Aim High (but remember your place)

“The nation’s economy is a situation comedy. Corporations are making money while the people are facing poverty.” Talib Kweli 2001

In recent weeks I have been thinking a lot about social class and meritocracy. This has been prompted by the wholly avoidable Grenfell Tower tragedy and particularly the response of some of the residents of Kensington who didn’t want the survivors to be housed near them, meeting a group of young people with Baljeet from Reclaim and the realisation that perhaps I’ve reached a class ceiling in my chosen career. I thought I’d blog my thoughts.
Despite both Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair both telling us we now have a classless society the gap between rich and poor is greater than ever. According to the Resolution Foundation, a think tank that focuses on low and middle income households the UK risks seeing the largest rise in inequality since the last Parliament when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. 

Some studies suggest that the traditional class structure no longer fits modern society and now we have 7 social classes. I feel this just serves to create divisions between the working class.

When I was young the working classes were represented fairly positively in the media in the soaps and also documentaries about people like Fred Dibnah. It seems over the last 30 years or so the working classes have become something to ridicule and poke fun at through shows like Little Britain or some kind of freak show/curiosity in shows like Jeremy Kyle or Benefits Street. Now I’m not wholly against these programs what upsets me more is the complete lack of positive images of working class people.

When I recently met with a group of young people from “disadvantaged” backgrounds with Baljeet from Reclaim none of them identified with being working class. They felt it was shaming and stigmatising to be labelled as working class. For me it was heartbreaking to hear them not have a pride in being working class. They had no awareness of the century’s of class struggle that has brought about fairer working conditions and employment rights, better housing, the NHS and the welfare state amongst other things. None of these were gifts from the wealthy. We had to fight bloody hard for them. As Assata Shakur said “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” 

The reason Baljeet was meeting these young people was because people from working class communities (particularly, young people) do not have access to jobs in Trusts and Foundations as grant-makers even though you don’t need a degree to be able to do the work. The vast majority of people working for trusts and foundations often have little understanding of the issues they are seeking to tackle because many are from very wealthy backgrounds with little lived experience of ‘real’ life e.g. poverty, homelessness, social welfare, unemployment etc.

Baljeet is trying to start a scheme where young people from working class backgrounds can get paid placements at some of these trusts and foundations. After the session 4 of the young people came up to Baljeet and said “thank you for fighting for us, we didn’t think anyone cared about us”

I find it interesting that not only are the people in foundations trusts from middle class backgrounds but so are most local authority commissioners, social workers and even youth workers are increasingly from wealthier backgrounds and degree educated. These are the people with very little lived experience of poverty who are deciding how best to support those in poverty. 

In the voluntary sector this is still true especially at manager level. I wonder how many of my colleagues with lived experience of the issues related to poverty can identify with getting endless praise for how they “relate” to the clients. However as soon as they apply for a role that is more strategic there is always someone who talks better, sells themselves better and is more formally educated than them to pip them to the post. The over emphasis on formal education as opposed to lived experience ignores the skills that we develop surviving our environments. You find me someone who has learnt to read body language and assess the mood of people better at university than someone who grew up in a domestically violent home. We survivors have learnt many skills such as recognition of threats, managing tight budgets, building strong alliances with others and ultimately keeping on getting back up no matter how many times you are knocked down.

Often the way trusts and foundations wish to support those in poverty is to educate us to make better choices. The assumption is that the reason we are poor is because we make bad decisions such as spending money on drugs instead of rent, buying a new pair of Nike Air Max instead of paying the gas bill or spending our last twenty quid on scratch cards instead of food. Now I’m not disagreeing that we make some terrible decisions but I do disagree with this approach for two reasons. 

Firstly it’s a form of victim blaming. We are not poor because we spend our wages on a 50inch TV instead of food or paying our rent (although that don’t help). We are poor because rich people exploit us. Poverty is not an accident it is created by the wealthy paying us low wages, charging high rents, making huge profits on household fuels, food and transport as well as avoiding paying their share of taxes. Blaming poor people for being poor is like blaming the victims of domestic abuse. We should be insisting that the wealthy change their behaviour like we should be insisting perpetrators of abuse change their behaviour.

Secondly it’s debatable how successful this approach possibly can be. In India researchers carried out tests on 464 sugarcane farmers before harvest, when they tended to have less money, and after harvest, when they received earnings from their crops. Before harvest, farmers pawned their belongings at a higher rate and were more likely to have loans. After harvest, the researchers found that farmers’ IQ went up by around nine points and errors and response times on numerical and non-verbal reasoning tests came down. “Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources,” the researchers said in the study, titled “Poverty Concedes Cognitive Function.

