Take Back! The Universe Loves to Laugh
Radio Show with Barbara McVeigh
July 18 – Dr. Laura Stivers
Barbara McVeigh: Hello, welcome to Take Back! – The Universe Loves to Laugh here at Penguin Radio 102.3 FM or worldwide radio.dominican.edu. I’m your host, Barbara McVeigh. We got big things to talk about here on Take Back, and we have an agenda. As our planet faces global climate change, melting polar ice caps and ocean acidification, we like to remain positive; there is hope; we’re still alive. Here at Take Back we’re trying to get deep into understanding these issues, and ask big questions about what does it mean to be human? And where are we going wrong on planet Earth? Each Tuesday at noon, here on Take Back, we’ll have thinkers, poets, writers, educators, musicians and environmentalists help us get it right and navigate this crazy journey called life. Maybe we’ll get inspired to make some big changes and look at who we have been and why. Today’s guest, Professor Laura Stivers, is with us to talk about homelessness. Her book Disrupting Homelessness, Alternative Christian Approaches, digs deep into challenging profound ideologies about home-ownership and values that we’ve been taught to uphold. Maybe we don’t have it right. As homeless rates soar in the United States, food banks become overwhelmed, and basic wage workers can no longer make ends meet, this is the time to talk about alternative approaches. Laura Stivers is dean at the Humanities Department, and former Associate Professor of Ethics here at Dominican University of California. Welcome, Professor Stivers!
Dr. Laura Stivers: Hello!
BM: You take on a big issue in your book which is a fascinating read and is available online, I might add, as well as at our local library. How did you get involved in this topic? What drew you into talking about homelessness?
LS: Several things got me involved. First of all, my work has been in economic and environmental justice, and the topic of homelessness is an economic justice issue. I originally, I went to grad school in Berkeley, and I worked with a group of popular economic education group, and we developed trainings for different organizations that were doing social justice work. And we developed some trainings on homelessness and housing for a Bay Area homeless group. So I learned first about homelessness really through that work. Then later, when I was teaching in North Carolina, my background is presbiterian and I was asked by the presbitarian church to serve on their writing task force to rewrite their statement on homelessness. And everybody on the committee was either working with affordable housing or the homeless, and I was the theological ethicist, and hadn’t done a lot of work with the issue of homelessness. So I did some research to write a paper, and when I gave the paper, everybody said, oh, you really need to turn this into a book. So I went back to my university and asked for sabbatical, and that’s where the book came out of.
BM: So, can you tell us a little bit about this idea of home-ownership? And, you know, we all do want a home, this is what we’ve been thaught. We work hard with Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s organization, in fact I think he collapsed just the other day, age 92, building a home, for people in the community who can’t afford homes.
LS: Well, in my book, I look at two different Christian organizations, in part, not to put all the emphasis on those organizations, but to look at two different ideologies around homelessness. So one organization was Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, and that was to look at ideologies we have about individual people who are homeless. The second organization I picked like that was Habitat for Humanity. I picked both of these organizations because they are national organizations, and a lot of churches work with both these organizations. And I typify particular approaches, so the Rescue Missions is direct charity approach, and Habitat is an approach that promotes home-ownership, so trying to do a little bit more of a structural perspective. Just a *, my grandfather worked with Habitat, and did *build with Jimmy Carter, and I think Habitat’s a great organization. What I did find in all of their literature however is that its real emphasis – it’s not just Habitat, it’s our whole, the United States has pushed this – is that home-ownership is the end-all, be-all, that that’s what we strive for. And a lot of their literature is that the home-owner is the respectable citizen, and of course the typical image of the home-owner was the nuclear family. Usually white. And I found that a bit problematic because the flipside of that then is that if home-ownership is the thing is that we aspire to, and that’s what good citizens do, then the flipside is that if you’re a renter, somehow you’re less than. And so Habitat is not, clearly not trying to look down at renters, but their ideology of uplifting home-ownership is being so good, ends up doing that. And I don’t want to put down home-ownership because people do gain equity by owning a home, and can lead to stability in neighbourhoods, so there’s definitely some benefits to home-ownership. But part of this ideology of uplifting it so much led to some of our problems, and the mortgage for closure crisis. A lot of unscrupulous dealers offered subprime loans to families who really weren’t making enough wage-wise or salary-wise to afford the loans. They weren’t educated enough to realize what a subprime loan was, that if they get low-interest rates, then all of a sudden the interest rates change, it’s not a fixed rate, and it balloons, and then they can’t make their payments. And part of the way they solved this is people wanted to own a home, that’s what make them be respectful, or respected in society. And, again, I think home-ownership is fine, but I think we really need to be looking at how we’re going to promote more affordable rental housing in our communities because especially now as people’s job security is not as good, when wages have gone down since the 80’s and people really aren’t making as much, what they really need is affordable rental housing.
