The late great war correspondent Michael Hastings wrote that “no one ever accuses America of being a nation of historians.” There are few issues in our national life where that observation is more relevant than the now sadly normalized crisis of homelessness. House Keys Not Handcuffs: Homeless Organizing, Art and Politics in San Francisco and Beyond, a new book by long-time homeless advocates Paul Boden, Art Hazelwood, and Bob Prentice, challenges that national amnesia by systematically laying out the early 1980s origins of what Boden likes to call “houselessness.”
The book also describes activist responses to the post-‘70s shredding of the New Deal safety net for the poorest in the United States. It celebrates grassroots victories while acknowledging the daunting work that lies ahead. It is filled with art that has been used as agitprop in the struggle, including work by both academically trained artists like Eric Drooker and street artists with little or no formal training.
I spoke to Paul Boden in the Mission District office of Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of western U.S. groups fighting homelessness that Boden co-founded. It was the end of the day but Boden, well-known locally for his fiery approach to public speaking, still had plenty of juice in him, and was typically passionate about the work he does. He started off our conversation by describing Tavis Smiley’s producers teasing him about his cigarette jones. Tavis Smiley’s excellent interview with Boden is here. – Ben Terrall
Ben Terrall: One of the things I really like about your book is the history you lay out about how the current homelessness crisis came about. Can you talk about the factors that lead to the rise of homelessness in the U.S.?
Paul Boden: If people would step back and just look at our Without Housing report or go for themselves to the Federal Funding Budget document called the Blue Book, there’s a direct cause and effect with cuts to affordable housing funding that started taking place in ’79 in the last year of Carter and then went massive under Reagan and the “Reagan Revolution.” Between ’79 and ’82 we cut the equivalent of $54 billion a year in funding for affordable housing. So in ’83, we were opening homeless shelters across the country.
It only makes freakin’ sense if you decimate affordable housing funding like that, you go from $84 billion dollars a year — these are 2004 constant dollars — down to $18 billion and never get back up above $34 billion, you have in effect eliminated approximately $50 billion a year that was supporting the maintenance and the construction and the development of affordable housing for poor people. So when you do that kind of massive decimation of funding for programs initially created in 1937 for the poorest Americans, you’re gonna kill, you’re gonna wipe out. And when you wipe out housing opportunities for poor people, you create emergency shelter programs to address the houselessness that you have created.
It’s so goddamn simple. It’s so clear cut, it’s so cause and effect. And then four years later you create a homeless program called the McKinney Program, and now we call it Local Homeless Coordinating Boards, and there are 380 ten-year plans written by different local communities across the country. There’s point and count head counts that take place every other year, there’s motivational intake, there’s life skills training, there’s emergency shelter programs. None of that by itself is ever going to replace the $50 billion a year that was cut out of this housing stream.
Now, simultaneous to eliminating that $50 billion a year, the federal government tripled homeowner mortgage interest tax deduction funding allocations. And I say allocations, they say, “No, it’s a tax credit, it’s a tax break, it’s administered by the IRS.” Tough shit. If you owe me 50 bucks and I told you to keep it, I just gave you 50 bucks. If you ask me for 50 bucks and I hand you a $50 bill, I just gave you 50 bucks. Either way, it’s the same. And so the federal government is saying if you want a subsidy for your home ownership, the sky’s the limit. We wrote a written request to the Joint Committee on Taxation asking what the cap on homeowner mortgage interest deduction programs is, in terms of budget allocation. They wrote back and said the data you seek does not exist, that they have never actually looked at how much in 2010 was spent subsidizing the housing of homeowners. They have estimates based on different data, different criteria, but there is no actual “this is how much we spent, in dollars.” So we know it’s at least $144 billion last year, but we don’t have hard data to back that up.
On affordable housing allocations, boy do they have data. They have data on how many people were left handed, how many were right handed, did they have a felony conviction, were they evicted, the screening mechanism, we think that they should be sweeping our goddamn streets for the charity that we’re giving them in the form of a housing subsidy. That’s $34 billion.
