People’s Power and the Struggle Against Poverty

Not only can the clever use of moral authority bring issues to an ignorant public, it can expose to public conscience the hidden agenda of those wielding unjust power.

by Carol Harvey

“SAVE OUR HOMES.”   Protesters made cardboard replicas of homes to dramatize the need for housing. Carol Harvey photo

“SAVE OUR HOMES.” Protesters made cardboard replicas of homes to dramatize the need for housing. Carol Harvey photo

 

Tunisian civil resistance erupted when a poverty-stricken college graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, unable to find work, and harassed by the authorities while selling fruits and vegetables on the street, set himself ablaze on Dec. 17, 2010, in an act of public protest.

Then, on Friday, Jan. 25, 2011, Egypt exploded into 18 days of mass rallies protesting Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of terror, corruption, human rights repression, mass poverty and $40 to $80 billion stolen from his people.

These two events triggered waves of popular uprisings across North Africa and Middle Eastern countries — Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan, and Libya — where people smolder with decades of repressed rage at criminal dictators.

In a not-surprising simultaneity, people in Madison, Wis., burst into mass protests after Republican Gov. Scott Walker reversed his campaign promises to create jobs, then blamed falsified budget problems on public employee unions, and attempted to strip them of collective bargaining rights.

News media in the Middle East openly asked whether the revolutions in the Arab world signify an epochal shift in what they termed “the global balance of people power.” Time will tell whether American citizens also were emboldened by the 18-day grassroots leaderless revolution in Egypt that succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak.

Did these revolutions inspire the people of Wisconsin to re-engage with ‘Fighting’ Bob La Follette’s powerful progressive spirit and flood Madison with thousands of protesters? According to Politico, “In an act of intercontinental solidarity,” an Egyptian honored Wisconsin protesters with pizza via Twitter. More free pizzas arrived from Turkey, Korea, Finland, China, and Australia.

As Republican governors in Ohio and Indiana replicate Gov. Scott Walker’s assaults on labor unions, American unrest is building. Our grievances mirror those of Middle Eastern populations: Loss of homes and jobs, increasing poverty, unemployment, growing political repression and official wrongdoing.

On Feb. 26, 2011, Moveon.org organized nationwide emergency protests at statehouses in 50 states in a campaign to “Save The American Dream.” These rallies strengthened solidarity with Wisconsin and other states protesting cuts to education, police, emergency response, and other vital human services — and they also denounced the Republican tax breaks for corporations and the rich.

On Monday, Feb. 14, San Francisco activist groups launched two Valentine’s Day-themed protests in solidarity with each other and groups in cities nationwide.

San Francisco Planning For Elders’ Interim Executive Director James Chionsini’s Healthcare Action Team timed its noon City Hall rally, entitled, “Tell The Mayor and Supervisors: Don’t Break Our Hearts With Budget Cuts” to immediately precede a 2:00 p.m. tenant protest march from City Hall to a Federal Building rally called “Tenants Send Valentine’s Day Message To Congress, Have A Heart, Save Our Homes.”

The Healthcare Action Team (HAT) mobilized seniors and disabled adults to confront the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in an urgent effort to save vitally needed social services from drastic cutbacks or outright extinction.

Local cuts are staggering

Approximately 120,000 seniors and 90,000-plus disabled people face a tsunami-like surge in population with an immediate plunge into a bleak future living far below the federal poverty line without income for food, housing, or medical care.

They’re being slammed by a double whammy, on the state and municipal levels. At the same time that San Francisco faces its own heartbreaking fiscal crisis, the State of California threatens a $12 billion reduction in state spending on health and social services. Outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown both have proposed calamitous cutbacks in response to California’s budget crisis.

An estimated 45,000 low-income, elderly, blind, and disabled recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in San Francisco suffered successive cutbacks over the 2010-11 fiscal year, including no cost-of-living allowances for three years. This jeopardizes their ability to stay housed.

At the same time, seniors, disabled adults and the poor sustained massive Medi-Cal reductions, and nutrition programs also were drastically slashed.

More than 20,000 elderly and disabled San Franciscans rely for survival on home care through In-Home Support Services (IHSS), yet the IHSS program was hit with a 12 percent reduction.

