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Humanizing the homeless

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Published in St. Louis AmericanApril 27, 2017

I was totally disgusted when I read what happened to the residents of the New Life Evangelistic Center (NLEC) when the city finally forced the closing of the homeless shelter. New Life opened its doors in 1976 and carried out its mission until the downtown site didn’t fit neatly into the city’s gentrification plan. Residents were re-traumatized with the forced removal and displacement by the city’s actions. Even though the embittered battle went on for several years, there clearly was no transition plan in place for NLEC’s residents. It made me wonder about the validity of any planning by the city to address homelessness.

A recent ruling by a judge allowed the city to finally close the doors and evict homeless people. How sick does that sound – evicting the homeless? About 100 people were divided between a city recreation center and a city warehouse where the Forestry Division houses its equipment and chemicals. The rec center was temporarily closed to neighborhood youth to house the homeless.

Like most components of poverty, homelessness has been unduly racialized. The Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri – St. Louis released the Missouri Statewide Homelessness Study Report last year. It cited that African Americans are more likely to be homeless than any other race. Blacks account for 60-95 percent of the residents of various shelters, even though we’re about half of the general population.

The consequences of these stats filter down to the most vulnerable: our children. Youth between the ages of 6-17 years old represent a big chunk of those in shelters.

St. Louis Public Schools has experience a dramatic rise in homeless students. The housing situation doesn’t stay outside the classroom; it affects the learning environment. According to school records, students without a permanent place to lay their heads every night represents a quarter of the district’s total enrollment. When SLPS last reported the number of homeless students in the district at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, there were 5,451 students in the city district designated as homeless. That staggering number has tripled in the past five years.

Remember the plan created by St. Louis and St. Louis County to “end chronic homelessness”? It was a 10-year plan that would bring the issue to its knees in 2015. While I’ve reviewed the mid-term progress report, I’ve seen no evaluation of the 10 years and what it did or not produce.

We need to get our homeless problem under control because President Trump has an austerity plan for working people that will throw more people out of jobs and out of housing. St. Louis numbers are nowhere near cities like New York City (62,000 homeless). This doesn’t mean manipulating the Point in Time (PIT) count like Utah apparently did when it touted reducing its homelessness by a whopping 90 percent. The PIT count is the number of people without shelter on a given night in January that must be reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The count is connected to receiving federal funds for homeless services.

Perhaps if we transcend the race of most of the homeless and focus instead on the children and their families, we may get closer to the roots of the issue. We may get to humanizing the lives behind the statistics. We may get to realistic ways to provide affordable housing for those most in need.

Get cops out of schools

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Published in St. Louis American, April 19, 2017

Then came the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, which resulted in increased federal funding for hiring police in schools through programs by the Department of Justice like ‘COPS in Schools” or “Safe Schools/Healthy Students.” Predominantly white or affluent schools like Columbine rejected the concept of cops in the school. Jim St. Germain, co-founder of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, echoed the sentiments of communities where those schools are: “Kids from suburban white America – they don’t get arrested for cursing out a teacher, throwing a book,” St. Germain said. “These are the things they go to a counselor for.”

Next came the Zero-Tolerance policies adopted by many school districts as their desperate but ineffective response to school behavior that reflected normal kid stuff or other behaviors that were symptomatic of deeper emotional and psychological issues. Even groups like the American Federation of Teachers bought into this flawed response to school violence although it has since rejected the failed policy. ZT is where suspensions and expulsions — the biggest motivators for school drop-outs – have skyrocketed.

More brushes with police lead to more violations, more violations lead to more interactions with the criminal injustice system. This is where the concept of a “school to prison pipeline” is born.

Research also has shown that students of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender children; and those with special needs are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. Who is not targeted? White, heterosexual, able-bodied students.

The coming of the super-predator never materialized. The term faded from the public square but much of the attitudes, policies and program remained intact. Like the documented decrease of violent crime in the broader society, incidents of school violence have also decreased. Yet the message that we keep getting bombarded with is that crime is rampant and that we need more police to make us safe.

Cops in schools takes discretion and power away from teachers and administrators and puts it into the hands of police who often lack the training and clear standards to respond appropriately. That’s how you get someone like deputy Ben Fields in Columbia, South Carolina, who was captured on cell phone video lifting a black girl out of her desk and body-slamming her to the floor. It was later reported that the juvenile’s mother had died recently and she had been put into foster case. Unbridled brutality was the response Fields meted out to a grieving student coping with life-changing circumstances, when a counselor was needed.

Missouri had the highest suspension rate for black elementary school children in the nation. St. Louis Public Schools was a big contributor with 2,023 suspensions to students in kindergarten through third grade in 2015; no white student was suspended. The new policy is no suspension of the little ones, and students of any grade level with drug violations will receive treatment rather than punishment.

We still need to beat back the kiddie felony law, eliminate military equipment to school districts received from the DOJ’s 1033 program, stop all suspensions that are non-violent and non-criminal, recruit more qualified social workers and counselors, and get cops out of our schools.

 

An immortal life comes to TV

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Published in St. Louis American, April 6, 2017

 

I knew it was coming, but I still had mixed emotions when I read that the story of Henrietta Lacks had finally become a movie. The HBO movie will premiere on April 22 and is based on the 2015 book by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

The word “amazing” doesn’t do justice to the story of this poor tobacco farmer who died at the young age of 31 years old. I know what Hollywood does to the lives of real people, so I’m naturally apprehensive about what to expect.

Oprah Winfrey expressed an interest in the story back in 2015. Reportedly, she was so mesmerized by the book, she read it in one sitting. (The book had the same effect on me.)

 The Oprah Midas touch made Skloot’s book a New York Times Best Seller – with a little help from her book club. Winfrey quickly co-purchased the rights to the book, and it was speculated that a movie was in the wind. She is also the executive producer of the movie and plays the role of Lack’s daughter, Deborah.

Who is Henrietta Lacks, and why are we talking about her some 65 years after her death? Read more