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Poverty: A Triptych from Poor Magazine

These three essays on the fears of poverty are reprinted from Poor Magazine.

These three essays on the fears of poverty are reprinted from Poor Magazine.

Issue #50, June 2000

Homeless in Voucher-Ville

by Lisa Gray-Garcia, aka Tiny

"If you don't have a rent receipt, I am going to have to list you as homeless".

The words crashed up against the bright white walls of the General Assistance (GA) office and slammed into my temples. My GA "worker" was sitting at his sort-of cubicle, his chair facing sideways, with his eyes scrunched together so he didn't actually have to look at me. It was only a few words, a single sentence, but I knew that if he classified me as homeless my entire check would be funneled into a "voucher", for housing I would never receive. This would be so because I actually sleep in a closet, a three hundred dollar closet, but a closet nonetheless, which my friend sublets and is terrified of getting caught for renting, so she refuses to write a rent receipt. This is San Francisco where even yuppies sleep in closets. But yuppies don't have to see my general assistance worker or present a rent receipt, not to mention a few other essential differences, so they are safe. I, on the other hand, am about to be homeless. Before the closet I was homeless; I would be homeless again.

That was one year ago and before Proposition E, a defeated San Francisco ballot initiative which (as my worker attempted to do with me) proposed to cut recipients' general assistance grants to about $50.00 a month in cash and issue a worthless voucher in exchange to "cover" their housing needs.

SF voters have recognized what people tracking housing and treatment trends across the nation have been saying for years. Vouchers do not build housing nor can they create treatment slots. Vouchers serve only one segment of society well, bureaucrats, especially those at Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Since 1979 HUD has been able to reduce spending on "bricks and mortar" (i.e., real housing) by 17 billion dollars a year. Recently they have been able to tear down thousands of public housing projects to be replaced with larger, nicer "mixed-income" apartment complexes. For the people who would have lived in units no longer being developed, and for those displaced by income mixing, HUD issues vouchers.

Similarly, when Clinton signed his welfare reform act and thousands of Social Security recipients lost their cash and medical benefits because they were deemed to have concurrent substance abuse problems, they too were promised vouchers in order to access treatment.

Health and Human Services (HHS) saves millions a year in costs while HUD saves billions, yet both can still lay claim to be serving the needs of America's poor people, all thanks to the mighty voucher.

HHS never even bothered to produce the vouchers they talked about while HUD gives out theirs only to see 44 percent of families return them, unable to find a landlord willing to accept them. This is the case in San Francisco, and likely other cities where the property market has accelerated beyond what the government considers its largesse.

Vouchers serve HUD and HHS bureaucrats remarkably well by allowing them to appear as if they are meeting their responsibilities and by allowing them to reduce spending. It's a win-win situation for any administration craving that all important "compassionate conservative" label.

San Francisco voters saw through the "it's so simple" veneer of vouchering GA recipients. I hope people remember this lesson when Willie Brown and the San Francisco Department of Human Services begin to implement their voucher program aimed at homeless people and new GA applicants who are not in "documented" housing situations (couch surfers, closet dwellers, etc.). Vouchers don't work nationally; they wouldn't have worked under Proposition E, and they won't work in the shelters. Perhaps the bureaucrats should listen to the expertise of low-income people who have experienced homelessness and illogical welfare policies, rather than only listening to themselves.

Lisa Gray-Garcia is the previously homeless, currently at-risk, co-editor of Poor Magazine.


Constitutionally Suspect or Economically Suspect?

by D'Shawn Williams

I close my eyes for just a moment and dream that the soft whish of car exhaust brushing past my face is actually a warm tropical breeze from an island I have never vacationed on.

I know that warm air, that smell I used to have, a car. I used to drive up Second Street towards the Long Beach Freeway, out of the city into the warm recesses of the adjoining suburban landscapes.

Aaaaah to be going HOME ... home, with a plumbing problem and a temperamental sprinkler system, or even a temperamental landlord. These aren't my "problems" any more. My life, such as it was, was based on a reality I could not maintain. There were too many demons in my head to close them out. Post-traumatic stress syndrome — that's what the therapists called it — when I returned from home from Vietnam. After maintaining a home, a 50 hour/week warehousing job, even a spouse — I cracked. The one paycheck away from homelessness adage applied, and within weeks I was down to my last dollar.

