Fighting for the Homeless: Some Thoughts on Strategy

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

Steve Burghardt

OVER THE PAST five years, most Americans have learned that homelessness is a serious problem, one that looms larger and more pervasive every year. First there were eccentric bag ladies dotting the urban landscape; then there were young Black and Hispanic men; then families, usually headed by single women; now working families.

First it was an urban problem of the largest cities; then rural areas were mentioned; now even the suburban Sunbelt has its desperate people seeking shelter. The scope of the problem has left leading analysts and media journalists with a distinctly unsettling scenario.

We should admit that homelessness has been very unsettling for the left as well. Working with the most desperate population is a recipe for strategic failure: while their needs are great and justifiably deserve amelioration, their struggle for daily survival is so intense that such groups lack the capacity, resources, and stay­ mg power to play active roles in the building and sustaining of social movements. This knowledge is part of every Marxist primer, with edifying updates from the 1960s.

On the other hand (the one not holding on to the strategic primer), the sight of this kind of misery has moved many socialists and other progressives to act on behalf of the homeless. Our socialist outrage is fueled by the injustices bred by capitalism. To see a poor mother in ragged clothes begging for spare change for the even more dispirited, lifeless children standing beside her can create enough anger to last a long, long time.

Bombarded daily with media images of poor people firebombed out of their apartments, frozen out of tenements with years of unanswered violations, farmers foreclosed, tiny children playing in hotel lobbies frequented by crack dealers, divorced suburban women unable to pay for their rent or find affordable housing… the unending parade of despair … understandably we are moved: we have to do something!

Yes, we do, but what? The emotion bred by this issue fuels both for activism and for a tendency to obscure larger issues in the rush to help. Homelessness is a social problem created not by bad luck, unfortunate circumstance or flaws of character, but by an economic system that has the structural capability to provide housing but will not because of the threat to profitability such public provision would entail.

Equally important, its social character means that homelessness will be maintained not simply through economics but through ideological debate as well — there must be a justification for why so many people are on the streets, and it must be located within the people themselves. We as socialists therefore have a responsibility to be clear on the economic and social character of this struggle, without losing sight of the people suffering.

The danger in ignoring this two-fold reality has been exposed recently in the now-famous Billie Boggs case. New York City and its alleged leader, Mayor Ed Koch, passed a law requiring all people to seek shelter in the winter for their own good. Anyone refusing shelter when the cold became life- threatening would be involuntarily incarcerated in a mental institution.

This policy of forced institutionalization, proclaimed by Koch bellowing about the “lunacy” of those failing to heed its dictates, led to sharply drawn lines across the city. On one side were the forces of evil, led by Emperor Koch and his Human Resources Administration (HRA) sidekick, Darth Grinker. On the other were the good guys, led by the Jedi knights of the American Civil Liberties Union, fighting to keep Ms. Boggs from forced institutionalization. It seemed like a clear fight and, happily for us, Boggs and the ACLU won.

Unfortunately, the good guys shot themselves in the foot during battle, for they waged the wrong argument, one that will provide ammunition for the right to use when assessing responsibility for homelessness.

The ACLU correctly argued that Boggs should not be held against her will. What they failed to do was extend the argument to the social level — she needed housing! It left the argument at the level of her capacity to make her own decisions. Instead they should have focused on Koch’s deliberate decision not to build housing. That decision has a disastrous emotional and personal effect on people, including Billie Boggs.

The “capacity” argument had one other major flaw: Billie Boggs was schizophrenic. This means at times she can function quite well; but when in a schizophrenic state, by definition she cannot distinguish her “self’ from “reality” at all — there are no psychic boundaries to help such a person decide anything on a rational basis. To argue otherwise is to be dishonest to Ms. Boggs. It allows the state to maintain publicly that their policy of forced institutionalization was right-the poor can’t help themselves, and thus decisions must again rest with a liberal elite who have a larger understanding of the “real problems.”

Anyone seeing a disheveled and disoriented Billie Boggs in the street panhandling a month later would be forced to agree. Equally important, the left’s strength to combat the ideological and economic coercion of capitalism and the welfare state ends up suffering a loss of credibility as well.

