“Women are sexual scavengers: we cobble arousal out of things not intended to stimulate us because we’re not considered worth stimulating.”
“Women are sexual scavengers: we cobble arousal out of things not intended to stimulate us because we’re not considered worth stimulating.”
No I was not joking. Are you joking? Are you seriously unaware that trans women of color are already told by our society every day that they should talk as little as possible? While white cis men are given every opportunity to talk and everybody listens? So you not see how these two groups of people are not on equal ground? Are you serious right now?
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?…If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
“It’s time to create a narrative where empowerment and assistance can peacefully coexist rather than one meaning the absence of the other. Instead of systems that push for the least number of care hours, the fewest pieces of equipment, and the fewest number of people with a home health aide as a marker of success, we need to start building a world where those who can live without physical assistance do so, and those who cannot, instead of being held to an unrealistic standard that does not reflect their reality, are taught that needing help is nothing shameful.”
Minimum wage should be linked to the poverty level.
This is basic economic fact.
A business that claims it can’t afford to pay a living wage to its workers is admitting that by definition it fails to meet its basic operating expenses. That major multinational corporations can be “successful” while failing to meet a basic operating expense is only possible because We The People pick up their greedy/lazy slack through taxes and charity.
And yet somehow it’s everybody else who’s a moocher and a looter…
And this corrosive greed is a big part of what’s slowly poisoning the U.S. economy. Money being hoarded at the top and put in “safe” investments and bank accounts is money that does nothing for no one. It’s just an elaborate means of keeping score. Money put into the hands of the workers does what money is meant to do: it circulates. It gets spent. The same dollar will go through dozens of sets of hands, touching dozens of lives, feeding dozens of people and sparking profits for dozens of businesses. The same dollar, in the hands of the rich, will generally do… nothing. It won’t create jobs. It won’t fund innovations. It won’t start businesses.
Less than 1% of corporate revenues become wages for workers. Less than 3% of the wealthy are actually entrepreneurs (people who risk their money on business ventures that create jobs).
But 100% of the working class spends their money. That money creates jobs. That money fuels innovations. That money becomes profits. That money keeps the economy ticking.
We have been lied to about who are the parasites and who are the drivers of the economy. We have largely accepted a view of money as a means of keeping score and the economy as something that must have winners and losers, rather than money being a proxy for barter and an economy being a way to divide the labor of society and distribute the load of living
"A business that claims it can’t afford to pay a living wage to its workers is admitting that by definition it fails to meet its basic operating expenses."
"Less than 1% of corporate revenues become wages for the workers."
“But don’t let your illness stop you!!!1!1!!”
I’m not “letting” my illness stop me it just plain IS stopping me it’s an ILLNESS it makes me ILL that’s what it DOES.
Everyone needs to read this.
Seriously. People seriously do not fucking understand the concept of “SICK AND WILL NOT GET BETTER,” or “NO, ACTUALLY, THERE’S SHIT I CAN’T FUCKING DO.”
I have never thought about it in this context
that’s actually really, really creepy.
I once pointed this out to my mother and she just stared at me, in stunned silence for ages.
There will always be a girl who is less sober, less secure, with less friends walking in a darker part of town. I want her safe just as much as I want me safe.
The thing that’s important to discuss here is that there are two conversations about John Green happening simultaneously, and the instinct is to contribute to one or the other, but I can’t talk about the situation without discussing both.
If you’re dismissing young adult lit on the basis of its existence, you are part of the problem. But if you aren’t calling John Green out for problematic shit he’s said, or if you’re holding his books up as the very height of young adult lit, even if it’s a gut-instinct reaction against the backlash YA lit has been getting, you are part of the problem too.
Right now, children’s literature is seeing an intense flare-up in the ongoing conversation about the diversity crisis in children’s books. While this conversation has been going on for decades, now social media has given the people having it megaphones, and they are using them to brilliant ends. The conversation is loud, important, and people are listening.
So naturally the mainstream media uses this time to publish pieces that give a straight white guy credit for revolutionizing the industry.
Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review featured a rather bizarre review of John Corey Whaley’s Noggin by AJ Jacobs. Noggin is about a boy whose cryogenically-preserved head gets attached to another boy’s body. Remember that part for later. Jacobs begins the review, adorably, by discussing how confusing being a teenager is and how Whaley’s book is a really metaphor for teenage alienation. And then, well, I really need to quote this part:
With Noggin, Whaley is straddling two genres. Its most obvious allegiance is to the category of teenage romances featuring supernatural characters.
