Solomon’s Porch

by Philip J. Malebranche

The following creative essay was written in 2008. It soon appeared, for a time, on the Web site of the Writing Institute at St. John’s University. The venue, from which I borrow the title of this piece, was located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The restaurant at that location is now, unfortunately, defunct. The musicians in this piece are fine local players, of the Jeff King Band. Bryce Sebastian appeared on bass; Abdus Sabor, on percussion; Larry Johnson on drums, and on keyboards, Denton Darius. The leader, Jeff King, is a saxophonist. Among the guest performers, unnamed in the essay, is the extraordinary male vocalist Gregory Porter.  He sang, on that occasion, the standard, “Work Song.” I made only minor changes to this writing.

When you look up from your plate of Go Portobello and its succulent mushrooms, caramelized onions and goat cheese that are embedded in a warm baguette like a war-of-choice journalist in the Corps in Anbar Province, the drumsticks are blurring passed the sax fingers trilling. The light in the darkened room bounces off the red-brick wall onto jazzmen lost behind closed eyes and dripping beads of sweat. The keyboardist is praying behind his visor while his fingers dance his entreaty to the sky. Another piano man, skull-capped, sits-in for a few, and his sound fans out like that of a muezzin. Next to him is the bassist, whose time gleams from his left wrist while his right one strikes at thumping strings. He blocks the view, though, during the drummer’s solo, to your dismay. The adjacent congas punctuate the solo and invoke Africa.

The host, wearing a white Oxford button-down shirt under his dreadlocks, slips through the smokeless room, like a theater usher’s flashlight. At the table, past your Heineken, a lone man listens, brushing his foot against the leg of the empty chair opposite him. To your left, close by, women sit, exchange pleasantries with you, and enjoy the ladies night out. Across the room, near the window that gives onto Stuyvesant Ave., a woman appears from a sofa. She scoops from somewhere another microphone to join the singer man for a love song after he breaks rocks on a chain gang for being convicted of a crime. He’s been convicted of a crime. The trombonist pokes the air like Earth, Wind & Fire or Kool and the Gang and steals a chance to adjust the mic for his horn. The sheet music drops from the stand in the air conditioner’s breeze. The King searches for peace and finds it when he sings “Happy Birthday” for his own in the audience, and Autumn Leaves fall. Angelique brings the check, and public assistance puts the money down.

Then you will see Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden paint.

Song for the Birth of Cool

by Philip J. Malebranche

At Saint Peter’s Church, in Manhattan, in December 2016, I had the privilege of reading a version of this poem. I had composed it for the occasion.

Horses pound the streets in the Bethlehem zone

Henchmen look for the first-born saxophone

No room in the inn, go away stranger

Why don’t you take the lady to the back-door manger?

 

The blood of murdered babies spills under door after door

The saxophone and the ass share the same floor

The big star points a finger at the place

Three men from the East for the King give chase

 

Mary sings praise for the Merciful One

Mothers wail over their massacred sons

Blood makes a father shudder and stumble

Bring down the rulers, Mary sings, and raise the humble

 

The new sax is born to save the downtrodden

Lift all who are weary and heavy-laden

Let justice roll down, for that let us feast

Hear the trumpet’s trill for the Prince of Peace

 

The angel Michael danced with courage

And sang like others in the prophetic lineage

He sometimes touted the saxophone boy

The source in the world of exceeding joy

Pondering Fondling

by Philip J. Malebranche

This 2016 poem was an effort to compose a piece with the express influence of the values of Japanese Zen garden design. Buddhist values--among which are emptiness, intimacy with nature, and irregularity--blends with those of Christianity, herein. It was my privilege to read “Pondering Fondling” at Saint Peter’s Church, in Manhattan, in 2016. I dedicate the poem to Grammy-award winning jazz artist, Esperanza Spalding.

Zen stones make the sea

Sit quietly here with me

Let’s drink from that opposite tree

Speak but occasional words with me

Here’s respite from evil’s blight

In the ray of divine light

On this bench with you my equal

We dream and play a finer sequel

Sing for John and Yoko

Think love from the Amur to the Oronoco

Feel the light eternal

As I host your touch supernal

If you whispered in my ear I’d feel it down my spine

Like a message in two empty cans and a string

The waves of the sea will pass through my body and

Mist will splash my face

In your ear I’ll reciprocate

Bite a lobe and kiss the nape

Smell your skin and perfume

Then reach

Cherry Blossoms, Mon Amour: A Brief Survey of the History of Japan

by Philip J. Malebranche

This survey of Japanese history was a product of a job that I acquired with the help of the New York City employment agency for those in the City’s shelter system, called the Shelter Exit Transition Program (SET), run by the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA). I was hired as a writer in a firm that import products from Japan. The topic of this essay obviously is directly unrelated to homelessness; however, this writing shows the work of one person experiencing homelessness. The addition of this piece, here, is to demonstrate the regrettable preconceptions of many regarding the poor and unstably housed. The position, and this writing, date from 2016.

Japan’s history dates from pre-historic times. During the Ice Age a land mass permitted human access from the Asian continent to what later became a group of islands. Japan is an archipelago that spans 3,000 kilometers off the east coast of the mainland. Its location near four tectonic plates is the reason for the 1,000 earthquakes that occur there, annually. Forty active volcanoes also shape the lives of the population. Much of the terrain is mountainous and rugged. The resulting strong river currents and the flooding push the inhabitants toward the coasts for easier transportation and communication. Rich volcanic soil offers abundant vegetation, which spurs domestic consumption and foreign trade. The early historic period is known as the Jomon period.

A second phase is called the Yayoi period, during which influences from the mainland arrived from across the sea, starting in the first millennium BCE. The Yayoi people may have been migrants from the Korean Peninsula. They introduced metal-working, weaving and rice cultivation. Influences from abroad would continue throughout its history, enriching Japan’s culture—even as they sow doubts among its people about ethnic authenticity.

Buddhism is among the significant imports to the archipelago, appearing between 600 and 400 BCE. The religion arrived with a writing system—and a way to produce paper--from China, therefore sparking development. The Heian period (794-1185) ushered-in the flourishing of the arts, including the first ever novel. This appeared in the early 11th Century and was attributed to Murusaki Shikibu, a noblewoman. Titled The Tale of the Genji, the novel depicts the lives of the high courtesans of that era. The shogunate was a warrior class of Samurai that contested political power over the centuries with the Yamato family, ostensible or ceremonial rulers. Imperial influence waned, eventually shifting to the military class; the shogunate became de facto rulers. The Edo period (1600-1868) was a phase of prosperity, peace and isolation from the world. That state of affairs was interrupted by the Perry Expedition, from the United States, in 1853. It lead to a reversion of power to the emperor in 1868 and an opening to the world. With the evolution of Japanese society many of the state institutions displayed the influence of the Americans. And the nation’s economic and military prowess became robust. The latter half of the 19th Century was prosperous.

As the next century progressed, the military class maneuvered for power vis-à-vis the civilian leaders and began to overrule them.  In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. This conflict with China escalated by 1937. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in Hawai’i, in 1941, invited the U.S. to war. Two Japanese cities, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, were virtually levelled by nuclear bombs that eventually lead to an unconditional surrender by the Japanese in August 1945. The American military occupation of Japan lasted until 1952. A parliamentary democracy was put in place, and the military adopted an irenic stance, reducing military outlays and foregoing foreign ambitions. Waging war became unconstitutional. In the post-war period Japan gained global economic power until economic stagnation slowed Japanese international influence in the 1990s. In 2011, an earthquake, a tsunami and the nuclear plant disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi challenged the population, again.

In 2016, the Japanese reconsider their role in the world. After the conflagrations of 1945 and a long span of peace, some favor the 2015 legislative decision to allow a more active military presence beyond the island’s shores. This idea still disturbs many compatriots who are yet haunted by the horrors of war. Where will tomorrow’s petals fall?

