at Amazon fulfillment centers for near-minimum wages, or do odd jobs; they live in houses which have fallen into disrepair; they can’t afford to go to a dentist, or pay their electricity or water bill; their children face few if any prospects of a better life than that of their parents.
There are now entire cities in America whose populations have fallen victim to deindustrialization in the last generation – think “Detroit,” or “Flint” – or, more tellingly, “Kenosha,” which was at one time a major auto manufacturing center. [Note: Here’s an excellent Twitter thread by a former resident of Kenosha which gives a good sense of what the city has become.]
What remains for the former industrial working class, we wonder? What is left?
Well, their whiteness remains, and just as there’s the phrase “white privilege,” there’s also a phrase that connotes the privilege of being white when all other privileges have been lost.
To return to the question of whether “race” or “class” should be the predominant consideration in discussions of “privilege” and its benefits: both are important, and they overlap, though we note that “race” has deeper state-sanctioned and abetted roots than class. Nearly everyone at the top of the capitalist pyramid is white – there’s still plenty of privilege there, including plenty of heritable privilege. Nearly everyone Black falls near the bottom (20%) of the pyramid.
But there are millions of historically poor whites, now being joined by newly-poor whites struggling to stay just below the middle – and failing fast. They too have been left behind by the system – and they are angry and despairing.
Now they’ve taken to the streets of Minneapolis, and Portland, and Kenosha. It’s no longer a question of “what next?” but “where next?”
Addendum: Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth (from Friday):
“It’s a great place to live, it’s a great place to raise a family. We have great schools. We have great parks and lakes. … And when all of this calms down, like I hope it’s trending toward right now, if you really go outside this small area right here, life goes on as normal in Kenosha County and the City of Kenosha.”
“Life goes on as normal …”: that’s kind of the problem right there. We have two Americas, and the phrase “one half doesn’t know how the other half lives” seems particularly apt.