The Block of Horror: Chainstores Swallow Berkeley

Looking at the block of Shattuck Avenue between Durant and Channing streets, there is no way to tell that you’re standing in Berkeley, California, rather than in Kansas City, San Diego, Columbus or Atlanta. Like downtown strips across the globe, Berkeley too is increasingly occupied by unbroken rows of chainstores, populated by underpaid, de-skilled, part-time workers, and controlled from afar by massive corporations. The Block of Horror in downtown Berkeley features a Barnes & Noble unit, a Jamba Juice smoothie counter, a Blockbuster Video and an antiseptic High Tech Burrito. At least so far, it is one of the few blocks of unbroken chainstores in Berkeley.

Unfortunately, the Block of Horror is far from an aberration: most new businesses that open in Berkeley are chains, and chains are gradually replacing locally owned shops. In the last 5 years, downtown Berkeley has gained a Starbuck’s coffee, an Eddie Bauer, a Ben & Jerry’s, a Taco Bell, a Ross Dress For Less, Ms. Fields Cookies, and a Walgreens. If things keep going in the same direction, far from being a relative rarity, the Block of Horror may soon became the norm in Berkeley, as virtually identical blocks already represent the norm most everywhere else in the United States. Even in the world.

It is especially surprising to see the Block of Horror in a town with nationally known, locally-run bookstores and restaurants, and within blocks of a really impressive locally owned video store. Twenty or thirty years ago, Berkeley residents unceasingly fought chainstores when they appeared, such as the Gap and Tower Records on Telegraph, which were both repeatedly protested, boycotted and even looted. The new wave of chainstores is being welcomed, even celebrated, by Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean and downtown landlord interests. They can’t seem to tell the difference between revitalizing downtown with more businesses, and sowing the seeds of the downtown’s destruction by bringing in chainstores which will suck the downtown dry, and which ultimately have no commitment to the success of downtown Berkeley over the success of any of their outlets in any random mall in Iowa. It is highly ironic that local Chambers of Commerce like the one in Berkeley actually want to bring in chainstores, since the chains’ agenda is to eliminate all local businesses, centralizing decision making and the economy into distant corporate board rooms. For downtown property owners, chainstores are a boon because they can pay higher rents. These higher rents, together with relentless competition from chains so large that they can win price breaks from suppliers, are precisely what drives locally owned stores under.

The increasing success of chainstores is part of a trend whereby consumption is increasingly centrally managed. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, factory owners learned how to centrally organize production for greater efficiency. One-hundred and fifty years later, factory technology is incredibly efficient, and the heads of industry have now turned to the management of consumers to achieve the highest rates of consumption using the least inputs of resources. Chainstores, and increasingly internet commerce, represent the highest technology of managed consumerism.

Scientific market research (together with mass media advertising) determine what the consumers will buy. Massive corporations, funded with billions from Wall Street, achieve economies of scale by vertically integrating purchasing, distribution and retail, or by cutting sweetheart deals with producers. On the local level, retail sales are conducted through chainstores units, centrally designed and managed to standards established through research. Each unit is connected to the central office using computers and satellites with efficiency never before possible. The chain’s average wages are lower since fewer skilled employees are required to operate a chainstore.

By contrast, locally owned retail outlets are highly inefficient because they can’t order by the truck full, they don’t have access to national market research and advertising, and their design and marketing decisions are made unscientifically, according to individual taste. According to chain-think, independent stores must be replaced so that chains can gain market share and dominate.

A community that loses all local control or contact with the functions of the economy–production, consumption, meeting human needs–is doomed as a community. Globalization of the economy has repeatedly demonstrated that multi-national corporations have no commitment to any particular place, and will remove jobs or services as soon as it becomes economically attractive to do so. A community dominated by chains and massive multi-national employers cannot exercise any local, democratic control over what labor and environmental responsibilities businesses have to the community. Instead, unaccountable corporate boards gain unfettered power over how or whether local residents will work, and what they will consume.

Chainstores rarely invest in the communities in which they locate. Instead, every dollar spent at a chain is paid as profit to investors or is concentrated at its corporate office for more investment in new outlets elsewhere.

As chainstores increasingly dominate retail, local character and the possibility for innovation are lost. Local opportunities to break out of the corporate rat race by using local currencies or by setting up cooperatives or collectives are frustrated. It becomes increasingly difficult to talk to the person in charge who can make changes.

To preserve democracy and communities worth living in, chainstores must be fought. And this doesn’t just mean not buying from them. Its time for creative and militant tactics to attack these blights on the community. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Barnes & Noble

Type of Business: Books

Number of Units in the Chain: 1,011

Crimes against Freedom: B&N is the largest bookstore chain on the planet with annual sales exceeding $3 billion. It recently announced plans to merge with the world’s largest wholesale book distributor, Ingram. Together, B&N and Ingram would control 40 percent of all books sold in America. B&N and fellow mega-chain Borders together have driven thousands of independent bookstores out of the market, replacing them with bland corporate culture, lower wages, less local character and less local control. As the chains have exploded, market share for independent booksellers has dropped from 24.2 percent in 1993 to 17.2 in 1997. These chains won’t carry books (and ideas) published by small presses unless the small presses can afford to print massive runs, subject to massive returns if the books don’t sell in a few weeks.

Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) Black Oak books, 1491 Shattuck, 486-0698 Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave, 845-9096 Dark Carnival, 3086 Claremont, 654-7323 Ecology Center, 2530 San Pablo, 548-3402 Gaia books, 1400 Shattuck Ave, 548-4172 Mama Bears, 6536 Telegraph Ave., 428-9684 Moes Books, 2476 Telegraph, 849-2087 Shakespeare’s, 2499 Telegraph, 841-8916 Sierra Club, 6014 College Ave, 658-7470 Walden Pond, 3314 Grand Ave., 832-4438

Jamba Juice

Type of Business: Smoothies Number of Units in the Chain: 221 (including 96 stores in recently acquired Zuka Juice chain) Crimes against Freedom: JJ is the nation’s largest smoothie chain, hoping to cash in on the exploding market, which was expected to have total sales of $504 million for 1998. JJ had sales of over $55 million last ye
ar. Since starting in 1995 with early venture capital funding from Howard Schultz, president of Starbucks, the chain’s founder Kirk Perron has been fond of making pretentious claims: We do a lot to create a passion around the higher purpose, which is really about enriching people’s lives. Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) Juice Bar Collective, 2114 Vine, 548-8473 Smart Alec’s, Durant & Telegraph

Blockbuster Video

Type of Business: Video rental

Number of Units in the Chain: 4,438 in US

2,005 internationally in 26 countries.

Crimes against Freedom: Blockbuster is the largest video chain on Earth with 38 million people in the US holding cards. It boasts of operating a store within a 10 minute drive of virtually every major neighborhood in the United States. Their mission is to be the global leader in rentable home entertainment. After only 12 years in business, it controls one-third of the video market in the US. Blockbuster’s third quarter 1998 revenues were up 13.3 percent after the chain worked out deals with Hollywood studios to get hundreds of copies of each movie on a profit-sharing basis, permitted Blockbuster to avoid paying up-front costs. These deals, unavailable to independent video stores are putting thousands of independent video stores out of business, and may be challenged in a Federal anti-trust suit.

Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) Good Vibrations, 22504 San Pablo, 841-8987 Movie Image, 64 Shattuck Sq, 649-0296 Rasputin Video, 2411 Telegraph, 486-2690 Videots, 2988 College, 540-0222

High Tech Burrito

Type of Business: Food

Number of Units in the Chain: 16 Crimes against Freedom: The so-far smaller chain, which tries to take the Mexican out of burritos, recently pioneered technology to permit people to pay with their ATM card if they let a computer scan their fingerprints. We’ll see if this format eventually makes it big.

Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) La Cascada, 2164 Center St., 704-8688 Mi Tierra, 1401 University, 841-1544 Taqueria La Familia 2971 Shattuck, 548-3420

Sweeping Away Human Rights and Protesting for Social Justice

Food Not Bombs serves dissent at SF City Hall Reopening Ceremony

Police sweeps have returned as the official policy on homelessness in San Francisco. In keeping with political tradition, Willie Brown has resorted to the tired tactic of using police to ticket, arrest, and harass homeless people in public spaces in an attempt to win votes under the guise of ‘doing something’ about homelessness. Like his predecessors, Art Agnos and Frank Jordan, Brown has entered his reelection year in office with ‘get tough’ policies that make headlines and garner approval from downtown business, but do nothing to improve the situation for poor people. Police sweeps have been on the rise all over San Francisco – in the Haight, the Castro and Union Square in particular. By December, the police sweeps were launched in full force in Civic Center in preparation for the reopening of City Hall. City Hall had been closed for upgrade, restoration and retrofitting since early spring of 95. Over 300 million dollars had been spent on City Hall, including 4 to 5 hundred thousand dollars for gold plating on City Hall’s dome. Using the policy of ‘zero tolerance’ (i.e. if you look poor and aren’t white, then you will be questioned), the police forced people out. Additionally, all of the benches in Civic Center were removed and using enormous lights, the entire plaza was lit up throughout the night to prevent sleeping.

On January 5th, City Hall reopened and was kicked off with a ceremony lead by Mayor Brown. The ceremony took place across the street in Civic Center and all signs of poverty had been removed – the reality of failed homeless policy, the effects of welfare reform and economic inequality had been hidden to make way for the photo opportunities of a triumphant ceremony of city politics as usual. However, Food Not Bombs decided to ‘celebrate’ the reopening of City Hall with an all day protest and community meal for poor people.