BM: Which really lacks here in our own county, in Marin. And it’s interesting you’re saying this because I used to be a home-owner, I’m now a renter. And I’ll tell you, I honestly feel that stigma of renting. And even in the building where I rent, it’s called the building in the area. And there is this perception of, the people who live in this building as being somehow, you know, they’re African Americans, Latinos, a lot of house cleaners, service workers, lovely, wonderful people, because I’ve got to know them all. But there’s incredible social stigma about that, even the police talk about that in that community, and, you know, so I get to see that first hand. But what’s interesting too, is just the sense of, lack of, when you are renting and I appreciate what you’re saying, is a sense of no control. I mean, it’s ridiculous amount of rent. They actually have a monopoly, not only in Marin County and San Francisco, but the rent just went up again.
LS: Yeah, this is the real problem, I mean, actually I ended up buying a home when I first moved here, and I’m really glad I did because the rents have gone up so much that my house payments are less than I would be paying in rent for the place I’m living in. And so, those who could get the loans, have the salary that they can get loans, or they have family like I did that help me with the downpayment, end up paying way less on housing than the people who can’ afford it and really can’t afford to be paying such rents. I mean, right now, I just saw an article the other day, most San Franciscans who are renting are paying over 50% of their income for rent. And 30% is considered affordable.
BM: And considering the rates that some San Franciscans, at least in the tech business, are making, I mean it’s… I saw some figure, I don’t know if this is absolutely right, but if you make 90k in San Francisco, you are struggling today.
LS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And so, I mean, and it’s supplied *, there’s less than 1% open housing, and rent, and so, they can charge high rents.
BM: So I think of the person, the average person, making what, 15$ an hour, let’s say, who can’t afford to live in that one community where they’re working, because you have to have service workers, you need the cleaners, you need the gardeners, you need the nannies, in order to sustain a higher lifestyle if you want to call it that. But they can’t afford to live in that very community, therefore they have to have a car, because public transportation is pretty horrid, right?
LS: Right now over 66000 people are commuting in the Marin each day.
BM: How many?
LS: Over 66000.
BM: 66000 are commuting into Marin to work. Where are they coming from?
LS: That sounds wrong. Maybe it’s 6600.
BM: Oh, even that would be a lot!
LS: 66000 sounds a little high.
BM: That would be an interesting number just to know because that’s pretty strong…
LS: But there’s a lot people coming here again because they can’t afford to live here.
BM: So then you have to have the cost of an automobile which is not cheap. You have to have the…
LS: Plus this is tied to environmental… I mean, we’ve been talking about global warming and that being a huge issue right now. If you have all these people driving back and forth in their cars, and traffick’s an issue here.
BM: Traffick is worth than an issue here, what’s happening to…?
LS: And then there’s also… it’s not good for communities because you got people in their cars all the time, not in their communities, and interacting with people they live by.
BM: And just the values, if a person makes lower than a certain number, are they deemed bad? Where did we come up with this idea that they can’t be trusted?
LS: I don’t know. I’ve been working in, I mean, I have a full-time job, so I’m not working and promoting affordable housing full force, but I’ve been working with some groups who are organizing to promote affordable housing in Marin, and I’ve been amazed at the, just vehement opposition to any affordable housing here. And it’s, there’s a lot of racial undertones of „we don’t want those people in our neighborhood”.
BM: You talk about that in your book, a little bit about the history of housing and government housing and so forth. Could you share that story and that history?
LS: I don’t know if I can remember all the history, I wrote the book a while ago.