Well, obviously. Guy with cryogenically frozen head gets used to new body=supernatural romance. It must be embarrassing for Whaley to have his influences be so patent.
But “Noggin” actually owes more to the John Green genre, which I like to call Greenlit. Green is the master of first-person, funny-sad young adult novels. His most popular — “The Fault in Our Stars” — also has a main character who is battling cancer.
Ah. “The John Green genre,” and “Greenlit!” Sure! Jacobs is talking with a lot of authority for someone who has no idea what he’s talking about. He’s not alone, though—lots of people who have no idea what they are talking about believe that YA is two genres: Twilight and its imitators and John Green and those he supposedly inspired. Guess which one they think is better?
The idea that first person funny-sad contemporary YA realism is “the John Green genre” might come as a surprise to all the women who have been writing it for a decade or two or three. I’m sure it came as a surprise to John Corey Whaley, too, who thought he was writing his own books. But both books have cancer in them, so Noggin obviously owes a big debt.
Whenever I finish a novel with a high concept, I do a little test and ask if the book would hold up if the conceit were magically stripped away, if you removed the gimmicks and were left with only the emotional skeleton.
First off, the equation between “high concept” and “gimmick” is reductive, demeaning, and highly revelatory. We could spend a long time unpacking the biases there. Secondly, how is this any different than evaluating realism? Don’t we, as readers, hope for all our literary stories to have a strong emotional skeleton?
Finally, Jacob’s “little test” is critically suspect at best. Remember the part about the cryogenically-preserved head? This isn’t a gimmick, it isn’t frou frou; it’s an essential part of the story, a deliberate choice made by the author to deliberate ends. And I’m just not sure you’re supposed to evaluate surrealism by removing the surreal parts so you can evaluate the parts you understand.
One thing we’ve learned: it’s all-too-easy to let popular narrative guide your views on YA—certainly much easier than ever researching or reading in the field you are talking about. These articles about YA are based entirely on accepted truths from people who live entirely outside the field; they keep getting perpetuated, and everyone nods sagely as someone else proclaims John Green is saving poor teenage girl readers from those silly silly vampire books.
Why, just yesterday the WSJ featured a big profile on Green in conjunction with The Fault in our Stars release. And it would have been so easy for them to just write a good, accurate profile of a highly successful, really interesting author with a movie coming out. But the article just has to overstep:
Some credit him with ushering in a new golden era for contemporary, realistic, literary teen fiction, following more than a decade of dominance by books about young wizards, sparkly vampires and dystopia. … He’s thrown his weight behind several young-adult authors who write realistic novels and are now regarded as rising stars, including Rainbow Rowell, E. Lockhart, and A.S. King.
Well. Yes, some do credit him with that. But not anyone who knows what they are talking about.
Rainbow Rowell is a star, but she rose to prominence last year, so calling her a rising star isn’t wholly ignorant, just a little behind the times; more, while John Green did give her a good review in the NYTBR, it’s demeaning to Rowell’s talent and accomplishments to credit her blockbuster success to it. And, speaking of demeaning, A.S. King and e. lockhart are John Green’s peers. They are stars, entirely on their own merit. They are blazing trails, not following them. The idea that their success has anything at all to do with John Green’s weight can only be entertained if you think that stuff men do is just inherently more important. (And that John Green can time travel.)
Of all the ludicrous and sexist things that have been said about YA of late, this one is the most ludicrous and sexist. But it’s a particularly flagrant example of what’s been happening in the conversion for years. And there’s something really troubling about it all—in a field where the books supposedly appeal primarily to teenage girls, where the stars are innovative and brilliant authors who are predominantly female, we’re telling these readers that maybe they can aspire to growing up to be influenced by a guy, too.
Also, A.S. King and e. lockhart do not write realism. There’s so much ignorant and insulting about the way they were positioned in that article, and it seems particularly cruel to deny these authors their immense sophistication and ingenuity—and then credit their success to someone who writes much more conventionally. King’s books are magical realism, as is lockhart’s latest (and her previous books all use postmodern techniques). Magical realism is actually an entirely separate genre from realism.