But the $144 billion, we call that economic stimulus. And now I am a homeowner, I get that housing subsidy. And I wouldn’t qualify for a housing subsidy if I were seeking a direct allocation but as a homeowner I get it and am never asked for any data about anything. I got the loan and I pay the interest on the loan, and therefore I write it off on my taxes if I itemize. I’m saying I qualify for this shit.
BT: So there’s none of that micro-management.
PB: There’s no management, there’s no micro-management, there’s no questions asked. I could have all the felony convictions on my record I want but for that form of housing subsidy, I qualify for it. Just by virtue of my wealth, by virtue of my ability to get a loan. And so it’s not like the federal government no longer invests our money as taxpayers, all of our money. It’s not that they no longer invest that money in housing. It’s that in 1979, really in 1980, 1981, the conscious decision was made that neoliberal economics dictates – if no one’s making money on this, if no corporate entity, if no individual person is making money on this, it’s not a worthy endeavor. It’s not economic stimulus.
But the idea that government could invest in housing for poor people is seen as charity. And those people aren’t worthy. And those communities aren’t worthy.
So what we say is: bullshit, housing should be a human right
And why wouldn’t we want people to be housed?
BT: Can you say something about why, after being Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness for 16 years, you felt that there was a need to start WRAP?
PB: WRAP is an extension of what we had been doing at the Coalition and what the Coalition continues to do today. And what we did in ’87 when we created the Coalition was an extension of Hospitality House Hospitality House had been around since ’68, and had been operating a drop in center, neighborhood center, arts program, neighborhood newspaper since ’68.
But it wasn’t until October of ’82, as they would close at 11 o’clock at night, that people were standing there and we were like “what’s up?” And these people said “I’ve got nowhere to go, I lost my place.” “Oh, well crash here.”
And it really was people sleeping on the chairs, people sleeping on the floor, on the ping pong table. It was a crash pad. And people started sleeping on church pews at Grace Church, on the floor at St. Anthony’s. Neighborhood institutions started recognizing that all of these community members had nowhere to freaking sleep, and it was really seen as a crisis in our community. It wasn’t seen as oh, all of a sudden they all became dysfunctional and needed rehabilitation. It was that something was happening and all of this housing was disappearing.
And then by ’87 when the Feds started funding this shit, and even before that when Dianne Feinstein as mayor of San Francisco started allocating funding to address the issue of homelessness, all of a sudden I had to ask you, “What’s your date of birth? What’s your social security number?”
Why? Either I have a bed in my shelter or I have a space on the floor in my crash pad or I don’t. I don’t really need to know anything about you in order to provide you with the service of an emergency shelter bed. But because the city started funding me, I was now required as part of that funding to make sure that I wasn’t double counting. Their whole thing was, “The shelters could claim to have 50 people and only be sleeping 20. So we need to be able to identify each person there sleeping to be sure that they’re not ripping us off.” And we would say, Well why don’t you just come in at 12 o’clock some night and count. You count heads to know how many people there are, you don’t need to know everything about the person. Whether you’re left handed or right handed, who cares? But their attitude was, if we’re funding you, you now work for us.
In the early days at Hospitality House, I was a 23 year old kid. So if some 75 year old guy showed up at the door at one o’clock in the morning, I could go over to another 20 year old and say, “dude, will you give him your spot for the night, and I’ll make it up to you later, I’ll do what I can to help you later?” And the dude would say “yeah, sure.” When people look at someone in worse shape than them, no matter how messed up they are, most of them will say, “No man, go ahead, you take the spot, I’ll come back tomorrow.” It was that kind of a system, it was neighbors helping neighbors. And there’s a spirit to that. That’s gone, or it’s disappearing.