For years, Food Not Bombs had served free food across from City Hall in Civic Center. By sharing food in a high profile area and visibly protesting against poverty and the criminalization of poor people, FNB was targeted by Mayors Agnos and Jordan for arrest and political repression. Since the closing of City Hall, the group has been sharing food in United Nations Plaza. With the reopening, FNB returned to Civic Center in an effort to both draw attention to the social injustice of poverty and to protest the city’s punitive attacks against homeless people.

From 9 am to about 7:30 pm FNB served on the opposite side of Civic Center from where the ceremony was held. With two large banners reading “Food Not Bombs” and “Visibility is a Human Right”, FNB served breakfast, lunch and dinner, distributed literature, engaged hundreds of people walking by and created a safe space for poor people to return to Civic Center after being forcibly removed. While the number of servers/protesters never exceeded a dozen or two, hundreds of people received food and literature and many stopped to read the banners and get an alternative perspective on city politics.

“Virtually every passer by remarked on the importance of our mission – to feed people and thereby make the clear statement that government is failing in it’s mandate,” commented Rg Goudy, a workfare worker and member of People Organized To Win Employment Rights, the Coalition on Homelessness and FNB. Goudy as stated that he was “amazed at the press interest in FNB’s historic, visual and vocal return to Civic Center”. While there was much press interest, there was also concern from the police which included a surprise visit from the City’s Health Department to inform FNB that it was conducting an illegal activity.

Sasha, an activist with FNB, later said, “By the amount of attention we got early-on in the day, it was apparent that we had touched a nerve in city government. Willie’s dream seemed to be a City Hall for it’s upper class tastes to serve the upper class people who run the city. We served as a reminder to everyone’s conscience that it’s wrong to have dessert at the expense of someone else’s dinner.”

Tai Miller, who recorded much of the event for Free Radio, wondered “why we let them take our tax money to build a monument to people who are so boring while others of us starve”. Miller, a long-time activist with FNB and the Industrial Workers of the World, also wondered, if City Hall belongs to the people, as the Mayor stated during the ceremony, why were poor people forced away. “Such is life in the capitalist world,” she said.

Now that City Hall is reopened, poor people are still being cleared out of Civic Center and at the end of January, the Board of Supervisors under the impetus of Amos Brown have voted to increase the police sweeps in United Nations Plaza. Amos Brown who has argued that SF’s homeless problem is due to “compassion overload” and the generosity of the city, has repeatedly called for increased punitive measures against homeless people and “zero-tolerance”. Homeless people are being pushed into the neighborhoods as police make their presence felt in the plazas and parks. Politicians like Amos Brown have turned the public debate away from the lack of affordable housing, lack of drug treatment programs, lack of decent paying jobs, and other economic and social dynamics onto issues of personal behavior and individual conduct.

Fortunately, protests have been taking place throughout February. The Coalition on Homelessness held a “Have A Heart” rally for Valentine’s Day at City Hall. A group of almost 100 people went into City Hall and visited the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor with chants of “L-O-V-E”, “Have a change of heart”, and my person favorite “Stop in the name of love”. All supervisors who supported the police sweeps were given broken hearts, while the three who opposed the sweeps were given beautiful valentines. Religious Witness For Homeless People also held a rally denouncing the police sweeps and political rhetoric that attacks homeless people. On Feb. 17th, over 150 people rallied at Civic Center and kicked off a 21 day fast to protest the enormous amount of housing available in the Presidio that could be given to homeless people. Over 250 people are currently fasting (as this article is written). Some people are fasting one day, while others are fasting on a liquid diet all 21 days. The fast has garnered mainstream media and has been accompanied with daily vigils in front of City Hall.

Public protests, like those of Food Not Bombs, the Coalition on Homelessness and Religious Witness, aim to bring the public debate back to the real issues of economic inequality, misplaced priorities and the need to address social issues like homelessness with social and economic justice.

The slogan “Homes Not Jails” rings painfully true as the government spends more and more money on prisons to warehouse the poor, and San Francisco looks to “crack-downs” and police sweeps as answers to economic inequality and homelessness.

For more information please call SF Food Not Bombs at 415.292.3235.

A Brief History of People's Park

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the creation of People’s Park. Therefore, Slingshot publishes this short history of the Park as a public service.

At the start of 1969, the site that is now People’s Park was a dirt parking lot. The university had bought the property for new dorms in the mid-60s but then after demolishing the wood frame houses that had been on the lot (which had, coincidentally, formed a home base for many radicals which the UC Regents wanted out of Berkeley) the university never built the dorms. In the spring of 1969, after it had sat empty for some time and become an eyesore, community members decided to build a park on the lot.

Building the park mobilized and energized many of the hippies, street people, activists and regular Berkeley citizens who participated. They were doing something for themselves, not for profit or bosses. Hundreds of people worked hard putting down sod, building a children’s play ground and planting trees. From the beginning the ideal was “user development”–the people building a park for themselves without university approval, planners, etc. Seizing the land from the university for legitimate public use was and is the spirit of the park.

