Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories

Jimmy McMillan

Economic homelessness is an important concept in the overall picture examined in Looking Up At the Bottom Line. The economic homeless are the working poor who have some kind of a job, but nothing close to a living wage that would provide, for instance, rent. They inhabit cars, shelters, squats, friends’ couches, and other temporary and very marginal quarters. Or no quarters at all.

An interesting thing happened when New York State was electing itself a new governor last fall. Jimmy McMillan, representing a political party called The Rent Is Too Damn High, participated in the televised debate, and his remarks are worth listening to. This video clip gives the gist, in under two minutes. The candidate did not succeed in the gubernatorial election, but that’s okay, because it frees him up to concentrate on his 2012 presidential campaign.

Suzanne Rozdeba conducted an interview with McMillan for the East Village local edition of The New York Times. At one point, the candidate underwent a spell of homelessness himself. The entire interview is highly recommended, and Rozdeba must be profusely thanked for capturing a number of excellent quotations from Jimmy McMillan. Here are just a few:

*Market value is a bunch of crap. It’s a plan to run out the poor.
*You’ve got to stop paying people in the government a football player salary.
*I would have no problem getting any bill passed before the House and the Senate.
*I guarantee you, if I’m sworn in in January, jobs will pop up in February.
*Whatever party I run under, I want them to know I’m not satisfied with anything coming from any elected official.
*We have bird-brained economic leaders. People need money to spend. And it boils down to one thing: the rent is too damn high.

Is McMillan just a freakshow? Maybe not. He was written up in the Wall Street Journal. For a very different establishment, the Center for a Stateless Society, Kevin Carson considered the ideas held by the very entertaining politician, and compared them with the ideas of Franz Oppenheimer. Here, roughly, is the argument, and it has a lot to do with homelessness. Economic exploitation, of course, goes way back. Carson says,

In sparsely populated areas of the New World, the state preempted ownership of vacant land, barred access to ordinary homesteaders, and then granted title to favored land barons and speculators. The result is that we see enormous tracts of vacant and unimproved land held out of use by state-privileged landlords, so that land is made artificially scarce and expensive for those who desire an opportunity to support themselves.

This artificial scarcity exists because the state wrongfully enforces artificial property rights. Of course, the first thing you want to ask is, what’s the difference between an artificial property right and a genuine property right? Capitalism creates artificial private property rights by coercion, backing up the right of a privileged few who control access to natural opportunities. Genuine, legitimate private property, by contrast, is about the right to possess the fruits of one’s own labor, for instance by growing a crop on land that nobody is using. Carson says,

[… T]he privileged classes of landlords, usurers and other extortionists seek to close off opportunities for self-employment because such opportunities make it too hard to get people to work for them on profitable terms. [… T]he artificial dearth of natural opportunities to produce creates a buyer’s market for labor in which workers compete for jobs instead of jobs competing for workers.

When everything is owned by the government plus a lucky few people at the top, the vast majority of the people can’t be self-sufficient, because they have no resources to work with. Which makes them sitting ducks, ripe for economic exploitation. For instance, they wind up paying a grotesque percentage of their income just on rent — or are totally unable to afford even the lowest available rent.

Which brings us back to Jimmy McMillan, a voice of sanity crying out in the wilderness. It puts him in the same realm as Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless. We very much recommend the excellent radio interview (with host Wayne Hurlbert), during which Richard talks how the Universal Living Wage is good for business, and how it can get a million minimum-wage workers off the streets, while preventing economic homelessness for 10 million minimum-wage Americans.

In many cases, those with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or both, fall into the chronically homeless category. A lot of the “chronically homeless” are just plain unfit for the work force. But mental illness can be treated with conscientious medication, followup, and luck. Substance abuse can be treated with 12-step programs and other modalities. People experiencing either condition, or both, can find their way back to being productive members of the work force if there are jobs for them. They can escape the homeless condition, if there are places for them to live within the means provided by those jobs.

Those are two very big “ifs,” as Richard discovered in the late 1990s. He was working with people experiencing homelessness who had two major things going on — mental illness and substance abuse. With great struggle, he secured funding to put 20 people through a “continuum of care” program including detox, substance abuse counseling, housing, job training, and job placement. Despite the reported 100% trainee placement rate, they all ended up homeless within two years, unable to make rent with their minimum-wage paychecks.

“Substance abuse” is an interesting shorthand term. Richard expresses the same idea in different words, as “self-medicating with some memory deadening substance.” There is a valuable clue here, to the whole skid-row, lowest-common-denominator drug culture. There is a question that needs to be asked: What is it about life in contemporary America that makes so many people want to deaden their memories? When we confront that question, we will be ready to make some progress.