LS: Well, public housing was created, I believe, and I might get all my facts wrong, but in the 30’s, and it was originally created for white people, and was well kept up, and you know, your teachers, your police officers, your firefighters and so on, lived in public housing. And it was well-maintained. And then, I think it was before the 30’s, I have to look back to my notes, but then, Civil Rights happened and originally public housing was not open to African Americans or Hispanics or others, and when Civil Rights legislation passed, it was open to them, and then the public housing got a stigma. And we started to defund housing, the department of housing in urban development, and so public housing started to deteriorate. There was an image that all public housing was high-rise apartments when in fact a lot of the public housing was in mixed-income communities with smaller buildings, but the was stigma started, and we pretty much cut the funding, especially when Reagan came in in the 80’s, he just slashed the hot budget. And now, we really aren’t creating any more public housing, the one thing we’re spending money on is Housing First which is to house people who are chronically homeless. And Housing First, you’d put them in house whether they have addiction, or mental illness, or anything, just get them in housing, because the reason this caught on is it’s actually cheaper to house them than pay for them revolving in and out of jails and in and out of hospitals, we were spending more tax-payer money doing that. And so, and there’s been really great succes, I mean, Utah has really promoted this quite heavily and they decreased chronic homelessness by 91%. So it’s worked. The other form of housing assistance we have is Section 8 Housing which, the government pays a part of the housing, and people only have to pay, I think it is 30% of their income towards housing. The problem with that is, we have not kept up with the need and so many cities, the Section 8 list are closed, there is not even a waiting list. The other problem with that is sometimes the amounts that they’ll give aren’t high enough and so it’s, it pushes all the people into poor neighborhoods where they can actually afford a place with the Section 8 Housing. And while people will take the Section 8 venture, people renting don’t have to take it. It’s still a good program, but there’s still a lot more need that we’re meeting with that. And then there’s also developers, if they put, and I don’t know all the details specifically, but if they put a certain percent of their new development towards affordable housing, they can get tax cuts and such. But the housing only needs to stay affordable, I think – I can tell I wrote this book a while ago – for about 15 years or so. So it doesn’t last forever. What was the other thing I was going to say about…? Oh, so, those are the obvious policies of housing assistance but really the biggest housing assistance is not to the poor. The majority of our housing assistance goes to, and I’ve listed it in my book, I don’t remember all of them exactly, but the main one is the home mortgage. The deduction you can take on your taxes for a home. And you can deduce up to two homes. So we’re putting very little money towards housing assistance for the poor but we’re letting people deduct up to two homes. And that means that is not paying taxes that could have been used to do housing assistance for the poor. There’s also three other tax breaks that basically help out the rich. And so, when we think of housing assistance, we all think of public housing or Section 8, but in fact, most of the housing assistance goes to people with incomes over 200.000.
BM: Oh yeah, and to add to those deductions, if you do business in your home, you also get to deduct that. As an apartment-dweller, as a renter, you get no tax benefits whatsoever.
LS: So, you know, our image is that we’re giving all these handouts to the poor and the opposite is actually true. We’re giving the handouts to the rich.
BM: Yeah. How do we solve that one?
LS: Well, it’s a matter of political will. I mean, this is true to all public policy, I mean, one of my main points of my book is you can’t just address homelessness through housing policy, you need to address it through all sorts of policies. Policies on health care, policies on wages, policies on unions, policies on, you know, transportation policies and so on. We’ve got all sorts of good ideas and there’s think tanks that can give all sorts of voice* that we could actually help our communities to flourish and make sure that we don’t have any people who are homeless. But it means we need to have a political will to make these changes.
BM: We do, or enough anger. It seems to me that a lot of the people who are on the borderline, who are the service workers making 10$, 15$ an hour, they don’t even know where to begin to ask for help. They’re just really bringing together… I work with a local Guatemalan community, a fantastic community, really shares what community is like, they do an incredible amount of sharing, but they’re struggling, you know? I mean, everyone is, it seems, these days, so many people are, but I am able to see just how, you know, not only with the health care and the children, but they pull together as a strong community. But they don’t know how to speak out. And who do you speak out to? You know, or do you just put your head down and continue working?
LS: I think the first thing we need to do is quit separating a group as homeless separate from those who are living in poverty. The issue of homelessness is an issue of poverty. And so, we have to address poverty. And it’s not just Guatemalan or immigrant communities, it’s not just communites of color, I mean, this poverty is an issue across the border of the United States. And if we could stop blaming the victims, and seeing the homeless of somehow just lazy or addicts or you know, mentally ill, and realize that there’s a lot of people that are a paycheck away from being homeless. Especially if they have an accident, or a health care, or if they have a child born with disabilitiy. I mean, anything can put people over the edge. And some families have family to fall back on. But especially, in many communites where there has been chronic poverty, people don’t have anybody to fall back on. And so, we really need to address poverty. And that’s only going to change if we work, I mean, there needs to be a movement. I mean, when we had the Depression in the 30’s, there was a movement, that’s how we need to address poverty. We put in the New Deal, we did, we actually made policy changes, structural changes. We had this recession starting in 2007 or 2008, and I didn’t see the kind of mobilization that we have had before. I’m not sure why not. I mean we did have the, there was the 1%, that movement…
BM: Ah, right, right, the 99%, right?