The spirit was totally different from the ten year plans and the chronic homeless plans and redefining when a family counts as being homeless versus when they’re poorly housed, all of these institutional bureaucracies and all of these systems that we’ve put in place. The number of homeless kids in this country has tripled. There’s 2.5 million. There’s 1.2 million homeless kids that go to school every day that don’t have a home to go to at night. And the solution was to redefine when they count as being homeless?
Again, we go back to the neoliberal policies of the fuckin’ “Reagan Revolution” and we recognize that that’s exactly what they did with unemployment in the early ’80s. The numbers of unemployed people were skyrocketing, so they redefined when you counted as being unemployed. Not having a job no longer qualified you as being unemployed, you had to be in EDD [Employment Development Department] job training or getting an EDD unemployment check in order to count as being unemployed, so the numbers of unemployed people went way the fuck down. We just did that and Obama signed it. They changed the definition of who’s homeless and the numbers of homeless people went way down.
BT: Can you say something about the Homeless Bill of Rights that WRAP is pushing for in California?
PB: In California and Oregon. And we’re working a lot with different organizations. Denver Homeless Out Loud is the lead one in Colorado, and there’s a state-wide anti-criminalization campaign kicking up in Washington. So there’s now four states working collaboratively, but two of them, Oregon and California, are working together to introduce these bills and to run them in the 2015 session. [Watered-down versions of the Homeless Bill of Rights have passed in Rhode Island, Illinois and Connecticut.] And the bills very clearly just say, everyone’s gonna sleep, everyone, housed or unhoused. Everybody’s gonna stand still at some point, everybody’s gonna sit down at some point, everybody’s gonna eat at some point. So local governments will no longer be able to criminalize standing still, sitting down, laying down, sleeping, eating – everyone’s going to do it, regardless of your skin color, regardless of your housing status, regardless of your income levelsHow can those activities become criminal activities?
When you look at Jim Crow, when you look at anti-Okie, when you look at Sundown Towns, when you look at “Ugly Laws” [which criminalized people with disabilities], when you look at the Japanese-American Exclusion Act, when you look at Bracero Treaties, this country has a long history, a very repetitive pattern of every 20 or 30 years creating another campaign to rid communities of people that are deemed undesirable, be they disabled, be they Japanese-American, be they Mexican, be they homeless, be they black, be they whatever.
There’s a long pattern of identifying certain segments of communities where local governments have said well, if I make it illegal for everyone to sit, stand, sleep, rest, eat in public space, I can discriminatorily enforce these laws. They are enforced by local police departments, the crimes are adjudicated in local courts, by local judges, by local systems, the people are incarcerated in local jails and the laws are passed by local governments and are often promoted and supported and pushed by local business groups. And The state and the feds are told to stay the hell out of it because it’s local and because the state law says local governments have the authority to implement local time, place and manner restrictions in their communities. Sitting, standing, blocking the sidewalk, eating all fall under time, place and manner in some ambiguous way, so local governments are on their own when it comes to whether or not they choose to pass and then enforce these laws.
And we’re saying that we think it’s unconstitutional. Why would you write a law that says it’s illegal to do something that you yourself do? The people writing these laws themselves are going to sleep, eat, sit, whatever. And so we’re saying what you’re basically criminalizing is the fact that we exist.
We looked at 58 cities in California. On average nine of these laws are already on the books, criminalizing these activities. So no matter where you go if you are houseless, or you if are an SRO [single room occupancy dwelling] resident hanging out in front of your building because you don’t have a living room and you don’t have a porch, anywhere you go there’s at least nine of these laws where if the police decide that they want to hassle you, they want to make your life difficult, they can, because ultimately they want you to leave. They have nine options to choose from in order to jack you up, give you a ticket, arrest you, ask for ID, run checks on you, just make your life miserable. And that’s what they do. And that’s what they’ve done historically, and we’re saying the time has come to not just end anti-homeless policing, but to once and for all stop this malicious, racist, classist policing policy in order to address social issues.