The Old-Timer on Sulphur Creek: Remembering the Homeless Dead

by Philip J. Malebranche

This is a speech that I gave on 21 December 2013, at New Song Church, in Harlem, on the occasion of Homeless Persons Memorial Day, an annual commemoration. I made minor changes on 30 December 2013. The New Song Church is no longer at the same address, and may be, in fact, defunct.

Recently, on November 14th, a young reporter and student at Hunter College, named Rosa Goldensohn, writing for DNAinfo New York, revealed that the Strand Bookstore, at East 12th Street and Broadway, near New York University, used sprinklers to disperse homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk under their awning in front of the store. In a report of the same story later that day, the New York Post failed to acknowledge that it was Ms. Goldensohn who broke the story. Such acknowledgement is customary in journalism. The New York Post’s omission and irresponsible attitude toward us, and you, Ms. Goldensohn, will not be ours. We thank you for covering that incident, shedding light on the Bookstore’s unfortunate decision that degrades the homeless. As a writer, a homeless person, and as frequent a customer of Strand Bookstore as my situation allows, I’m especially disturbed by what happened. A quote that I copied from another newspaper, The Epoch Times, earlier this year, may be a propos. The acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, named Uzra Zeya, stated this: “When governments [or I may add, institutions like the New York Post] stifle society their countries [or cities] are deprived of the ideas, the energy, and the ingenuity of their people that are needed for long-term stability and success in the 21st century.” Ms. Goldensohn, thanks for being here, today.

Sometimes, I'm surprised about what I remember from junior high school. That was in the early 1970s, in Nyack, Rockland County, N.Y. There was a Math class, at Hilltop Junior High, in which I learned about a Venn diagram. I'm impressed when I remember anything from Math class. The teacher was named Mr. Verhoff. Mr.Verhoff drew a Venn diagram, one day in class, as two circles with a section of each one intersecting, or overlapping, so that the two circles shared a common space. A Wikipedia definition, today, states that a Venn diagram, or set diagram, "shows all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets.” For example, we might put a group of people in a room, then separate all those who are not homeless from those who are. These might be shown as two circles. And the intersecting portion of the two circles might show people in that room who were formerly homeless. The room would include people who were homeless, and those who were not homeless, and those who were formerly homeless. The Venn diagram would highlight three sets of people.

There was another class that I remember in junior high: English, with Mr. Doorley. In that class we saw a movie of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. What I remember most was the short story, To Build a Fire, by Jack London. London, the early 20th century writer, also wrote The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and the novel, Martin Eden. I read much of Martin Eden on an Amtrak train travelling between New York and Florida, in 1989. The reading was engrossing. It was interrupted only by trips to the restroom and by a walk along the length of the train to find a pretty French girl that I had seen and overheard, as she walked by my seat. I was living in France at the time, and only visiting my family stateside.

Jack London, in his life, knew poverty and homelessness. He travelled a lot, sometimes as a tramp or hobo, boarding ships to cross the ocean, hopping trains across the country, and taking odd jobs. He knew drunkenness and jail; he had sexual adventures and sea-going ones. His articles and stories were often about living in poverty, defending the rights of workers and labor unions and recounting some of those various adventures. The recent news report of a study about how homelessness reduces a person’s life expectancy by more than 30% may explain Jack London's predicament: he was a prolific writer, publishing many books in his lifetime; but he died early, at the age of 40.

Mr. Doorley, writing on a blackboard, taught that fictional stories might have themes such as: man-against-man, or man-against-himself, or man-against-nature. The conflict in To Build a Fire is man against nature. A lone character in the story travels in sub-zero weather in the Klondike, in the Northwest Territories. This area once belonged to Russia, as Condolezza Rice mentions in the prologue of her memoir, No Higher Honor. When a Russian official comments on its vastness and beauty, she reminds him of this history. It was purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867; then it earned statehood in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution. The protagonist in the story is accompanied by only a dog. The man travelling in the wilderness was confident about his ability to make it to his destination, a far-away camp, where other men were expecting him. He knew, like the characters of Louis L'Amour's novels of the American West, how to read the land, spot danger to avert it, and survive. We might be able to appreciate To Build a Fire more than we might ever have thought. It may help us reflect on our own experiences and trials--homeless or not; and we might find metaphors in the story; and the story might give us an idea of death, itself.

In To Build a Fire, the man has no name. He is referred to only as "the man." In the second paragraph, we get a glimpse of the vastness of the land. It stretched as far as the eye could see to the North and South. Remember that the distance from New York to Miami is about 1,000 miles. The main trail in the story led 500 miles to the South, and, to the North, to Dawson, 70 miles. Beyond Dawson was another 1,000 miles to the next town; and then to get to the last town on the Bering Sea was another 1,500 miles.

He walks in this expanse of white, seeking to avoid stepping into weakened parts of a creek. The creek is usually frozen through, but he knows that parts of the creek hide pockets of water from springs underneath that descend from the hillsides. This water is under layers of snow and ice and would mean immediate danger to him. These were traps. Getting wet in these extreme temperatures is ill-advised. We now have an idea of the vastness of this territory.

A sign of the extent of the cold: When he usually spits, the spittle crackles when it hits the snow. This time, the spittle crackles in mid-air, before it hits the snow. The man carries his lunch wrapped in a handkerchief against his naked skin, the only way to keep it from freezing.

The man is pleased that he's travelling light. He's surprised, though, at the bitterness of the cold. He guesses that the temperature must be seventy below zero, but still seems to be confident. When his limbs get numb, he beats them against his body. When his face does he rubs it with his hands. The spittle from his chewing tobacco creates the frosty yellowing of his beard, and, if there was someone to talk to, it'd be hard to talk. The moisture of the tobacco that he can hardly spit out because of the accumulation of ice around his mouth lengthens the soiled beard from his mouth. His red mustache and beard become an ice-muzzle. His relationship with the husky is not affectionate, but the dog nevertheless obeys his commands.

The old-timer that I mention in the title of this presentation is, of course, not walking with the man, but the old-timer’s in his thoughts and keeps coming up—he’s actually pretty important in the story, mentioned several times. For instance:

The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.

And:

That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed one must not be too sure of things.

We get to know the man, this traveller, a little, and get another indication of his attitude of the old-timer when we read:

Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.

He takes the time to eat his lunch, sitting on a snow-covered log. The brief moment that he takes to remove his lunch nevertheless causes numbness in his hands. He builds a fire in order to eat, and the dog’s satisfied with its warmth, leaving it with reluctance when it’s time to move on. While the man skirts danger on occasion, he fails to avoid a trap, and must stop to build a fire and dry his feet before proceeding on his trek. The fire makes him content or self-satisfied about surviving.

The fire was a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself.

But, from above the fire that he had started in order to save himself, disaster struck. Snow fell from the branches of the tree where he sat to form a mound where his blazing fire was. Suddenly, the heat was gone. The struggle for life was now desperate. With freezing limbs, there was no room for error. But, alone, he couldn’t manage. He has to start another fire with his matches.

He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any sensation. Suddenly he bared both hands, removing the mittens with his teeth. He caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands. His arm-muscles not being frozen enabled him to press the hand-heels tightly against the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his leg. It flared into flame, seventy sulphur matches at once! There was no wind to blow them out. He kept his head to one side to escape the strangling fumes, and held the blazing bunch to the birch-bark. As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface he could feel it. The sensation developed into pain that grew acute. And still he endured it, holding the flame of the matches clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame.

He thinks to kill his dog. That way, he could bury his lifeless hands in the carcass to get warm enough to be able to build another fire.  His hands, and the dog’s suspicions, though, will not allow him such movements. There’s no recourse. The old-timer seems to be with him at his end:

You were right, old hoss; you were right, the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.