The Boggs case is an example of the mistakes that progressives and socialists can make in work around the homeless. Understandably outraged by the Kochs and Trumps of the world and the greed they represent, we can be seduced into short-cuts that are good for relieving short-term guilt but little else.

Indeed, looked at closely, many of the dominant forms of activism surrounding the homeless impose serious limitations for socialist activists. Some are little more than band-aids — collect food, clothing, etc. for a shelter or program. Some socialists have engaged in this simply because they couldn’t stand doing nothing.

Others have participated in programs of traditional moralism. Usually led by principled liberals who honestly cannot believe that America could be so heartless, these groups tend to reduce the dynamics of poverty to the single dimension of a lack of housing. More and more funding sources now demand that settlement houses, church groups, and other voluntary efforts tailor their anti-poverty work on this one dimension-specific example of shelter that make concrete (literally) the movement away from poverty in America. While the activists in this are quite often very good, decent people, the focus, scope and analysis of their work leaves activists with no future directions—except, perhaps, to work even harder.

The third program that attracts leftists is what I call radical voluntarism. Having a political analysis that clearly sees limitations to capitalism and frustrated by any clear movement direction on this work, these activists adapt Gramsci’s youthful revolutionary slogan “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” to fit their own individualized efforts at reform. Given phenomenal energy and a real social vision, they have created segmented, isolated spaces of progressive response: shelters with politics, housing units with consciousness.

However, while there are important building blocks for long-term change imbedded in their analysis, the individualized efforts needed to “take care of one’s own” are so great that the activism, and the politics, stop at their program’s front door. As so often occurs with homeless work, the maintenance demands created in running established programs for very poor (and thus very stressed) people are just too great to allow for any wider-scale activity.

These programs do have potential, given the activists’ underlying commitments, and we’ll look at them later to examine ways they might be able to expand their efforts.

Finally, there are some community empowerment programs for the homeless that do contain the mix of activism, politics, and long-term strategy, with which we should try to become involved. While “empowerment” is a word that has been so overused as to be meaningless, within this context it seems to meet its original (and near-forgotten)intention: to provide services and activities for poor people in a manner that not only materially improves their conditions but shows them ways to act on those conditions as well.

By carefully mixing a blend of concrete services (shelter, advocacy for food stamps, etc.) within a larger program of both legal and extra-legal actions that connect to the larger issues of housing and jobs, these groups have created elements of community mobilization that have been missing from many of our community interventions in this decade.

Less Housing, Fewer Jobs = Homelessness

The activists in the two latter groups recognize that the homeless crisis is not singly caused by a lack of shelter but from economic and political forces that are cutting back housing and jobs for wage-earners across America. Homelessness, as such activists have written, is one symptom of the increasing poverty and proletarianization of working class and once-perceived middle­class groups.(1)

For example, nationwide housing costs between 1972 and 1983 rose from 22 to29% of one’s income: rents rose 137% while median income went up only 79%.(2) The increase is even greater in urban areas and for very poor people. Almost all poor people spend 40% on rent or mortgages, while in cities the level is closer to 50%.(3)

Homelessness occurs in part because of these in­ creasing costs. But before homelessness actually over­ takes a poor family or individual, there is a pattern of spiraling disorder that usually affects people, forcing them into increasingly impoverished conditions. Chester Hartman shows that this begins with the 2.5 million people who are displaced every year from their homes. Most of them are elderly, poor, and non-white.

The most common causes of displacement are income loss or rent increases, but there are a number of others related to shifts in the real-estate market that are important: planned shrinkage, where housing units are consciously abandoned to drive up demand and thus prices in other neighborhoods; co-op conversion, leading to eviction of those financially unable to purchase their apartments; arson; demolition; and even eminent domain, where government uses its prerogative to seize property for what it assumes is “the greater public good.”(4)

Not all of those 2.5 million become homeless, of course, but almost all relocate to worse housing. As the housing industry has been building less than 1.4 million units a year through the 1980s — which is an annual 1 million less than needed in forecasts from the early 1970s — the result is inevitable; homelessness for more and more people each year.