In response to these cuts, a group of seniors and disabled adults staged a Valentine’s Day protest at San Francisco City Hall. The singing voices of about 75 seniors and disabled adults reverberated though marble halls and inside City Supervisor’s offices. They collected previously delivered signed pledges to protect social services, affordable supportive housing, community-based programs, accessible transportation, language and cultural program access, and nutrition programs.

Six of the 11 San Francisco Supervisors promised to:

  1. Slice administrative waste before cutting programs.
  2. Draw down federal matching funds, and research alternate methods to secure revenue.
  3. Identify revenue sources and eliminate corporate loopholes exempting the wealthy from paying a fair share in taxes.

Federal cuts are equally savage. The national “Have A Heart, Save Our Homes” rallies were coordinated in 19 cities, including Portland, Maine; Boston, Mass.; Newark, N.J.; Staten Island, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; Dallas, Texas; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Chicago, Ill.; Seattle, Wash,; Portland, Ore.; and cities in California, Louisiana, and Florida.

Led by the Western Regional Advocacy Project’s Paul Boden, a large Bay Area coalition of groups marched in a driving rain from City Hall to the Federal Building. Other members of the protest coalition included Causa Justa/Just Cause, San Francisco Housing Rights Committee, Coalition on Homelessness, POOR Magazine, Building Opportunities For Self-Sufficiency, Community Housing Partnership, and Mission Neighborhood Resource Center.

Boden warned of the State of California’s plans for the immediate future. Officials will create “800,000 jail cells, jobs for Homeland Security, the military, the prison-industrial complex,” he said. Then the State “turns around and says ‘We want to cut taxes, so we don’t have any money. We’re going to eliminate Redevelopment, cut income support for families, seniors and disabled people, and access to health care. We’ll build more jails, hire more state police, support Business Improvement Districts in privatizing security on our public streets. We’ll close our public parks and arrest people that go there to sleep because they don’t have a freakin’ house.’”

 

 

“Don’t Tread On Me.” A timely message from homeless people. Carol Harvey photo

“Don’t Tread On Me.” A timely message from homeless people. Carol Harvey photo

 

In response, the plan of the protesters is to build a growing movement for economic justice. “Nineteen cities today!” Boden said. “Next, 50 cities repeating the message: ‘We demand to be treated like human beings! We’re sick of this! We’re not going to take it any more!’

“Our brothers and sisters from Planning For Elders and Senior Action Network should not have to ask, ‘Do not cut their support services and programs.’ Local government should stand up and fight for the communities. They should be marching on the Federal Building. If they’re not, we will. Let’s go!”

When the marchers reached the Federal Building, Robbie Clarke, of Just Cause/Causa Justa, described how low-income families are suffering from the House Appropriation Committee’s cutbacks in the HUD rental program.

In response, marchers chanted: “Poor people are under attack! What do we do? Stand up! Fight back!”

In San Francisco, more than 30,000 households wait for 6,000 unavailable public housing units, while 14,000 languish on the closed Section 8 waiting list.

Public housing and Section 8 households have average incomes of $13,000 to $15,000 annually. San Francisco’s market-rate rents average $1,750 monthly, a total of $21,120 a year, beyond the reach of 56 percent of San Francisco renters. Cost-burdened, low-income residents pay more than the federally recommended 30 percent of their income on rent, leaving little for food and basic necessities.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition documented a 24,198-unit deficit in affordable units for extremely low-income San Franciscans with 30 percent of Area Median Income.

55,000 apply in five days

In the East Bay, during a five-day open period in January 2011, 55,000 households applied to Section 8 waiting lists, with 23,000 applying on the first day alone. The fair-market rate of $1,377 a month is out of reach of 53 percent of Oakland renters.

In Berkeley, 37,000 households hunker on the Housing Authority’s waiting list with a 27,482-unit housing deficit for extremely low-income households.