This is important: when the magic in magical realism is treated as irrelevant or erased, critics are taking a profound literary tradition and robbing it of its significance and import, erasing it altogether. And since this is a genre that rose out of and has been perpetuated by authors from Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, (and whose practitioners in this country are predominantly female and of color) that gets pretty disturbing.
The American literary canon defaults to realism. Novels that don’t fit in this mold are seen in dominant literary culture as other—a deviation from the norm. You can see this bias all through this article—the quotes from editor Zareen Jaffery and agent Michael Bourret as presented* imply that only characters in realism can be relatable, and only realistic stories can be character-driven.
Which is poppycock.
(*For the record, I don’t buy for a second that either of them said those words in that order.)
Realism is a construct, the same as any other genre. In America, it sits in a place of privilege as something more literary and authentic—but this is about nothing but tradition. And it’s a tradition of white male authors and the white male critics who canonized them.
In American theater in the mid-20th century, serious plays tended to work a certain way; this is the well-made play—realistic domestic dramas with unity of place and time. This is the theater of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams—all still considered the titans of American Theater. But around the 1960’s, voices started to rise up from the margins, and the dominant form didn’t work for stories they wanted to tell. The feminists, the writers of color, the LGBT writers exploded conventions in the structure and language of theater. For so long, realism was the standard, but for these writers, form was political—and they had to remake it in order to tell their own stories.
Naturally, certain people get unhappy when anyone from the margins remakes anything. Young playwrights are still often taught that the correct method of storytelling in theater is the well-made play. And those game-changing contributions from feminist, black, Latin, Native, and LGBT playwrights still get treated as “other,” as fodder for diversity day on the syllabus instead of essential texts in understanding the history and capacity of theater.
And, as much as those who clutch to realism as standard would deny it, this too is political.
So the peculiar canonization of John Green and this string of bizarre articles that anoint him as the vanguard of a post-sparkly-vampire seriousness in YA isn’t simply about taking a white male more seriously than everyone else. It’s also about privileging a certain narrative structure—the dominant narrative’s dominant narrative. It’s not only that Green is a straight white man, it’s that he writes in the way that generations of straight white men have deemed important and Literary. And in art, the remaking of form has historically made the establishment very uncomfortable. There’s so much innovation in YA (and, hi, middle grade!) and its audience is wonderfully open to new stories told in new ways. By holding up Green as an exemplar, by shoving his peers into his shadow, these critics are telling writers who might be innovating: if you want to be important, write like him.
It’s not just YA, of course. Recently the New Yorker posted an essay by Junot Díaz about his experience in an MFA program, “MFA vs POC.”
The title pretty much sums it up. The essay is devastating if you care about literature, young writers, or, you know, human beings. Díaz recounts the misery of being a person of color in a program where whiteness is considered the norm, and where no one ever thinks there’s any reason to question that norm. Of course, this showed up in everyone’s writing:
From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male.
This is a literary tradition perpetuating itself by ignoring other voices, treating them as unserious. It’s normalizing one type of storytelling and casting the others as suspect. And, among many other things, it’s going to make our literature really boring.
This isn’t to say that contemporary realism belongs to white men alone; for recent example, Pointe by Brandy Colbert and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina use the form beautifully, and to affecting, important, and political ends. In their hands, realism becomes a tool for speaking truths about gender, race, and class.
It is one way. But it is not the only way.
Fantastical elements, non-linear storytelling, unconventional language, postmodernism, experimentation and innovation—these elements tend to otherize a book in our literary culture. But why? Why is a fantasy less serious? Why is it okay to strip the magic from magical realism? This is a reactionary response, based on long literary history, and it’s all about power.
We need diverse books. In children’s literature, this is urgent for the well-being of our kids. But it’s also about the well-being of literature itself. Art thrives on being challenged and questioned and pushed—and it’s not the establishment writers and critics who are going to do it. Every single writer benefits from reading stories that play with language and structure and reality—and so do the readers.
We need diverse books, but it’s going to be hard to get them when we keep privileging a certain narrative structure, when we keep erasing the elements that make a book unconventional, and when we ignore decades of female writers to canonize one of the white men who follow the path they laid out. This idea of a white male vanguard leading a revolution in realism is reactionary on so many levels. It’s time to stop it. It’s time to start looking ahead.
The idea that first person funny-sad contemporary YA realism is “the John Green genre” might come as a surprise to all the women who have been writing it for a decade or two or three.