Of course, poor people can have as much ingenuity as anyone else, and many attempt other creative solutions to ward off disaster. The most common result is overcrowding. Over 3 million households are in overcrowded conditions.(5) This is probably a conservative figure, because often it is illegal for families to” double” or “triple” up. Almost all of this increase has occurred since 1982.(6)

These housing problems are part of the on-going economic process of deindustrialization that has affected American industry — and labor — for over a decade. Deindustrialization has been written about extensively here in ATC and elsewhere and will only be touched on in this article.(7)

In short, the capital flight of American industry abroad in pursuit of higher rates of profit and lower­paid work forces has led to political and economic decisions in this country both to drastically reduce labor costs and to reduce the number of higher-paid workers as well. Between 1970 and 1980, 30 million jobs were lost; 39% of the jobs that existed in 1969 were wiped out during this period. For the first time in U.S. history, 100 jobs were lost for every 110 created, a disturbing ratio given then growing size of the available labor pool.

Equally important, those new jobs were not in the relatively well-paying manufacturing sector but were within services – industries that on average work fewer hours per week (only 70% of manufacturings work week) and one-third less pay per hour.(8) As service industries are notoriously anti-union, it is little wonder that the workers in these industries would have relative and absolute income levels dropping, making them unable to take advantage of the increasingly costly housing market. It is equally without surprise that these industries disproportionately employ Black, latin, Asian and female workers — the very populations making up the larger and larger numbers of homeless people who work.(9)

Of course, these drops in real income created by cost-cutting techniques across American industry are not the only ways to end the crisis of profitability. Since 1975, Democratic and Republic administrations have made political decisions to attack the social wage gains of the 1930s and ’60s. They have been only marginally successful in this, but even these conservative partial victories have pushed countless thousands out of affordable housing.

These victories include: tightening eligibility requirements and reducing entitlement grants for the poorest sectors-those who classically make up the reserve army of labor. For example, between 1980 and 1984, Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC)-Child Welfare was cut 13%, which knocked a million people off welfare. The Food Stamp Program wascut14%, and 90% of all working families with Food Stamps had their benefits either eliminated or reduced by over half.(10)

For the first time in forty years, the federal government withdrew from the housing market. It no longer builds public housing, except for a minuscule amount for seniors and disabled. It no longer subsidizes mortgages, which had been the primary welfare-state bene fit for the white working class, utilized primarily for funding the suburbanization of the 1950s.

Indeed, the only government incentives are for luxury housing, where tax breaks are provided to those converting old, lower-income housing to luxury co-ops and condominiums. The infamous J-51 tax provision in New York is the best-known example of this, where huge tax breaks were given to developers for converting 35,000 Single Room Occupancy housing units (used primarily by elderly, poor, and deinstitutionalized populations) into luxury housing for the large pool of highly skilled, well-paid young professionals working New York’s finance, commerce, real estate, and entertainment industries — the Yuppies.

Such a pattern has been utilized in other cities going through an “economic response”-Baltimore, Boston, etc. In each case, a new, luxury-housing market transplants an older, working-class one, just as this new, thin layer of high-priced labor replaces an older, wider sector of low-wage earners. As this process makes dear, there could be no gentrification without deindustrialization. The new, small but extremely well-paid labor force created in the wage structure of deindustrialization has the money and the lifestyle to afford the consuming pleasures found in the gentrified neighborhoods of cities across the new “economically leaner America.”

Every labor-saving maneuver and social-wage retreat carries with it increasing social costs that will represent an even greater burden to the state in the future. The actual costs of housing a homeless family can run upwards of $3,000 a month. Having cut costs in other areas, cities and states are now paying more in shelter than they would have if the recipients’ meager working income or welfare grant had been increased to meet the previous cost for the people’s original (pre-homeless) housing.

Opportunities for Activism

Such problems for the state and employers in general do create real opportunities for us, but there are important considerations to make in this work.

