Archives For October 2011

Lessons from Occupy Wall Street: What You Can Do

As if there were lingering doubts that Occupy Wall Street’s populism had firm grounding,  last week’s report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office settles the score.  Here’s one tidbit: For the top 1 percent of income earners, their after-tax, inflation-adjusted incomes increased 275-fold from 1979-2007; by comparison, incomes rose just 18 percent for the poorest fifth of the population.

So now what?  What can we do to address this rising inequality?  While Occupy Wall Street is deservedly drawing lots of attention, it’s not clear what specific changes it advocates, if any.  And it’s even less certain whether or how its efforts will impact the 2012 presidential election, providing no mandate for candidates to advocate on behalf of the interests of the “99 percent.”

Even under the best of circumstances an election year isn’t a ripe time for major policy change.  And these are hardly the best of circumstances.  Budgetary constraints and political gridlock ensure that for the foreseeable future we won’t see much discussion about how to redress economic inequality.  Moreover, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, also released last week, reveals declining public faith in the government’s capacity to solve problems; indeed, distrust has reached unprecedented proportions.  So not only is the timing for federal reform terrible, but that’s not something many of us seem to want.

The answer, instead, lies within.  What we need to be doing – and what public support for Occupy Wall Street suggests – is tackling this problem the old-fashioned way: through private initiative.  Fortunately, there is a rich infrastructure of nonprofit organizations that are successfully doing just that.  They just need our investment.  Some of the work that is making a significant impact includes:

Check back here for more discussion of the exciting work nonprofits are doing all around the country to redress economic inequality.

Solutions begin at home: A new lease on life for the chronically homeless

Cheryl and Dane both have extraordinary stories to tell.  Each spent many years on the streets, homeless, and without direction.  Yet, both now have a reason to smile.  I heard them recount their life experiences earlier this week when they came to Framingham State University as part of the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau Program run by the National Coalition for the Homeless.  Watching them stand before a crowd of strangers and recount how their lives fell into despair was an incredible act of courage to witness.

Cheryl, now 63, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  As a young child, her stepfather ruthlessly abused her to the point where, at age 13, she ran away from home.  When she arrived at Port Authority in New York City, she met a man who enticed her to become a prostitute.  It was not long before she got involved with heroin and then crack.  Eventually, she came back to the Boston area and remained homeless for many more years, frequently sleeping under bridges.

Sixty-six year old Dane was the oldest of 15 children, and from a young age he was expected to take on a lot of adult responsibility.  Feeling that he had been robbed of his childhood, he left home at 16.  He got involved in petty theft and served six years in a federal penitentiary.  While incarcerated, he learned a trade and found a job soon upon his release.  Not long after, he met his wife.  His life seemed to be on the upswing.  But, the marriage got rocky and she threw him out of the house when the fighting became unrelenting.  He moved into a one-room apartment and started driving a taxi.  But, he soon turned to cocaine and in time got hooked.  His driver’s license was eventually revoked and he became homeless.

It would seem Cheryl’s and Dane’s lives could only continue to spiral downward.  Yet, amazingly their stories did not end on the streets.  Each of them now lives in their own apartment.  Having a place to call home has enabled them to turn their lives around, to the point where they have enough self-respect and self-confidence to share with a crowd of strangers the details of how their worlds used to consist of hopelessness and despair.

This transformation is due to an initiative known as “Housing First” which aims to provide the chronically homeless with an alternative to the temporary fix afforded by spending a night at a shelter.  “Housing First” is based on the tenet that having a place to live is a basic human right, as well as the principle that homelessness should be solved rather than managed.  And lots of research indicates this strategy works; renowned journalist Malcolm Gladwell publicized the program’s successes a few years ago.

For Cheryl and for Dane, there are no more nights of sleeping out in the cold.  They now each have a sense of dignity that had long been missing in their lives.