What this means is when you’re in a situation where the stress of poverty is weighing heavily on you you have very limited cognitive ability to make good choices never mind learn new skills. Even if there are some successes with this approach it will be limited to individuals not the rest of their families and communities. 
Now don’t get me wrong I fully agree with equipping people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to tackle the issues they face. However I don’t believe that that on its own is the real answer. Capping rents, having guaranteed basic income for all and making it a level playing field to get access to higher education would be some ways to really tackle poverty aside from the obvious solution, revolution.

I’m not sure if the system is designed by the establishment to ensure the working classes stay in “our place” (I suspect it is) or not. However I do know that the ignorance created by privilege and the belief in social mobility, meritocracy are real barriers to change. Today in society your parents wealth is still the biggest indicator of your likelihood of success. Less able but wealthy young people are 35% more likely to become high earners than brighter young people from poor backgrounds. Of course for middle class people who’ve worked hard and made sacrifices to go to university often they fail to understand why that would be more of a challenge for some of us. They don’t understand the odds are against us. It’s not necessarily their fault they can’t understand the barriers we face as they’ve not lived them. What that means is we can’t rely on them to really help us out either. A recent study by the Charities Aid Foundation showed that the middle classes benefit much more from charities than the working classes. 

If we can’t rely on them we have to rely on ourselves and look after each other. Just like in Kensington where any real assistance for the Grenfell survivors particularly in the first instance came from the surrounding working class communities. 
I am pleased that I work for a charity that does aim to help all young people but particularly the most disadvantaged in society. I am also pleased that I’m part of the MORR (Make Our Rights Reality) project that not only aims to equip young people with the ability to get their rights met but also the ability to push for social change. I’d love to see working class young people not only be proud of being working class but also to have reclaimed the working class spirit of my grandfathers generation that brought about so much social change. They forced the establishment to make concessions through industrial action, campaigning and disrupting as well as the ballot box.


A View on Begging

Below is a piece I wrote in response to someone’s views that giving money to beggars is harmful. I thought I’d pop it on here. NY part 2 coming soon. 

I often give money to beggars and will continue to do so. Our local authority recently had a campaign to encourage people not to give money to beggars and instead donate it to them to help the homeless. The same LA who routinely fails to accept homelessness applications for people it has a duty to house, has year on year made cuts to local housing provision whilst paying fairly large salaries to commissioners and heads of housing etc. They argue that this is because beggars on the whole are not homeless and are actually drug addicts. I don’t doubt the truth in this but wonder why they don’t suggest people donate to local addiction services (who have also had drastic cuts). It is likely that people would not donate to drug services as there is less sympathy in society for addiction as there is for homelessness hence why addicts say they are homeless as opposed to being honest about what they need the money for. This is in itself is problematic that our society views addiction as some kind of moral failure and continues to criminalise drug users despite the fact that the so called war on drugs has been a complete and utter failure but that’s a whole other but fully connected debate.

I think if you are suggesting that we as a society should cut off the means of obtaining drugs for addicts by not giving them money we better as a society have the means to provide therapeutic environments for those addicts to recover. As a study in Scotland recently showed (like we actually needed a study to tell us) the vast majority of addicts have suffered complex childhood trauma if as a society you don’t have the means to offer real therapeutic treatment then cutting off their supply of drugs is perhaps in my view unethical. Of course their is not adequate treatment programs for addicts unless you count substitute prescribing which it is debatable how successful that is. This means addicts need to find other ways to make money to get drugs, these will often be crime or sex work. Now I guess if the aim is to have addicts not bothering you for money or being less visible on our high streets then this would achieve those ends. It would mean even more addicts than present would be in prisons that do very little to treat addiction. In my opinion if you want to help addicts the best way to do this has to be to push for more better resourced addiction services. Of course the argument would be made that there isn’t the funds, however if we stopped spending money on locking up addicts and enforcing a failed policy of prohibition there would be plenty of funds.

A little over 15 years ago I was street homeless in north London, I was a beggar and for many years had been addicted to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol. I believe begging helped me get into recovery. For many years I had stolen (mainly shoplifting) to get my drugs. This way of life meant that I had very little contact with I guess what you would call average members of society. My contact was with other addicts, police and shop detectives, prison officers and other inmates (mainly addicts) this kept me isolated from the views and values of society and also the love in society. This in turn allowed me to stay firmly trapped in the denial of addiction. 