LS: Yeah, yeah. So we have…
BM: And which lasted, which resulted in people living on the streets, and * up by police. I remember watching that myself in San Francisco, it was like, ok, guys, party’s over, out of here.
LS: There has been some movement, but it hasn’t gained attraction.
BM: You’re right.
LS: And now we are in a political situation where’s hopefully people will start to get angry, and start advocating for change. But if I get nothing across in my book, the main point is that we have to do structural change. Charity’s fine, you have to have soup kitchens, you need to have shelters, all that’s important. But we’re not going to solve the problem of homelessness or poverty in general or inequality, unless we have structural policy change.
BM: And certainly that comes with class distinctions. And maybe that’s part of the discussion, right?
LS: Yeah, I don’t think people realize we have the largest inequality gap we’ve ever had. It’s as high as in the robber baron era in the 20’s. But I’m not sure the average American realizes that.
BM: So I have to share a little story that happened to me last weekend. I got pulled into one of these time-share deals for a weekend, and I had to make a certain amount of money in order to, you know, be eligible. And so I thought, „I’ve never done this before, I’m going to go in and see what this is all about.” Then I had to sit for a four-hour lecture, with four people on me about this time-share idea in order to have the time-share and the low-cost of luxury vacations, you actually have to make a certain amount of money. And after you sit through this time-share deals, then you get a reward, which, I got a 100$ visa at the end of this, which was kind of funny. I was thinking to myself, this is all completely rigged for a person who is making money. You know, so, for a low-income person who could benefit from a vacation, or however you want to describe it, from something that is low-cost, they’re not even in the game. They’re completely shut out. You know, it’s a game tha is based on how much you have. Which is really funny, you know, because Jimmy Carter talked about this in 1979, and he gave this great speech called the Crisis of Confidence, and said, people are valued for what they have, and not what they do. And to me, that’s kind of what we’re talking about. It’s the people who have the homes, who have the things that have the perception of being higher class, whatever you want, who are being trusted. But those who don’t have so much, but maybe doing some great work for other people, not profit workers, how much do they make, 15-20$ an hour themselves, barely struggling? But God, they’re doing all this great work, for everybody else, but they’re put into that near-poverty zone.
LS: No, we don’t listen to the voices of those on the other side, I mean, that’s the the other big message in my book, is you’ve got to start with those who are in the marginalized communities. The policymakers really aren’t listening to them. What are their needs? You know, a lot of times it’s basic things like affordable childcare, or, I mean, clearly, affordable housing, but, benefits, you know, things that we could address as a society, many European countries have. But we instead don’t want to provide those things and we want to let everybody find them on their own.
BM: You’re listening to Take Back Radio, here on 102.3 FM, San Rafael, or radio.dominican.edu. Our guest today is Professor Laura Stivers here at Dominican University of California, and her fantastic book Disrupting Homelessness, Alternative Christian Approaches, and this was published in 2011. So this has been a few years, but this is still an incredibly hot topic, if not more right now, as we have a new president, and still talking about this issue, and more. Has homeless rates gone up or down, or fluctuated at all? Has anything changed since the publication of your book that you can tell?
LS: I still think homelessness is a major problem across the United States, and particular cities have, especially the Bay Area I know, I’m from Seattle area, they’re really struggling with homelessness. I’ve looked at the figures just nationwide, and in fact the chronic homeless population has gone down since 2010. In part because of the Housing First policies that I was talking about.
BM: What does chronic mean when you describe it that way?
LS: So, there’s really three types of homelessness. One is chronic homelessness, those are the people that have been on the streets for a long time, usually have some major addiction issues, or mental health. The statistics vary, but generally what I found it’s about 20% of the homeless population. Yet when we think about homelessness, that’s the population we think of because they’re visible. They’re the ones we see on the street. There’s also transitional homelessness and episodic homelessness. Transitional would just be a person or family who is homeless once or twice usually because of a traumatic event, whether it’s an eviction, or a divorce, or maybe even domestic abuse. And episodic homelessness would be an individual or a family that episodically is homeless. They’re not chronically homeless, and they’re not on the streets all the time, but they routinely have issues. They’re evicted routinely, or they’re, you know, living with family and friends, doubled up. And in my book, I note that, you know, our ideologies of who is homeless and kind of blaming the poor is really based on those people who are chronically homeless. When in fact the majority of the homeless people who are homeless are not chronically homeless, they’re either transitionally homeless or episodically homeless. And many of them are families. I think when I did the research for the book, I found that the average age of a person who is homeless is nine.