The dog waited by the silent man for a while. The scent of death moved him to turn away and make his way to the camp where he knew he could find food and a fire.

The old-timer is a hovering presence, like Divine Wisdom unheeded.

The man is flawed. Despite his skills and physical prowess, he commits a vital error by allowing the words of the old-timer to linger without giving them sufficient consideration. If London’s intent is to have us listen to our elders, is that the only lesson of this story? This is not to say that our elders are omniscient. They may lack the experience, knowledge or skills of a new generation; but to discount their experience and memory may have grave consequences. There’s a hint that the man’s bias clouds his judgment. He belittles the caution advised by the old-timer. Do we recognize ourselves, one way or another, in this story?

There’s perhaps more to uncover in To Build a Fire. The story may have hillside streams that flow beneath the snows of our reading. Have we thought about the sulphur matches having the same name as Sulphur Creek? Sulphur means salvation. And there might be an African aspect of the story. Is the old-timer a griot or a village elder? Is London alluding to the social problems of his time, of which he was surely sensitive? There’s a mention of what seems to be a plant or a tree in the wilderness in the story: he calls them nigger-heads. Is the expanse of white snow a euphemism? Is this, in reality, an African tale, a product akin to the late Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, who wrote Things Fall Apart, or like the works of the Kenyan, NgugiwaThiong'o? Was Jack London eliminated because he wrote an African story? Is this an undiscovered classic of African-American literature? The inspiration of African-Americans in 1908, when To Build a Fire was published, and subsequent years, would have clashed with the spreading practice of lynching from the late 19th century to the mid-twentieth.

If we, homeless or formerly homeless, feel that we walk in our own wilderness, we are not walking alone. President John F. Kennedy once said: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” President Kennedy’s optimism about our ability to fight poverty endures. The executive director of Care for the Homeless, Bobby Watts, speaks with a similar tone. He’s an expert on public health and often states that good policies, not bad ones, will reduce, and can erase homelessness. He, and the many advocates who are organizing here in the City, including we homeless or formerly homeless who join them and are participating in our own defense, are conceiving what few imagine: ending homelessness outright.

The good, cost effective policies have been proposed in the Agenda to End Homelessness. You may have seen them on the Care for the Homeless Web site: quality and appropriate health care and supportive services for the homeless; Housing First, which is: moving homeless people directly or quickly to permanent housing, with supportive services; supportive housing; increasing the availability of affordable housing for very low-income people, not only the middle class; creating an effective rent subsidy program to transition people; protect homeless peoples’s rights and dignity. We oppose, as we mentioned earlier, criminalizing poverty, and the stigma of homelessness. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council, based in Nashville, of which Care for the Homeless is a member, also promotes universal health care and the rights of those with disabilities.

Mayor-elect, Bill De Blasio, has taken steps to address this crisis in which 22,000 children are homeless. He’s named high officials, Anthony E. Shorris and Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who are committed to ending homelessness. We look forward to helping them make a smooth transition to reaching that goal.

Nelson Mandela is dead. An epitome of our old-timer on Sulphur Creek, he leaves us a legacy of sacrifice with dignity. The homeless have adversaries, as do the advocates of the homeless. Madiba, to use Mandela’s tribal name, offers us advice even now. Will we take it? He once said, according to the New York Times obituary, “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” Will we leave our hate at New Song Church before we depart? We can replace hate with this thought about God in Psalm 146: God executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and sets the prisoners free.

Thank you very much.

Indigo Café

by Philip J. Malebranche

Baldwin in the window
King behind the glass
Perennially I feel like
I’m way behind the class.
Beauties talkin’ politics
Wearing cushioned smiles
Chocolate chips and coffee
African masks and Miles.
Nothin’ in my pocket
Homelessness is soon
How can I walk in and
With all of them commune.
Raindrops comin’ on me
I don’t really care
What I want is inside
But I can only stare.
I turn around and walk up
The length of Fulton Street
Hallucinating visions
Of Shebas I get to meet.


This poem dates from February 2003. Indigo Café was a pleasant bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Its disappearance was an injustice to my habit of visiting the place and to the neighborhood it served. I’m pleased to present this poem to record not only that phase of my life, but to commemorate the effort of the owners and backers to provide such an enterprise for those who would cherish it. Others may join me to decry the infiltration of the sky over downtown Brooklyn, and even elsewhere, by towers of questionable use and beauty.

Driver Inattention

by Philip J. Malebranche

Swift car easing passage down the highway
Bucket seat comfort pushing grin to satisfied
Abbey Lincoln sings from yesterday
The heft of change on my wrist is Cartier

Driva Man tempers the cushioned smile
Soon I can’t measure the passing mile
I left that shelter on a Big Apple curb
Peace ahead; fewer bumps that disturb

Jade earrings dangle from my mind
Perfume whispers over white broken lines
A hand reaches for the swaying hips
My heart seeks her Boricua lips

Mulata smooth against my skin
Max’s drum solo is studied precision and discipline
Skin…precision…discipline….skin….

Freedom and Homelessness

by Philip J. Malebranche

Americans still admire the idea of freedom. We often speak of it as a prominent American value, a point of national pride. However, my experience of homelessness over many years makes freedom elusive for me. Homeless shelters in New York City, for instance, enforce a ten o’clock curfew. If one has not returned by that time in the evening, one loses one’s bed. One is a migrant all over again. The curfew interferes with many activities and one’s social life. Freedom is lost. This experience hinders my rights in the country of my birth. The freedoms of association, speech, and the right to work, and even, sometimes, the freedom of religion are contravened.

Homelessness may occur for no fault of the person experiencing homelessness. One may be treated unjustly, and then other injustices accumulate. I’m an innocent man. I harm no one. I have nothing to be ashamed of; so, I should be free, right? Gradually, I’m moving out of homelessness. I now have a room outside of the shelter system. A transition to independence and to the honorable freedom so often promoted in the Unites States of America is in view. I prefer, though, to swim in the pool of freedom, to swim in the deep part of the freedom pool.

Something about homelessness in New York City stays with me. Many of those experiencing homelessness are women with children. The Coalition for the Homeless states that three-quarters of shelter residents are families. The picture at the New York City Department of Homeless Services is different. It shows that there are 12,488 families with children in shelter. At this writing, the number of children unstably housed is over 22,000. It is common to use the cliché that children are our future. With this total, New York City’s future is due to suffer. This social problem affects mostly African-Americans and Latinos.

Homelessness is a women’s rights issue. Homelessness is a children’s rights issue. Homelessness is a mental health issue, a refugee resettlement issue, a civil rights issue. It is a victims of sex trafficking issue; and one of domestic violence. Homelessness is a military veteran’s issue and a health care issue. We know that homelessness reduces one’s life span, significantly. As many of us advocates say, housing is health care. In addition, health care is a human right. To build power, community organizers and advocates of these related issues should gather to struggle together to end homelessness.

The end of homelessness would improve my chances of being able to tell a woman that her hijab—even her niqab--fails to hide her divine traits.

Blood, Turkeys and Coats: America’s Answer to a Safety Net

Thanksgiving in the United States each year kicks off a public love-in, stoked by advertisements featuring sad-looking, ill-clad children or grateful looking adults and urging us to remember poor people and to “give” to charities so the “less fortunate” can have a warm, food filled holiday like rest of us. What they are supposed to do the rest of the year is never spoken of.

Despite all the maudlin concern, a more productive way to get poor people a decent existence would be to expose states’ abuse of their poor families via their mismanagement of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF or “welfare reform”) federal block grant they get each year. Most states including New York use the block grants in ways that divert them from their stated purposes, most importantly the provision of cash aid to destitute families. As a result, TANF now helps only a tiny fraction of the poor people in each state. I’m being diplomatic here. What the state governments are doing is everything possible to keep the block grants they are supposed to spend to help their poor stay alive, and eventually use the money for things that have little to do with helping the poor.