First, political activists cannot work on shelters and the like without connecting this work to housing and job issues in some larger campaign. Left at the level of providing shelter, such work is too moralistic to be politically effective. The lessons people will learn through such moralism will end up simplifying poverty and homelessness. Equally important, such work is a sure-fire route to bum-out, as the increasing numbers of homeless people, with all their related needs, only escalate the pressures on activists to “do more.”

If activists find that volunteers’ interest in broader campaigns with connection to housing and jobs is limited because “they can’t help these people right now,” then it is better to look elsewhere for work No one program — indeed, no twenty sheltering programs — will stem the tide of increasingly desperate, homeless people. Time must be spent by every organization on other campaigns that make this lesson clear to volunteers so that these activists are politically fortified for the long term.

It is much more likely that these campaigns will be engaged in by activists who have been part of different radical voluntarism projects. For example, the (New York) Heights Shelter, begun by well-known homeless activist Ellen Baxter through her own monumental efforts, recently has made two significant shifts away from its own immediate work.

First, the group is working on a city-wide “Housing Justice” campaign that seeks to build 40,000 units of affordable housing by using existing legislation. Such a campaign has pulled Washington Heights volunteers away from the unending (and, over time, politically meaningless) details of maintenance work at the housing site and has brought them into a larger arena where their localized fight has fitted nicely.

Second, Baxter has begun training the once-home­ less tenants in how to run their own building. Such training joins the pragmatism of moving away from staff doing all maintenance tasks to the invaluable political lessons surrounding self-organization. As these tenants have also been exposed to the larger housing campaign in the city by Baxter and her staff, their particular struggles become part of a larger struggle of poor and working people across the city. Such an approach has a lot to offer other political activists as well.

Third, homeless organizations must raise a series of demands that constantly reveal the callous limitations of present public responses, and they must be willing to go through a mix of legal and extra-legal means. As seen with the cuts in food stamps among working families forced to live in expensive (publicly-subsidized) welfare hotels, the state has contradictory policies that activists can exploit for the good of the homeless.

For example, in New Jersey the Elizabeth Coalition for the Homeless, led by Mike Fabricant and Joan Driscoll, responded to the city’s disallowing shelter benefits on the grounds that the homeless people were not residents of the city-a ruling known to be unconstitutional. They combined a legal class- action suit with rallies and imaginative demonstrations to gain enough publicity to put the mayor and his public administrators on the defensive. Here was a “law and order” politician breaking the Jaw against poor, defenseless people.

The ongoing controversy not only overturned the ruling but brought new activists into the organizations’ ranks, people with the time and energy to continue the mix of service and political campaigning for which the Coalition is well-known. Equally important, the political nature of such campaigns, which reveal the apparent inconsistencies in public behavior, serve as a spur to political education. Why would the city ignore the Constitution? Why does the issue of residency matter for poor people moving in-but not for corporations moving out?

Fourth, these campaigns don’t change the world, but they combine immediate concerns for the poor with political lessons for us, using tactics whose very militancy speaks volumes about the right of people to act on their own behalf. They are important, for they stand in dear distinction to the negotiated pluralism of too much activity around housing and development.

In most major cities the 1980s has been the Decade of the Developer as much as the Age of Reagan. The Donald Trumps who dot our urban landscape are revered by media, politicians and the public as are movie stars. This esteem for deal-cutting and the allure of mega-gentrification by one or two men has provoked an abysmal lack of militant response by activists. Stepping in to provide a facade of pluralism, liberal politicians have sought deals with each real-estate mogul to provide a piece of their gentrified largesse for the working class and poor-for every one hundred luxury units, ten subsidized, for each major project leading to massive displacement, a community “pocket park.”

These deals occur, all through legal channels and with appropriate foot- dragging, and hobnobbing, as if there were no inherent conflict of interest at work in our cities, just problems to negotiate in terms of “fairness” for the “whole community.” Until recently, Philadelphia’s Mayor Wilson Goode and New York Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins played this pluralist brokerage role.

