The struggle against downward mobility: Looking for a “re-evolution” in the Caesar Chavez housing projects (ESSAY)

“You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxCesar Chavez

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx US labor leader & civil rights activist, co-founded

 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxNational Farm Workers Association, 1962

 

Today isn’t an ordinary day!

 

In fact, one could call it a major life changing day. And even though the change is bitter-sweet, the stress score for the chain of events that would be triggered by what transpired today would rate quite high on the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), popularly known as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, after two psychiatrists who asked people to rate a series of 43 life events in their lives in the previous two years. Each event termed as a Life Change Unit (LCU) had a different “weight” for stress; and the more events a person experienced or the larger the weight of each event, the more likely the patient was to experience stress and become ill.

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dennis1

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For the past two years, I have been living in in New Mexico – where supposedly every true adventure feeds the soul. However, I spent my days in the confines of a special-needs housing program. I was placed in special needs housing and referred for a milieu of services after a psychotic break brought me to my knees.

 

It was my therapist who thought I could benefit from this type of domicile because it would help my stabilization. While the main goal was to secure housing and avoid hospital visits, I also received assistance navigating the state human service bureaucracy and was assigned an advocate to work on a Social Security Disability Application. Despite some hiccups, the time spent in the program was successful in what it was designed to do. I was provided stable, affordable housing; I possibly averted another severe mental health crises; and I achieved the difficult thing of being awarded Social Security Disability. Now it was time to move out of this structured domiciliary arrangement. Therefore, the move is bitter sweet.

 

After the final pile of accumulated stuff was loaded on my friend’s truck, I had a moment of trepidation and self-doubt: Was I ready? To leave or not to leave? Although I had been subject to inane and austere rules, this housing felt comfortable and safe. Yet, I am relieved that I will no longer be monitored by the eyes that are watching. Twenty-four-hour surveillance cameras monitored the two buildings and when the offices closed at night, security guards were posted. Even without paranoid delusions, one got the sense that Big Brother was watching. So it gives me a great deal of satisfaction knowing I am free of these constraints.

 

Today, I once again find myself on a course I never thought I would be on, but it is one full of intrigue and anticipation. After moving out of the structured housing arrangement, and with the kind of money I have, I will be living in (and can only afford) public housing, or what is typically known as, “the projects”. Who would have thought I would find so much gratification in finding an apartment in a forty-year old building from a housing project? I guess I should make a note to myself that much of what I experience in everyday life comes down to perspective. So as summer holds on to its last breath, I prepare for a much needed rest by blowing up a cheap air mattress, hoping that it won’t deflate by the time the sun reaches inside my window.

 

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Welcome to the Neighborhood: Nobody loves Ramone

 

Tonight there is a thickness in the air. I don’t feel the breeze coming out of the north as I did a few nights ago. I’m wearing shorts and a T-shirt and although it is relatively warm, I can’t open my windows; not because they are broken or there is any physical impediment, but due to all the sensory overload coming from my neighbor’s balcony.  From above, I hear teenager boys coughing from taking long hits on a joint and each talking about the girl they’re going to “hit it with” at school.  Simultaneously, as a bottle broke, a large SUV rolled by, chromed out with loud gangsta rap coming out the windows. The volume was earsplitting and the bass rattled my windows. The teenagers were impressed by this. One of the small voices says, “that’s my homie there” as the SUV creeped on by.

 

I thought I was going to turn in for the evening when I hear a knock at my door. I opened it and standing in front of me is a Caucasian man, slightly built with dark circles under his eyes. There were scabs on his face and he looked like he had been wearing the same clothes for several days. Sheepishly he asks, “Is Ramone there?”

 

I start to experience some anxiety.  I assured this unknown visitor that no one by that name lived in that flat, and he quickly scurried away. However, it became apparent to me that I have to be more aware of my surroundings than I did a few nights ago. Although I am still down-sizing my personal possessions, I want to have a choice in what goes and what stays. After the broken man became a part of my long-term memory and the music faded, I found myself doing a mental debriefing. I wasn’t certain of the norms of my new neighborhood, but at least for that night, in Building B, at the Cesar Chavez Projects is where “the party was at”.