After the initial construction on April 20, negotiations with the university over control of the park continued for about three weeks. For a while it looked like a settlement could be reached but suddenly the university stopped negotiating and in the early morning on May 15 moved police into the park. A rally protesting the fence was quickly organized on Sproul Plaza on the UC campus. In the middle of the rally, after a student leader said “lets go down and take the park,” police turned off the sound system. 6,000 people spontaneously began to march down Telegraph Ave. toward the park. They were met by 250 police with rifles and flack-jackets. Someone opened a fire hydrant. When the police moved into the crowd to shut off the hydrant, some rocks were thrown and the police retaliated by firing tear gas to disperse the crowd.

An afternoon of chaos and violence followed. Sheriff’s deputies walked through the streets of Berkeley firing into crowds and at individuals with shotguns. At first they used birdshot but when that ran out, they switched to double-0 buckshot. 128 people were admitted to hospitals that day, mostly with gunshot wounds. James Rector, a spectator on a roof on Telegraph Ave., was shot and died of his wounds a few days later.

The day after the shootings, 3000 National Guard troops were sent by then Governor Reagan to occupy Berkeley. A curfew was imposed and a ban on public assembly was put into force. Mass demonstrations continued and were met with teargas and violence by the police. 15 days after the park was fenced, 30,000 people marched peacefully to the park, and active rebellion against the fence subsided. The fence stayed up.

During the summer of 1969 on Bastille day protesters marched from Ho Chi Minh (Willard) park to People’s Park. Organizers had baked wire clippers into loaves of bread and lo and behold–the fence was down. Police attacked and a riot ensued.

The fence was rebuilt and didn’t finally come down until 1972. In Early May, President Nixon announced the mining of North Vietnamese ports. The same night as his announcement, a hastily-called candlelight march in Ho Chi-Minh Park, starting with only 200-300 people, grew into thousands as they marched through Berkeley. During the night, people tore down the fence around People’s Park with their bare hands, a police car was burned and skirmishing with police lasted into the wee hours.

In 1980, the university put asphalt over the free parking lot at People’s Park to turn it into a Fee parking lot. Students and others occupied the ground and began to rip up the pavement. After a week of confrontations between students and police, the university let the issue drop and the pavement was used to build the garden at the west end of the park.

During the late 1980s the university employed a subtle strategy to again try to retake People’s Park. Community efforts to make improvements in the park, such as installing bathrooms, were met with police and bulldozers, while police, through constant harassment elsewhere, forced drug dealers to do their business in the park. These tactics continue today.

In 1990 and 1991, the City of Berkeley negotiated a deal with the university to “save the park” by “cleaning it up.” The university agreed not to construct dorms on the land if sports facilities were constructed and the character of the park was changed. By this time, the park was being used to provide services to the growing number of homeless in the Southside area including free meals and a free box for clothes. The park continued to serve as a meeting place for activists and as a forum for political events and free concerts. It became clear that “cleaning up the park” meant eliminating freaks and the homeless.

On July 28, 1991, the university again put up a fence at the Park so that it could construct a volleyball court there, part of the “cleanup” plan. During protests that followed, police fired wooden and rubber bullets at fleeing demonstrators every night for 3 nights in a row. Hundreds of police occupied Berkeley. All the while, construction continued on the volleyball courts, which were eventually completed. The Courts stood, despite constant protests and vandalism, from 1991 to 1997, when they were finally removed by the university due to complete non-use.

As the Park celebrates its 30th Birthday, volunteers continue “user development” of the Park as they use the wood which once formed the hated volleyball courts to build an entrance trellis to the Park, complete with flowers.

Southside and Beyond

As the People’s Park 30th Anniversary celebration approaches, the substantive issues and conflicts concerning the Park and the surrounding community are no less relevant now than they were in the past. Who controls the land, and how and by whom the streets are used, are issues still played out in the Southside political theater and elsewhere. They are issues that strike at heart of the kind of society we live in.

On one side of the conflict are the forces of repression, homogeneity and capitalist property relations. On the other you have utopian elements of personal freedom, universal community, and disregard for the dictates of outside authority and the rule of law. Merchants, the University, and the political machinations of the City of Berkeley are united in their constant quest for a definition of social order that defines away certain people and the legitimacy of the uses they have found for the streets and the Park.

Merchants vs. The People

1998 witnessed three waves of crackdown on Telegraph Avenue. The first in February at the height of El Nino, the second last summer–Operation Ave Watch which resembled more of a military occupation, and the third, also known as the November Round-up, a post-election wave of arrests mostly for marijuana. All three periods shared a common goal of ridding the area of people who merchants and the powers that be deem a detriment to economic viability. The police’s job is to do whatever they need to to harass–through arrest, intimidation, and selective enforcement of petty infractions–those people into leaving the area. The November Round-up in particular saw the issuance of many court ordered “stay away orders” for youths on the Avenue. People were also told privately by police officers that they should go to Oakland or San Francisco. Many went to downtown Berkeley.