BT: In the book there’s great art from both the last thirty years and the 1930s. Some of the posters from the WPA era seem very timely to me and could be about what’s going on right now. You refer to how government policies in the ’30s addressed poverty and homelessness in a real way. Could you say something about the activism in those days?
PB: People were getting their butts kicked, and in many cases getting killed and getting clubbed and getting shot, to fight for justice because they felt like they had nothing left to lose. It was the Great Depression, they were homeless, they were wandering, and there was no United Way and there was none of the neoliberal shit that came out of the War on Poverty in terms of “Well, we addressed poverty by giving tax write offs to rich people to make donations.” There was nothing.
And people fought because they had nothing to lose. And their willingness to say I don’t care what you’re willing to do, I care about what we want. To really sacrifice and fight for that was phenomenal. They didn’t have computers, they didn’t have the internet, they didn’t have Facebook. They were going out in the streets and in the fields and going up against much more powerful, much more well armed, very violent responses to what they were doing, and they wouldn’t let go. So the six day work week is gone, Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 [which established the requirement for paying the local prevailing wages on public works projects for laborers and mechanics] was passed, what we now call HUD was created in 1937. That’s not that long ago, and we’re already ¾ of the way toward dismantling that system, we’ve already started mortgaging off public housing. Now we’re dismantling public housing units.
Social security came out of the New Deal system. Not Private Industry Councils, not EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], not the United Way, not this quasi-industrial approach to making sure that companies get money by addressing poverty, but actual systems of the Federal Government to address the poverty that we see today.
We see sidewalks, we see sewers, we see schools, we see hospitals, bridges, all built because of those systems. That’s why people say Roosevelt was saving capitalism from its greed. If we’re going to have a capitalist system it would probably be a really good idea if the people in that system got some frickin’ money in their pockets that they can spend. So let’s do Works programs. It makes sense if you want to save capitalism from itself. It makes sense to create jobs for people, and to make those jobs be public interest jobs. Murals in the post offices, theater groups. There was some really creative shit. Our SROs today all have air wells inside them because of this organizing that was going on back then. Because if one kid got sick in a tenement, everybody in the building got sick because there was no air flow. Some really basic community benefit things came out of the kind of organizing that says this is what our community needs, this is what we need to be healthy, this is what we need to save capitalism, basically, to survive in capitalism and so this is what we want. And they organized and they got it.
They didn’t address racism for shit. Eleanor Roosevelt tried to fight racism, but in terms of was it perfect, was it utopia? No. But there were very systemic, concrete accomplishments that were derived from a level of organizing that was fearless and that organizers were willing to die for. And it worked. So in ’37, you get a Housing Development Department that’s created and it says it is the responsibility of the federal government to insure safe, decent, healthy, humane housing for all of its citizens.
Then in 1998 we get the war on the poor through the Contract On America from the Gingrich and Clinton era. And it went back and literally changed the law to say that the federal government cannot be held accountable to insure the housing of all of its citizens. And that’s what we’re living under right now.
BT: You referred to Clinton. Could you say something about the record of the Democrats with the neoliberal attacks on social programs, and the possibilities for pushing politicians?
PB: Well, I think the possibilities are whatever we limit those possibilities to being. I think that’s where people need to wake up and recognize it’s not what they’re willing to do for us or what they are doing to us, it’s what are we willing to put up with? How bad do things need to get before we finally say, Hey, wait a second, you work for me, asshole. And that’s not what we want.
And when are we going to get past the, for lack of a better term, silo-based organizing … where this is about education, this is about health care, all compartmentalized … it’s all about social justice, and if we’re organizing around a socially just community.. If you can’t get rid of homeless people using these laws, if you can’t decimate the right to exist and the right for people to eat by using these laws then you’re going to have to start dealing with what’s behind why you’re using these laws in the first place.