In New York state, approximately 2,800,000 people live at or below the poverty line. Only 575,000 of them are enrolled in TANF. Low enrollment in this program is not just going on here, but in most states. In Wyoming, there are 64,000 people living in poverty. 704 of them get TANF. This is not a typo.

This goes on in every state. It is a national emergency obfuscated by politicians and “experts” who insist that low caseloads are a sign that poor people don’t need TANF anymore. Yet while their caseloads shrink, no state is required to return any money, or reduce the amount that it asks for each year. Instead, states use the money on things other than the cash families need, and in some cases, pay for things with their TANF block grants that they are supposed to pay for from state budgets. Expert welfare recipient basher Robert Rector talks about this as a good thing in an article he co-wrote with another welfare reform cheerleader named Katherine Bradley in 2009. Called, “Stronger Welfare Work Requirements Can Help Ailing State Budgets,” it describes how states should restrict help to as few people as possible—including removing American children of undocumented immigrants—so that “services that states fund with their own dollars could be paid for instead with excess TANF dollars.”

Misuse of the grants is worked into the design of TANF, to the glee of those who wish to play fast and loose with the grant. A provision in the legislation allows states to keep “excess” funds even if their caseloads shrink, and to spend them on other “related” programs. Louisiana TANF, one of the worst thieves, still accepted a block grant of $163,000,000 in 2014 even though it has cut the number of Louisiana residents it helps by 91%: only 6,500 of its 155,000 poor families get any TANF at all.

Yet the experts ignore all this, telling us that welfare reform is a success. Robert Doar, former Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Social Services (and thankfully replaced by Steven Banks) left his post upon the election of Bill de Blasio and ran straight to the American Enterprise Institute, a Conservative “think tank” that pays people like Doar to lie about how successful TANF is, and how we need more of the same.

According to Peter Germanis, a policy analyst who is recently working to expose welfare reform as a “massive policy failure,” Doar “relies on outdated research and misleading comparisons to make his point.” Doar never cites facts that would raise immediate concerns for how few poor children are served by TANF. In 1961, welfare benefits went to 96% of poor children. Before this round of welfare reform began in 1996, the program helped 58% of low income children. Today, it helps 28.7% of them. The trend is clearly downward.

But the public need not worry, according to Rector, Doar et al: the season’s favorite ritual, the ridiculous giveaway of turkeys and coats to poor people, can take up the slack while states make off with the federal block grants meant to give cash assistance to poor families.

Even assuming that a turkey and a used coat were all any poor American needed, the process of getting these two items is undignified. Take the coats: in most places, people are required to line up for these, often outside, regardless of weather. This results in old people, ill people, or young people standing in lines in or outside churches and gymnasiums, most others plainly aware of their bleak situation. This humiliation in no way benefits anyone, though it does keep a lot of poor people busy and a lot of well meaning volunteers at least feeling helpful.  The more visible poverty becomes, the more critical these giveaways are perceived to be. Yet they do more harm then good, as they divert attention from the real issue: lack of direct income support to poor people.

The consequences of TANF get worse. Kathryn Edin, who did research to find out what people who do not have any cash income do to survive, explained one thing they do to writer Dylan Matthews of Vox in September: “…there's selling plasma. You can only do it a couple times a week, and it can leave you physically debilitated. You make about $30 a time. It's fascinating sitting in front of the Cleveland Plasma Clinic, watching busload after busload of people get off at the bus stop, and the entire bus walks right into the plasma clinic…” In 2014, while people were selling their plasma to feed their children, Ohio left $79 million of its TANF block grant unspent.

Last year, during the annual collecting of used coats at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, I saw a man without a coat get turned away from a pile of them by a volunteer, who handed him a paper and told him the volunteers were not allowed to give away the coats there, only to collect them. To get a coat, he would have to get on the subway and go to the address they gave him. He said he didn’t have money for subway fare, and could they help him. They said no. The whole time they were speaking, the pile of coats got larger, yet common sense and decency were unable to prevail so that this man could have just one of the coats in front of him.
 
Then there are the turkeys. An internet search on free turkeys + any state brings up thousands of hits. Places from community centers to firehouses become outposts in the holiday season for this ritual. The Morongo Indians donate turkeys. Farms donate turkeys. Schools donate turkeys. Every year, for example, the Los Angeles Convention Center gives out thousands of turkeys. Churches give turkeys out; charities give turkeys out. Charities give them to churches to give out. Even clothing stores will ask you to donate money at the register so they can give that money to a charity for them to give turkeys out. Or they ask you to bring in a “gently used” coat to give to a poor kid while you buy a new one for you. With all the complex logistics of giving away old coats and turkeys, you may find a Butterball on the counter at a high end retailer or at the entrance to a seasonal hockey game. It gets pretty complicated. Photographers are usually on hand to snap photos that can be used for fundraising brochures.

It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that these giveaways are the least effective way to fight poverty. All this coordinating, transporting and packaging of coats and turkeys clearly tuckers out both the helped and the helpers. It cost money in fuel and labor (even coordinating volunteers costs money). The trucks that lug the coats and turkeys pollute the environment, yet no one who cares about the environment seems to comment on this. Not to mention that the person we expect to doggedly pursue these turkeys and coats may not be able to present herself at the time and place the helpers have available to give these things away, because this person has a paid job, or parenting responsibilities. She may not have the carfare to make the trip. Yes, there really are people that poor in America.

Meanwhile, our other signature poverty aid program, Food Stamps (“SNAP”) has a maximum monthly benefit that is $12 to $95 lower than the United States Department of Agriculture’s official estimate of how much money a person needs to eat for one month. There are also counties all over the nation where fewer than 50 percent of people poor enough to need Food Stamps receive them. However, never satisfied knowing that at least some poor people are scraping by, the same people who have presided over the theft of the funds intended for poor Americas in the TANF program now want you to let them block grant Food Stamps, too. In my fantasy world, we block grant all military spending and divert it to essential human needs like cash assistance. If it were designed like TANF is, states could do that.

When will Americans finally object to the calculated evisceration of the safety net by people and special interests who have no plan to replace it with something superior, efficient, and dignified? When and how will we hold accountable those pundits who use public forums and the reach of think tanks to say poor families are doing fine while every indication is that they are not? Will we also allow the pundits and politicians to further destroy American families by block granting Food Stamps, and even Medicaid, until there is no commitment left to help anyone?

By Diane Pagen, LMSW
Adjunct professor of social policy at Rutgers University Graduate School of Social Work and school social worker in New York City.
dianepagen@yahoo.com
www.dianepagen.com

Note: most data from the Administration for Children and Families, TANF Financial Data, 2014; and from Germanis, Peter (2015). TANF Is a Massive Policy Failure. All sources can be provided by the author.

Africans Win Marathon, Press Coverage Looks Passed Them

by Philip J. Malebranche

Two runners from the African continent won the 2016 New York City Marathon, which took place, recently, on 6 November.  The New York Times seems barely able to acclaim the impressive achievements of the athletes, judging from the images in the section devoted to that event, the next day.  Mary Keitany, of Kenya, and Ghirmay Gebreslassie, the male winner, of Eritrea, finished first, leading a record number of entrants in the history of the contest.  There were some 50,000 runners participating in ideal weather conditions.

