ACORN in Delhi Offers Alternatives to the “Sleep Mafia”

WP_20151204_10_56_12_ProNew Orleans   It is not every day when the work of ACORN and its affiliates is written between the lines of major stories in The New York Times, but recently that was the case in a glaring, tragic story about the so-called “sleep mafia” in Delhi.

The story of privatized sleep follows a familiar pattern in this city: After decades of uncontrolled growth, the city government’s inability to provide services like health care, water, transportation and security has given rise to thriving private industries, efficient enough to fulfill the needs of those who can pay. But shelter, given Delhi’s extremes of heat and cold, is often a matter of survival. The police report collecting more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies from the streets every year, typically men whose health broke down after years living outdoors. Winter presents especially brutal choices to homeless laborers, who have no place to protect blankets from thieves in the daytime hours. Some try to hide them in the tops of trees.

In this overview, that’s a statement of the problem and the city’s response is somewhat explained by an Indian Supreme Court decision.

A cluster of “pavement dweller” deaths prompted India’s Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that the country’s large cities must provide shelter for 0.1 percent of the population. This winter, Delhi expanded its shelter system to accommodate more than 18,000, but the number of homeless is vast — likely more than 100,000….

As always it’s more complicated than simply some poor people taking advantage of even poorer people, as sleep wallas rent blankets for 20 or 30 rupees a night to the homeless. Many of this number are migrant workers in from the vast, imperiled rural countryside of India, trying to find a way to make a living, rather than how many might read the story and equate the situation in a kneejerk fashion to homelessness in the US. It’s as bad, but it is also somewhat different.

Furthermore there is worse story of Delhi’s efforts to privatize the problem of shelter. ACORN for several years was one of a number of nonprofits that ran several sleeping shelters for migrant workers in various districts of the city, including a large facility in a Delhi Municipal Corporation building in Old Delhi. In 2015 most of the nonprofits, including ACORN’s affiliates were pushed out when the city tried to outsource the problem in a bidding scheme that divided the city into huge regions allowing larger private enterprises to capitalize on the process and squeeze experienced nonprofits out of more effective support for the workers. After the failure of that system the city now has had to revert in many cases back to better operators. Recently I heard from Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN’s director in Delhi, that we had been awarded several new contracts and had a number of the ones we had lost in 2015 returned to us.

What do we do? As Dharmendra reports:

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counselling and sanitary napkins. Free tuitions are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-deaddiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and have created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from christmas to New year.

When I shared the Times article with Dharmendra he also sent along a picture of a “rescue” vehicle that we are using that combs the streets of Delhi between 10 PM and 4 AM in the morning locating homeless who are sleeping rough and bring them to the nearest shelter.

None of this is enough, but bringing organizations and advocates back into the picture this year restores a voice for the poor and dispossessed that offers hope for expansion of services rather than the ill-fated mega-privatization schemes.

More needs to be done, but organizations like ACORN and its affiliates are leading the way in pushing for a solution and offering help and support in the meantime.

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Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counseling and sanitary napkins. Free tuition are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on Sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-addiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and has created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from Christmas to New Year.

Poster of film festival Local Legislator playing santa and distributing gifts to homeless kids on christmas Homeless Kids with their Christmas gifts Homeless kids enjoying movie Fresh and hot food being served to homeless Feeding Homeless Kids Feeding Homeless Kid Creative corner by Homeless

The Deep South Conundrum

Paul Theroux, NPR

Paul Theroux, NPR

Mexico City   Reading Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads is worth the ride, but it comes with some warnings.

Paul Theroux, the travel writer and novelist, is a hard guy to really like, even when you agree with him and are willing to say that his intentions are good. He just kind of goes out of his way to be off putting, embracing a continually condescending view of Southerners and the South, and often knocking at the door of racism. And, I say this as a fan. Theroux didn’t make it to Louisiana, but if he had, and I had run into him there or on the highways in Arkansas or Mississippi where I often travel and where he spent considerable time and gave hard attention, I could have been the third person who had read his work, adding mightily to the two out of one-hundred he encountered who had read any of his fifty works, having devoured the Great Railway Bazaar and Old Patagonia Express many years ago and even made it through Mosquito Coast.

