Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Good, The Bad, The Chronic

Here at Real Change, we’ve told everyone for years that homeless people don’t all fit the stereotypes. Now it’s the government line. The stereotype is officially referred to as The chronically homeless, and the whole point of the government line is that The chronically homeless isn’t typical. So we have made progress.

Speaking of what’s typical, did I mention that I am a mathematician? We mathematicians love that people use “typical” and “average” interchangeably. We would like you all to also use the words “typical” and “median” interchangeably, the words “typical” and “mode” interchangeably, and the words “typical” and “kangaroo or, alternately, [insert optional crude expression]” interchangeably, so we can hear you call everything a kangaroo or, alternately, [optional crude expression.] Just for the fun of it.

Also I like to hear the word The whenever possible, even if it doesn’t belong somewhere, and even if its use is deceitful, misleading, or shovels policy goals under the rug. Because the word just makes everything it touches sound so Special.

In this case we are speaking of The chronically homeless as opposed to speaking of some people being more chronically homeless than others, or so-and-so is 7.5 chronic while his brother is only 3.8 chronic, etc.

It’s like talking about The up. Once you’ve decided that there is a The up, you don’t have to say how up is this or that up. Some up isn’t more up than other up. Everything is either up or not-up. The fact that all up is the same simplifies thinking about it, which is useful for people who don’t like thinking or don’t know how. “Which way to the ceiling?” “Up.” “How high is the moon?” “Up.” “How screwed are we?” “Up.”

In reality, though, there IS such a thing as how chronic is chronic, but it’s buried in policy papers if it’s been decided at all. The distinction between being chronic enough to be called chronically homeless, and not chronic enough, is not however made by looking at the homeless people themselves. It’s made by looking at budgets and figuring out how much money is available to house and serve people.

In other words, the distinction between the chronically homeless and the non-chronically homeless isn’t a discernible fissure running across the landscape. The chronically homeless don’t have “tells,” like nervous ticks or unusual fashion choices that give them away. They’re separated from the crowd by the fact that they have a history of costing more, by an amount to be determined.

It’s that “to be determined” that makes the use of the word The a lie. There should be a different class of chronically homeless for every different budget. But the policy makers want to shovel that part of the discussion under the rug. First you have to agree with everything they say about The chronically homeless. Then when the budget numbers are crunched they’ll tell exactly you who they’ve been making you talk about. Or they make an arbitrary definition of chronically homeless up front and don’t tell you that the definition was selected with an eye on future available funds.

The biggest problem politicians seem to have is figuring out that everything they have government do to fix a problem changes the problem.

If you spend all the money you have housing and serving The chronically homeless, denying funds to short-term fixes already in place, like shelters and public free meals, then the whole system will turn into an engine that creates more chronically homeless people by whatever definition you end up choosing.

Meanwhile, in real estate news, the word is that prices for homes will be heading up for the foreseeable future. This is called good news by our major local daily newspapers, as if there were an absolute or objective good in inflation, so long as it enriches the right people.

And politicians read about it in the Sunday paper, and think all is going well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Once more into the breach.

Even when I write about something only mildly controversial I tend to get that feeling. I think it stems from growing up in a world-class dysfunctional family, in which my official name was “Your Idiot Son,” as in “what did Your Idiot Son just say?” or “When is Your Idiot Son going to shut up and take out the garbage?”

My trepidation is doubled when I realize that the controversial subject may itself be about dysfunctionality, so all my thoughts on the subject will probably serve to stimulate recollections of being backhanded for expressing thoughts.

That’s what came to mind when I heard of this whole Muhammed-cartoon controversy. First: the world is one giant dysfunctional family. Second: Ouch, I’m the poster-child. Third: Shouldn’t I be ducking right now?

In case you’ve been in a padded cell for the last couple of weeks, lucky you, the news is that back in September a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a bunch of cartoons, most of which depicted the prophet Muhammed. This was done because the paper’s cultural editor, Flemming Rose, had learned of difficulties a Danish writer had in getting his children’s book about the prophet written. The editor thought that sounded like self-censorship right there in the State of Denmark.

Self-censorship! Man the ramparts! Don’t shoot till you see the whites of your own eyes!

I mean, what’s the proper remedy for self-censorship? If I cut off the hand that wags at me, do I not bleed? Yes I do, it’s my own friggin’ hand.

I’m trying to fathom the thinking on all sides of this issue. So Flemming Rose was one of those kids who realized at a certain age that he had never previously said the f-word to his parents (a word which in Danish means “pull my finger,” I imagine), so all at once said it to them and found out immediately why he had never said it before. It was because, before then, he had had some sense. After that, he had no sense at all, as any that remained was knocked out of him, so he continued behaving senselessly to this day, and here we are. This is what they call the cycle of abuse.

Sure, (understatement alert) the widespread violent reaction has been dysfunctional also. What is especially dysfunctional is the reaction that says, “Oh yeah, well then, here are twelve hideous cartoons that will be certain to insult the Jews, or, now we will burn American flags, or we will burn the embassy of the country your paper is printed in.” “Oh, well, if you’re going to insult me like that, I’m going to punch this other guy. Then you’ll be sorry.”

Is it too much to ask people professing to defend a religion of peace to be merely nonviolent? Nonviolent doesn’t mean peaceful, it just means not hurting people. You can still raise a lot of hell within those parameters.

I’d wish a pox on everyone’s house but it seems to have already arrived. Now it’s become necessary for an ex-president to warn the general public against substituting anti-Islam for anti-Semitism, and that some of the cartoons in question did in fact cross the line from political commentary to religious intolerance. That would be the same ex-president that came up with, “Don't ask; don’t tell.”

A little more than five hundred years ago Muslim Spain had a similar rule regarding non-Muslims, which made it more, not less, tolerant than the rest of Europe. Just slightly more than two hundred years ago American revolutionaries were publishing tracts under fake names because there was no freedom of speech here yet. As recently as the 1940s Europe fought a big war in which freedom of speech was a peripheral issue.

Maybe that’s a clue. It wasn’t much later that I got my first chemistry set, and had the urge to blow stuff up with my new toy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Eating from Aesop’s Table

I’ve been thinking about my favorite Aesop’s fable. My favorite Aesop’s fable, just so you’ll all know, is the one that has the North Wind and the Sun arguing about which of them is the most powerful, and they agree to test their powers by seeing who can first get a jacket, or cloak, off a man on a road. The North Wind, for all his blowing, just succeeds in getting the man to grip the cloak tighter, while the Sun gently warms it off of him.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the Steelers in the Super Bowl. I’m not talking about Super Bowl XL, the one where they just beat the Seahawks, 21-10. I’m talking about Super Bowl XXX, ten years ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys.

Not being a fan of football, I had no use for that information on the day in January 1996 when the game was played. But because I have to walk about among the normal humans, and because I sometimes have to pass for one of them, I stored the factoid in my brain, in the abbreviated format “Pittsburgh = Losers, XXX.”

So two months later when I was writing an April Fool’s story about how all the homeless in Seattle had finally got the hint that they were unwelcome here and were using their famous mobility to go elsewhere, I naturally made Pittsburgh their fictitious destination. Naturally, I thought the choice was hilarious, in part because homelessness and Super Bowls and homeless people and Super Bowl losers all have nothing whatsoever to do with one another.

How wrong I was! I should, in fact, have sent all our homeless to Detroit, because those people might have known what to do with them.

Faced with the urge to sweep its streets of homeless people like so many other cities have done when hosting Super Bowls, Detroit did something finer. It threw Super Bowl parties for them, where they could get together out of the cold and watch the game while eating the same kind of junk food everybody else in the country considers essential to the experience, and making the same kinds of collective noises, etc.

Even though I totally don’t get football, I totally understand and appreciate the normal human need to gather for food and to make celebratory and other collective noises. The normal humans really go in for that sort of thing. It’s called “community,” or some such thing, and it’s highly valued. The surprise for a lot of people is (hold on to your hats!) homeless people value it too.

So Detroit’s Super Bowl parties were a resounding success. Not only did they save their city a lot of expense by not having to pay a lot of cops overtime to herd people around against their will, but they introduced a lot of people to social services and got folks in the door to sign up for programs that they hadn’t even heard of before. Aesop would have said, “I told you so.” Aesop, an African slave who lived over 25 centuries ago, could out-wise the average 21st century city council member, anywhere.

Everyone can learn from Detroit’s experience. The missions, for example, just might learn to provide the meal first and invite people to the sermon afterward (I believe Jesus himself did it in that order.) Cities and towns that don’t want people to panhandle could try to provide attractive alternatives, involving assorted cheese dips and opportunities for loud hooting. Chronic homelessness is not a well-defined term.

That last item doesn’t have anything to do with the Aesop’s fable, probably, but it’s something I want people to learn, so I tossed it in anyway.

The real inspiration for that April Fool’s article ten years ago was the razing of homeless encampments in the Jungle along Beacon Hill -- a stupid act of unnecessary witless force. Let’s all learn that witless force is as impractical as it is too costly.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Hamas: Congratulations, Suckers!

The good news of the week: Since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in a landslide, no one expects the United States to continue donating $70 million in direct annual aid to the Palestinian Authority. The money saved will be able to go instead to pay for much needed social projects within this country, such as our urgent national need to know which shelter bed which particular homeless person is sleeping in every night, including his or her name, social security number, date of birth, and the names and addresses of all of his or her relatives.

Then, with the money that’s leftover, we’ll be able to buy two or three Tomahawk missiles to shoot at Pakistan, a lame nuclear power that would never have the nerve to shoot us back, until the onset of World War III.

In fact all the hand wringing over the Hamas win has been plain silly. People just need to relax, count their silver linings, smell the roses, and drink their milk, or whatever.

OK, so they’ve been terrorists. So what? Well, then, this win must have come as quite a shock to them, right? It sure invalidates all their past methods, to find out that all they had to do was just persuade people to vote for them. Ha! Democracy won, terrorism lost! We showed you, Hamas! Your terrorist ways look pretty stupid now, don’t they? Losers!

Secondly, until now Hamas has been able to look all sparkly and shiny as the party out of power. When you’re out of power you can promise anything. But now they have to govern. The fact is suicide bombers are all drama queens who are too important to pick up the garbage or maintain the sewage. Reality is bound to set in, and any party that could manage to do the boring dirty work to stay in power would start to look like your granny in her underwear. Or they won’t be able to hack it, in which case they’re out in the next election. It’s all good, either way.

As President George Bush has noted, the election showed that the Palestinian people were dissatisfied with the status quo. Just like people everywhere, they want better educations, and no children left behind, and an expensive privatized medical system that favors the already favored. They want to land men and women on Mars, prevent women from having abortions, and have prayer in their classrooms. They want tax cuts for the rich, in order to encourage economic growth and development in the private sector, so the public sector can shrivel up, die, and go to hell. But they’re not Americans, so they don’t get what they want.

No, just kidding. They do too get what they want, they’re a democracy, and that’s what democracies are for! It’s just that, after that -- after they get what they want -- we get what we want. Because we’re bigger than they are, see? So we can take what they want away from them.

Already, Hamas is getting Americans mad at them, and prone to want to get rid of them, by calling for the introduction of sharia law among the Palestinian people. This is unacceptable to Americans because it involves a dress code. Americans will not stand for a dress code, anywhere, especially on Fridays.

Of course, the $70 million we’re saving per year by not giving the Palestinians aid is less than a hundredth what it will take to invade them and make them free from themselves and their own stupidity again, but we are a resourceful people, and we know how to use credit.

Of course, the Saudis might take exception to anything we do to Hamas, call in all our debts with them, thus triggering the onset of World War III. But looking at it on the bright side, it’s better to get that over with and move on, right?

So cheer up everyone: your glass is half-full!