In a large cover-page photograph in the Marathon section of that edition, Ms. Keitany, 34, appears as she reaches the finish line.  She completed the race in two hours twenty-four minutes twenty-six seconds, well ahead of the second-place finisher.   Though she is near the center of the photo, it is the skyline and Central Park that dominate the scene.  Her finish is evident, but her identity is not.  The Times informs us that she is five foot-two and weighs ninety-three pounds.  The distant shot reduces her to a miniscule figure.  It is, rather, the real estate properties that seem to be particularly exhibited.  Another photo appears on the same page:  it is that of a woman greeting Tatyana McFadden, the winner of the women’s wheelchair race.  Both women in the second photo are white.  The newspaper, in a classic tactic, subtly pits two maligned groups against each other; in this case, an African woman and a physically-challenged woman.

Gebreslassie, finished in two hours seven minutes fifty-one seconds.  His photograph appears on page F5.  It is rather small, with a caption.  At twenty years old, he is the youngest to win in the history of the New York City Marathon.  He was followed by Lucas Rotich, of Kenya, who completed the course in 2:08:53.  Abdi Abdirahman, an American born in Somalia, and based in Arizona, finished third, at 2:11:23.  Abdirahman is thirty-nine years old.

The 2012 Olympic silver medalist, Sally Kipyego, of Kenya, placed second among women in the race.  Her time:  2:28:01.  The third place female finisher was Molly Huddle of the United States, running in her New York City Marathon debut.  He third place time was 2:28:13.

The matter of such oversight is significant.  It is similar to that which we often experience in the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) when applying for Public Assistance or fulfilling obligations at one of the Centers.  Stigmatization of the poor or those experiencing homelessness offers a skewered view of another.  A misperception ensues, and this may lead to slights, faulty decisions, conflict, inaccurate policies and the added stress or trauma that may accompany these.

The reduction of exposure of Africans in the photographic images in the press coverage of this year’s marathon resembles the Mercator projections of the sixteenth century.  These distorted the size of objects on a map, negatively influencing perspective.  Europe is known to have been represented, for instance, as larger than it actually is.  Africa was shown to be smaller.  Certain elements of American society still refuse to allow a just idea of Africa and the Continent’s descendants.

A related phenomenon may be the change we’ve observed in the section of the Sunday Times that was called the Week in Review.  The section that replaced it, the Sunday Review, nearly omits the foreign news analysis that was common in its predecessor.  Consequently, readers of that section are deprived of knowledge to which it perhaps should be privy.  This American newspaper of record seems to be abetting the gradual parochialism that some quarters of society prefer.  The practice is furthermore extended to insignificant press coverage of events in Africa.  As a reader of French newspapers during my student days in France during the nineteen-eighties, I was able to regularly learn about the political, social and economic developments in the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire), Chad, Niger, Morocco, Namibia and so on.  Parochialism, nationalism and national chauvinism could hardly be good for Americans given our country’s status as world leader.

This sort of bias is problematic for those of us receiving services at HRA.  The stereotypes and prejudice to the detriment of the poor interferes with the mission of the agency to help decrease the number of those needing such services.  New York’s leaders must move to update the Mercator map of the social services system.

Christina’s Date

by Philip J. Malebranche

The visit to Evergreens Cemetery, in Brooklyn, was impromptu.  I found that the J train was out of service at Sutphin Boulevard, in Jamaica, on Saturday morning, 15 October.  The lack of service was like an additional fling of a foreman’s whip against the helpless plantation worker.  The day before, my employer, at Advance Coatings Group, which had hired me to write about the decorative plaster from Japan, let me go, and someone seemed to believe that I should have trouble piled-on getting to New Jersey to visit my family.  I dodged the trauma of that setback by mentally bouncing-off it, like a running back off a tackle on the football field, and quickly deciding to find the bus that would take me to Brooklyn, where I often stop to run errands.  Leaving the subway station at Sutphin Boulevard, I walked to Jamaica Ave., where I waited for the Q56 bus to Broadway Junction.  At Broadway Junction, looking for the next bus to take to continue on toward Lower Manhattan, I knew that the Cemetery was nearby.  I’d been there before.  The drop-in center I was frequenting back in 2005, called The Gathering Place, was located not far, in East New York, and on that earlier occasion, I had chanced upon a tombstone that marked me, indelibly.  So, I postponed my commute and returned to the Cemetery, entered, and mounted the knoll to the gravesite that was nearby.

The stone was still there and was still guarded by a tree.  The flowers seemed to be a new addition, though, perhaps planted to mark an anniversary.  A small version of the Stars and Stripes stood, slightly faded, amid the two bouquets, making a proud and sad formation.  I approached and looked for the name that I’d almost forgotten.  The tombstone struck me emotionally that first time because there was only one date etched under the name, not two, as is usual.  The name read:  Christina Donovan Flannery.  The one date read like this:  9-11-2001.  Below that, it read:  “In Loving Memory.”  Evidently, Christina Flannery was a victim of the attack on the World Trade Center.  The first time I had entered the Cemetery, I saw that and wept for a long time, uncontrollably, and even retreated to a nearby gazebo to compose myself and then lyrics to a song to the woman who was a complete stranger to me.  My first encounter with her grave produced paroxysms of tears and a poem.  I had returned to the Cemetery to reflect and weep and pray.  The unknown woman had abruptly—and powerfully--entered my life.  She’s gone, but she hasn’t really gone away.

The lyrics had been a report, of sorts, to Christina.  I felt I knew something of the attack, a theory, and was writing to explicate it.  Now, I had another bit of news to deliver to her:  I’d lost my job.  If I were to write another song, I would have to update her on the sequel to the event that killed her.  My homelessness and sporadic employment is the same situation that afflicted me at the time of the initial visit.  This all was tied to what was going on in the press.  Even though I still breathe, which allows me to be able to visit this grave, I’m locked in perpetual poverty and housing instability.  The pattern over the years—even since I came upon this name, here--has been setbacks after success.  Professional advancement only goes so far.  And my adversaries admit as much:  my case worker at a Bronx shelter from which I’d been abruptly moved in December 2015, stated in a phone conversaton that I would be in and out of shelters, perpetually.  The context of his statement was slightly different, but I understood that the meaning was conveyed to inform me of adversarial intentions.

A positive turn of events was the referral to this Garment District firm, in Janurary 2015, by the staff of the SET Program, an employment program for the poor, of the City’s Human Resources Administration.  I seemed to be a fine candidate for success, given my education and skills—despite my lacunae that‘s a result of irregular work over many years.  However, my employer, who had promised to help me by hiring me, found rationales, now, to fault my output.  He deemed my prose to be inappropriate because it wasn’t marketing copy.  My caption entries for the Facebook page were too long and included too much of the history of Japan.  He derided me for trying to show-off what I knew:  in essence, he wanted me to reduce the quality of my work; but I had learned that the plaster about which I was writing has been an integral part of that country’s history.  Well-heeled and well-educated prospective customers should know how it was used in history in order to have an idea of the value it presents to him or her, today.  Writing for architects and designers, I felt that clients would be unafraid of text and reading relevant information.  They’d be willing to read longer entries on Facebook, I surmised, as long as it was well-written.  It also seemed incongruous to try to sell an elegant product to a fine clientele with inelegant writing.  With my sociology background, and untrained in marketing, I’d already judged marketing copy to be a threat to the language.  The rules of grammar are ignored.  The advertising industry—or a faction thereof--seems to have a mission to denigrate expression.  Complete sentences are increasingly uncommon; fragmented sentences are proliferating.  Punctuation is neglected or abused.  And, moreover, the effects are evident in journalistic reporting.

For example, one recent newspaper advertisement in the New York Times included this:  “Very Silver. Very available. Now yours.”  These are three incorrect sentences.  More such examples exist.