It goes without saying that Theroux has been a world traveler, but the continual comparisons of the South with Africa and Asia, and Southern farmers and workers, black and white, as peasants can take some getting used to and some of his descriptions of people and many, many places are just plain offensive, even when accurate. When he tries to render his versions of local dialect, I found myself cringing and often unable to piece it together intelligibly to the degree that I couldn’t tell if he was trying to communicate or mock in doing so.

His is a work without much self-reflection or irony. If he travels back to a place repeatedly, he comes to like it, and accept the land and its people. If he’s just passing through he’s almost always downright dismissive and usually can’t avoid some stereotype about a Patel-run motel or something or another. He will quote Ovid and claim to relish an author’s anonymity, but can hardly hide how miffed he is to stumble into the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock and be unknown to one and all, to be unable to manage to get a minute with Congressman John Lewis while he is speaking to the black bourgeoisie of Little Rock, or as a longstanding, well-known writer to make an impression on Little Rock-based author, Charles Portis, who he admires. And, don’t mention former President Bill Clinton anywhere within miles of him, because he sees him as a hypocritical sleazebag and a metaphor for Hot Springs and its mixed history. His antipathy buries the troubling observation he makes about Clinton’s role in pushing through NAFTA and the devastation it brought to many areas of the struggling south as hundreds of thousands of jobs fled for lower wages.

But, even saying all of that, Theroux tries hard in many places and asks some important, often unanswerable, questions that make the book worth the climb. He searches out and gives high praise to the hard work of community development organizations in a number of states and black farmers’ self-help efforts and courage in the Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas. He does a good job in writing of the continued, unbridled racism in many of the small towns of the South, and paints an inarguable picture of the retched role of bankers and the impact of their ongoing racial discrimination in lending in rural areas and with farmers.

Over and over again he picks at the Clinton Global Initiatives and its vast fundraising prowess, as he talks to various nonprofits and development groups who are struggling to make ends meet against woeful odds, by asking them if they think they might be as deserving of some support in the dirt poor South, every bit as much as Africa or Asia. All of those he asks, bite their tongues, but politely spit out his bait, and say they haven’t ever been solicited by any of the Clinton philanthropies, but would welcome the support. Finally, talking to a black farmer somewhere around Lee County, Arkansas, and asking the same question about Clinton, the farmer simply replies that “it’s complicated,” and Theroux writes that from that point forward he stopped asking the question.

And, that showed good judgement on his part, but the real question that is overarching in Deep South, which he asks both explicitly and implicitly in all of the wrong ways but enough of the right ways, is, “Why is so little being done about the desperate poverty in the deep South?” That’s a good and fair question, and it’s to Theroux’s credit that he never tires of handling it, even if ham-handed in doing so.

Sadly, the answer in this book and so many others, is that so little is being done, because so few have a clue about what to do, and none are willing to summon the will and wherewithal to really take it on.

Studies Find Microfinance Does Not Reduce Poverty, Assets Do

Mega-MicrofinanceHamburg  Several years ago ACORN International did a research report that seemed heresy to many, but started from the simple proposition that since microfinance is debt, debt does not reduce poverty, therefore the value of microfinance was the same as buying a job through an employment agency: work at a steep price. For many the myth of microfinance will endure and millions of dollars will continue to support what are essentially public and philanthropic investments in banking startups, not for the poor, but for the managers of the debt fueled lending agencies themselves, many of which start as nonprofits and if able to prove out their finances at high interest, convert to for-profits.

Standing out on the ledge of prevailing economic development opinion, I took note of an article in the October 2015 Scientific American that looked at the work of a Yale University based nonprofit called Innovations for Poverty Action and its founder Dean Karlan, an economics professor there. He had become suspicious of microloans while working in South Africa decades ago and seeing people constantly returning to renew loans and understanding that it didn’t add up to getting out of poverty, but instead was little more than a debt treadmill.