While the first two crackdowns of ’98 saw the police acting largely on their own, though with the tacit support of City administrators and the Telegraph Area Association, the November Crackdown was unique in that it elicited almost universal institutional support. Even local Councilman Kris Worthington signed on to the use of police repression, moving two motions on the council floor (seconded by Maio) which authorized a larger police presence–in effect legislating the crackdown. Cody’s Books went beyond the call of duty and turned their third floor over to the Berkeley Police to use as a virtual substation for the month of November. It was there that numerous officers would gather in a kind of spy nest for one part of the crackdown, a buy-bust trap in front of Amoeba Records that netted over 50 young people, almost all for marijuana sales.

Berkeley’s Marijuana Initiative, passed in 1973, instructs Berkeley Police to make “no arrests and issue no citations for violations of marijuana laws.” Spending vast amounts of police resources on marijuana enforcement, as the Berkeley Police did in November, is a clear violation of this Initiative. It amounted to a ‘war on marijuana’ campaign by a “progressive majority” run City of Berkeley and the renowned ‘independent’ Cody’s Books.

Allies and Enemies

In January, the People’s Park free box was threatened with removal by the University of California responding to pressure from an allegedly new group on the Southside scene called ‘Safe Streets Now.’ This group of drug war/crime war boosters got neighbors to threaten UC with a lawsuit if they didn’t clean up People’s Park. In actuality, though, it was a convenient excuse to attack a certain class and race of people who hang out in the park and by the box and fits in perfectly with a UC supported master plan for economic cleansing of the area.

Another prong of attack coming from the establishment is the soon to be released Southside Plan. Judging by what has come out of two other recent City Plans–the West Berkeley Plan, which led to 4th Street’s redevelopment, and the Downtown Berkeley Plan which facilitated Shirley Dean’s revitalized (read chainstored) downtown–there is reason to fear a Southside Plan. The Southside Plan differs from the others, though, in that it is billed as a joint effort between the City and the University: the University being a big landowner in the area. In actuality though, the Plan is a joint venture between the University, who dominates the Plan’s process, and the Telegraph Merchants Association whose interests dominate the central theme of the Plan–profit.

Noteworthy in draft papers for the Plan is sentiment against young people and the homeless. An excerpt reads that “the area has periodically attracted large numbers of young non-students, accompanied by increases in drug trafficking and street crime…” as though all non-student youth can be equated with drug dealing and crime. Later it talks of the need to “address problems of crime, drugs, homelessness, noise and trash” as if homelessness is a problem like the others, not of people not having a home.

In an ‘Economic Development Issues Paper’ the “owners and managers of the largest businesses on Telegraph…say they need an older clientele who largely come from outside the Southside. Working adults have money to spend on their products while the younger people by and large don’t.” This sentiment may help some to explain the attacks on street youths that has been a major component of this year’s crackdown. From the merchants’ perspective, youth without a lot of money are useless and might as well be driven out of the area so that older people with money can be attracted. The entire Southside Plan and its process is dominated by commercial interests and the unspoken, though underlying, theme is how to make more money for Avenue merchants.

Police Solutions

The powers that be have persisted for more than a year now with their most recent efforts to rid Southside of that plague of humanity that was installed here by the political and countercultural movement of the 60s. But attempts to rid the area of the unwanted and unwashed are misguided, not only in terms of the immorality of wanting to exclude and discriminate against people based on class, race, or lifestyle, but also because it is not the way to a better society.

one of resources or knowledge. It is a problem of political power, of who makes decisions in this society and who doesn’t. The problem is with the owners of this capitalist state who run society as a workfarm for the rest–the working class.

The people in power who own and operate corporate America don’t care to cloth, feed and house the poor. It is in their interest that people be ground into so desperate a state they will be happy to work a dehumanizing job in order to buy back survival. Others are left to fester at a substandard level of existence as an example to the wage slave to keep working or else. The owning class need to attack, demonize, and criminalize the potential resisters to their scheme, for the denial of their humanity helps keep wages low. It is an intentionally disfunctional system perpetuated by the profiting class.

The Federal Problem

The ‘war on crime’ is thus a conscious, federally orchestrated war program that has been deliberately grafted onto this society because it serves a purpose for those in power. It’s a domestic war launched by the government whose target is not just a few bad apples, but really society itself. It is repression of and a clampdown on the entire population. When some people’s freedom is taken away, everyone is less free. When the standards for acceptable treatment of some people in society are lowered, the standards for all people are lowered. If they can come for you in the morning, they can come for me at night.

Crime hysteria now rules American society. Employing a war-level amount of media propaganda about drugs and crime as an ideological battering ram, the population has been successfully inculcated with the belief that the current or an even greater level of domestic security apparatus
is necessary to ‘take back our streets.’ A police state consciousness has consumed us.