As my addiction progressed for several reasons I lost the ability to steal and had to beg to make money. 
Now I come from a fiercely proud working class background where begging is not acceptable in any form. My mum kicked my ass for doing ‘penny for the guy’. So begging filled me with a deep sense of shame. What you can’t avoid when begging is interactions with members society. Those interactions were as varied as society itself sometimes I was shown incredible acts of kindness, often I was ignored, often I was verbally abused, sometimes I was physically abused I was spat on and even pissed on.
Each one of those interactions particularly the ones where I was shown love served as a mirror for me reflecting how bad things were, how far removed from society I had become and how far away from being the person I was meant to be I had become. The sense of shame grew and grew into a sense of desperation.
Now often in order for an addict to get recovery several elements have to magically align. As I see it these elements are the opportunity, the environment, encouragement and support and last but not least the desperation to embrace the opportunity. I believe if I hadn’t been a beggar I would not have been desperate enough to embrace my chance. If no one had given me money I wouldn’t have been a beggar for long and in turn may have missed that gift of desperation. 
I will continue to give money to beggars when I can I will also give them my time and talk to them about recovery opportunities.

The Big Rotten Apple New York, Hip Hop and Race Through White British Eyes.

“Hey yo, we got five boroughs of ghettos with many places to meet. You get lost in city streets. The city that never sleeps. Mecca, Medina the population increase. The desert and the oasis, New York, the Far East.” (Rakim 1997)

Sorry for the delay I have been caught up with writing the report for homeless link which is available online here.

If you followed my blog purely for the housing aspect this post may not be of so much interest to you. This is a personal reflection of my visit to New York and of my relationship with Hip Hop culture and to some degree my thoughts on race politics. If you’re interested in that read on.

During my trip to the states I was lucky enough to be able to visit New York. I have wanted to visit New York for over 30 years. I was not interested in visiting the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street (although the size of the balls on that bull were an eye opener), ground zero and definitely not Trump Tower. The New York I wanted to visit is a different place. I wanted to go to the South Bronx where Hip Hop was born. I wanted to visit Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Linden Boulevard, Farmers Boulevard, Hollis and Queensbridge Housing Project in Queens, Harlem and El Barrio the places I had heard MC’s rapping about on records since I was a young teen. I wanted to ride the subway trains that had been emblazoned with beautiful graffiti many years earlier. I wanted to sit on the writers bench at Grand Concourse station in the Bronx where graffiti writers used to gather in the 70s and 80s to watch the trains and share sketches of outlines and stories of late night bombing (painting) missions. I wanted to some degree to recapture my youth.

Firstly let me tell you about my relationship with Hip Hop. I was about 12 years old and Hip Hop was about a decade old when Malcolm McLaren and the Supreme Teams ‘Buffalo Gals’ first was on top of the pops. The video introduced my friends and I to Hip Hop culture the style, the breakdancing, the graffiti art and the dj scratching records. We’d already heard some early rap records but this showed us the culture. The following day at school everyone was talking about it and soon we were trying to break dance and body pop ourselves (me quite badly as I had two left feet and no sense of rhythm). Soon after that the Rock Steady Crew released ‘Hey you the Rock Steady Crew’ and then came the film ‘Wild Style’ both of which showed us more of the culture which we lapped up.  

I guess at first it was just another Black American fashion to come out of the USA. Us whites have been going crazy for black culture since Jazz and Bebop. My mum loved rock and roll especially Little Richard an accomplished blues guitar player who along with others infused a little country music into the blues. The white appropriation of blues and rock n roll soon happened by artists such as Elvis and Eddie Cochran, later on artists like the Doors and the Rolling Stones were stealing R&B. 

The aspect of Hip Hop that caught me at first was the graffiti. As a young adolescent I was struggling with life I had low self esteem and felt inadequate in most areas. When I compared myself to other kids my age in my mind I almost always fell short. I felt I had one redeeming feature I could draw. It was my escape from reality I would spend hours immersed in whichever world I was sketching on the old computer paper my grandad brought home from the factory. Because of graffiti drawing had become cool. I would copy the b-boy characters off of the cover of ‘Hey You the Rock Steady Crew’ and started drawing letters in a graffiti style. Other kids wanted me to draw on their exercise books all of a sudden I had some resemblance to popularity.

