Visible, if just for one night

Jan. 27, 2010

Those who are homeless are often invisible, ignored.

We chose to see, or not see, the man begging for change as we walk down the street. We forget that our friends who just needed a place to stay “for a few days” are still sleeping on our couch. We ignore the waitress who sleeps in her car behind the diner in town. We pretend homelessness has nothing to do with poverty.

But, last night, as many were watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, thousands of dedicated volunteers were hitting the streets across the country in search of the homeless. Volunteers peered into back alleys and dark corners, beneath underpasses and in abandoned cars. The goal: one night each year cities and towns across the nation make an all-out effort to count the number of people who are homeless. Called the point-in-time census, it is an attempt to take a “snapshot” of homelessness in this country.

So, when dozens of volunteers fanned out to do a search of the district late Wednesday night, I was among them.

Bundled up and armed with just a flashlight, a clipboard and some $5 gift cards for McDonald’s, I set out with a half dozen other volunteers to scour the DC waterfront and around the Navy Yard. We broke into teams of two and searched the area block by block. (It is hoped that by doing the survey late at night, and when it is cold, there will be fewer people to count on the street. Besides counting those living on the street the census counts those living in emergency shelters and transitional housing, or who can otherwise be identified as homeless.)

Not long after we began our search, the woman I was paired up with for the night and I came across a blanketed form near the marina. As we attempted to get the person’s attention, we realized no one was there–the blanket had merely been left in the shape of whomever had last slept there.

But, elsewhere along the waterfront, we did find people living without a fixed address; a couple who called the street home, and a small group of men who slept in tents or beneath the nearby underpasses.

Just a mile from the I-395 underpass that sheltered perhaps a half dozen men, depending on the night, helicopters buzzed overhead and block after block was closed off as part of the intense security measures around the Capitol for the State of the Union Address. I could not help but think that while our first black president was addressing the public, so many other black men have been abandoned to the streets of the district.

Though a few people did not want to participate in the census and remained hidden under their blankets, or shouted for us to go away, most of the people we encountered were willing to be counted and answer the intensely personal questions on the survey. And, though virtually all said they would be happy to move into permanent housing, many expressed resistance to shelters. “They’re filthy,” we were told. One nearby shelter had “mold older than I am,” and “feces on the walls.”

For four hours we walked block by block along the waterfront, then eventually weaving between gentrified and gated communities and some of the district’s poorest subsidized housing along South Capitol Street and the Southeast Freeway.

I am certain that as many people as we did find on the streets of our section of Southwest and Southeast DC, we likely missed many more. And, while the woman I was teamed with and I looked under some highway underpasses, we did not search them all–the aggressive behavior of one individual we had encountered early in the night along with the long, dark field required to get to an area we suspected was home to many of DC’s homeless was enough to dissuade us.

At the end of the night, we had found only 10 people living on the street in the small portion of the district our group searched. The total count for DC and the surrounding metro region will not be released for several months. Last year’s count found 12,035 people who were homeless in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area, 6,228 of whom were in the district itself. About 10 percent of the total homeless population last year were found to be unsheltered, 1,238 people–about 25 percent of whom live on the streets of DC.

The use of point-in-time counts has been criticized by some as portraying an inaccurate picture of homelessness that overemphasizes the population that is chronically homeless, and that does not count those who have turned to friends or family for shelter. It is a flaw that has no easy solution, but that does not go ignored.

“As in prior years, the 2009 count does not include persons who are living ‘doubled up’ in housing with relatives or friends as that is beyond the mission of the Homeless Services and Coordinating Task Force’s annual survey. However, due to the current national recession and ongoing housing foreclosures in many local jurisdictions, there is growing concern that many of the region’s residents may be considered ‘at risk’ of becoming homeless.” –The 2009 Count of Homeless Persons in Shelters and on the Streets in Metropolitan Washington

And unfortunately there were not even enough volunteers to search everywhere in the district. As I sat through training classes to prepare us for the census, I noticed that the maps of DC had sections marked off in green, blue and pink. Green areas were to be covered block by block and blue areas as best as resources would allow, with locations of known homeless populations marked out. The pink areas were not to be covered at all. Much of Southeast and Northeast, and all of the areas east of the Anacostia River were blanketed in pink.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

The future of journalism

It has not been a good couple years for media, and print journalism has been particularly hard hit. Last year the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped publishing print editions and dozens of others–The Ann Arbor News, Rocky Mountain News–folded entirely or are are in bankruptcy. Further, giants such as The Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle only narrowly avoided that fate and will likely struggle for years to come.

