Poverty solutions

Sacramento has been in the news in a bad way lately. California’s budget circus was here, Lance Armstrong’s bike was stolen during our big fancy bike race, and now the first half of an Oprah show on faces of the recession shines more spotlight on our flaws, with reporting by Lisa Ling.

Ling explored something that I’ve been watching develop for a while: about 1200 people live in tent cities in Sacramento. There have always been people living in the woods along the river, but in the last year the population has exploded and they’ve become very visible to anyone entering town on the train or using the bike trail. There’s no pretense of hiding, and I think that is good.

For one thing, it’s safer that way. Also, when people are closer together they can start to organize to take care of their needs. This could start out with basics, like getting drinking water or toilets, but it could go in all sorts of directions.

Portland’s Dignity Village provides a stellar example of what is possible. For eight years they’ve been a self-governing community with an elected board. And any time 50-60 people call it home while trying to get back into more conventional homes. Their dwellings are tents and sheds, but they are building a common building with a kitchen and bathrooms. Sacramento needs this, and since the mayor doesn’t seem opposed to legalizing this ugly necessity, there’s some hope.

We cah also learn a lot from a Thai slum organizer named Kovit Boonjear, who is currently in the US studying and teaching with a group called ENGAGE. He helped shantytowns along the railroads get legal recognition and pool their money to improve their situation. They’ve cooperatively started to bring in affordable water and power, and also begun to build better homes and roads.

The most maddening part of Oprah’s show was not in Sacramento. It documented a company in Southern California that cleans out foreclosed homes. They have 70 workers and go to 15 houses a day, gathering up almost everything and throwing it in the dumpster. Thousands and thousands of dollars of perfectly good stuff is going to the landfill, and at least one of the workers doing this is clearly tormented by thoughts of the lives being thrown out. It turns out this segment was part of a piece that ran last September when things were just getting started.

During the Great Depression, a group formed in Oakland called the Unemployed Exchange Association. It gathered and fixed broken household goods. I’m going to keep linking to the Yes! Magazine article about this and a related farming project in SoCal over and over until everyone has read it. It is that important. Participants earned credits that they could later use at the store. It expanded rapidly and eventually included factories and farms. This time we don’t even have to fix anything; just gather it, find a space, and put evicted people to work so they have credits saved up to buy things for their homes when things improve. You should read the article.

It is bad enought that people are living on the streets while their old houses are sitting vacant. It is absolutely absurd and criminal that once these people get through their periods of homelessness, they’ll have to buy a bunch of new stuff to replace everything that went to the landfill. Aren’t we trying to be a more sustainable society?  Have you ever read the article about a model from the Great Depression that could help with this?

On the bright side, the show closed with a postive example, of a middle-aged couple that is now sharing their home with a woman and her teenage daughter. They found each other through one of the many organizations listed by the National Shared Housing Resource Center.

Thanks to Oprah and Lisa for bringing this all to light.

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