My sundry experiences, and being a foreign-language speaker, cause me to lament the debasement of language, and I have refused to let this affect my work as a writer.  My employer shunned my preference for proper sentences.  The matter deserves wider attention to raise these issues, and to highlight the sometimes abuse of the legal principle of “at will” in the workplace.  The business sector seems to claim a surfeit of privilege.  It seeks to accumulate every advantage vis-à-vis the worker.  Another possible issue, here, is the reliance on stereotypes and bias.  How could it be that someone on Public Assistance could make high-level decisions and contradict the president of the company?  I realize that another possible element of this situation is corruption.  The impediment placed before me is the latest incident among many previous hindrances that were redolent of poor ethics.

The omission of the date of birth on the Cemetery gravestone was a form of suggestion that the Japanese would appreciate.  I learned that, in Japanese aesthetics, suggestion provokes the onlooker’s imagination to complete an idea.  The appearance of but one date on the tombstone may have augmented the effect of the Christina’s death.  The extra mental work that came with realizing the missing date of birth seemed to add force to my reaction.  A quick search of her name on the Internet shows that she was indeed young, beautiful, gifted, admired and recently married.  She had been a star basketball player at Christ the King High School.  A photo of her from her wedding day brings me another bout with emotion.  Having made me cry, Christina Donavan Flannery is a part of my story, now, but I can yet report to her my liberation.

Haven in the Dust: Discovering a Plaster, Remembering a Dust Cloud

by Philip J. Malebranche
 
A step into an office in Mid-town Manhattan in early 2016 was a step into the history of Japan.  As a homeless person arriving to interview for employment, I was unaware of what I was getting into. That I would be asked to write about a Japanese product would have been far-fetched.  For the firm, Advance Coatings Group, however, that was my task. Stewart Ratzker, the company president, hired me, and I was charged with learning about a revered finish.  The lessons were like hovering over the Asian archipelago on the western edge of the Pacific Rim. Of decorative plaster, I knew nothing; of Japan, I knew some. For years, I've followed current events and international relations with interest, supplementing my Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and experience living in Europe, with news from around the world. During the 1980s, I lived in France. Asia, and Japan, was always far-away. I do suspect that I have bloodlines to China. While in Europe, I visited Rome.  Italy is another great historic producer of plaster. My bloodlines may also lead to that country.  I may consequently be particularly attached to Stucco Italiano, also available at Advance Coatings Group.
 
The qualities of Shikkui Plaster have piqued my interest. It has an established place in the long history of the country. It has been used as a decorative finish on interior and exterior walls and ceilings for centuries. It graces the most revered Middle Ages-era castles, Buddhist temples and Zen gardens of Japan. The reliability of the plaster is longstanding. The inhabitants accept it for its beauty and its natural elements. The combination of environmental and aesthetic traits ensures the passion with which the Japanese use it. It furthermore is aligned with their cultural and philosophical values, among which are beauty, simplicity, emptiness, suggestion and humility.  Nature is ever-present.  It is an integral part of Japanese design.  The regular occurrences of earthquakes, there, have meant improving the finish to resist earthquake damage. The series of tremors in April 2016 has caused serious damage to Kumamoto Castle, in Kyushu Prefecture, but the Japanese are devoted to the reconstruction of their beloved architectural treasures. 
 
The heroism of Shikkui plaster recalls one of the many from another day 15 years ago.  The commemoration, this week, of the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center revived memories that may have been long dormant.  What I have in mind is a story I heard among my colleagues, at the time.

Serving, then, in the first weeks of a stint as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at a Lower Manhattan office of Community Access, Inc., a nonprofit that serves individuals with psychiatric disabilities, on Williams St., near City Hall, I was preparing, that morning, to go to work when the news came over the radio.   The reporters at CBS Newsradio 880 spoke of the first plane’s collision with a tower.  Thus, the drama began.  My effort to get to work from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, seemed like it might be successful—until the A train stopped at High St., the last station in Brooklyn before crossing into Manhattan.  All were ordered to leave the subway system.  I joined the exodus.  At street level, New Yorkers were already streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge into Brooklyn, covered with dust.  They appeared as ghastly figures on the silver screen, stunned by the catastrophe from which they ran.  It would be about 10 days before I could return to work on Williams St., for the clean-up that was necessary.

Some of my co-workers had already arrived at the location that morning, I was to learn.  To their credit, they reacted to the crisis by transforming the space into a refuge. One story that they recounted ended in that space:

A man fled the Twin Towers after one was struck by an airliner.  Near the base of the complex, before he could get far, he saw a woman in front of him trip and fall.  She was hurt; she sprained her ankle.  The man stopped, took her in his arms and ran with her down Fulton Street, east, away from the conflagration.  The gargantuan and grotesque dust cloud caused by the crumbing tower seemed to give chase.  After several blocks, he turned left on Williams St., trying to evade the monster-cloud, and continued running.   A co-worker at Community Access spotted him and motioned him into the office.  He darted in.  She shut the door behind them and the cloud swept up the street, darkening the sunlight and everything along the way.  Dust seeped into the office through any crevice, as if in a last grasp.

A clubhouse to serve the needs of people with mental illness, the place had an industrial kitchen, a food supply, spacious rest rooms, extra clothes, a bank of computers, and was rather roomy.  The woman with the injured ankle was able to wash off the dust, eat a lunch and find footwear—flip-flops--that fit for her commute home to her family; for she had lost a shoe during her escape.  She was never able to learn the identity of her rescuer.  Leaving right away, he didn’t stay for introductions.  Someone had learned, though, that the man was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

The agent’s heroism deserves recognition.  He shares some of the cherished qualities of the ancient plaster from Japan:  strength, beauty, reliability and humility.  It is right to remember his actions of that day.

The attack was more than a strike against the United States.  Many foreign nationals died at the World Trade Center, in Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, in 2001.  Ninety countries lost nationals in the disaster.  Three-hundred seventy-two of the dead are reported to have been non-U.S. citizens.  Among them were Japanese and Italians.  These countries lost 24 and 10 nationals, respectively.  The foreigners were working in a wide variety of professionals sectors, including banking and finance.  Among the nations suffering are these:  The United Kingdom tolled 67 lost; the Dominican Republic, 47; India, 41; South Korea, 28; Canada, 24; Columbia,18; Jamaica,16; the Philippians,16; and Mexico, 15.

Foreign nationals, like fine decorative plaster, embellish our existence stateside.  We benefit from their commerce and remember them, with the others lost on this anniversary.

The Bible Belt in the Big Apple: Donning the Fig Leaf in the Naked City

by Philip J. Malebranche

It may be a good time in our national history to make a break with the notion that the American South is especially endowed with spiritual favor.  The tendency of white supremacy to usurp the language, or values, of Biblical history while hosting bastions of racial hatred and violence and striving, still, for domination over the rest of the population is too egregious to be allowed to continue without complaint.  The term “The Sovereign State of Mississippi,” for instance, is likely used to infer that God is not sovereign over all the earth, per the Holy Scriptures.  “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains,” writes the Psalmist.  That the South is notorious in the history of national division does not preclude the existence of Southerners who love justice, peace and love.  New York City, with eight million people, is not Paradise either, of course; but such a robust population means that there are many who do good and are praiseworthy citizens.  The City’s enemies denigrate it—even as they infiltrate it--because of the blending population and the interracial relations and sex that are bound to occur at a comparatively significant rate.  The adversaries of integration are also enemies of the poor.  At the end of his life Martin Luther King, Jr had chosen to focus on a poor people’s campaign.  These were, as we are today, made up of whites, blacks, mulattoes, Hispanics, Native Americans and immigrants.  His focus on cross-racial domestic poverty--and international peace, by publicly opposing the Vietnam War in 1967--gave evil men impetus to eliminate him exactly a year later, on the anniversary of his Riverside Church speech on the matter.  The purpose of a Bible Belt is to hold up our moral pants and skirts in the Nation and in the Big City.