Sometimes I think to myself, “do I really want to buy another chocolate bar?”
And then I remember that there is a super volcano under Yellowstone that is 40,000 years overdue and when it erupts it could potentially cover most of north America in ash and create a volcanic winter that kills half the worlds population
And I’m like, fuck yeah I want that chocolate bar
This is one of the most inspiring posts i’ve ever seen
I was going to let this sit until tomorrow when I (one would hope) might be thinking more clearly—but my anger over the absolute ruination of what is quite probably my favorite sitcom of all time is 100% justified, so I’m going to slam this down right here and now.
Ted and Robin dated in the second season of “How I Met Your Mother,” which took place roughly eight years ago; since then, they have engaged in various on-again-off-again relationships, most of which ended abysmally on both ends. Throughout the series, whenever Ted is at his very lowest—generally between serious girlfriends, and questioning whether or not he will ever find love—he falls back on Robin. If his feelings for her were ever indeed love, they have since then morphed into the unhealthiest kind of obsession possible. And, time and again, Robin responds negatively to his continuing advances (at one point even openly telling him that she has moved past him—that she considers him a friend, and feels that making another attempt at connecting in that way would only end badly).
Ever since the third season (Barney and Robin first kiss in 03x16) we have watched this relationship progress—and we have watched as, slowly but surely, Barney learns to value himself and others. While Ted and Robin prove over and over again that they are toxic for one another, Barney and Robin learn from one another; their relationship forces them to evaluate their faults and their failings, to grow as people.
“I love everything about her, and I’m not a guy who says that lightly, I’m a guy who has faked love his entire life, I’m a guy who thought love was just something idiots felt, but this woman has a hold on my heart that I could not break if I wanted to. And there have been times when I wanted to. It has been overwhelming and humbling, and even painful at times, but I could not stop loving her any more than I could stop breathing. I’m hopelessly, irretrievably in love with her. More than she knows.”
As for Ted, episodes as recent as those of the ninth season blatantly portray him as moving away from Robin. One episode focuses almost exclusively on his inability to let go of his obsession, and it ends with him physically dropping her hands, and watching as she floats away from him—a metaphor that evidently has no purpose or meaning now. In the penultimate episode, Ted realizes the scale of Barney and Robin’s love for one another and relinquishes the part of her he had been clutching for so long—the locket. It is also in this episode that Barney overcomes one of his greatest faults (his insistency upon deceiving those he loves, though often with well-meaning intentions) for love of Robin; he not only apologizes, but promises always to be honest with her, effectively allaying the last of her fears regarding their marriage.
This doesn’t happen once; much of the ninth season revolves around Robin’s and Barney’s respective fears about marriage (Robin worries that Barney is too like her father; Barney pines for his lost days of womanizing); these issues and more are addressed and resolved in season nine. In fact, Barney and Robin’s relationship is arguably more of a focal point for the show’s more recent episodes than Ted himself; they certainly receive more screen-time.
But even putting aside the idiocy of building up a relationship (and the character development that accompanies it) only to cast it aside abruptly, this episode stumbles too many times to be ignored.
- The Mother: This show is called "How I Met Your Mother"—but as a tumblr user so wisely observed it may as well have been called “How I Met Your Mother but Then She Died and I Banged Aunt Robin.” Part of what made “How I Met Your Mother” so fascinating was how it played with time, dropping small clues about Ted’s future wife in order to keep the idea of her accessible enough for audiences to continue to want to meet her—to put a face to the name we have heard so much about. The show spends much of its allotted time establishing parallels between Ted and Tracy (the mother). Understandably, to see this phantasm of a woman come to life in season nine was an exciting experience, particularly since her chemistry with Ted was so effortless. It stings that such a multi-faceted and engaging female character has been relegated to the role of a decoy—introduced and teased purely in order to keep viewers in suspense. It stings, too, that the crew chose to quite literally contradict the title of their own show, making nonsense and mush out of its once-consistent story structure and leaving us guessing (much like Ted’s son and daughter) at what the point of all of this was in the first place. But what, perhaps, hurts most of all is how disrespectful this is to the mother—that she should be introduced after eight years of fanfare, then killed and ushered offscreen without so much as a fond farewell, let alone a moment of mourning. The narrative disposes of her completely indifferently, intent on reviving a pairing that most fans would hazard had died years ago.