BM: Wow! In our own country.
LS: Yeah. And I think that population has increased. Because poverty has increased. And housing costs have increased. And so that’s what we really need to be looking at, I mean, clearly we want to help those who are chronically homeless as well. But the way we want to best address the rest of the population that are often, that we call the hidden homeless, we don’t see them on the streets. They’re either in shelters or transitional housing, they might be living in hotels that are cheap, camping, living with other family members, you know, couchsurfing, doubled up, families doubled up in small quarters. They’re not technically homeless, but that’s really the hidden homeless, they don’t really have a place, a safe, secure space to live.
BM: Or the means of sustaining themselves.
LS: And so, the population of the chronically homeless has gone down since 2010 because of the Housing First policy. That population, we have pretty accurate numbers, every January they do a Point-(in-Time) count where they go in the streets of each city, and they count the people who are in the streets and the shelters, and that generally is the people who are chronically homeless. I know in Marin, at the last Point count, they had about 950 people who are homeless. But that’s not the whole number. We actually don’t have good numbers on those who are the hidden homeless, because how do you know if people are doubled up, or camping and they’re actually homeless? Or living in their car, I mean that’s been increasingly an issue. There was just something on NPR this morning, down in the Palo Alto, that people come in their car to park in the parking lot, and there’s cars in there where people are sleeping in their cars. And so that population is hard to say whether it’s gone up or down. You know, we’re doing a little bit better since the recession, more people are employed. But you know, a third of the homeless are actually employed. Just having more jobs doesn’t mean people are out of homelessness.
BM: So how did we get here? You talk in your book about policies of the last 30 years, specifically, I wondered if you could address that. You know, I mean, obviously the idea of homelessness goes before that, we’ve had our ups and downs in this country, but it’s certainly a problem today. How policies in the last 30 years affected this to the point, certainly globalization has played a part, and we’re talking a little bit about that.
LS: I think policies really since the 80’s have effect, it’s the 80’s when homelessness began to spike. And that was really the kind of the turn when we moved towards more neoliberal economics, an emphasis on deregulation of corporations, environmental regulations, that sort of thing. Privatization where we say we don’t want the government providing things but we want the private sector to provide things. So for example we contract out welfare provision, many prisons are privatized, I mean we could go the * on all the things that privatized. Wage-policies, like minimum wage now does not purchase the amount that it used to, we finally just raised it a little bit which is helpful. But the purchasing power of minimum wage has gone down since it was instituted. And since the 80’s, so, wages for 80% of the population have gone down. For the top 20% it has done really well, since the 80’s.
BM: So we’re talking about that it trickled down to economics too. That was part of that.
LS: Yeah, but it’s not even, I mean, you know, Reagan was only in office for so long, and we’ve had democratic presidents but we continued with this kind of a trend towards neoliberal economics. And, you know, even Clinton signed a welfare reform which basically limited welfare to lifetime limit of five years. It devolved the responsibilities of the state, and the states could decide if people could be on welfare for a year at a time, or up to two years at a time. Some states really cut back, others didn’t, but you know, it basically cut off a lot of people from support. And that’s been kind of the trend. Well, the other… you mentioned globalization. When Reagan came into office, he was very anti-union, and that started the trend towards having less union respresentation in our country, but we’ve also become, globalization has affected us, because now workers are competing with workers around the world. We used to be more of an industrial society, many of our blue-collar, unionized jobs have disappeared. Because, you know, the car manufacturers, the textile mills, all of these have just gone to other countries, whether it’s Central America, Mexico, China. And so, we’ve become more of a service economy. It’s much harder to unionize service workers, because they tend, it’s not like a big factory, but it’s smaller entities. And serive jobs pay less and they tend to be more contention work which means you might be contracted out, or you might be part-time. It’s not your full-time, 40-hour a week, with benefit jobs. And so now people don’t have the benefits, often not getting pension, and don’t have stable, secure work. And that’s been happening really since the 80’s, I mean part of it’s the US doesn’t have the economic * that it used to have. You know, after the World War II, we’d kind of rebuilt Europe, and that fueled a big growth period. But now we have a lot of competition from other countries.