  A grand lesson of the Bible is, in fact, the imperative to care for the poor. To de-emphasize this precept would be to shun Divine will. The heated outcries that seek to silence and incapacitate defenders of the poor mean to erase this intention of the God of the Bible.  Using the epithets “Communist” or “socialist” hides the primary objective of effacing the power of the Holy Scriptures.  Those ideologies seem to have been conceived to carry out Biblical values--only, without the religious aspect.  Political extremism uses these to dissemble its greater animus against religion and to divide the ranks of those who seek social justice in the world.  And today, we are witnessing the outlawing of the very acts which Christians are commanded to perform.  The criminalization of homelessness, for example, has some local jurisdictions across the country making it illegal to offer food to others in some public spaces.  Loving one’s neighbor becomes a crime in order to make room for those who do evil.  Anti-Semitism denotes the absolute rejection of the Biblical meaning of Zion.  Zion, as expressed by the prophets--including Jesus of Nazareth--is a Divine vision of a society of social justice, love and beauty.   Jesus spoke in the synagogue about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting the prisoners, and so forth. (Matt. 25)  To further get an idea of the attitude for the poor, we may also read from the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Proverbs 22, it is written:  “The rich and the poor have a common bond, the Lord is the maker of them all.”  Further, in the same chapter, we read:  “He who oppresses the poor to make more for himself or who gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”  Wisdom counsels against inequities.

Unlawful eviction is one means by which some New Yorkers are oppressed.  Usually accompanied by a lawyer to housing court, landlords succeed in winning cases at a higher rate compared to tenants, who often cannot afford a lawyer.  The homelessness that I have experienced over the long-term has been caused by a series of such evictions, not just one.  The last time I was evicted in this manner, I took the case to housing court (in the fall of 2012, during Hurricane Sandy) and a decision was found in my favor.  Yet, the landlord still refused to allow me to return to my room and belongings.  The police did not assist me, as they’re required.  I was on the streets for a few days before going to shelter.  The accumulated injustices against me went unpunished—until it was reported in the Daily News and the New York Times, in February 2015 that the landlord at my old address, 159 Suydam St., in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was arrested for unlawfully trying to expel all the residents in the building.  His plan was in collusion with a City employee at the Department of Buildings, who was also arrested, according to the reports.

Another unfortunate experience occurred in the fall of 2013, at a shelter in Jamaica, Queens, called Bob’s Place, which is run by SCO Family of Services.  A knock on the door of my room at 5:30 a.m. interrupted me as I brushed my teeth.  I had gotten up early to go to work, as a temporary employee at the Department of Parks & Recreation.  The strange hour of the knock immediately telegraphed the identity of the intruder only because of my habit of reading the news and seeking to discern the modus operandi of authoritarian governments for my book project, still in progress.  The knock was a bad sign:  I judged it to be the police, and my self-training kicked-in as I went to the door, brush in hand.  In non-democratic societies they come in the middle of the night to disturb, or abscond with, their targets.  When I opened the door, three uniformed officers—one a female--of the Department of Homeless Services entered and asked me my name.  I gave it, and pronounced it correctly for them, as they had asked.  I was then instructed to rapidly dress and accompany them.  I was to bring no bag or backpack.  I finished brushing my teeth and obeyed.  Once in the hallway, I was asked to turn around, and I used all my power to maintain control of my emotions, for I knew that they were going to put me in handcuffs, where I’d never been before.  Completely innocent and with a clean criminal record, I faced the wall, and it was done.  I was led to a van in this humiliating fashion.  With others rounded-up in a sweep of those with outstanding summonses, I was transported into Manhattan.

The van was filled with the banter of the officers as we headed westward.  Only very good R&B music on the radio joined them.  The temptation to argue my case was strong, but I decided against that, because they might have expected it, and it would only underline my powerlessness.  The van left the main artery, and the driver seemed to have gotten lost.  The detour was a construction site, and I discerned the meaning of the wrong turn.  It was a ruse.  It was an act of intimidation against me, I surmised from long experience with the sometimes surreptitious moves to impede or simply ridicule me.  Some higher-up knew of my proclivity to study the Civil Rights Movement and follow current events and had ordered this treatment.  The divergence was a re-enactment of the mysterious night in Neshoba County, Miss., when civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in the dark night, off the back roads, in a muddy dam.  Still, I remained calm and silent and gave no hint of fear.  In fact, judging their intentions made them seem to me all the more ridiculous, themselves, and childish.  Evil habitually wears the costume of puerility.  It speaks and acts to take from others.  Children who learn to give outdo the childish adults.  The light of day came only as we arrived at the 30th St. Men’s Shelter, on First Ave., near Bellevue Hospital.  There, we were led to a waiting room, handcuffed to the seats, given a bag lunch, and we waited for the court to open.  The subtle indication at the main Men’s shelter, where I’d been before, was that I’d be forever locked in homelessness.  At the courthouse on Lafayette St., the judge dismissed me near noontime after learning what I’d remembered:  my summons for public urination had already been dismissed years before by one of his colleagues.  The morning’s experience was frivolous.  I was free to go, and no apologies were in order.

Two issues, today, demonstrate the struggle for equity in New York City.  At the Safety Net Activists, an independent group at the Urban Justice Center, some 60 members, I included, have been working to improve customer relations at the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), which administers Public Assistance.  A vision of our group is to bring dignity, professionalism and efficiency to HRA.  We find that the trauma of living in poverty is increased with the interactions with the City’s agencies that are charged with helping us move out of poverty.  Basic courtesies are flouted and stereotypes of poor people bedevil City workers—even as they struggle with their own stresses in the workplace.  Consequently, in meetings with high officials at HRA, we seek a number of changes that would bring customer relations more in line with those of the private sector.  Previous mayors who proudly spoke of their achievements in, and ties to, business never seemed to think of evaluating and re-evaluating the managerial efficacy of services to needy New Yorkers.  They held a presumption that harsh treatment would discourage applicants for assistance, which would manipulate statistics for political reasons.  The presumption may have been correct for a few individuals; but a result was the denial of support for suffering fellow-citizens that the agency is charged to help.  Leaders allowed themselves inaccurate attitudes that were redolent of domination and would worsen the hardships of the poor.

The Safety Net Activists are notching a number of successes in easing tense relations with HRA personnel.  With the express support of the commissioner of the Department of Social Services, Steven Banks, we have been meeting with some of his staff to agree on feasible changes. Firstly, accountability is more possible with the simple display of name tags at the work area.  Secondly, some frustration is assuaged with a change in policy that would provide for access to supervisory personnel to help settle a dispute or disagreement before expulsion by a security officer.  We are pleased to have had the benefit of the good offices of Deputy Commissioner Jacqueline Flaum, before she retired at the end of 2015.  Mr. Ramon Flores has kindly agreed to meet with us, henceforth.  Our Safety Net activities are ably coordinated by Helen Strom, of the staff of the Urban Justice Center.

Affordable housing in East Harlem is a second issue of concern.  A petition is being circulated, at this writing, demanding “public land for the public good.”  The Ballfield Site Park (public land) on 111th St., between Park Ave. and Madison Ave. is to be sold for one dollar to builders to create a 20-story building of “affordable” housing and commercial businesses.  Some of the apartments in the planned construction are to go to families making between $38,450 and $62,000.  The rest will go to those earning more.  However, the majority of the families in the neighborhood earn an average of $23,350.  The term “affordable housing” is being applied to a process that will drive most of the local residents from the area.  It is threatening not only the established network of personal relationships of longtime residents, but also the rich cultural legacy—including music history--of what was known as Spanish Harlem.  The proposed housing is exclusionary, aggressive and injurious to the Barrio, whose history as a Latin community is a century old.  The community, with the support of community organizers like Daisy Gonzalez at Community Voices Heard (CVH), of which I’ve become a member, is urging that new housing, and new spaces for small businesses, be made available and accessible to those who already live in the neighborhood.  The people seek a commitment to affordable housing for local residents that lasts far longer than the proposed 30 years.