And you’re going to have a community of people who realize that no matter what happens, they can’t criminalize me for trying to stay alive. That whether I have housing or I don’t have housing, whether my housing is sub-standard and shitty or whether it’s gorgeous, nobody can criminalize me surviving and existing in the community that I choose to live in. Once you’ve established those ground rules, then if having people sleep in the streets is driving everybody crazy, including those sleeping in the streets, once that baseline is established then we can actually start working on the race and class issues that are behind why this exists, and the economic issues that are behind why this exists.
We should build housing. Why is it so difficult to get that? It’s not like the data doesn’t exist to say well, when we cut the funding from housing we created the situation. That data exists, it’s hard numbers, it’s there. Even the federal government admits it’s there. But every solution that’s been proposed since 1987, when the feds started funding homelessness bureaucracies, hasn’t addressed that issue at all. It’s kind of ironic.
Now HUD is talking about “Housing First.” You go and look at the budget line items in HUD, there is no line item that says “Housing First.” Yet you look at the media press releases from HUD and you’ll see “Housing First” as the number one priority. Because it’s public relations. “Housing First” is a concept. Well! People are homeless, the first thing they need is housing! Yeah, no shit. Nothing cures homelessness like a home. Everyone can agree to that, therefore it became HUD’s tagline. They’re funding a voucher program for veterans that are chronically homeless single adults and there’s only a thousand vouchers. And they say “this is a Housing First program.” But they are sure not funding housing at anything like the levels it should be funded.
BT: What do you hope your new book House Keys Not Handcuffs inspires people to do going forward?
PB: Thank you. There are twelve articles that we call “live time” articles which were written while the events took place. There are three essays: there’s one that’s me talking about the spirit and process of the organizing that we’re doing; Art Hazlewood talking about artwork as a vital communication tool in doing that organizing; and then Bob Prentice talks about some of the results. He was the Deputy Director of Public Health and San Francisco’s first Homeless Coordinator, and he really respected the street outreach and the community forums that drive the priorities of the community groups in addressing homelessness.
We talk about accountable organizing, using street outreach, documenting what people tell you, asking uniform questions, using community forums to go through that and using work groups to research it and back it up, using artwork to get that message out, creating your own newspaper to have your own voice, creating your own housing corporation to develop and show in practice given the tools and the resources and given the funding, poor people can build shit for themselves. They don’t need charity. There’s enough skills, there’s enough brilliance, there’s enough determination within the community of people that no matter which community you’re talking about, within the communities there’s enough there to do whatever it is we need to do.
Treating others as human beings is not rocket science. When I was coming off the street through Hospitality House it wasn’t like “oh would you like to do…?” It was “if you’re going to volunteer and work here, we’re social justice, that’s what we’re about. We provide services to people in the community that people need.” Mail drop, phones, chess, bones, dominoes, having a living room for a community. And when homelessness came in, a place to crash. That was serving the community, and if you were going to be a part of that you had to understand that this was a social justice battle. Otherwise you don’t need to be here.
So we’re trying to impart to people that this isn’t a profession, this isn’t a job. I don’t go to freakin’ work. I’m in an incredibly great situation where I get up every day and I do something I believe in. How many people can say that? There’s not enough of us, and I wish there were more of us that could say that. I get up every day and I get out of bed because I’m doing something I believe in, that’s a passion in me. That’s what the artwork talks to, that’s what the impact on local policies talks to, there’s incredible power in that. And the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign and the Without Housing report we put out is saying we are going to create our own laws, do our own research, create our own artwork, create our own messaging, put out our stuff, do our own organizing, have our parties.
When we created this book, nobody got paid. All the artwork, all the writing, nobody got paid except the printer, and even they took a big hit in order to be a part of this process. You can always survive, you can always create, you can always build power by operating from the heart, and incorporating that with the brain and making sure that nobody gets left behind in the process. And making sure that money never drives what the heart is saying the priority is.
Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org=