In the Oakland-Fremont Metro Area, 79 percent of low-income households suffer severe cost burdens, paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

The Republican Speaker of the House, Rep. John Boehner, has proposed $100 billion in budget reductions that will, among many other items cut, reduce HUD housing program funding by 21 percent, including a $1.6 billion cut to public housing below the FY 2010 level; $1.47 billion cuts to Section 8 vouchers below Obama’s FY 2011 request; $2.9 billion cutbacks to Community Development Block Grants, eliminating two-thirds of the program; and $760 million cut from elderly and disabled housing programs.

Federal cuts leading to loss of housing subsidies, when combined with Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco’s perfect storm of affordable housing shortages and high market-rate rents, could result in massive homelessness among low-income Bay Area renters.

Reports by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) render transparent where the money taken from the poorest American goes.

  • In recent years, 80 percent income gains go to the richest 1 percent of U.S. citizens. This widening gap between the rich and poor exploded upward after the massive bank bailouts.
  • The current cost of federal corporate bailouts have soared above $1 trillion.
  • The 500 largest U.S. corporations, while making $391 billion in 2009 profits, cut 821,000 jobs.
  • Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost $1 trillion plus.
  • While subsidies for low-income housing are being slashed, homeowners received $144 billion in mortgage-deduction tax breaks in 2008 — 75 percent of these tax breaks benefit those making more than $100,000 a year.

As a housing group, WRAP called for an end to wasteful overseas military engagements. Instead, these hundreds of billions of tax dollars should be redirected to fight the war on poverty at home. (Public housing received only approximately 1 percent of the defense budget.)

Federal tax dollars should be redistributed toward housing and job creation and away from greedy financial institutions and the wealthy, Boden said, adding that tax deductions for luxury and second homes should be eliminated.

At the rally, activists emphasized that public housing must be preserved and restored, and denounced the Rental Housing Revitalization Act, an attempt by Congress and HUD to privatize public housing. WRAP called for an end to the demolition of public housing and its restoration to 1994 levels. The federal government should also “explicitly recognize the human right to housing.”

No single demonstration can produce all the needed social changes, observed Bob Offer-Westort, a community organizer with the Coalition on Homelessness. But, taken together, a series of unified protest actions by large, coordinated coalitions represent an indomitable force.

Egyptian demonstrations toppled a dictator with the combined might of desperate youth communities, general populations with nothing to lose, and organized unions. Rolling Middle East demonstrations reverberated their inspirational power across the globe, igniting firestorms as distant as Wisconsin and San Francisco.

Offer-Westort noted that union actions function differently from popular and community protests. Unions have clout through group strength and the threat to deny services to employers.

Other groups, such as poor people, elders, disabled adults and communities of color, though they generally cannot withhold services, derive power from collective action, intelligent strategy, and moral authority. Not only can the clever use of moral authority bring issues to an ignorant public, it can expose to public conscience the hidden agenda of those wielding unjust power.

Smart implementation of moral authority can flush power brokers into the spotlight where, if they say “No,” they appear unreasonable. By insisting that the Board of Supervisors sign a pledge to support senior services, James Chionsini’s Healthcare Action Team (HAT) achieved exactly that.

Chionsini remarked, “Now we know who our allies are.” “We’ll be back,” chanted the HAT team.

A Life Consecrated to Compassion and Justice

On the bleak streets of the Tenderloin, a sister took a stand against inhumanity. Her solidarity was inspired by the beatitudes and consecrated to the poor.

The Invisible Natural Cathedral of People’s Park

Builders, please go away. Allow the beauty of an Invisible Natural Cathedral to remain, a living shrine of open space that gives refuge to all people.

Street Spirit Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin

This atrocity was happening in a very wealthy city. It was happening right under our noses. It was very visible. And there was not the united voice of the faith community speaking out. That was the spark of Religious Witness. From that moment, I knew what I had to do.

Interview with Sister Bernie Galvin, Part Two

“What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.”

‘Such Is the Magic and Spirit of People’s Park’

The mayor has no understanding of the awful defeat the loss of People’s Park would be. No comprehension of the cost in lives and the sacrifices people have made for the Park’s ideals. So many still find it a refuge in a country needing a political and spiritual overhaul.

I Remember Who I Am

“And Now Where?” Lithograph by Rockwell Kent

By and by, I calm down. I meditate. I pray. It is a beautiful day. The sun is setting. I weave my way toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me. I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.