The 90’s will be remembered historically as the decade that saw the rise of the “criminal justice” system to the level of the preeminence in domestic social policy–the criminalization and confinement of American society, or a segment of that society. ‘Safe Streets Now,’ ‘Zero Tolerance for Crime,’ ‘War on Drugs’–these have become the dominant themes and programs of our time, to the exclusion of all others. The criminal justice system has silenced discussion and has defined the realm of the possible as so narrow that the only debates that can take place are between “more repression soon” and “way more repression immediately.” Anyone who disagrees is accused of being ‘soft on crime.’

When Housing Disappears

We are faced daily with homelessness. People sleep in doorways and beg for loose change. Mentally ill people scream at unseen enemies. Homelessness challenges us personally and as a society. If a homeless person asks us for money we feel the conflict. If I give where does it go? If I don’t give, how will that person get by. Yet panhandlers are only a small percentage of the homeless. Homeless families are a significant percentage of the total homeless population. What will the future hold for the children who have known little stability and have seen their families crumble under unceasing stress. How can a nation so rich leave some people so poor? The numbers are staggering. According to an Urban Institute study in the late 1980s, 500,000-600,000 Americans are homeless on a given night.

It wasn’t always this way. For those of us whose memory stretches back at least as far as the 1960s and early 1970S. the sight of homeless people was rare and the presence of homeless families was unheard of. Indeed, homelessness was uncommon throughout the post-World War 11 economic boom. Our industrialized economy accommodated many workers without specialized training or education. For people on the margins of the economy, large skid row areas provided the resources to stay off the streets, On skid row even a poorly educated alcoholic could find a cheap room, get occasional day-labor work, and eat at the rescue mission. A portion of the increase in homelessness, both nationally and in San Francisco, can be attributed to the loss of skid row housing.

How did it happen? By the early 1970s, de- industrialization led to more unemployment and longer periods of time when people were unemployed. More households fell into the poor and near-poor brackets. Skid rows were vulnerable, since their residents were relatively powerless.

At the same time, San Francisco was responding to the changing economy by expanding the financial district south of Market Street and by constructing the Moscone Center. The result was the same in San Francisco as in other cities. Construction in the South of Market Area resulted in the loss of thousands of units in residential hotels. With fewer good-paying jobs and fewer cheap rooms, very poor people resorted to new survival strategies: scavenging for cans, blood banks, panhandling, and the occasional use of shelters.

As the economy underwent this change. the welfare state contracted. Payments from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) began lagging behind inflation. At the same time, more administrative barriers were placed in the way of access to AFDC. In the early 1980s, many recipients of Supplemental Security Income, which aids disabled people including some people with mental illness, were purged from the rolls. Nationally, 300,000 beneficiaries, including perhaps 100,000 with mental problems, lost their benefits.

By the late 1980s, researchers began to examine this emerging social crisis. At the University of Chicago, Michael Sosin compared 536 users of feeding programs, some homeless, others very poor but housed. He found very few differences in their personal characteristics, except that homeless people were much more likely to have been living alone and paying higher rent before becoming homeless. Furthermore, a high percentage of the homeless were either refused welfare or had been cut off from their benefits in the six months preceding their homeless episode. From these findings, Sosin concluded, ‘If-the homeless are just like the rest of the very poor, then dealing with poverty is the best way to ameliorate homelessness.”

This research notwithstanding, most cities around the country have treated homeless people as though they were fundamentally different from the rest of the poor. Consequently, cities responded to homelessness with shelters. The national shelter population rose by a factor of five between 1980 and 1990, reflecting both the growth in homelessness and in shelters them selves. The rise in shelter construction, in my view, reflects a fundamental miss-diagnosis of the problem. This diagnosis does not see homelessness as the result of fundamental shifts in the economy and in the housing structure, combined with the shredding of the social safety net. The problem analysis that usually underlies shelter construction identifies human failing, usually substance abuse and mental illness, as the cause of homelessness. Consequently, in this view, shelters must be constructed not only to provide a safe place for home less people, but to provide counseling to change their flawed character.

Today’s homeless shelters are similar to the 19th century poorhouses, where the aged, the mentally ill, poor families, and out of work laborers, were shut away. The original sponsors confidently predicted that poorhouses would promote the work ethic while saving the state money. The 19th century poorhouses proved to be expensive, cruel, and incapable -of transforming human lives, Michael Katz summed up their failure in In the shadow of the Poorhouse: “Miserable, poorly managed, under-funded institutions, trapped by their own contradictions, poorhouses failed to meet any of the goals so confidently predicted by their sponsors.” You would think that we would have learned our lesson, but the poor house has reared its ugly head again in the guise of homeless shelters.

