On false promises and free breakfasts

By christina heatherton
Community Reporter


Half-finished books, old pictures, near empty boxes of cereal, paper cups, and a calendar, everything that needs a shelf or a wall to rest on, is tossed into the fire. Once they burn, we tear down the bamboo walls, chop them into small pieces and feed them to the pit. For this last brisk night by the ocean, the river basin residents gather all the intimate scraps they can reach in the dark. Under blue mottled moonlight, we boil pots of coffee, light cigarettes, warm hands, and await the swift indifference of the morning’s bulldozers.

But they never come.

By 6:30 am the fire pit is still smoldering and the police are nowhere to be found. Just outside the basin, where we expected bulldozers, we find a sleek banner, accented by cartoon butterflies, that reads, "Stop Two: Free Breakfast."

I had spent the night with residents of the River Basin encampment in Ventura, California awaiting a violent early morning police "sweep" of the area. While the city had offered temporary shelter provisions (cots in an abandoned army base) most opted against them. Ironically, the ‘sweep’ done out of concern for the ‘homeless’, had only served to make hundreds of former residents truly homeless and scrambling for housing in the dead of winter.

When displacement is still as violent as the winter is cold, what changes when it is served with free coffee and donuts, by smiling, latex-glove clad volunteers? "We’re giving them a ‘hand up not a hand out,’" answers one chipper aide, as he reads the tiny print off the banner and hands me a cup of coffee.

That, in a nutshell, or coffee cup, is how compassionate conservatism, the new strategy of poverty management works; not just as a muffling of state violence but as a giddy rewriting of state withdrawal from service provision into personal and political empowerment.

Trying to critique this system is complicated as it lacks all overt markers of struggle. As the concept has spread around the world, infecting not only American policy, but international development policy as well, our challenge is to identify its aggression even in innocuous offers of "Free Breakfast."

Free breakfast at the Ventura River Basin

Jack Tafari and Michael Woolcock share the podium

Tafari addresses the conference

Homeless artist Kristian and Jack at Crisis UK's Skylight Centre


This past October, I accompanied Dignity Village chairman Jack Tafari to the CRISIS Innovations Fair on homelessness and social exclusion. Jack gave the opening address alongside World Bank economist, Michael Woolcock. It was an interesting paring as both presented drastically different takes on the concept of compassionate conservatism, or as it is called by the World Bank, the process of increasing "social capital."

Social Capital, in Woolcock’s definition, refers to the ability of the poor to ‘network’ with people in order to increase their access to goods, services, and political reform. "After all, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know," he chanted.

Woolcock proposes that the poor must develop three types of networks to sustain themselves. The first are relationships with similarly situated people in order to satisfy immediate survival needs, companionship and a "sense of belonging." The second are connections with people unlike themselves such as those "with a different religion or salary structure" in order to find out about employment opportunities. Once these are satisfied, he recommends that the poor network with those in powerful positions to try to gain political leverage and or greater access to services.

To this, I say, duh. It’s impressive that a man can have such power, and influence, by signing his name to common sense. He believes that his "social capital agenda" represents a "radical" departure from the bureaucratized and technocratic reforms normally proposed by government and transnational institutions. In that sense, he might deserve a hearty pat on the back. But does his agenda represent any radical potentials for change or is it just an emphasis on the coping mechanisms of the poor in a structurally unjust system?

Local Portland activist, Helen Hill, responds to Woolcock by saying, "I think it's devaluing, dehumanizing, and missing the point to suggest that the concept of social capital means the poor, the fringe, the vulnerable, should seek alliances with those who are further up the vertical scale in order to put a roof over their head, save their soul, whatever. MAYBE, oh my, MAYBE one could humbly suggest to Mr. Woolcock that it isn't the poor and vulnerable who should work harder on their social climbing skills, MAYBE the problem lies in the system and in the unbalance created by those who've made it to the top of the vertical power network…"

Dignity Village chairman Jack Tafari was able to counter many of Woolcock’s statements through a presentation of the formation and survival of Dignity Village, a tent city. He showed that Dignity Village is a successful demonstration of social capital in action according to Mr. Woolcock’s definition. As an informal tent city, created through and continually sustained by networks at various scales (including the local government, public agencies, private businesses, advocates, environmental groups, media, and volunteers) Dignity has gained some measure of permanency and self-sufficiency.

He also demonstrated how Dignity recognizes people as capable managers of their own lives. Presiding over the administration, upkeep, and daily functioning of the place are Dignity Village residents and not outsiders. To this extent, Tafari agreed with Woolcock’s analysis.

But Tafari was also careful to point out that Dignity Village is the only type of encampment of its kind in the country and should not be romanticized as typical. Even though Dignity’s right to exist has been officially recognized by the local government, it remains in constant threat of eviction, relocation, service removal and punishment. The very real potential of political shifts mean that it lives in a constant state of uncertainty.

In addition to demonstrating the success of Dignity’s project, Tafari pointed to the very serious bias against homeless in America. Before discussing strategies for their integration and networking, he explained, these biases must be reconciled.

For example, with laws selectively applied to surveill and control the very poor and homeless, including laws against trespassing, loitering, camping, and obstructing the sidewalk, it is initially difficult for the very poor, homeless or marginally housed to find a place where they can stop and rest, let alone network with people in power.

In addition, solutions to homelessness and severe poverty in the United States are imagined as temporary and unsustainable. Most states procure only emergency or winter shelters and emergency food banks that serve and treat the condition as if it will easily go away. In many cities the discrepancy between needed and available services is alarming. While over 80,000 people are homeless on any given night in Los Angeles, the city only possesses around 3,000 shelter beds.

What is most damaging about theories like Woolcock’s are not so much what they say but what they don’t say. While it definitely is important for the poor to network with themselves and others for survival, we have to be realistic about the conditions under which these types of interactions are feasible. These conditions do not exist. Pretending they do are the most effective and deflective strategies of powerful governments and organizations. If escaping poverty is as easy as knowing the right people, the problem would be a lot smaller and a lot easier to handle. But it's not that easy and neither are the solutions. In order for the poor and homeless to escape poverty, there have to be some frank examinations about how poverty is created and perpetuated. Woolcock cannot be interested in that type of inquiry since it implicates his organization for maintaining global systems of inequality (but that’s a different article.)

What is important to note here is that coping mechanisms cannot be mistaken for viable solutions. I applaud Jack Tafari for effectively presenting the possibilities and limitations of a project like Dignity Village. He showed how homelessness can be addressed and partially alleviated through organized collective efforts but did not romanticize the process. Poverty is a large violent issue of inequality that will decidedly not be solved through networking or free breakfasts.