At some length he says:

“Over the years microloans kept nagging at my colleagues and me. Fifteen years after my first study attempt in South Africa, we now have seven randomized trials completed on traditional microloans and one on consumer lending back in South Africa…These studies found some benefits of microloans, such as helping families weather hard times, pay off goods over time and make small investments in businesses. But there was no average impact on the main financial well-being indicators – income and household and food expenditures.”

In short maybe the loans didn’t hurt them, but neither did they help them, at least enough to get out of poverty. Furthermore, Karlan noted that these microloan programs were not reaching the poorest of the poor or what they term “ultra-poor,” people living on the purchasing power of $1.25 per day.

Not to just be a Debbie Downer, IPA’s experience argues for providing the poor with a “productive asset” to make a living, giving them training on asset utilization, providing them a direct stipend for daily living or what we used to call in welfare rights – More Money Now!, giving them health support and savings tools, and regular coaching like CEOs get.

It would cost money, but at least it would be money well spent, because monitoring has already established that health and hunger were greatly improved and the very poor were making real progress in areas as diverse as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Pakistan, and Peru.

Sounds like that could be a way to go if we were really trying to get somewhere.

Puerto Rico Is So Screwed

2000px-Flag_of_Puerto_Rico.svgNew Orleans   Reading the papers on the financial dilemma of the United States’ Puerto Rican colony you get the notion that this is just the Greek mess that we already don’t understand clearly, but in Spanglish and closer to home. Talking to Willie Cosme, veteran of KABF, Local 100, and still host of the ever popular Salsa show on Wade’s World about his return to the island and what he sees firsthand is an eye opener.

First, keep in mind that one-third of the $78 or so billion in debt and missed bond payments that is driving the island to the financial poorhouse is made up of borrowing to essentially handle medical debt since 60% of the island qualifies for Medicaid or Medicare. Brother Cosme says the Medicaid payments are so extreme because so much of the island is now elderly. As the economy has tanked, younger Puerto Ricans have naturally moved to Florida, New York, and elsewhere to find jobs. Dennis Rivera, former head of the New York-based 1199 union and a native of Puerto Rico, is heading up a committee of insurers, hospitals, and unions to see if there’s anything that can be done to save the healthcare system on the island, but that’s still in the hope and a prayer category.

Keep in mind that Puerto Ricans are in the strange situation of being United States citizens, so they can travel and settle anywhere, but as colonists on the island itself they can only vote on state and local elections, not the Presidential election, and of course since they are not a state they have no representative in Congress, even a non-voting one like the District of Columbia. Not being a state means that they also cannot declare bankruptcy as cities and states in the USA can, so the debt just hangs like a weight around their necks. Not being able to vote and without representation, Congress has basically yawned when asked about whether there might be any plan for a bailout.

And, then to make matters worse, there’s the drought. San Juan is now on a water rationing program that gives them three days with no water and one day with water. Some 30 miles out of San Juan where Cosme’s family lives, they are on a one day with and one day without system. The los ninos weather system has dried the island out. Willie reported that some people are so desperate, they are wishing for a hurricane! To keep the tourism industry alive in the hotels and to keep cruise ships still docking, operators are buying water by the tanker truck load, as you can imagine. Opening up travel and tourism to Cuba could be yet another blow to the role of tourism as a driver in the economy, just as the weather is crippling the agricultural production.

Talking to Willie, the notion of Puerto Rico, as the rich door to the Caribbean is replaced by the thought that the island and its people are more like a prisoner in solitary confinement without hope of a parole. They might be called part of our commonwealth, but don’t have access to the common wealth. Their population exceeds that of many states, yet there is no move to fully enfranchise them. Out in the water, out of sight, out of mind.

Right now Puerto Rico is so screwed. We need to do better for our fellow citizens and companeros.