- Lily and Marshall: Nothing in particular happens to Marshall and Lily in this episode—and while that may seem something to be grateful for (given that every other character was royally screwed over) it’s worth noting for the fact that nothing in particular happens to Marshall and Lily in this episode. They have a baby, but we don’t know its name or even see it. Marshall becomes a judge, but we don’t see him at work anymore than we see Lily’s year in Rome. Within this episode, they exist only as complements to the stories of the other characters, reacting to ongoing events but not existing much beyond that.
- Barney: In a single hour, years of character development evaporate, and we are left with the Barney of season one—a crude, callow, unattached man, compensating for his insecurities by preying on significantly younger women; he even revives the awful playbook, despite the fact that his decision to make “The Robin” his last play of all time was an enormous step forward for Barney as a character. In a matter of minutes, gone are the many painful self-realizations, the gradual unraveling of years of poor behavior; gone is the man who slept with two hundred women and realized, afterward, that he felt emptier than ever before—that he had grown past such antics, that he had grown as a human being. Realizing this hole in the plot’s fabric, the writers seek to set Barney back on the right path…by having him knock up a complete stranger (one whose face is never cast, and who does not appear in this finale whatsoever) and bond with their child instantly; the baby is never seen again after this, and referenced only vaguely, but evidently this settles the fact that Barney is once again developmentally where he should be—that years worth of development have crumbled and been pieced back together in the blink of an eye.
- Robin:The slight on Robin by this show is so awful and so unnecessary that it burns even to talk about it. Robin is a woman who knows what she wants and goes for it—a woman who has spent nine years fighting to reach the very top of her field with the support of both her own determination and the support and love of her friends. For nine years, Robin has graced this television screen as a unique and refreshing female character—a female character who excels at her job but is not only her job; a female character who achieves and achieves and continues to achieve, but also manages to create bonds with others, and to exist three-dimensionally. Robin Scherbatsky climbed the ladder to success over the course of nearly a decade—but the finale has decided that she does not deserve to be proud of her work and how far she has come. Instead, she becomes cold and distant; the work that she once loved consumes her, and it makes her miserable when it never did before. She shuts out her friends, her family, and eventually her husband—and she is left, alone and empty, waiting for Ted to sweep in on his white horse and rescue her from the destruction that all of her backbreaking dedication has caused.
This finale is an insult—not only because it makes no sense narratively, or because it betrays fans who have followed it so closely and lovingly for so long, but because it disrespects its own characters, because it denies them the ending they have worked for, and the ending that they deserve. This finale is an outrage.
Look, I didn’t join in #CancelColbert. I thought the original tweet from the Colbert show was disgusting, discouraging, and disappointing, but I came to the conclusion that I didn’t believe Colbert’s show should be cancelled, so I refrained from participating in that campaign. But Suey Park and lots of other people came to their own conclusions that either the show should be cancelled, or that—even if it shouldn’t—an extreme call to action would generate more attention to a way-too-frequently overlooked issue (white liberal “wink-wink” racism). I disagreed with that, and I respect their opinions and right to do activism that way. Not “but,” “and.” There’s no contradiction inherent in respecting and disagreeing with someone.
But good grief, you wouldn’t know that from the way the internet’s blown up about it.
And this is why the conversation is so grotesquely stupid. Because the very instant the racist, sexist, hateful, violent backlash against the Asian American woman who started the hashtag began, the conversation should have stopped being about “extremists” and “hysterics” and “professional outrage” or whether there is merit and substance to attention-getting tactics.
If you haven’t been following Suey Park, pop over to her twitter mentions and just skim for a few minutes. Look at how people—presumably Colbert fans, right? The we-can’t-be-racist-we’re-Democrats folks?—are speaking to her. Racist slurs, sexist slurs, threats… violence and anger that are absurdly disproportionate to her “crime” of challenging the practice of giving white liberals a pass on racism. And she’s the out-of-control extremist.
Oh, but that’s “just Twitter,” right? Everyone knows thar’s trolls in them hills? Well okay, if you’re one of those folks who think that communication stops being a human interaction depending on the medium then we’ve got bigger problems, but no, it’s not “just Twitter.” Watch this HuffPost Live interview and see how the white male interviewer speaks to her. [Important note to self: become as impeccably poised and professional as Suey Park.] It’s a beautiful lesson in derailment: he ignores everything she says, refuses to move the conversation forward, demands she explain things she’s already explained, pretends she doesn’t understand what a joke is… He friggin’ calls her stupid! A guest on his show! And then whines with his friend afterward about what a bully she is.