In the modem version of the poorhouse, conditions are often very poor. In San Francisco, the Mission Rock Shelter is located in a dilapidated warehouse. Rows upon rows of cots are draped by dreary gray blankets. Bathrooms and showers are temporary. Only five hard working caseworkers serve the 600 residents. In New York City, shelter residents were asked to compare the shelters to their experience in prison. Prisons were rated as superior in personal safety, privacy cleanliness, and food quality. Prisons, as you might expect, were inferior mainly in personal freedom. It should be noted that family shelters in San Francisco are cleaner and better staffed than the Mission Rock shelter.

Like the 19th Century poorhouses, homeless shelters are expensive. Mission Rock costs $3.2 million a year. That comes to $5,400 a bed per year or $450 per bed per month. Compare that to General Assistance, the City’s main cash assistance grant to single adults who are not classified as disabled, which pays $345 per month, or $279 for those not in the work program. Even that small payment fends off homelessness for most recipients. Two-thirds of General Assistance recipients are not homeless.

If not shelters, then what? To close down shelters immediately would result in hundreds of people walking the streets, but we should work to make them as unnecessary as possible. Since major research suggests that homelessness is not a personal trait, but an economic status, our response should be to help homeless people gain access to tangible goods. With this approach in mind, here are a few ideas to reduce homelessness in America, beginning at the federal level down to the local level:

  • Create universal programs at the federal level, such as full employment, full access to health care, and guarantees for housing.
  • Expand the federal Section 8 program.
  • Provide ongoing rental subsidies for renters who take in friends or relatives who would otherwise be homeless.
  • Protect General Assistance Payments.
  • Increase day labor, including government day hiring.

    Michael Padding is executive director of the San Francisco Council on Poverty and Homelessness. This article original appeared in the SPUR newsletter, SF, and was shortened for republication.

  • The Left's Betrayal of the Homeless

    Last year’s “pieing” of Mayor Brown is a perfect metaphor for the impotence and futility of the radical left’s approach to homelessness in San Francisco. Instead of pushing serious proposals to actually solve the problem, radicals engage in self-righteous exhibitionism that, in this instance, only made an increasingly unpopular mayor a sympathetic figure.

    The most visible advocates for the homeless have been the people at Food Not Bombs. They feed the homeless but seem to have little interest in challenging the status quo.

    The city’s “alternative” press takes the same approach, when it takes any interest in the issue at all. “Leave Them Alone” was the cry of the S.F. Bay Guardian during last year’s police sweep of the homeless from the city’s parks. Instead of launching a weekly campaign to convice the city to invest enough money to solve the problem, the alternative press, like the folks at Food Not Bombs, engages in moral posturing: We are the Good People, and the cops and the mayor are Blue Meanies.

    Once the police sweeps were over–and there were no more headlines in the dailies–homelessness became a non-issue, and the left withdrew into its customary smug acquiescence in the status quo. The implication is that the city’s poorest residents–perhaps as many as 16,000 people–belong in the streets and that they and we will just have to accept it. In the meantime, Food Not Bombs, the Bay Guardian, and Frontlines will try to make it easier for the homeless to stay in the streets, while insisting that the authorities not do anything to make it harder.

    By failing to implement a comprehensive, city-wide policy to actually end homelessness, establishment liberalism–the mayor, the board of supervisors, the unions, the Democratic Party–tacitly accepts the idea that this is the way we have to live in San Francisco in 1999. Like the left, liberalism has also lost its way. Since Mayor Brown ordered the police to get the homeless out of the city’s parks late last year, there’s been little movement or debate on the issue. The homeless have simply been pushed downtown and into the neighborhoods, where they are still a problem for working people, renters, homeowners, and small businesses.

    100 homeless people a year are dying in the streets of San Francisco. Posturing by the left and the timidity of our mainstream political leadership have created the worst possible situation: degraded neighborhoods and life-threatening circumstances for the homeless themselves.

    The politically dicey and expensive–what happened to the city’s $145 million surpllus?–solution that the city and advocates for the homeless don’t want to face: that hard-core substance abusers, runaway teens, and the mentally ill–the overwhelming majority of the homeless–need to be taken into custody and compassionately dealt with according to their specific problems and needs. The fact that people find themselves living on the streets is evidence that their lives are out of control. This is not just another lifestyle choice. A government that supposedly represents all the city’s people has to intervene to defend both the well being of the homeless themselves and a civil society for the rest of us.

    The principle that the city must uphold is simple: no one has the right to live in the city’s parks or on the streets. These are public spaces that belong to all the people.

    If and when the city puts this policy into practice, the radical left will be outraged by the violation of the “rights” of the homeless, and they will inevitably be branded as heartless fascists. This is when our elected officials need to stand firm and to insist on enforcing both civility and compassion on the streets of the city.

    The status quo is bad for both the city and the homeless. Sooner or later the people of San Francisco are going to understand that we don’t have to live this way.