Two things changed the game for me the documentary ‘Style Wars’ shown on channel 4 and the publication of the book ‘Subway Art’ by Henry Chalfont and Martha Cooper. We now had the blueprint of how to create a graffiti masterpiece. Soon we were bunking off school every day getting high, stealing spray paint and pens and painting graffiti wherever we could on trains, in railway tunnels, on school buildings and in the local subways. My mum wasn’t particularly happy about it especially when after getting busted one evening her kitchen step stool was kept as evidence by some of Avon and Somerset constabulary’s finest, we were little shorties and needed something to reach the high spots. 

I came from a home with my mum, dad and two older sisters. This is not the format to talk about my dad apart from to say I didn’t have much of a relationship with him or indeed see much of him. Being accepted by my mates as a young man was hugely important to me. When painting graffiti together or listening to the latest tape one of us had got our hands on I felt like I belonged. Hip Hop gave me the ability to fit in.

From its birth in the South Bronx when it brought together the warring gangs of New York Hip Hop has always been a unifying force. Growing up in the 70s and early 80s racism hung heavy in the air. Before we started doing graffiti the only thing I saw painted on walls were big swastikas and national front symbols. Until secondary school I had never met anyone who wasn’t white British. My dad was Irish that was as exotic as it got. Hip Hop brought us together black, white and asian if you could paint, breakdance, beatbox, rap or body pop you was down. One of the first things I did in New York was attend a park jam in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) where old school dj’s were playing and guys were breakdancing. The event was organised by a white Muslim lady named Christie the event was attended by pioneers of the culture such as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Caz, Pow Wow and Popmaster Fabel. There were people of all ethnicities enjoying the vibe, Hip Hop continues to be a unifying force.

As I grew into my later teens I drifted away from Hip Hop and got into drugs more and more. We were reunited when I went home to my mums to attempt my first detox from heroin. Trying to stay clean those first few times was a really lonely experience I was avoiding the people I knew as they might be holding. I spent endless hours with a walkman on in the company of Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, KRS 1, Q Tip, Slick Rick and Rakim. In a lot of ways they became my friends and only company. Rap music is unique in its use of language no other music crams in so many lyrics.

Its ability to paint pictures of landscapes, tell stories, convey emotion and ultimately lay open the performers humanity is in my opinion without compare. It has the ability to take you away from your reality and put you somewhere else and as a young man and teenager my reality was not where I wanted to be.

There are five elements of Hip Hop DJing, MCing (rapping), writing (graffiti), b-boying (breakdancing) and the fifth often forgotten element knowledge. Hip Hop got me reaching for books. It got me reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, ‘Soul on Ice’ by Eldridge Cleaver, ‘Soledad Brother’ by George Jackson, ‘The Presidents Daughter’ by William Wells Brown and many more. It taught me about the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, the Maroons and the Mau Mau. It taught me about Elijah Muhammad, Huey Newton, Marcus Garvey, Nat Turner, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton and Louis Farrakhan. It taught me about imperialism, colonialism, racism and slavery. 

We were barely taught about slavery at school it was mentioned as one part of the triangular trade almost as if black lives barely mattered and were equal to rum, tobacco and cotton, a side note in history that enabled the industrial revolution. It was one of the worst crimes to humanity and yet was treated as somehow insignificant. Millions of black people were killed during capture and internment in Africa (unknown amount), millions were killed during the crossing of the Atlantic (estimated 5% of the cargo), millions more died in seasoning camps (some estimates of 50%). It is estimated that anything between 22 million and 55 million Africans lost their lives as a result of the trade. Those who survived then suffered generation after generations of abuse, torture, rape, murder, sexual assault and were dehumanised at the hands of white slave owners. Yet somehow this was not deemed significant enough to add to the curriculum. I know other things were omitted such as the many crimes of British colonialism, the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas, the many years of class struggle, the Spanish civil war and particularly the role of anarchists within it and the creation of Israel and the treatment of the indigenous Palestinians. However it was probably the first thing Hip Hop encouraged me to learn about. Hip Hop taught me to look beyond the established narrative.

Through the art of sampling Hip Hop has introduced me to so much beautiful music that I would never of heard if it wasn’t getting used in the records I listened to. My CD collection is full of soul, funk, R&B, blues, afrobeat and various Latino music. Hip Hop has enriched my life in so many ways.