BM: Sure. I was in China in the 1990’s, or early 90’s when there was a big move for companies to move to China for joint ventures. And it was all very exciting because there was this vision at the time, of, you know, uniting with other countries in a business way which would help bring a commonality, a place where we could all unite, and maybe even foster more global peace. And you know, we’re all together in this, right? And I remember that, and I remember that, you know, that, because I was in China, I was in Nanjing at the time, and I was meeting a lot of American business people who were working with the Chinese. The Chinese were very careful, and sure, they had that 15% of the pot, they weren’t going to give themselves away, like they had done in the previous generation. But I look at that now and I go, wow, you know, that we really just gave it all away, didn’t we? But on the other hand one could argue at that point and time when unions had a strong hold, and it was hard to do business in the United States, we were paying high prices, you know. I don’t know what’s true, and how that could have been solved differently, or was that really a problem, or was that just a created, that was a problem that was just talked about and didn’t exist? I don’t know.
LS: Sure. I would say though that the deregulation that began in the 80’s has really affected housing and homelessness, and the savings and loans were the main source of home loans. And savings and loans couldn’t do all sorts of other financial things, and then when they got deregulated, home loans, you know, that’s not a big moneymaker, and so those kind of disappeared. And then you had the savings and loans crisis because of that. The whole mortgage for closure crisis was really because of deregulation. The things that these banks were doing was legal, but it created a big…
BM: It wasn’t moral.
LS: Obviously not. It made huge amounts of money for the top 20% or the top 10% and millions of people lost their homes, and it wasn’t just the home-owners, many people who were renting in homes that became forclosed, so it affected renters quite heavily.
BM: Well, I do remember that union bust of 1981, that was the catalyst for all unions in the United States.
LS: It sent a message.
BM: I remember it well.
LS: If you can bust the white men, air traffic controllers, then you can, you know, if you’re going to take their privilege away, that was a big message too.
BM: It was a big message for all unions, that’s where it all started to disassemble.
LS: But it wasn’t, I mean, I think, that was the start of it, but I think globalization has also very much weakened unions.
BM: Yeah, it’s… what good things can we talk about? I mean, is this a catalyst for communities to come together? I mean what can we as the people take from this? You know, our government is, you know, doing new things today, there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of division arising, is there, what are your thoughts about that?
LS: My main in my book is that you can’t address these things alone. You have to work in groups. You can’t address everything, pick something that’s of interest to you. If it’s health care policy, then work with a group to try to keep the Affordable Care Act where people actually have health insurance and health care. If it’s affordable housing, then work in your community to try to promote affordable housing. If it’s transportation, a more sustainable transportation options than just cars, work on that, or bikes, bike lanes. But we can’t do any of these by ourselves. We have to work in groups.
BM: And what’s interesting about what you say on local advocacy, I mean, isn’t there some wisdom in trying to cultivate one area as, kind of as an ideal? Whether it’s the bicycle lanes, or local health care, or community coming together in order to set a stage and sort of message about how other communities could be too. I mean, if you could create some sort of standard.
LS: I guess. Part of…yes and no. Yes, local communities need to do that, but a lot of these bigger issues need a regional focus. And that’s been a part of what’s been a struggle in Marin, is that there is a regional Bay Area, Association of Bay Area Government that’s trying to do more regional focus to think about transportation options and housing options. Because you can’t, as a local community you can’t, I mean you can’t build the subways or the smart trains, you have to do it as a region. And even housing is better done thinking regionally. So yes, I think local communities should come together, but I think we do need to think about regions when we’re thinking, I mean, I’m a big advocate of smart growth, where we have more, less sprawling big mansions, a little bit denser housing. I’m not saying high-rises everywhere, but a little bit denser housing where we protect our green spaces still. I mean, I love living in Marin because of the protected open space. I mean, we have a lot more public transportation. And so the people… and more affordable housing options, so the people can actually live where they work, and don’t have to travel for it.
BM: Well, I guess some of the good news is this, as we are talking more about being responsible for our carbon footprint, it’s bringing in more awareness about living big lifestyles, living in these big homes, having the big cars, is very detrimental to the rest of us. And being responsible for that, and for the amount of poundage of carbon that you emit. And that’s, you know, slowly coming. I recently did a class on it to discover that, you know, the people who are living small and resourcefully are the ones who are going to look really good pretty soon. Versus those living in the big houses.