Housing activists are finding that the relegation of such a role to political leaders has done very little to either build consciousness or housing. Thus, in San Francisco, activists passed a city-wide ordinance which mandated that each luxury housing unit cannot be built until an equivalent unit for working people has been created. New Jersey activists have turned to a militant statewide campaign to force the state’s $200 million surplus to be used for low-income housing. Such struggles break out of the pluralist impasse that the reliance on political officials creates.

This reliance on public officials is part of an overall political problem faced by many activist organizations: a lack of political self-sufficiency bred by economic reliance on outside funding agents. Some of this is inevitable given their service demands, but groups must work to limit that dependency.

This is especially important when groups wish to confront public officials. For example, three years ago a number of Lower East Side (New York) housing groups successfully stymied the city’s plans to build so-called “artist lofts,” lofts that in reality were to displace huge number of long-time, poor Lower East Side residents. The campaign was long, hard fought and victorious. The city administration could not get the required zoning changes passed which would have allowed developers free rein in the area.

What Ed Koch and Co. could and did do the next year was withdraw large funding grants from eleven groups active in the campaign. The Joss of funds devastated the organizations.

Service and militancy, legal advocacy and long­ term housing, jobs campaigns: the combination of short­ term, immediate help for the destitute and longer- term campaigns that tie the needs of the homeless to larger social issues is the necessary organizational mix to keep homeless activists connected to a dear political vision for widespread social change.

The Elizabeth Coalition has managed to create such a mixture, holding on to its political vision as an integral part of its work. Fabricant has written and helped train others to break out of their service approach and add militant tactics to broader campaigns. In many ways, he had other sophisticated political activists view the homeless as the “reserve army of housing,” playing a role not unlike the reserve army of labor in work places.

The New Jersey campaigns thus fight for the homeless while stressing it as a symptom of housing problems ­- simply the iceberg’s tip of an increasing problem facing more and more working Americans. By talking about jobs as much as shelter in their public statements, the group has attracted working- class support across Elizabeth, New Jersey. Its state campaigns have done the same, although limited resources preclude the systematic follow up that is possible within the community. While hardly perfect (its funding demands are a constant drain on group energy), the group serves as an example of a community empowerment program that groups involved with homeless, hunger, and the “new unemployed” would be smart to emulate.

Such a program is different from those in which many socialists have commonly been involved. There is no question that there is a far greater emphasis on services, direct advocacy, and just plain “help” than our primer would have dictated ten years ago. But every good text needs an update.

The “employers’ offensive” is not only about cost­cutting, capital flight, and anti-unionism. It is about human lives. Many of those lives are being destroyed, not by the quick kill, but through a seemingly inexorable process of job loss, welfare cut, malnourishment, and eviction.

“Quick kills” — be they police brutality or a plant dosing — incite militant, rapid responses. Hunger and homelessness do not at first. But utilizing the lessons learned from the homeless movement so far, we, too, can play a role in fighting back that is of real value. Helping the destitute, when done with a political vision, in the long run helps us all.


  1. See Michael Fabricant and Michael Kelly, “The Political Economy of Homelessness/ Catalyst 6 {Spring 1987).
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  2. Chester Hartmann, “The Housing Part of the Homeless Problem,” Critical. Perspectives on Housing, edited by Rachel G. Bratt, Chester Hartman&. Ann Meyers (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1986).
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  3. Hartman.
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  4. Rachel C. Bratt,”Public Housing: The Controversy … and Contribution, “Critical Perspectives an Housing, 335-61.
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  5. Bratt.
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  6. Bratt.
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  7. In particular, see Robert Brenner, “The Deep Roots of Economic Decline,” ATC 2, (March/April 1986).
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  8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1984.
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  9. Kim Hopper and Jill Hamburg, The Making of America’s Homeless: from Skid Row to New Poor, 1945-1984 (New York: Community Service Society, 1985).
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  10. See Steve Burghardt and Michael Fabricant, “The Hungry,” Working Under the Safety Net: Policy and Practice with the New American Poor (Beverly Hills, t.A:Sage Publishers, 1987).
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July-August 1988, ATC 15

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