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “The Rent Is Too Damn High Party’s Jimmy McMillan at the NY Governor Debate,” YouTube.com
Source: “Interview | Jimmy McMillan,” The Local East Village NYT, 01/18/11
Source: “Yes — The Rent Really Is Too Damn High!,” c4ss.org,10/26/10
Screen capture of Jimmy McMillan is used under Fair Use: Reporting.


Formerly Homeless Actor Michael Pitt

NYU dorm

Okay, granted, with movie star biographies you can never really be certain of the facts. Some of those Hollywood people will just say anything, you know? Still, there is no reason to doubt Michael Pitt’s biography, including a phase in which he was a person experiencing homelessness.

At age 16, he took off for the big city, at first renting a room from his acting teacher. In an interview conducted by Max Michaels for Movement Magazine, Pitt said,

Then the apartment thing fell through, and I was on the street for a while. Like um, just kind of panhandling and stuff, ya know?… I was sleeping behind the NYU recreational building, ya know? With a bunch of other kids who had no place to go.

When he started getting work, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with seven roommates, where…

[…] those of us who had mattresses, you had to pack them up in a stack because the whole floor was covered… I sort of just did that for two years.

When Pitt appeared in his first off-Broadway play, there were warrants out for his arrest because of the unpaid fines for things like not having a place to sleep. (Sometimes, it’s just plain illegal to be homeless.) When he was approached by a professional agent who wanted to represent him, the actor thought he was busted.

Pitt is also a musician and his band is called Pagoda. To write a 2005 New York Times profile, Julia Chaplin hung out with the actor/singer/guitarist before a show and learned that his aunt rides a Harley, and that the band’s bassist was, until meeting Pitt, homeless and living in a Portland squat.

In the film Delirious, Pitt plays (very realistically, of course) a character named Toby who describes himself not as homeless, but “moving around right now.” Toby is (just like Pitt in real life) an aspiring actor, who lands the role of a homeless serial killer who only wipes out the deserving. It seems to be some kind of satire on vampire movies. There’s a touching love scene, with a girl who says, “You’ve taught me so much about being homeless…” Pop culture is a strange and wondrous thing.

Hell always has more than one level. Just like most things in life, homelessness has degrees. The life of a technically homeless kid trying to get into show business often includes couch-surfing into some interesting situations that she or he can later write screenplays about. If you’re young and halfway attractive, there will usually be someone willing to put you up for a while. Plus, you’re in New York or Los Angeles, an adventure in itself. The life of a teenager with Academy and Grammy dreams is not quite the same as the life of a homeless, brain-injured combat veteran.

But still, even for the young, brave, and fit, living on the streets can be rough. Sure, there are hope and the vision of a future. There is also enormous risk. After all, what tiny percentage of young actors actually “make it”? You could end up being a hobo for the rest of your life. Or die young. Kids on the street, with immune systems weakened by malnutrition, are vulnerable to catching anything that goes around. They can’t help getting involved in criminal activity, even if it’s such a bum rap as sitting on a sidewalk at the wrong hour. They are vulnerable to rape and worse.

And face it, most kids who live on the streets, in garages, sheds, cars, or abandoned houses are not going to become movie stars. The average kid who is experiencing homelessness needs a suitable environment in which to at least get a high school diploma. Next, he or she needs a job that pays a living wage. Not just any wage. Economic homelessness is when the pay is so low, a person can’t afford a place to live even if they work full-time. More people are in that in-between situation than you might guess. We’re talking about the Universal Living Wage, as described in Looking Up at the Bottom Line. The benefit of the ULW is that it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum wage workers. Check it out.


Source: “HIP-GNOSIS – interview with actor michael pitt,” MovementMagazine.com, 2002
Source: “Michael Pitt: Indie Nirvana,” NYTimes, 07/17/05
Image by istolethetv, used under its Creative Commons license.


Christmas, Homelessness, and Stuff

My life in a 10 x 10 storage unitSure, it’s a religious holiday and a secular celebration, and a time to remember Peace on Earth. However, mainly, Christmas is a time to get stuff. People become very preoccupied over what they’re going to give and what they’re going to get. Often, it’s stuff.

It’s a good time of the year to remember that some people experiencing homelessness have “too much” stuff — not in the sense of whether they need it, because they do need it just as much as housed people need their stuff. It’s too much stuff because there is nowhere to leave it, and it’s a real hassle to carry around with you everything you own. Too often, that is what homelessness is all about.