 

Assimilation-

 

I had to speak with the property manager about some logistical matters, and when I asked her about Ramone, she said that he was the previous tenant in the same apartment and had been booted out for selling drugs. She explained that I may expect random knocks on my door but eventually word will get out that Ramone is closed for business. I accepted her nonchalant attitude as indicator that this is a reality that I am now living with. So when another dude came to my apartment today asking for a thirty spot, I wasn’t surprised. I just said that Ramone was test marketing in another neighborhood.

 

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On my way out for the evening, there were several neighborhood kids hovering around my door. They were mainly boys, and one girl, and their ages ranged between eight and twelve years. While I was locking my door, I could feel several sets of eyes on me. I turned and saw very curious faces. Then came the questions. “Do you live here? Do you paint pictures? How much did your bike cost? Did you know that a drug dealer was living there? They were smoking crack in there all of the time.” I tried to answer most of their inquiries but one boy wanted to know what kind of condition the apartment was in when I moved in. From his line of questioning it seem that he thought the apartment was left in wretched condition, roach infested, toxic odors and crack residue dripping from the ceilings. Although I have seen plenty of roaches, I assured him that the maintenance workers made sure the apartment was good enough to live in. I entertained them for a few minutes and moved on with my evening plans which I hoped would offer me a short respite from what had been a stressful and exhausting day.

 

I am acutely aware that I’m about to undergo the process of re-socialization. Although I’m really not comfortable with the subculture concept, this is the antithesis of the bourgeoisie-lifestyle I once knew. I have lived in marginalized neighborhoods in Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, but these places were already beginning to gentrify. Breaking from the confines of special-needs housing has caused my nervous system to go into hyper-drive. This may be due in part to reliving the old trauma of being mugged and having guns pointed at my head, but also because I feel like my street sensibilities are a bit dull, hence a little vulnerable. Although, I do believe that it is reasonable to think that I will quickly learn the code of this neighborhood.

 

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*****

 

“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxCesar Chavez

 

The layers of poverty-

 

I haven’t lived in poverty very long and there is much I am learning by way of the pedagogy of the streets. My education began two years ago when I lived off $245 in General Assistance and $195 from the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP). Initially I had no idea how one could sustain oneself with this meager amount, but then I discovered food pantries and converted to the “poverty diet,” which consisted of high carbohydrate, low nutrition food items. Most food came out of a can or frozen bags and once in a while I would splurge and buy a roasted chicken, or as I often called it, “a bird in a bag”. For SNAP recipients, the State of New Mexico offers a two for one exchange program at local farmer’s markets, so in lieu of having to pay twelve dollars for a hand full of tomatoes, on SNAP you only have to pay six. I know for quinoa- organic- kale consumers this sounds like an astonishing deal, but for those in my income bracket, paying this much for produce is absolutely absurd.

 

My parents grew up during the Great Depression and they would always remind my siblings and I of this. They both grew up on farms so they had it better than most, but they had some stories that would invariably get our attention. Whenever we complained as kids of not having the latest and best of everything they reminded us that we had it way better than they did. They shared that they only had one set of clothes and one pair of shoes that were two sizes too big. They claimed that their parents worked from dawn to dusk and that turning one’s nose up at a meal wasn’t an option. They said that during Christmas it was a big deal if they got an orange in their stocking.

 

My parents weren’t millionaires but even after living a comfortable middle class lifestyle, they were still very frugal in food habits. They canned produce from their garden, bottled homemade root beer, and my father would always stock “the big freezer” with venison and fish. If they did buy name brand products it was with a coupon. I say this because although I recognize I enjoyed some fortune I never felt entitled.