Philosopher Peter Singer’s Advice for the Rich

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

New Orleans     Recently,  I read Princeton University’s professor and philosopher Peter Singer’s books advising on the amount of money we should give and where we should give it in hopes of living a moral life.  The two books, The Most Good You Can Do and Life You Can Save, are really almost the same book, written twice to beat the drum harder and keep the messages being heard.  I don’t say that as a criticism, but a statement of fact.  The message that Singer is trying to get across may have to be repeated, more loudly, ever couple of years.

            The upshot is that Singer recommends that you give at least 5% of your income charitably.  He’s no liberal.  He believes you need to open your wallet to the world’s poor and unfortunate on a global basis, and he wants the dollars to save lives.  His argument there has great appeal as a guide, but as you can imagine his position is controversial, even as he evangelizes and picks up recruits.  I came to read the books inclined to become a fan, given ACORN International’s work and global commitments, but some of his prescriptions are hard to swallow even for me.

            For a philosopher, he is surprisingly infatuated by the algorithms of poverty:  how many dollars can save how many lives.  I’m not sure I trust such a formulaic approach.  He would likely applaud our work in the megaslums of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, but scoff at the attention we also give to the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Europe.  He understands how the power of money works, but not how power makes change, even on issues like lowering the costs of remittances that would convert into much more money.  From book to book his enthusiasm for money following a simple metrics of poverty grows, especially if some of the founders were former students.  He struggles mightily in these books for example on whether or not Oxfam and its campaigning strategy is worth a dollar or a damn.   In the first book, he comes close to making a case that they are a good place to put your dollars.  In the second book, he is uncomfortable that they are not single-issued with more easily calibrated results and don’t embrace the same assumptions about a purely metrics driven donation space as he would like.

            On the other hand his take down of the Rockefeller Family Fund showed some chutzpah, especially as he easily poked fun at their notion of enabling the rich to make flimsy decisions on their donations in the slender hope that the rich would move to programs more promising in the by and by.  On a moral basis he generally is no fan of money going to art, museums, and cultural projects, while people are starving and hurting, which must make some uncomfortable if they stumble on one of his books.

            For all of the arguments he would make in these two volumes where I would nod in agreement and underline with excitement, I couldn’t shake a nagging uncomfortability.  He doesn’t value work in this fight against poverty.  He pays some faint tribute to it, but essentially brushes aside the notion that individuals can really fight poverty as effectively as money can.  He seems to have made a very utilitarian judgement that effective organizers and change-makers are as rare as hen’s teeth, but money grows on trees, so let’s go put it to work saving lives and doing good. 

           His stories of people getting the religion he’s preaching constantly underscore this calculation for him.  The students who he presents as sucking it up and going to Wall Street to make the most bucks, but are committed to living on less in order to give more, are his heroes.  I found myself wondering if Singer had not been as affected by the proclivities of his students as he was interested in moving them towards his program.  A Google search sent me to an issue of Forbes from 2014 noting that 36% of Princeton graduates go into finance even in the wake of the Great Recession, and suddenly I felt I had a clue for Singer’s argument:  if you can’t fight them, join them.  If they were marching off to Wall Street anyway, why not take a good lick from their checks to save lives and do the most good.   Even his parsing of the contribution level down to 5% to deliver the least pain for the most gain in making converts seemed to address the market for his sale.

            I don’t mean to seem cynical even though I can’t sign up as a true believer.  I’m not going to quit doing the work and just go with my contributions, but I’m going to hope that Singer continues to provoke and prod those that have to heave more at the real issues.  I am a fan of his finger waving at the rich to pony up if they want to claim interest in doing no harm and living a moral life.  I hope he keeps being invited to speak to foundation boards and chides them to do right and do more.  We don’t have to sign his pledge to root for a philosopher speaking more truth to power.