For USA Today, Marisa Kendall interviews Phillip Black, a person experiencing homelessness, whose belongings were thrown away by the police when he temporarily had to leave them unattended. A resident of Washington, D.C., Black currently keeps his stuff in two different shopping carts, one stowed behind a church and another in a parking lot. Kendall writes,

Finding a place to safely leave possessions is one of many challenges homeless people face each day, homeless advocates say. Some cities, including Portland, Ore., St. Petersburg, Fla., New York, San Francisco and Chicago are trying to help people in Black’s situation by offering free storage space to the homeless.

The District of Columbia, where Washington is located, once had a free storage program, back in the ’80s and ’90s. Kendall spoke with the deputy director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, Cornell Chappelle, who said that one of the problems with free storage is that people would just leave their belongings there forever. It’s a major issue for the people who run such a facility. (It’s probably a major issue for the people whose belongings were abandoned, too, because they are likely to be in jail or dead.)

Kendall says that in New York City, a person experiencing homelessness can use any commercial storage facility, and the city will pay the bill. That sounds almost too good to be true, so there must be a mile of red tape connected with it. The program in Arlington, Virginia, sounds wonderful. In St. Petersburg, Florida, old reliable St. Vincent de Paul, which has been in the helping business for decades, operates a storage center with 260 large bins, and most of them are generally in use.

The Portland, Oregon, center, with 50 cubicles big enough to hold a shopping cart, opened very recently. The city paid $30,000, and the Portland Business Alliance kicked in another $8,000. It’s only temporary, however, because a Resource Access Center that is scheduled to open next summer will fill the storage need and provide many other services.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, a storage facility located in a church and financed for a limited time by the city, was used by over 200 people experiencing homelessness. When the startup grant expired, things looked grim. But the company won a $25,000 prize in a “great ideas” contest sponsored by Pepsi, and received funding from three local foundations and a lot of donations from the public, so it looks like it will be able to stay open for another year.

But somebody always has to make the hard decisions on when to get rid of stuff. It can’t just keep piling up forever. There must be many more dilemmas associated with operating a storage place like this, and the people who figure out how to make it work smoothly are to be congratulated and applauded.


Source: “More cities offer homeless free storage,” USA Today, 11/18/10
Source: “Vancouver homeless get aid from Pepsi,” Edmonton Journal, 11/13/10
Image by Phillip Stewart, used under its Creative Commons license.


A Homelessness Success Story for the Holidays

Basketball HoopWhat better way to celebrate the holidays than to hear a success story? There is a good one in the San Francisco Chronicle and, no surprise, it’s about a person experiencing homelessness. The reporter is Tim Povtak, who writes for pro basketball annual magazines and has won many awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors. The story originates in Mt. Vernon, New York, a smallish city of 60,000 inhabitants, bordering on the Bronx.

Mt. Vernon is renowned for the number of excellent basketball players it has produced and supplied to college and professional teams. Their jerseys hang on the wall of the gym at the local high school. One of the athletes thus memorialized is Ray Williams, who was always remembered by his home town, even though no one had seen him for many years.

Once upon a time Williams, now 56, was a local hero and an inspiration to the young players coming up after him. From 1977 to 1987, he played for 10 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). His professional career started with four seasons for the New York Knicks, including a year as team captain. Then he joined the New Jersey Nets, the Kansas City Kings, went back to the Knicks, and has also played for the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs.

Like many athletes, Williams didn’t manage money too well, either before or after retiring from the sport. He filed for bankruptcy in 1994, and consequently parted with his home and family. He received his NBA pension in a lump sum and then lost it speculating on real estate in Florida, where he than entered a span of 13 years as a member of the working poor, surviving on part-time, low-level jobs. As writer Povtak describes,

When his playing career ended, he started a gradual, downward slide, spiraling through a series of bad choices, bad investments, bad advice. Life after basketball was like quicksand. He kept sinking.

For many months, Williams lived a “dock of the bay” existence, fishing for his supper and sleeping in a found wreck of a vehicle. Then, in the summer of 2010, the Boston Globe published a story about him, written by Bob Hohler and titled “Desperate Times“.

Williams told the reporter that the NBA ought to make better arrangements for the players who apparently don’t understand that their careers won’t last forever. (I hate to be a negative voice here, but the NBA could protect retirees by refusing to hand out a pension as a lump sum. If it were paid out gradually, that would prevent the very situation that Williams found himself in. Of course, the players wouldn’t like it a bit, and neither would their lawyers.) Actually, two NBA-related groups had helped the retiree with “grants,” but he just couldn’t get a foothold on life. Hohler wrote,

Williams, 55 and diabetic, wants the titans of today’s NBA to help take care of him and other retirees who have plenty of time to watch games but no televisions to do so. He needs food, shelter, cash for car repairs, and a job, and he believes the multibillion-dollar league and its players should treat him as if he were a teammate in distress… One thing Williams especially wants them to know: Unlike many troubled ex-players, he has never fallen prey to drugs, alcohol, or gambling.