 

The privileged life

 

I just want to go and say that I recognize that I am privileged. I enjoy white person privilege, male privilege and most of my life, I’ve enjoyed economic privilege. I was privilege enough to get into good schools, I had a privilege career which also gave me the privilege of owning a house. But my privileged life started to fall apart as my mental health began to decline. It took a while but eventually I could no longer function in that world and so then went most of my privilege.

 

That’s how I ended up here, living under the U.S. Federal guidelines for poverty and although under this standard of measurement I am poor, I feel like I do have some affluence compared to my cohort. For instance, I own a fourteen-year old car, I own a laptop and I don’t have the expenses of offspring. I don’t own a television or have internet at home, but generally speaking I have everything I need. As a friend of mine puts it, “I’m doing okay for me”.

 

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Therefore, this move to the projects is a life changing moment, as I have had several life changing moments in the past few years. Now that I am on this downwardly mobile trend, I ask: What is it going to look like tomorrow? Have I plateaued or will it continue to spiral in a downward direction? I guess that will be contingent on many variables, but mostly on whether the US Government continues to loot the Social Security Trust Fund.

 

*****

 

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”

                           Cesar Chavez

 

I recognize that most people think that those receiving public aid sit around watching TV and eating bonbons all day. I’ve yet to meet anyone who does that. In my world, I have to struggle with the bureaucracy almost daily. There’s always some paperwork to file or a reason to hike to the Social Security Office. It is a full time job to maintain my mental health. The world is better off that I do.

 

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What may have been seen as an extraordinary and unbearable set of circumstances are now normative. And I have adapted to those norms not because I am particularly resilient, but because there were social safety-nets in place that have allowed me to live with some dignity. I think this illustrates what good public policy can do.

 

I’m one of the fortunate ones for sure and I know that the current system is grossly inadequate. For every story like mine there are hundreds that are falling through the cracks. And we need to expend our energies and our debates in the political and public space on how to repair these cracks and until then on how have some safety net to catch those falling through. I know there is little chance of a Senator or Congresswoman reading this, but, hey Washington – instead of serving war-profiteers and Wall Street scam-artists, why don’t you give the one out of five people living in poverty a break and ensure that the remaining four out of five do not become poor?

 

Of course that is a rhetorical question.

 

My illness, to some extent, could be a function of my personal psychology, my genetics; and yet, at the same time, most doctors would also agree this illness is also a product of me being a member of US society. However, today, as I look around myself and hear the electronic chatter on the Presidential elections, it is not just the poor or the weak that run the risk of a downward spiral, the entire body politic, media, US society – all of them seem to be moving towards a state of collective degradation. Can it be stopped? Can we halt the increasing damage?

 

My rehabilitation through various social security schemes is also a sign that this society can care – and when it really wants to care, it can make it work to some extent. What we need right now it to bring back this “care” – and one manifestation of this “care” is a socially helpful scheme. Those that give a hand to the poor and the needy, the ill and the disabled, while remembering that misfortune can strike anyone at any time. WE ALL NEED SOME CARING. Remember the words of Cesar Chavez with humility that even the strong need a helping hand sometimes.

 

Today the question for me as I look at a deeply divided American society is: How will this “caring” come about? While most impatient people, which includes me, seek a revolution; my personal experience has demonstrated that my country has the ability to care; and perhaps what we need is a “re-evolution” – perhaps, we need to go back to our own past – when we had legislation and schemes that showed that we care and actually did it. We have slipped from that position; and today even talking about “caring” is considered a negative thing. We have become punitive towards the poor and dispossessed.

 

Until there is a “re-evolution” the poor and the ill can only embarrass themselves and perform acts of desperation. But why just the poor and the mentally ill – aren’t our Presidential candidates doing the same? And when the aspirants for the most powerful positon in the world talk and behave in this uncaring manner what does it say about the society we live in?

 

“Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.”

Cesar Chavez

 marginalization oct 2

 

 

© Dennis Dodson, 2016

 

 

 


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