My struggles with addiction continued for many years and just like my other significant relationships my relationship with Hip Hop suffered. Whenever I had a break from my addiction courtesy of her majesty I would attempt to rekindle my relationship with my mum and also get reacquainted with Hip Hop. Drawing graffiti outlines in my cell and listening to Tim Westwood on the radio. I spent a few memorable months sharing a cell with a guy of Nigerian descent who had a supply of hashish and three cd’s ‘Capital Punishment’ by Big Pun, ‘Miseducation of Lauren Hill’ by Lauren Hill and ‘Marshall Mathers’ by Eminem. I remember that time quite favourably due to those three great lp’s that I knew every word of. The hash and company was ok too. 

In recent years my life has had a lot more stability with strong loving relationships so Hip Hop has not been so important to me but is still in my life. My oldest son is a big Hip Hop fan which I think has been down to me to some degree.

It’s not been a perfect relationship sometimes Hip Hop angers me. I dislike all forms of patriarchy, sexism and misogyny yet some Hip Hop seems very misogynistic. I’m not entirely sure how much of this is led by the record labels or the artists. One of my favourite all time MC is Jean Grae who is one of the most skilful MC’s around and raps with intelligence yet a big label has not been near her. However women such as Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea are very successful with limited talent. The difference between them is that Jean Grae does not appear semi naked in her videos. 

As a white person I feel very uncomfortable with criticising gender and family relations within the black American community when my race has been actively destroying those relationships for hundreds of years. Can you imagine on any given day your wife or children could be sold to another plantation never to be seen again or they could be raped by the white masters. Sexual abuse of women, men and children was a common practice in slavery and was used for the purpose of control every bit as much as the whip and manacles. Forced breeding was another sexual abuse forced on slaves the master often encouraging women to have high numbers of children and having control of who mated with who. Often you’ll hear white Americans say “but slavery ended 150 years ago ‘they’ need to get over it.” It’s ironic that often these same white Americans have a flag of a 150 year old failed confederacy still flying above their state capitals or are the ones shouting “9/11 never forget”. Of course the emancipation of the slaves in 1863 did not stop abuse or the active destruction of black American families. Poverty, inequality, the war on drugs and the American prison industry still sees to it that many African American families are damaged beyond repair.

Having said all that I am still fully opposed to misogyny in whichever community it may be. I just feel that it is an issue that will be best addressed by the African American community and it is hypocritical at best for white people to pass judgement. It’s not like we have our own house in order particularly when there is a white American president who is on tape showing off about sexual abuse.

Sometimes I get frustrated with some of Hip Hops obsession with wealth and violence. As an anarchist/socialist it doesn’t sit that well with me. However you have to remember that there is Hip Hop and there is the Hip Hop that the industry has promoted and they’re not necessarily the same thing. The Coup, Dead Prez and Paris are all socialist in their philosophy and it goes without saying they get very little promotion. Hip Hop is created generally by oppressed people so tends to be left leaning. Most rappers come from poverty so being obsessed with the trapping of wealth in this capitalist society is no surprise. Hip Hop started out as making something from nothing for the community.

Anyway Hip Hop good or bad was born in the Bronx NYC on August the 11th 1973. It started when DJ Kool Herc with the use of two copies of the same record on two turntables kept the instrumental ‘break’ going so party goers could dance to it for longer. I was going to the city where this cultural phenomenon was born and I was hyped.

I arrived in New York at about 8am in the morning after a particularly nerve wracking night at a motel next to Newark airport. As the receptionist at my hotel in Queens put it when I checked in “Man you stayed in that place? I’m from the Bronx and I wouldn’t stay there!”. The bus dropped me off at port authority bus terminal. I was staying in Long Island City in Queens so had to drag my suitcase to Times Square to catch the N train. 
It’s hard to explain the obsession with the New York subway system that most people who are linked to graffiti culture either casual or hardcore have. However even though the trains are now sanitised shiny stainless steel without the names and art of the ghetto emblazoned on them I was still excited to ride the subway. 

During my short stay in NY riding the subway was one of my favourite activities. There was such a varied collection of humanity on those trains including buskers street dancing and doing some crazy acrobatics on the handrails, people preaching various religious doctrines and other people with seemingly untreated mental health issues shouting at unseen demons. 