LS: I think there’s more awareness but I think there actually has to be policies that really either demand the people make changes or incentivize. So ways that we can make public transportation affordable and incentivize people to use it, or, you know, electric cars. Or ways that we can make housing attractive that’s smaller housing, and it’s more green housing.
BM: Did you hear about that recent story about the Powell Street station and how a disaster it is? I mean, it’s pretty disgusting.
LS: Yeah, I’ve been just * on NPR yesterday, they were just talking about the spate of crime happening on aboard trains.
BM: Really, now, what if our politicians were required to take public transportation? Wouldn’t that be a lead in to say, hey, if it’s good enough to be there, it’s good enough for you, and start making our politicians and the people who manage those resources, start living by them?
LS: I’ve just been some time in Spain with a student group from Dominican. And I was just in Barcelona a week ago, and we used public transportation for everywhere we went, everytime we came down to a train it was no more than a two-minute wait. The trains were full of people of all class levels. There was no reason to drive in the city because it would have taken you longer, it was quicker to go by bus and train. And people lived in apartments. I’m not saying we all have to have high, crowded, dense apartment living everywhere, but to have homes over 2000 square feet for a family of four is kind of crazy. We don’t need to be using all that space.
BM: That’s right. I was actually in Tacoma, Washington last month.
LS: That’s where I grew up.
BM: I loved that town! It was, I saw some really great things in that town as part of the liberal arts symposium. Dominican and another, Reed was there, Stanford was there, it was a fantastic symposium. But they had a free train that went through the middle of town, it was called the Link, I think, right?
LS: Yeah, but that’s just, it doesn’t take you anywhere. It’s a touristy thing.
BM: Ok. We’re talking about, at least you’ve got to start somewhere. And for me, you know, being a tourist, or I had some business there, cannot say I was complete tourist. But anyway, trying to get around, there was such a sense of relief. Versus going to London where I was last year and trying to figure out the Tube. I think I stood there for an hour trying to figure it out, you know. I’m talking about more about the ease of something. Because when it’s not so difficult to use, you actually use it. If you know you’re going to be standing there forever and it may not come, and that happens, you know, I’ve taken transportation here as well. I have my electric bike now. You have to see it after the show. You actually get around better than the car, it’s amazing.
LS: Well, right now in the United States our public transportation is considered something poor people only take. Some of the subways in D.C. and the Bay Area and such are used by commuters as well that aren’t poor. And of course New York City would be an exception.
BM: And we just lost our train here in California.
LS: Unless we decide to put money towards public transportation, and quit putting it all towards roads, we’ll continue to be a car economy.
BM: I was thinking the other day, and tell me if this makes sense. So, you know, in order to get around today, and be functioning, and have a job, and do all the things you need to do, you have to have a car. But it requires car insurance, small checks, gas, which is expensive, cheaper than Europe for sure, but you’re going to drive further in order to do anything. The traffic is horrible. Then we are taxed for the roads. We are completely financially subsidizing and paying for an entire transportation system, while somebody else is making the bucks off of all of this. I’m trying to understand how that all works for the common person. I think that’s where I’m going. I had a car towed a couple of months ago and it ended up in the garage, and the garage was filled with cars that have been sitting there for months because people can’t afford to get their car out. And those are the poorest people. 300$ to get your car out if you get it out that night, and if you don’t, then it goes up to like 700$. 1000$, it’s outrageously expensive.
LS: And of course, people can’t own cars and so they’re relying on the transportation that doesn’t run regularly or doesn’t go where they live, or, and it limits where they can live. I mean I know where I live there is a bus that commutes into San Francisco on the weekdays, but there’s nothing on the weekends. So a person who lives in poverty, well they couldn’t afford to live where I’m living, but they also couldn’t live there because there’s no transportation.
BM: So there’s no easy fixes.
LS: So we end up segregating our communities in that way. We could design things differently. There are many examples of that around the world, but it’s a matter of choice.
BM: How do you think Spain has been able to set the mind…
LS: Well, I think for one thing, those cities were developed before the creation of the car.
BM: Ok. Oh, that’s an easier one perhaps.
LS: Our cities, especially in California, were developed after the creation of the car. I mean not completely, you know, San Francisco, you can see wasn’t developed around the car, but L.A. was.
BM: L. A. was, that’s right.