Hillary Rodham on Saul Alinsky, Community Organizing, and Change

Hillary_lede.grid-6x2Montreal     I knew that Hillary Clinton, when still Hillary Rodham, had written her senior thesis at Wellesley College on Saul Alinsky and his work, and I had even talked to her about it briefly over lunch once in Little Rock in the early 1970’s, but I had never actually read it until the link was recently forwarded to me by Camilo Viveiros of the George Wiley Institute in Rhode Island.  It was different than I expected it to be.  First it was much better than I had imagined it might be as a senior thesis.  Secondly, it was different than the reports I had read years ago, when she last ran for President.  Yes, it was a something of a rejection of the Alinsky methods, though admiring of Alinsky, but her objection was largely that his methodology – and vision – did not go far enough, not that it was either too radical or not traditional enough.

She was a diligent student and reading the sources and footnotes, she was a fellow traveler well read in James Ridgeway and Andrew Kopkind, the dominant left journalists of that era and beyond, critical of Daniel Moynihan’s critique, and astutely embracing Warren Haggstrom, a major, though often unrecognized, intellectual influence on all of community organizing, then and now.She also understood deeply, but perhaps too uncritically, the critique of Alinsky and his work by Frank Reissman, the founder of our journal, Social Policy  that I still edit and publish.  She was spot-on in recognizing the Alinsky debt to union organizing and structural models in a way that contemporaries often miss.  On the whole, her thesis is a surprisingly solid piece of work and a good grasp of the issues, while being justly admiring of Alinsky and his belief and commitment to democracy and respectful of community organizing and its role in making change.

She was a left-critic of the War on Poverty, saying…

All too often the War on Poverty with confused intentions and armed with misinterpreted social theory fulfilled Moynihan’s concluding description of the community action programs: “…the soaring rhetoric, the minimum performance; the feigned constancy, the private betrayal; in the end…the sell-out.”

She was not a fan of student organizing in the late 1960’s or what she calls “New Left strategists,”

The problems inherent in such an approach, including elitist arrogance and repressive intolerance, have become evident during recent university crises.  The engineers of disruption, lacking Alinsky’s flexibility in dealing with their “enemy” (i.e. administrators, trustees, etc.), become hardened into non-negotiable situations.  Conflicts then run the possibility of escalating into zero sum games where nobody wins.

Her real critique of Alinsky is that he didn’t go far enough, and the evidence is plentiful in a number of her remarks in the thesis even as she walks a fine line to balance her academic objectives…

  • He realizes that radical goals have to be achieved often by non-radical, even “anti-radical” means.
  • Perhaps, the Alinsky model’s emphasis on local issues and goals determined locally diverts energies from wider or coalition organizations.
  • His belief that the poor can translate apathy into power and then use that power responsibly has, in some cases, proven true. In others, the transition has been dysfunctional either for the community or for the cause of radical change.

Tellingly, even the title of her thesis, “There is Only the Fight…” is a thinly veiled critique that she shares in part with Reissman that he lacked “vision” for a more radical, national change.  She is clearly heavily influenced by her own Wellesley professor, Annemarie Shimony, in putting her perspective together and Shimony’s view that Alinsky was “a showman rather than an activist.”

Undoubtedly, then Hillary Rodham was a “child of the 60’s” who believed it was a time and opportunity for comprehensive change:

Often the application of the Alinsky model in geographically-bound lower class areas assumes an almost bootstrap formula which is too conservative for our present situation.  A People’s Organization of local organizations can at best create new levels of harmony among its members and secure a few material gains.  It is not oriented toward harmonizing competing metropolitan interests in a concert of governmental restructuring.

Clearly, she liked Alinsky and much of the model, but didn’t like the “messy” of student organizing and the New Left, compared to the pragmatic, flexibility of Alinsky approach even while seeing it as lacking “vision” and “too conservative for our present situation.”  In 1969, she wasn’t ready for the barricades, but she wanted to figure out a way to make comprehensive change.   Her thesis is a helpful place to build a more nuanced understanding of Hillary and her quest perhaps, contrary to what many have argued, both pro and con.

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ODETTA – This Little Light of Mine