Jackson Heights, Queens

I arrived at my hotel too early to check into my room so I decided to leave my suitcase there and head out to a meeting of a self help support group that I attend. There was a meeting in Jackson Heights in Queens so I jumped on the N train to Queensboro Plaza and then the 7 train to 82nd street Jackson heights. Throughout lots of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx the subway runs on elevated lines allowing for great views of the city. 
Roosevelt Ave in Jackson Heights has the 7 line running along the length of the street bathing it in shadows and giving it the unmistakable look of New York. Jackson Heights seemed to be predominantly Spanish speaking. One of the great things about New York is that you can jump off the subway and the neighbourhood you end up in has its own unique flavour. On the flip side over the course of my short time in NYC it felt very segregated, more so than the UK. 
I was introduced to Cuban food particularly ‘moros y cristianos’ a rice and beans dish which seemed to come with most dishes and was delicious. Also the Cuban sandwich which was a sandwich of pork, ham, cheese and pickles (this was before I started slimming world). I ate a lot of Cuban food in the few days I was in New York.
Later after a quick shower at the hotel I caught the N train to Lexington Ave and then the 4 train to 183rd Street in the Bronx or as it’s known the Boogie Down Bronx the birthplace of Hip Hop. I was on my way to meet my friend Michael to go to a park jam in Spanish Harlem. It was noticeable that after 125th Street I was the only white person in the subway car what made me stand out more was that I had a bright purple t-shirt on, was sweating like a pig and was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. 
I arranged to meet my friend at 183rd Street station. There was some confusion as I thought I was meeting below the station at street level he thought we were meeting in the elevated station. Michael and I had never met before (we know each other from social media) I recognised him from the photos I’d seen of him on instagram. I approached him saying his name. He looked at me and started to deny he was who he is before he realised who I was and then greeted me warmly followed by “you can’t just approach people like that up here man, you could get hurt.” I put this strange reaction down to my friend being a little under the influence of alcohol it was later that I reflected and thought about this. I’m fat, bold, middle aged and white anyone fitting that description approaching black men in the Bronx is highly likely to be police. It’s no wonder I got some suspicious stares whilst wandering around the Bronx and Harlem. 
We caught the subway to 110th street and walked through Spanish Harlem to Poor Richards playground. The playground was a big expanse of concrete divided by high chain link fences with basketball and handball courts. The park was alive with children playing games and parents chatting to each other from the back of the park you could here the steady thud of the bass of a sound system. As we walked towards the source of the sound I saw people breakdancing in the centre of a loose circle with others stood about nodding their heads to the latin funk the DJ was spinning. Some of the older guys were wearing waistcoats in the style of the New York gangs of the 60s and 70s. I can’t describe the feeling of being there in the hot New York sun. I had reached my Mecca.
I was introduced to Christie who organised the event and her husband Jorge Popmaster Fabel a legend in the world of street dance and a member of the legendary Rock Steady Crew. I was then introduced to Grandmaster Caz of the legendary Cold Crush Brothers, I remember listening to tapes of them in my early teens. It was Caz’s lyrics that were used without his permission on Rappers Delight the first ever rap record. I also met Joe Conzo a photographer who documented a lot of early Hip Hop and Pow Wow of the Soul Sonic Force. Hip Hop royalty one and all. Then I spotted DJ Kool Herc across the park I pointed him out to Michael and he was like “yo cmon I’ll introduce you.” I’d like to say I had a great chat about the early days of hip hop etc however I just stood there a bit star struck and Herc asked me some questions about my journey and the uk and then asked if I’d like a photo with him and I of course said yes.

Me with Grandmaster Caz
Me with DJ Kool Herc

Everyone at the park that day made me feel welcome especially Caz a very warm and friendly man and I’ve gained a few social media friends from that day. 
I went downtown to Little Italy later that evening for food, it felt a bit touristy and a bit crap.

The following day I explored Brooklyn.

To be continued in part two (hopefully it won’t take so long to publish the next instalment)

Questions Answered

Just move on up toward your destination. Though you may find from time to time complications. (Curtis Mayfield 1970)

Sorry about the delay I was having a blast in NYC.

Me having a blast in New York meeting DJ Kool Herc the founder of Hip Hop

When I came to visit Northwest Youth Services I had several questions about their rapid rehousing program. I quickly discovered they don’t call it rapid rehousing, it’s just what they do. My questions were

1. How do they encourage landlords to house young people in the PRS?

2. How is it financially viable / how are they funded?

3. How do they work with young people to encourage them to take responsibility for their tenancies and behaviour?

4. How do they help young people maintain their tenancies in the long term?

I think I got them answered but first let me explain their housing programs.