So, it should come as no surprise that if newspapers are struggling in the digital age, then those who watch the watchdogs too would be struggling. Yet I found the notice in my inbox today that MediaChannel was on the verge of shutting down operations a wake-up call of sorts. As vital as it is to have a free press, it is just as important to have a media watchdog. For the past decade MediaChannel was one of many that performed this role: “As the media watch the world, we watch the media.”

The first newspaper I ever worked for, the Millbrook Round Table, part of Taconic Press owned by the bankrupt Journal Register Company, folded last year. Each closure, at papers large and small, takes away a little piece of the community it serves. Our Founding Fathers though enough of a free press that it guaranteed its rights in the First Amendment. That’s right, the very first one.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

While the closure of newspapers can be blamed in part on the current economic situation, their demise is more about the failure of the public to realize their value. They are more than the printed page or an article on a Web site. Journalism, and I am biased toward print, is vital to the existence of democracy. When there is no where else to turn, people often look to the press, hoping that once light is shed on the situation, justice will prevail. And often that is the case. One need only look at countries like North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea and Libya to see the impact of a censored press. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks those nations as the top five most censored countries.

It will take a concerted effort to rescue journalism. I only hope that the public realizes this sooner rather than later.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Don’t feed the strays

Jan. 25, 2010

Apparently South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer’s recommendation not to feed strays extends beyond feral cats. At a recent town hall meeting in Greenville, Bauer, who is seeking the GOP nod to run for governor this fall, compared giving assistance to those living in poverty in his state to feeding stray cats.

“My grandmother was not a highly educated woman but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.” – South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (R)

To make matters worse, according to an article in The Greenville Times, Bauer suggested that if those on assistance with children fail to attend PTA meetings they should lose government assistance. “You go to a school where there’s an active participation of parents, and guess what? They have the highest test scores. So what do you do? You say, ‘Look folks, if you receive goods or services from the government and you don’t attend a parent-teacher conference, bam, you lose your benefits.'”

Clearly Bauer has never had to juggle family responsibilities or figure out how to be involved in a child’s education while working more than one job just to stay financially solvent. And he is clearly out of touch with South Carolinians. More than half of students in South Carolina, 58 percent, participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program, 45.5 percent in Greenville County. Further, in 2008, 15.7 percent of the population of the state were classified as living in poverty.

Bauer just doesn’t get it. Let’s hope the voters of South Carolina show him that his ignorant and demeaning attitude towards poverty has no place in the governor’s office.

By Jennifer E. Cooper

Doctors for the rich, coathangers for the poor?

Yesterday marked the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It is among the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history, and each year those for and against legalized abortion face off in what seems to be a never-ending battle.

As I am fiercely pro-choice, I can accept that some women believe abortion is wrong. But I will never accept the right of the government to take this choice away from women–well, to take the choice away from poor women. What is often missed in the debate is this: women of means will always have access to abortion while poor women may be forced to make life-threatening decisions should abortion be made illegal or otherwise inaccessible.

I was reminded of just how dire things were for women with unwanted pregnancies prior to Roe v. Wade as I watched a screening of The Coathanger Project in Arlington, Va., yesterday. And, I was surprised to learn a generation of young women make no connection between coathangers and abortion. Coathangers have been a symbol of the form of dangerous self-induced abortions many desperate women in the United States once performed, and that women around the world still perform.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which works to make advances in sexual and reproductive health worldwide, roughly half of the three million pregnancies in the United States each year are unintended. By age 45, more than half of all American women will have experienced an unintended pregnancy; one-third will have had an abortion. Worldwide 60,000 to 80,000 women die annually from unsafe abortions with an additional 5 million suffering injury.