LS: It’s a massive sprawl because you had the car.
BM: And they did try to get the trains in there once, I think it was in the 1980’s, there’s a great film about that, and it was the automobile industry that actually pushed for that not to happen.
LS: And they didn’t have as much open space. They had a denser population, so they had to build apartments and denser housing. We’ve had the luxury of lots of open space in the United States, and so we can just keep sprawling outwards. But we’re going to the point where it’s not sustainable anymore.
BM: So if we could circle back to some of those…
LS: …to homelessness.
BM: Yeah. Well, it’s all part of it, right, I mean… And it’s interesting what you say, you used to teach an environmental ethics class too, which is really interesting how that all, it all ties into one and the same, doesn’t it? One leads to the other.
LS: They’re totally interconnected.
BM: And getting back on to a positive note, I mean, despite this incredible problem that concerns all of us, I mean, we’re all part of this formula, how do we all take a responsibility toward that?
LS: I think the first thing we need is just to realize we need to quit being accustomed to seeing people who are homeless. We need to see it as an outrage. We don’t seeit as an outrage anymore, we just see it as inevitable. That this is just a result of either the person’s bad behavior, or inequality and poverty that we can’t address, and that’s not true. There are countries in this world that don’t have that many people who are homeless because they’ve addressed it through policies. Or in some cultures also have more extended communities where they care for their family members, we tend to be a little bit more isolated in this country. So that’s the first thing, it’s just realizing that this is something that we can address, it’s not inevitable. And then, begin to work with others, and that was my, you know, my field is Christian ethics and my message for churches was, ok, yes, you’re doing great work, and providing shelters or food kitchens, or whatever, different things, some groups are even building some affordable housing. But how are you going to do that and work to help change policies, work with others to say, we need to create communities where noone’s homeless? And where people have enough money to afford health care, it’s not a privilege, it’s a right. Health care is a right. Where people can afford to have good, quality child care, and so on, I could keep going on.
BM: You are listening to Laura Stivers, professor of the University… I’m sorry, babbling away here, because this is a really important subject. It gets me very emotional actually. I get very emotional listening to this. Laura Stivers is here with me talking about homelessness. She’s the author of Disrupting Homelessness, Alternative Christian Approaches. You’re a professor here at the Dominican University of California, you’ve been here for a number of years, how many?
BM: Seven. Well, you are my professor. And your class, I have to word this out, it was your environmental ethics class that kicked me in the butt. It was the very first class I took as a graduate student here at Dominican, and I was on the edge of my seat, going, oh, this is so wrong! This is so wrong, what are we doing to this planet? And you got me wired up.
LS: Now I’m going to get you into the economic justice class, that will get you wired up.
BM: That’s why I’m here today on this radio show, I mean, honestly, full circle. So this is why, I guess, may be emotional while you’re here right now with me, because you just realize how these little things can just trigger you in your life, and kick you in the butt, and go, I need to do something about this, you know?
LS: Well, and that’s, I mean, my field in Christian ethics, my whole point is that if we really, if I’m going to call myself Christian and others who are Christian, this has got to be a concern of ours. Anybody can be concerned about poverty and inequality and homelessness, buti f you’re claiming to be Christian, or even another religious tradition, this should be your emphasis. You should be saying that we shouldn’t have people who are out on the streets, or in substandard housing. It’s just, I don’t think God, Jesus would have promoted any of that.
BM: Wow, well, thanks for sharing all of this, and thanks so much for coming on this show. And who knows, maybe your book will slowly start a movement. Well, I’ll get behind you and this vision because it’s really great. Great work, and it’s a great conversation, and it’s really what we all need to be hearing and getting into action with right now. You’re listening to Take Back! – The Universe Loves to Laugh on 102.3 FM or worldwide radio.dominican.edu. I really want to say thank you to Professor Laura Stivers, your book is available online. And again her book is called Disrupting Homelessness, Alternative Christian Approaches. Next week we have Jessica Neafsey, she is an artist and an ecological designer living on the Big Sur coast of California. She’s an ocean and nature lover, and her new clothing line ANIMA California embodies affection and reverence for the wildlife we live with. Now this is not a plug for fashion but it’s what she is doing with it that we really want to talk about. It’s a sustainable driven mission that’s really setting a new model for what I call good business. And again thank you so much for Professor Laura Stivers, we will see you next week and until then, get out there, and start making a difference! We’ll talk to you again next week, thanks so much for joining us on Take Back.