In recent years, the City’s cherished skyscape has been tarnished with unsightly super-towers for the ultra-rich.  Their aesthetic appeal is dubious.  The sociological wisdom of the phenomenon is debatable--and evokes the work of Jane Jacobs, who thought ill of urban structures that inhibited human interaction in neighborhoods.   New housing for very wealthy residents has far outpaced the construction of residences for those with very low incomes.  This has threatened the fabric of the City and tends to invite social unrest.  The use of land, here, as everywhere in the world, is a tool to allow some to usurp property and divide and disperse populations.  The Big Apple is more handsome with a Bible Belt and a swaying that promotes equilibrium.

 New York City 12 August 2016

This is my story and this is my song

By Shonterri Dixon

My experience with HRA and DHS has been a tormented merry-go-round with staff for almost two years. I am a medical professional with an Associate’s Degree with over 25 years of work experience, including a phlebotomist certificate. I have worked all my life. I lost my job in April 2013 and have been fighting for unemployment benefits since then. Because I had no other income, I was forced to apply for public assistance benefits through HRA in 2014 and also had to enter the shelter system. The experience has been extremely stressful and my interactions with HRA and DHS have all held me back instead of helping me move forward. I say that homelessness has no look these days because people of all backgrounds and walks of life end up in a displaced or homeless situation.

My problems usually started with the HRA hired staff at the East End Job Center, who seem to lack the proper training to handle clients in a respectful manner. I’ve had to enter the East End Center numerous times due to my case manager not returning my phone calls. The supervisor there is also consistently RUDE. I've proven them wrong with my copies every time that they’ve tried to terminate my case.

At first, public assistance sent me to FEGS, an agency that went bankrupt in 2015. FEGS is supposed to help you find a job or training or, if you are disabled, help you apply for SSI or Social Security Disability benefits. They did not do any of those things for me.

In September 2014, FEGS sent me to the doctor to evaluate me. I told him that I was able to work but had some medical limitations on what I could do. Instead of writing that, he wrote that I was unable to work, which blocked me from participating in any job search or training. I tried to resolve the issues with the medical clinic at 51st St. but received no result. I then filed a complaint with the Medical Board who just kicked it to the side. I was stuck in the program from September 2014 until January 2016 due to this false documentation by the physician.

When FEGS went bankrupt in 2015, every client was put on hold until further notice. After that, I was sent to Fedcap who were supposed to be better; however, nothing has changed with Fedcap – they are only new faces. These people make it so personal with themselves. It is more than frustrating.

In 2016, I was sent back to a different physician. At that time, I had just suffered a fall on ice on January 6th and was dealing with chronic pain and anxiety every day. I could barely move on the table to have the exam done. I told the doctor that I was unable to work. This time the physician stated that I am employable. This is how things operate within that system.

These agencies are supposed to help you and advocate for you but instead they have blocked me. Recently, I told them that I wanted to participate in a training on hemodialysis. They delayed and delayed so long that I lost the opportunity to participate in the training.

I had one fair hearing in July 2015 where the Administrative Law Judge was very rude, started yelling, and tried to force me to answer a question without legal representation at that time. I wasn't pleased with the hearing and asked to speak to the supervisor. When the supervisor finally came, all she said was, "You should have come in for a hearing last year” and didn’t address any of the behavior of the judge. I left without any resolution.

During this whole period, I have filed numerous complaints to try to correct and address the issues. I filed complaints about DHS with the former Commissioner Gilbert Taylor through hand written letters and through 311 since March 2015. I didn’t receive a response back in a timely manner to resolve my problems. I have also turned all correspondence in with Letitia James’ Office, Public Advocate, including complaints of HRA/DHS since April 2015 until now. I have also followed the chain of command with selected elected officials.

When I visited DHS Headquarters at 33 Beaver Street to try and address some issues with the shelter, the staff only added fuel to the situation by saying that, "We don't talk to clients."  The DHS Advocates at 33 Beaver who are supposed to assist New Yorkers instead are extremely unruly individuals and are combative instead of listening and executing the complaint.

Through it all, one quote that has stuck with me since 2011 is a quote by Maya Angelou, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” I know that there is still hope and I am successful because I have survived the hatred of the people controlling the system.

An Open Letter to the Next Mayor of NYC From a Homeless New Yorker

*Joseph Reed is a founding member of the Safety Net Activists. His story appeared on Mic.com on October 30, 2013.

To the next mayor of NYC,

The mayoral race continues to grab headlines in New York City but I have yet to hear either of you, Bill de Blasio or Joe Lhota, outline a clear strategy for reducing homelessness and helping the currently homeless get back on our feet.  I say “our” because I am one of the 50,000 homeless people who sleep in the city's shelter system. Like many other low income New Yorkers, I need you to hear my voice, especially if you become the next mayor of NYC. I insist that our needs be heard by the one elected to represent us. This is my story.

I have been in the shelter system a little under three years. I had never been in the system before. I am from Augusta, Georgia and am a native son of this country. My ancestors built this country. I was raised by intellectuals in an upper middle class family in the South. Roughly three years ago, I got laid off from the Department of Records and Information Services, where I was working as a clerk and making a substantial salary. I lived in South Ozone Park in Queens and had been in my apartment for four or five years. I thought that because of my college degree and experience, it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a new job.

I haven’t been able to find a job for three years.

My savings ran out and I lost my apartment. I had no knowledge of the shelter system until someone advised me to call 311 (the NYC information hotline) and inquire about entering an emergency shelter. They encouraged me to go to a drop-in center called Main Chance at 33rd St. and Lexington Ave. For two weeks, I slept in a plastic chair every night while I went through the mandatory preliminary process before beginning case management. The conditions were horrible and I went to the hospital because of the health issues caused by staying at Main Chance.

Mayor Bloomberg has been worried about whether some residents are illegitimately in this situation. I don’t think that there is any such thing. If you are in the system, you are there because circumstances put you there. Nobody in their right mind would want to go into the shelter system; it is an outpatient penitentiary. The shelter is a hospital of wounded and broken souls, in which people, at some point, inevitably lose hope.

Unless you have lived in this environment, felt the danger, and seen the chaos, you cannot understand the horrors of the shelter system. Shelters are packed. People from every walk of life seek out emergency shelter. I am here because I refuse to be on the streets. I have been in four different shelters over the course of the past three years. My life is on the line every single second. I see 30 to 45 fights every week. I see engagement with law enforcement five to 10 times per week. The lady in charge treats me like I am not even a human being.

For the first time in my life, I have to take prescription drugs in order to sleep. It is impossible to sleep in the shelter because of the constant arguments. Of course, sleep deprivation makes people angry and disgruntled and can turn anyone into a loose cannon. Another health issue in the shelters is the food. The food goes right through you and tears your system to shreds. Kids in the shelter system often get diarrhea. I had to give up milk under the doctor’s recommendations and eventually became a vegan because of the food.

I used to say to myself, why me? And then, I had an epiphany, why not me?  I have met people in the shelter from every walk of life — from people recently released from jail, to people who have master’s degrees but lost their jobs, to people suffering from mental illness. The city must provide the homeless population with real services to meet the needs of each individual. For some people that means treatment and rehabilitation, for others it means education and training to get current jobs, and for people like me, it means adequate housing and one more shot to be part of society again.

As it stands today, the NYC shelter system for single adults is an underworld that treats the homeless as subhuman. If you're elected to become the next mayor, you must take swift action to change a system that is systematically institutionalizing the people it is supposedly intended to serve.

Editor's note: Joseph is a client of the Urban Justice Center, which helped to facilitate this piece.