Fast forward six years. I am feeling your car exhaust against my calves. My mind wanders to comforts of days past and I beg for your spare change. I have tried to get into a recovery program, but in Los Angeles as in most places across the country, access to recovery programs and mental health services for low-income people is almost non-existent.

The State Supreme Court gave a nod to municipal anti-begging laws this Thursday, ruling that they do not regulate the content of a person's speech and are not "constitutionally suspect."

The 5-2 ruling has no bearing on Los Angeles' attempt to ban so-called aggressive panhandling because the ordinance is blocked in federal court. But the recent ruling basically robs me and my fellow panhandlers of the ability to defend our right to freedom of speech.

The sad fact is that certain members of the community just don't want poor people such as myself in sight, just as Mayor Daly didn't want to see young African-American youth standing on street corners in Chicago (until the Supreme Court ruled to the contrary on that case).

All I'm saying is that eradicating images and individuals in poverty doesn't take away the problem or help the individual who is suffering. It just furthers the urban trend of economic apartheid. I'm not going to hurt you just because I am here. I am just here.


Little Noah

by Cosmo Franklin and Dee Gray

"Remember when life was young-little Suzy had so much fun — hoppin' and boppin' to the crocodile rock..."

Little Noah's tiny diapered hips, emitting the light scent of powder and baby-ness swayed to Oldies music as he held on to my legs. It was near bed-time and I was dancing my son Noah to bed after his night-time bath and gourmet meal of Gerbers chicken and rice. Suddenly, two large black boots lumbered toward us, shaking the earth as they came. Cold steel pushed in my face: "Police. Hand me the child. We're taking him into custody."

"What are you doing?" I screamed "Why are you taking my baby?"

"What's going on here?" my wife shrieked.

"We're taking your child because you are unfit parents, you are being charged with neglect and emotional abuse, Mr. Franklin. I am a worker from Child Protective Services." She handed me her card, grabbed Noah and walked out of the room with the police. The last sound I heard was Noah's screams.

I stood there motionless as my wife started crying. I looked over at my father who was standing on the other side of the room. It all came together. I am poor. I wasn't very good at holding down a job, I was living with my father; it was not a good situation. We did not get along; he wanted me out of his house.

That was three weeks ago. Noah was permanently removed from my care. The reasons were fuzzy. It was never determined what my wife or I really did wrong. They said we swore in front of the child, that I swung him around too fast, that maybe there was drug abuse (there was not) but the real reason was my wife and I are poor. Our extreme love and meticulous care of our very healthy seven month-old was never considered, and when the court hearing convened, we watched them terminate our parental rights.

The decision to take our baby was part of an ever-increasing trend to terminate the rights of parents based solely on the income, financial stability, or joblessness of the parent. The implications are terrifying.

Case in point: in March, New York Mayor Giuliani said that if you aren't working you won't be allowed to get shelter, and if you don't have shelter in New York, you automatically have your children put in foster care.

In California a father was arrested for yelling at his 14 year-old daughter when she refused to go to school.

In Wisconsin they are deciding whether or not to incarcerate mothers who are on crack so they can control the conditions of the fetus.

Will orphan trains for poor children be next, or baby factories run by the state that will only allow certain people to actually "raise children"? The frightening thing is many people agree with these civil rights abuses because they are theoretically done "in the best interests of the child."

Unfortunately the public does not know how increasingly arbitrary the basis of "abuse" as determined by Child Protective Services has become, and how equally impossible it is to meet their requirements for reunification. It reminds me of the ancient fairytale of Rumplestiltskin who threatened to take the first-born child of the princess unless she spun a roomful of straw into gold.

Two weeks later I was able to visit my little Noah. He was hoarse from crying for days on end, his body now reeked of adult male sweat (his foster father's) his bright blue eyes were blood-shot. He will eventually go to his grandfather's house and I will not see him again; he is my son and I loved him, cared for him and danced with him.

"Remember when life was young, little Suzy had so much fun ... "

Cosmo is a member of the Media inAction group "Poor Parents Speak," a media organizing project of Poor Magazine. Dee is a writer-facilitator and the co-editor of Poor Magazine.

Copyright © 2000 by Lisa Gray-Garcia, D'Shawn Williams, Cosmo Franklin and Dee Gray. Illustration 2000 by Lynda Carson. All rights reserved.