But what’s the dismissal this time, that HuffPost Live is just a web show no one watches? How about a blog news network with an estimated 15 million unique visits per month? Oh yes friends, I do mean the Gawker network. Jezebel, true to form, ran a patronizing, whitesplaining article about how women of color need to calm down, not be so angry and over the top, not take every little thing so personally—in short, another classic example of how to derail an issue of racism into an issue of white people giving advice about the Right Way to put up with racism.
But wait! There’s even more, and it’s even worse. The same day, Deadspin ran an article with the headline, “G—s Don’t Get R—s Joke.”
I know, it’s like Wheel of Fortune in here with all these missing letters, but it is my damn blog and I will not be repeating those words here. If you’d like to solve the puzzle, that’s a slur for Asian people and the slur for the people of the First Nations currently used as the Washington football team name. Printed in the headline of one of the most popular sites on the internet. Because it’s a joke.
Because it’s such a hilarious fucking joke.
Until someone you’ve made the butt of that joke calls you out on it—then the “I’m not actually racist, I’m just joking about being racist” mask falls, and the gale of latent entitlement, superiority, and dominance blows full force.
At which point, after Ms. Park has clearly demonstrated that racism against Asian Americans is alive and well, how can your problem be with her tone? Continuing to make the conversation about her and her strategy of getting the internet’s attention, after all this, serves only as rationalization for abusers.
The conversation about whether Ms. Park is “histrionic” or whether her “over-the-top demands” are “divisive” and “counter-productive” is so, so, so, so not the point. It’s not the point. If you don’t care about the racism she and the broader community have faced in the purported defense of “satire” then you, my friend, are the divisive and counter-productive one. If you can look at this issue, at how this has played out in the real world in 2014 America, and think that Suey Park is the problem, then I do not know how to find common ground with you on this topic. I think that position is abhorrent.
It’s wrong to prioritize critique of the tone and tactics of oppressed groups challenging oppression, over challenging oppression. It’s wrong to think that someone’s tone or tactics justify the actions of the real histrionic extremists here: the white supremacist infants throwing tantrums about their right to dictate what is and isn’t racist. It’s wrong that comfortably observing and pointing fingers at what women of color are doing wrong whilst calling for “reason” from a cozy white tower of privilege is what passes for the sane middle ground.
I keep hearing this “just a joke” thing, as if I don’t understand that the point of Colbert’s bit or even the Deadspin headline is to use hyperbole to make a point. I know that it’s to get a rise. But if it’s so cool and edgy and satirical to make an over-the-top exaggerated display of a point of view you don’t agree with in order to highlight absurdity, then remind me why Suey Park is getting slammed with abuse for doing… exactly that?
The entire conversation is disheartening and embarrassing, but not for the reasons y’all seem to think.
Rapists have families. They have friends. They have co-workers and bosses and significant others.
Acting like rapists are all monsters hidden away in alleys doesn’t help anyone.
Because so often, sexual assault victims are told they are lying because their rapists are such “nice people” who seem “so normal” so they couldn’t be those monsters.
Rapists ARE someone’s children. Acting like they aren’t only protects the rapists.
Homeless folks have real solutions to the housing crisis
February 27, 2014
When Bill de Blasio took office on January 1, he inherited a broken, bloated and expensive homeless shelter system that cost almost $1 billion to operate in 2013. He also inherited neighborhoods dotted with vacant buildings and lots that represent both potential housing and jobs. For New York’s homeless, there is a Kafkaesque paradigm where so-called affordable housing is in fact unaffordable due to the federal government’s Area Median Income guidelines.
Those who can’t afford housing are the same unemployed, or low-wage workers, seniors, disabled and just poor New Yorkers in the shelter system. On bitterly cold nights this winter, the shelter-industrial complex housed more than 50,000 adults and children — enough to fill Yankee Stadium. That didn’t include those using the domestic violence shelter system and the untold numbers of homeless folks sleeping in churches, mosques and synagogues. Nor does it include the thousands sleeping in trains, public transit facilities or parks. It doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands doubled or tripled up with friends and family hoping for a break so that they don’t have to go into the shelter system.