Women, particularly poor women, are shortchanged again and again. Despite the fact that women bear future generations, we are given little support in doing so. One need only look to the stalled health care bill currently before Congress to see just how low a priority is given to women’s health. Pelvic exams, domestic violence screening, counseling about sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control itself were not initially on the list of basic benefits all insurers must cover. In its fact sheet on contraceptive use, the Guttmacher Institute notes that virtually all women (98 percent) aged 15 to 44 who have ever had intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method.

“Without publicly funded family planning services, the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions occurring in the United States would be nearly two-thirds higher among women overall and among teens; the number of unintended pregnancies among poor women would nearly double.” – Facts on Publicly Funded Contraceptive Services in the United States, Guttmacher Institute, February 2009

Whether abortion will be covered remains to be seen. The health care bill may be dead in the water. But, as it is, poor women and those in the military are expected to pay for abortions out of pocket since Medicaid and military hospitals are prohibited from funding abortions while wealthy and middle class women with health insurance do not face similar restrictions.

At the same time, some would have the government take things a step further. Numerous politicians have proposed legislation that would control the fertility of women as a condition of welfare eligibility with forced birth control or sterility. Just don’t ask the government to pay for said birth control. (Many health insurance plans didn’t cover birth control until women discovered they were covering prescriptions for Viagra. Thank you Viagra.)

This puts poor women in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t position. What right do we to have to control when or if a woman bears children simply because she has the misfortune to be poor? Some may argue that people choose to be poor. Unfortunately, in reality, being poor is more often a circumstance of birth. Rather than blame those who are born into poverty (or to suggest that the poor do not have the right to have children–no, we won’t go there) we need to be holding our government accountable for perpetuating a system that traps people into generational poverty.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008, there were 2.2 million workers earning wages at or below the minimum wage. And more than half of the 37 million people in this country living in poverty in this nation are women.

Attempts to control women’s reproduction at the expense of her health and personal freedom come from all sides. A recent report by NARAL Virginia, found 72 percent of the Commonwealth’s crisis pregnancy centers receiving state funding relay medically inaccurate information to pregnant women. The year-long undercover investigation found that many of the centers, under the guise of being a health clinic, provided inaccurate, and potentially dangerous, information–one investigator was told “the AIDS virus is smaller than the holes in condoms.”

“Despite knowing that their clientele is sexually active and requesting birth control and contraceptives to prevent future unintended pregnancies, these centers choose to only promote abstinence. One investigator, asking about how to engage in safe sexual activity was told, ‘Sex is like jumping on a bed when your are young–it’s really fun until you crack your head open.'” – Crisis Pregnancy Centers Revealed, NARAL Virginia, January 2010

It is one thing to be up front with women when telling them why you believe abortion is wrong. It is quite another to use deceptive practices and scare tactics to prey on women in a vulnerable position, particularly college students, young single women, minorities and those who do not have health insurance or financial means. Further, suggesting that birth control will not work to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases borders on criminal negligence.

And crisis pregnancy centers are not the only use of public dollars to fund a political and religious agenda set on controlling women’s reproduction. Despite the Obama administration’s elimination of $150 million for abstinence-only programs, the Senate’s health-care reform legislation would reinstate $50 million.

Of course such disregard for women is not restricted to abortion and birth control. The needs of pregnant women, including those who planned for and want their babies, are also ignored. Doctors routinely put their needs above the needs of their patients when it comes to labor and delivery, from unnecessary cesarean sections to refusal to allow a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) to the American Medical Association’s longstanding recommendation against home birth.

Ladies, and gentlemen, it is time we all stand together and demand something better.

By Jennifer E. Cooper

Elected for life

It is no secret that incumbents have a huge advantage when it comes to reelection. From name recognition and the ability to provide constituent services, to access to larger war chests and the electorate’s tendency to stay with the “devil you know,” it is a rare thing for an incumbent to lose a reelection bid. So, while I am pleased to see Ronald Mitchell is planning to challenge Rep. Jim Moran (D) in a primary election for the 8th Congressional District, I do not like his chances.