All of this came to the attention of His Honor Clinton Young, the mayor of Mt. Vernon, who set things in motion to get Ray Williams back home and living a productive life. Having returned to the land of ice and snow, Williams now holds the job title Recreation Specialist, but the expectation is that he will do so much more. Williams has already given a talk at the Boys & Girls Club, and addressed the Mt. Vernon High School boys’ basketball team. Ric Wright, the school’s football coach, calls him an icon.

Mayor Young envisions the revitalization of Mt. Vernon through its recreation and sports facilities. He is counting on the Williams’ charisma factor, presenting the former star as a kind of ambassador for the city who will relate to contractors and developers, and bring about a hoped-for alliance. Meanwhile, Williams has been reunited with his elderly mother, brother, and other family members who still live in Mt. Vernon for their first Christmas together in a long time.

Bonus Holiday Video!

Life Can Be Lonely This Holiday Season Lil Bob & the Lollipops.


Source: “Ray Williams Goes From Homeless to Home With a Job for Holidays,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17/10
Source: “Desperate Times,” Boston.com, 02/07/10
Image by LabyrinthX (Nicholas Bufford), used under its Creative Commons license.


Outsider Hero Bruce Springsteen Champions the Homeless

1992, McNichols Arena, DenverThe names of certain celebrities are inevitably linked with the causes they embrace, and one of the most prominent examples of that is Bruce Springsteen. He has always been a compassionate friend of the underdog, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, and anyone who sees the possibility of making a living wage as a mirage in the desert. He has especially supported people experiencing homelessness.

There was his work in Philadelphia, back in 1985, with the Committee for Fairness and Dignity for the Homeless; the 1987 All-Star Benefit for Homeless Children at Madison Square Garden in New York; the 2005 concert in Los Angeles to benefit PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) — well, you get the picture. He has made generous donations to food banks, and helped homeless groups not only in the United States but other countries as well.

There are the songs, like “Brothers Under the Bridge” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and many others with similar themes. Springsteen’s 2007 album Give US Your Poor carried on with the tradition of raising awareness about homelessness, and included the work of homeless musicians.

Biographer Dave Marsh, speaking of one particular period of intense work on homeless issues, wrote,

Springsteen processed the information he received as an artist, not a politician. In all his meetings, he felt that he received at least as much from the community group as he gave to them.

Many people share the feeling expressed by Richard R. Troxell, who says,

The travails of homelessness are easier experienced through the songs of Bruce Springsteen… To so many working stiffs, and especially to those of us who have hit rock bottom, he is simply, ‘The Boss.’ His words always seem to hurt us and at the same time free us.

We all have at least one “I almost met” story, and Richard has one about almost meeting Springsteen. It was a wild time in Austin, early 1996, when the city’s ordinance against “camping” went into effect, and there was citizen unrest. Richard and other advocates for the homeless and the working poor were making speeches and organizing the Coalition to Repeal the Ban. At a homeless campsite, writer Molly Ivins and musician Steve Fromholz caroused all night in defiance of the ban. From a local monastery, Brother Michael hit the street to declare,

This ordinance would have put Jesus in jail.

Here is Richard’s account, from Looking Up at the Bottom Line:

Bruce Springsteen was in town that night. He was performing at the Austin Music Hall… He had sent word that he wanted to meet me. When I heard this, I felt a validation for our efforts even beyond our own belief of our right actions. But all night I struggled with small rolling skirmishes between the guys and the police. Heckling words of antagonism were used like swords all night, and they needed to be calmed. I spent the night stamping out flaming ducks. I never made it to meet The Boss, but the fact that he had dedicated the T-shirt and concession sales to House the Homeless satisfied me that night.

More than once I have thought of that as a missed opportunity, and more than once I’ve wished that I had a chance to meet him and share with him our plans, even today, to turn this thing around.

A person who doesn’t live inside must live outside. If living outdoors is defined as “camping,” and camping is against the law, then living itself is illegal for these people. Imagine being officially declared as having no right to live. It’s no wonder that the ignorant yahoos feel entitled to assault and kill people experiencing homelessness. It’s like the authorities have declared open season on them.