Real Roots of the Problem
Homelessness has been framed as the result of individual dysfunction and pathology. “Oh, they’re mentally ill, or they need to get a job,” — this mantra has been repeated by politicians and media for two decades. Picture the Homeless encourages the de Blasio administration to look at the big picture, to take into account rising rents and stagnant incomes at the bottom of the wage scale. Forces like gentrification, property warehousing and disinvestment in effective housing programs such as Section 8 have led us to where we are today.
The bottom-line cause of homelessness is the high cost of housing. Real estate development here has been geared to business interests, hotels and high rises, offices and office towers. When there is new housing construction, it’s for the super rich. Banks and landlords keep buildings empty while they wait for neighborhoods to gentrify, and to get rid of protections on rent-stabilized apartments.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg took away the homeless priority for permanent housing solutions like Section 8 and public housing, replacing them with time-limited rental subsidy programs (first Housing Stability Plus and then the Advantage programs) that were doomed from the start.
Past administrations have cried poverty when asked why they don’t prioritize housing for homeless people, but that’s a lie. The money’s there, it’s just being wasted on a politically connected shelter-industrial complex. A billion dollars a year could house a lot of people. Most shelters get two to three times as much money per month for each homeless household as it would cost to pay their rent.
In 2011, we partnered with the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development to devise and execute a replicable methodology for how the city could conduct a vacant property census. We found enough empty buildings and lots to house up to 200,000 people, and that was just in one-third of the city. But the city doesn’t keep track of vacant property and the little bit of money that is out there is being used to house people in shelters.
Every homeless person is different, and it’s true that mental illness and substance abuse play a role in some people losing their housing, but plenty of very wealthy people have issues of substance abuse or mental illness. The root issue is poverty. Public policy needs to address the systemic causes of homelessness. No mayor or president can implement a policy to stop people from having mental illness or losing their jobs, but they can make it so that everyone can afford housing.
There are numerous factors that contribute to record levels of homelessness, like how people coming home from jail with a record are excluded from housing, so there’s nowhere for them to go. Banks are still redlining in certain communities. Institutional racism is also a huge problem — over 90 percent of homeless families in shelters are African-American and/or Latino. Predatory lending has been targeting people of color. Ninety-nine percent of the people who go into housing court get no legal representation, so many of them end up losing their homes.
There’s no cohesive overall plan between government agencies that serve low-income people, and that adds up to a lot of resources being wasted. There’s no unity or collaboration between housing courts and the welfare and shelter systems. HRA, DHS, NYPD — it’s a whole lot of alphabet soup that doesn’t add up to anything.
People say homeless people should go get jobs — but people have jobs! The pay just doesn’t match the rental market. Very low wages, including social security and other income forms for folks who aren’t working, plus inadequate income supports, plus high rents, equal homelessness. It’s simple math.
At Picture the Homeless, we don’t just complain about problems. Homeless people know what’s not working, and they know what needs to change. That’s why our organizing campaigns have concrete policy demands of the new administration.
For starters, it’s unacceptable that the city has no idea how much property is currently vacant. We have to have conduct an annual citywide count of vacant buildings and lots, so we know what kind of resources are out there to develop new housing — and who’s keeping housing off the market. Legislation that would empower the city to do such a count was stalled for three years in the City Council under Christine Quinn. We were heartened to see it identified as a necessary solution on Bill de Blasio’s campaign website, as well as a priority for the City Council’s Progressive Caucus.
The new administration could immediately utilize a small portion of the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) shelter budget (even just 1 percent would be almost $10 million!) and create permanent rental subsidies so homeless people can get out of shelters. That funding could also support a pilot project for innovative housing models like community land trusts, which have the potential to create permanently-affordable, democratically-controlled housing for folks at all income levels, as well as supporting small businesses and incubating jobs that pay a living wage.
The city should take all the property whose owners owe taxes on water or violations, and put it into a land bank and develop it for those who really need it. Property that the city acquires through the Third Party Transfer program should be prioritized for nonprofit housing developers, including community land trusts. And the city should create and expand community land trusts that will be permanently affordable to the people who live there.
The new administration could also limit what is considered “affordable housing” to the city of New York. Right now, “affordable housing” can go to folks making upwards of $80,000 a year, because it’s based on Area Median Income calculations that factor in affluent parts of Westchester and Long Island.
No mayor or president can implement a policy to stop people from having mental illness or losing their jobs, but they can make it so that everyone can afford housing.