I signed Mitchell’s petition to run for election yesterday and told him I wished him luck.

Moran is currently serving his 10th term in office despite repeated scandals including accusations that he got in a fight with an 8-year-old boy and a highly questionable personal loan. Yet, time and time again, voters, myself included, return him to Washington. Incumbents are reelected to office at least 90 percent of the time.

One solution is term limits. Such a change would require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. According to John C. Armor, author of “Why Term Limits? Because They Have It Coming,” for the first century of this nation the average turnover for those in Congress was roughly 43 percent. In recent decades incumbents have been less and less likely to voluntarily not seek reelection.

Term limits would reduce the influence of special interests and pork barrel spending, combat corruption, and provide a starting point for real change. Of course we have no one to blame but ourselves. When we go into the election booth, or when we stay at home and don’t vote, we are the ones responsible for enabling career politicians. That said, the two-party system, the pitiful attention given to primary elections, and the expense of launching a campaign also play a sizable role.

Efforts to put term limits in place surface from time to time. Shortly after the November elections Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) was among a handful of senators pushing to limit service in the Senate to 12 years, or two terms, and to limit service in the House to six years, or three terms. A similar measure, one that would have limited service to 12 years for all member of Congress, was attempted in 1995. Perhaps this time around Congress will put the needs of the people above their own interests. Until then we need more candidates to challenge incumbents head-on, no matter how low the odds of success.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is perhaps the most valuable thing most Americans possess. It was no accident that our Founding Fathers made it the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Though our freedom to speak our minds has been largely unrestricted, certain speech has been generally accepted as not protected, for example the right to yell fire in a crowded movie theater or to tell someone you are going to kill them. And, until today, spending an unrestricted amount of money to influence political elections was not considered free speech.

By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court today overturned much of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform as well as century-old restrictions on unfettered elections spending. Of course campaigns are by no means the only way in which corporations, unions and others with money to spend influence politics.

It remains to be seen just what kind of impact this will have on future elections. Likely those with deep pockets will seek to exert even more influence than they already possess. But it is also possible that it will spark a closer inspection of money and politics.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

It’s the economy, stupid

Tuesday’s surprise defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special Senate election has many Democrats scratching their heads and pointing fingers, and has Republicans jumping for joy.

Republican Scott Brown’s victory strips Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority, and throws the entire health care bill into jeopardy. But, despite the wild speculation on the part of politicians and pundits, it may not mean a major shift in the country is underway.

It is likely much more simple. As was often said in the 1992 presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.” While health care reform is greatly needed in this nation, with unemployment at 10 percent (not including those forced to accept part-time work or who are no longer counted as they have exceeded 26 weeks) the economy is clearly a more pressing concern. What good is health care if you don’t have a job; you don’t have means to keep a roof over your head; or the ability to feed your kids?

President Obama was elected was elected on a tide of Americans looking for change. So far, that change has yet to materialize. Perhaps Tuesday’s election will send a message to Washington that the public is tired of the same old political maneuverings.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

Waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And then waiting some more

The Washington Post reported today that the crush of those seeking public services has so far exceeded the district’s ability to process applications that some have been forced to spend day after day waiting in line.

It is a far cry from the near mob scene in Detroit last October, when thousands of people descended on Cobo Hall to get applications for housing and utility payment assistance from the city of Detroit. The City of Detroit Planning & Development Department had only 5,000 applications and police were called to the scene to maintain order.

Forcing those in need of public services to spend day after day waiting in line is inhumane. Even if it is not possible to find the funds for additional staff, it would take little effort to create a waiting list so that applicants need only come to the office when someone will be able to assist them. Though they will still have to wait, it will mean those who are too ill, are pregnant, or have small children won’t spend eight hours standing with no bathroom break. And already impoverished single parents will not have to either find child care or drag young children along for repeated trips.

Further, as Bread for the City’s blog, Beyond Bread,  points out, those long lines at the district’s Income Maintenance Administration offices often mean taking time off from work or school. And that is something those waiting in line cannot afford.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper