53206

Tonight I attended a screening of the 53206 movie at the First Unitarian Society. The movie showed the impact of the mass incarceration of African Americans focusing on a few families in this impoverished zip code. The zip code has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. I remember years ago being at a sign of hope in the community, a business incubator that was intended to help small business formation by African Americans. The businesses are long gone and what remains is the empty building.

The 53206 movie was shown at a Unitarian church in downtown Milwaukee to a packed crowd many of whom I did not know. There was an organizer from the 53206 project and talk about the lives being wasted and the depiction of a family hoping and waiting for their father figue and husband to return. He was denied parole, which is the most common result of parole hearings in Wisconsin. The governor plans to cut the parole department staffing even more.

The situation is complicated by the fact Wisconsin passed a truth in sentencing law in the late 1990s mandating that prisoners serve the full term of their prison sentences. But there are thousands like the man in the movie who are eligible for parole like the man in the movie but find the door slammed shut time and again. There is a lot of discretion still in the system and there are alternatives to long prison sentences but the fact we are not using them means that people are making money keeping things just the way they are. Who will have the courage to speak up? We signed cards tonight asking for changes but this is a long term project.

Trapped by debt

I have been reading for the past several hours stories about people trapped in debt by payday lenders, title loan lenders and aggressive student loan collectors. The worst case of student loan collection was in New Jersey where a mother received a notice after her son had been killed that she was liable for his student loans.

The state aggressively pursues people offering little information about loan forgiveness and instead sends collection agencies to turn your life upside down. There was also no limit on the amount that a family could borrow, way beyond their ability to pay. As a last gasp some people declared bankruptcy, which could not eliminate the debts, but it greatly reduced their payments.

The stories of payday loans were equally as horrific. I noted that some unscrupulous lenders affiliated themselves with Native American tribes to escape state regulations. And some of them began to mutate as soon as one loan product was outlawed another sprang up. Like the installment loans which offer longer payment plans but interest just as high as their predatory cousins, allowing the crooked lenders to squeeze even more money out of workers.

I consider payday lenders a kind of guinea worm sucking up workers’ blood. And being trapped by payday loans, title loans and high student loan interest could lead a person to desperation. I am going to start following the good guys in this battle and seeing what ordinary citizens can do. The guinea worms have set up fake grassroots organizations to comment on proposed federal regulations and they spread money around to democrats and republicans in campaign contributions. Remember, always follow the money. When crooked politicians say there’s already too much regulation, find out where their cash is coming from. Stand up.

The horror

I am reading a long article in Mother Jones magazine by Shane Bauer an investigative journalist who took a $9 per hour job as a corrections officer in a prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Bauer details under-staffing motivated by profit, neglect of inmates, neglecting inmates mental and physical health and conditions that would shock any caring person. Bauer looks into the company’s history arising from the swamp like a primordial beast. The opportunity for profit created by mass incarceration needs to be eliminated permanently.

I remember how republican lawmakers howled when President Obama began allowing prisoners access to federal Pell grants to help further their education.The idea was elegant in its simplicity: educated prisoners will be more likely to obtain jobs, and benefit society. There are other proposals aimed at eliminating some of the draconian 3 strikes and your out laws that helped fill prisons. But one of the first places to look for reform is by shuttering the private prison industry and driving it out of business. We cannot continue to abuse our fellow citizens this way.

I urge people to read the article by Bauer and other stories and join groups like the ACLU that are helping to defend prisoners.

The devil is in the details

There is a mind numbing array of details in Evicted. the stories of the negotiations carried out with the few consumers who go to Room 400 of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. And the racial breakdown I mentioned in an earlier post. Eviction is eating away at neighborhoods.  The evictions follow people through the courts and the credit bureaus and have a ways of snatching people back down into the gutter when they attempt to make something of their lives, get better jobs, buy cars and otherwise re-establish themselves.

There are the rent collection agencies ready to try and garnish. There are the Eagle Movers with their huge business going through poor neighborhoods. And there is the feeling that never goes away the humiliation of the eviction. There are the huge percentages that rent takes out of people’s income 50% or more. And of course there were the words of the landlords pleading their cases in front of court commissioners.

It is ironic that Milwaukee has experienced a boom in luxury apartments and condominiums. Commerce Street is filled with ugly buildings too expensive for the people I have been discussing. What used to be a leisurely ride along the street has become treacherous with cars lining either side of the narrow street.

There are more such monstrosities downtown. The city has gained in tax base. So, to hear of poor depressed areas sounds eerily like you’re discussing the 2 Americas that were predicted long ago. The growing housing gap between rich and poor was not mentioned in the recent elections for mayor, common council or county executive. I tell people that they need to wake up and make certain to vote for these various circuit court judges because you might face them one day.

But when you’re struggling with every day details of life, it seems hard to absorb something that seems so remote. “Hey children, watch that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” For what it’s worth, still relevant today.

the-great-depression-african-american-children

 

Evicted

oung black woman and flowers

I started reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond, about the devastating impact of evictions on poor people in Milwaukee. He has been all over public media being interviewed. The happy face of the young black woman is not the sort that is portrayed in this book. She looks like a woman from the middle class, maybe a social work student .She might have benefits and security from the kind of poverty that is ravaging people in the inner city

I liked her picture so I chose it instead of a depressing picture along the lines of what you will find in eviction court in Milwaukee. There you will find angry people of many different colors with one common thread. Not enough income. They may be people living along Wisconsin Avenue where a former girl friend lived. We were both being evicted from our respective houses. She was a CNA who over worked double shifts and I was a peer specialist.

What we had in common was the horror of no having benefits. Although some white people may also be getting evicted next week, I would bet that 75% of the evictees will be poor and black and many of them are mothers on SSI or CNAs or other low wage workers.

Over the past 9 months, I have been fortunate that only two consumers I was working with have been evicted.  Poor women on SSI. Supplemental security income, SSI, is inadequate. A few of the people we assist have vouchers from programs like My Home, live in supported housing that offers peer support and case management or qualify for senior housing. I am proud that I helped a few people get into those programs. More commonly, our consumers are living in a room and board or a large group home shared with several roommates.

The case managers try to monitor the housing, which helps take up a lot of their work. It can be exhausting to help someone maintain an apartment. There is a person who has a cleaner help take care of the apartment. And I help with grocery shopping. I sometimes have people who are so internally pre-occupied they are barely aware of my presence even when we are out in public. But with some public benefits such as energy assistance and food share, they get by with a little help from their friends.

There was a sad story in Evicted about a consumer being moved out of a building due to poor conditions and then the landlord got a call from a Wraparound case manager about moving a consumer into the same rat trap.  And this landlord was featured in a sickening story about going to a landlord seminar and telling white landlords how she could help them make money in the inner city using her as an intermediary.

I believe that this is far better than my early years as a peer specialist, living with roaches and incredibly underpaid. Far better than feeling angry and wanting to choke consumers who were living in far better surroundings than me. If you have a chance, you should read Evicted  and reflect on the impact of poverty on your life. What is your role in the life of poor people? Are you living in a house with dangerous conditions, without a smoke detector  and with a door that an angry person could kick down on the way to killing you?Do you fear that one of your 6 roommates will harm you? Are you struggling to survive on meager benefits while listening to politicians claiming you are cheating the system?

 

 

You don’t know what to expect

I just listened to the story about the Milwaukee Police Department under Chief Ed Flynn that aired on This American Life. There was a shocking disconnection from the supposed idealism of Flynn to the horrible incidents of brutality perpetrated by his police. There were illegal cavity searches performed in public to humiliate and degrade black men. Imagine some man feeling he has the authority to sexually violate you and you have no recourse? No way to way what is happening to your body as your neighbors watch? Can you understand how police department would stand behind these men who were committing sexual assault? Can you see how this mess of a department would then vote no confidence against a chief who fired an officer whose actions led to an unnecessary death, that of Dontre Hamilton, whose supporters and family continue to demand justice?

After so many years, we have a system that many people distrust. The title of this blog is taken from a statement about the unpredictable nature of Milwaukee policing. I do not trust the police and I feel many people have good reason not to. The few reforms that Ed Flynn tried did not go far enough. And yet, the cops who are frightened by the calls for greater accountability are frightened.

By the way, last night I listened to the second part of the This American Life look at the police in America and it told of Las Vegas, Nevada making a dramatic turn around in the number of police involved shootings. Police were forced to examine their inherit biases about why they stopped certain people and the techniques worked. Milwaukee can go from an unpredictable, under trained police force to one that is better equipped to handle life and death situations. For now, if you are young and African-American, I suggest being wary of the Milwaukee Police Department.

 

Two sad stories

Huffington Post has two stories that speak of greed, one of which had immediate tragic consequences. Over the weekend people learned that a bus full of comedians including Tracy Morgan was struck by a truck while on the New Jersey Turnpike while returning from doing a show in Delaware. One man was pronounced dead at the scene from his injuries. Morgan is in critical condition in the hospital. And a third, the truck driver, Kevin Roper, a 35-year-old from Georgia, will be due in court on Wednesday on charges of vehicular homicide and three counts of assault by auto. Roper had not been in asleep in more than 24 hours when he was behind the wheel that night. This story has tragic consequences for the trucking industry. Over the years I have seen commercials warning truck drivers to pull over. Breaks are supposed to be mandated for these over the road drivers. And yet, here was a vehicular homicide. It is sad for all, because Roper probably has a family and other obligations. Are there other drivers out there on the road dozing off who should be at a rest stop, safe and asleep?

Think about it. Nothing, no bonus, or award is worth the risk of taking a life. I hope the facts will come out in this case to learn what may have led to Roper’s decision to take the wheel ad lose control of his vehicle.

The other story I read is one of personal ambition and or greed. Democratic State Senator Phillip P.Puckett was offered a prestigious job for himself and his daughter in exchange for resigning. His resignation would flip the Senate from Democratic to Republican and allow the Republicans to block a proposed expansion of Medicaid. Once Puckett’s acceptance of a bribe was revealed, he was forced to not accept the job but he resigned anyway. His deal may cost as many as 20,000 people in his district an opportunity to gain coverage under this program designed to aid low-income people. The expansion is desperately needed because the poor people in Puckett’s district have overwhelmed the free clinic.

The horrible Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act while allowing mostly Republican controlled states to refuse Medicaid expansion created a wedge for governors to drive a truck through. Governors like Walker ofskin I'm in Wisconsin and Perry of Texas are keeping poor people out in the cold. And in the Commonwealth of Virginia there is a former state senator who did his part in selling out his voters.