And now Austin is gearing up for another confrontation between the homeless and the housed. Its Sit/Lie ordinance is seriously flawed, and, in fairness to human dignity, probably should not exist at all. Many medical conditions that people might be suffering from are not taken into account. House the Homeless did a survey to illustrate the problem. A staggering 94 % of the respondents said that when they needed to sit down, they were unable to find a bench, and some of these folks have long-standing, debilitating physical illnesses or disabilities.

The law is so loosely written that people waiting for buses could technically be ticketed for violations. By strange coincidence, the ordinance particularly applies in the part of town where a number of agencies and services that help the people experiencing homelessness are located, and the whole thing is a big mess. So, watch for further developments on that front.


Source: “Bruce Springsteen: two hearts : the definitive biography, 1972-2003,” Google Books
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Image by Tim Van Schmidt, used with permission.


People Experiencing Homelessness Go Underground

Dark DaysWe just have to share this amazing photoessay, the pictures taken by Getty Images staff photographer Paula Bronstein (and erroneously credited here to Paul Bronstein.) In Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, the winters are long and very, very cold, and many homeless people survive by living underground in tunnels that are not actually sewers, as the headline states, but channels for heating pipes.

Really, this is fascinating. Someone has taken the trouble to translate (from another website) nearly 100 comments from “Chinese netizens” as well as, apparently, European expats in China, and people from other countries too. Some cruelly anti-Mongolian sentiments are expressed. The country used to belong to China, then became a satellite of the USSR, but now Russia is kaput, so things don’t go well in Mongolia. But many points of view are represented. One person says,

Beijing isn’t lacking either — If you have the chance, go to the Beijing Film Academy campus gates and look under the manhole covers…

Another says,

There is in fact a tradition of cave dwellings in northern provinces such as Henan and Shaanxi. The soft loessial soils allow cave dwellings to be excavated, providing homes that are spared the worst of baking summers and freezing winters. Getting enough natural light into the cave dwellings however is one problem that is shared with living in a sewer. There is simply never enough sunlight or daylight.

In case you’re thinking, “This could only happen in Mongolia,” think again. Or rent Dark Days, a documentary directed, produced, and filmed by Marc Singer, and released in 2000. It’s all about homeless people living in an Amtrak tunnel under New York City, amid construction debris and terrible noise from the trains, with plenty of rats for company. They build shelters from scrap wood, cardboard, tarpaulins, and whatever else they can get hold of.

Many of the residents have managed to pull electricity into their subterranean shacks. Sometimes they go “up top” to find food and things to sell. Many have pets, for protection or companionship. The sanitary arrangements vary. One resident says that if you’re homeless, this is the best place in the city to be.

But it’s not safe down there. One guy demonstrates for the camera how he sets up a noise trap, so if anybody approaches his place while he’s sleeping, a bunch of frying pans will fall down and wake him. Another claims that 80% of the tunnel dwellers are crackheads. A woman named Dee tells how someone tried to burn her hut with her in it. Still, most of the tunnel dwellers look out for each other and engage in cooperative efforts, and some of them have been down there for 20 years. It is a weird but not totally dysfunctional family.

Then, along come the armed Amtrak police, telling everybody they have 30 days to get out. Not one person wants to go to a shelter, where everything you have including your clothes will be stolen. With the aid of the Coalition for the Homeless, they negotiate the Section 8 bureaucracy. With the promise of housing, they demolish the cozy shelters that were built with so much care. The film ends by showing the various formerly underground people in their new apartments, with real beds, and windows with trees outside.

Now, check out “Lost Vegas” by Pete Samson, who explored the unknown world underneath America’s capital of gambling and glitz. He says hundreds of homeless people live in parts of the 350-mile flood tunnels beneath Las Vegas:

Rather than working in the bars or kitchens they ‘credit hustle’, prowling the casinos searching the fruit machines for money or credits left by drunken gamblers.

But the competition is stiff. Sometimes there is day labor, and there are always dumpsters to recover food and useful items from. Sampson interviews several residents, including a woman named Amy, who says,

The main dangers are the floods and the Black Widow spiders. But it’s not a terrible place to be if you’re homeless… It’s much cooler than on the streets, we get a breeze coming through and the cops don’t really bother you. It’s quiet and everyone helps each other out down here.

Clearly, something is amiss, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Despite all the promises humankind has made to itself about a brighter future, conditions are getting worse and worse for more and more people. What can alleviate the situation? The Universal Living Wage might be a good place to start.


Source: “Mongolia’s Homeless Living Underground In Sewers,” ChinaSmack.com, 11/06/10
Source: “Dark Days (2000),” IMDb.com
Source: “Lost Vegas,” TheSun.co.uk, 09/24/09
Image of Dark Days, used under Fair Use: Reporting.