    Susan Crane released from FCI Dublin

    Susan Crane has been released from prison! In 1997 Susan Crane, along with 4 other people, boarded a navy ship at Bath Iron Works in Maine. In a symbolic, nonviolent Swords into Plowshares action against the ship’s nuclear weapons arsenal, the activists poured their blood on and pounded on the weapons bays of the Navy’s Ship. Susan had already served a previous sentence for another action in which she and Steve Kelly effectively disarmed a Trident nuclear missle casing at a Bay Area nuclear weapons manufactory (Lockheed Martin).

    History of Plowshares

    Morale and activism in prison

    To learn more about the Ploughshares actions and prisoners.

    Urgent Appeal to End the Torture of Leonard Peltier

    American Indian Movement activist and political prisoner Leonard Peltier has been framed by the U.S. Government for a crime he did not commit. His constitutional rights were denied. His appeals for a new and fair trial were denied. All of this happened because the U.S, Government sought to distract the people from the truth and to cover-up the U.S. Government’s continuing policies against indigenous people and the suppression of those that resisted. To try to silence Leonard, the prison authorities have continuously harassed him and even tried to assassinate him. Now they are refusing him medical treatment.

    Leonard is currently suffering from complications of a previous maxilla-facial surgery at the Springfield Medical Prison facility. In that surgery Leonard almost died, Not only did that surgery not improve Leonard’s condition, it made it far worst, Leonard is now in continuous, excruciating pain, He cannot open his mouth enough to bite his food or chew. Leonard, for very good reasons, does not want to go back to Springfield. The renowned maxilla-facial surgeon Doctor Keller of the Mayo Clinic has written to the prison telling them that he is willing to treat Leonard Leonard. But so tar, the federal Bureau Of Prisons (BOP) has refused to let Leonard be treated. If the government, for political reasons, causes and allows a prisoner to suffer great pain, there is no other word for that than torture. We are calling upon all people who believe in social justice to help in the campaign to end the torture of Leonard Peltier NOW!

    Please send e-mails to: Ms. Kathleen Hawk, Director, Bureau Of Prisons at.- e-mail or, or write to her at: 320 First St.NW, Washington, DC 20534, or fax: 202-514-6878, or call: 202-307-3198 and ask that Leonard be allowed treatment by Dr. Keller at the Mayo Clinic.

    Honoring the Legacy of John Brown

    If the task of the nineteenth century was to overthrow slavery, and the task of the twentieth century was to end legal segregation, the key to solving this country’s problems in the twenty-first century is to abolish the white race as a social category –in other words, eradicate white supremacy entirely.

    John Brown represents the abolitionist cause. Nominally white, he made war against slavery, working closely with black people. Those who think it saner to collaborate with evil than to resist it have labeled him a madman, but it was not for his madness that he was hanged; no, it was for obeying the biblical injunction to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. For those who suffer directly from white supremacy, John Brown is a high point in a centuries-long history of resistance,- for so-called whites he is the hope that they can step outside of their color and take part in building a new human community.

    John Brown’s body lies a-mould’rin’ in the grave, but his soul calls out to the living. He is buried alongside family members and comrades-at-arms near North Elba, New York, in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains, which he often said had been placed there to serve the emancipation of the American slave. For many years African Americans and others celebrated May 9th, the anniversary of his birth, by gathering at his grave site. We call upon those who share the vision of a country without racial walls to join hands there on that date in 1999-his one hundred ninety-ninth year-to honor his memory and the memory of the others, black and white, who fought alongside him, and to rededicate ourselves to the fulfillment of the tasks for which they laid d

    John Brown Day ’99 will be a day of ritual, reflection, remembrance, and renewal.

    For further information, contact: EAST COAST,
    John Brown Day, PO Box 400603,
    Cambridge, MA 02140/
    WEST COAST, John Brown
    Day, PO Box 24869, Oakland, CA 94623,

    1999 Primate Freedom Tour

    The 1999 Primate Freedom tour is a three month caravan across the United States against primate experimentation. Stopping at the seven regional primate research centers in addition to a variety of other primate research facilities, the 1999 tour will consist of educational activities including teach-ins, protests, vigils, and more.

    The tour will stop at the California Regional Primate Research Center at Davis, Calif. June 11-14, in Beaverton, Oregon June 6-9, in Seattle June 1-4, and across the us at Mesa, Az, San Antonio, TX, Mobile, AL, Atlanta, GA, Columbus, OH, Madison, WI, Ann Arbor, MI, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Bethesda, among other places.

    Your involvement is crucial for the tour to reach its full potential You can order materials from the address below and distribute them in your community.

    If you live in an area where the Primate Freedom Tour will be stopping, contact the Coalition to End Primate Experimentation to connect with others in your area. The tour is also seeking donations of camping equipment, vegan food, buses, vans, cars, laptop computers, performers, musicians and artists.

    The tour is also looking for fund-raising help.

    To get involved, contact CEPE at PO Box
    34293, Washington, DC 20043, 888-391-8948,