NWYS has two main housing programs which are the transitional housing program and the permanent housing program. The transitional housing is a studio flat within Francis Place, Bellingham’s first permanent supported housing which is run by Catholic Community Services. NWYS has ten units within the complex. The young person can stay for up to eighteen months. They have a case manager assigned to them that they have to meet regularly. Having to have a case manager is a prerequisite of having the housing subsidy that pays their housing costs. That would be a little like having to have a floating support worker to receive housing benefits. 

One of the things that seems to work well is that NWYS provides the case manager and CCS take care of the landlord duties. This means that the case manager is not caught up in playing bad cop one day and then trying to play good cop the next. In my opinion this is one of the things that does not work so well in YP supported housing in the UK, often leading to fractured relationships with the young people that are being supported. Young people often say they feel their support worker is always on their case and they don’t feel they can approach them for support.  

At the end of the eighteen months if the YP moves on into the community they can access a further year of support from their case manager. Which means the support stays fairly consistent and more importantly the relationship is maintained. 

Francis Place Bellingham

The permanent housing is a similar thing but is “scattered location” which means that the young people live in the private rented sector. Once again the housing subsidy comes attached to the case manager so if the young person stops having support they also lose the subsidy. In the permanent housing program the support lasts for up to two years, however if the young person has a crisis after that time they will still be able to access the case managers for support. 

The young people are not assessed to decide which program they access rather it is up to the young people and they are trusted to know what’s best for them. This seemed to sit within the whole “Positive Youth Development” approach that is adopted by NWYS. Also if a young person felt that it was not working they could swap programs particularly from transitional. If the housing fails they can either swap programs or go back on the waiting list for housing depending on the nature of how it failed but they won’t get excluded. 

The case managers will typically have a mixture of clients who are in the transitional housing and permanent housing programs. The case managers have a case load of fourteen young people which seemed low to me but I was told it was to guard against burn out and give good quality support. 

In both programs the young people are encouraged to save as well as pay a portion of the rent. This is on a sliding scale and as time goes on they will be expected to pay more until the end of the subsidy where they should really be paying the full rent. There is some flexibility in how much the housing subsidy can pay so market rents can be matched. Some young people may be able to access a permanent housing voucher but these are rare. 

The support that the case managers offer is holistic in nature. Support with mental health and accessing the limited services available, substance use, relationships and domestic violence and tenancy issues were some of the issues I either heard about or witnessed support for. 

One of the things that stood out for me was the upfront honest three way relationship between case manager, young person and landlord. Right from the beginning they are honest with the landlord that there will be some problems but they will work through them. This is probably helped by the fact that NWYS will cover damages. However it struck me that the upfront honest approach created a much more equal relationship. I was told of when a case manager would tell the landlord about a young person smoking weed on the premises it meant there were no secrets and it seemed to increase trust all around.

I have to say there was a waiting list for the housing programs of around a hundred young people on the waiting list most of whom were street homeless. I found it difficult to reconcile this with the low case loads but as Riannon Bardsley the executive director  said “we want to do what we do well”. I believe that the fact homelessness and youth homelessness is acceptable in the USA takes the pressure off and and allows this. NWYS is working hard in partnership with city and other partners to remedy this. More permanent supported housing is due to be built with twenty units going to NWYS for more transitional housing. There is also a chance they may get some units in a big student housing development being built at present. 

Large development of student housing being built in Bellingham

So my questions.

How do they encourage landlords to house young people in the PRS?

It seems that NWYS faces a lot of the same issues as we do in the UK with very few vacant properties on the market it can be a challenge a landlord to take on a young person. Especially a young person with no rental history or other barriers such as a criminal record. However the fact that they can match market rates and the support of a case manager is guaranteed helps some to convince a landlord. 

How is it financially viable / how are they funded?

NWYS receives the bulk of its funding from government streams federal (HUD), county (health department), and city (housing levy). They have the same struggles as smaller charities in the UK do when it comes to trying to attract philanthropist or corporate funding. The fact that the housing subsidy allows them to cover the market rent and also damages means it is financially viable for the landlord. 

How do they work with young people to encourage them to take responsibility for their tenancies and behaviour?

The case managers at NWYS worked in a very similar way to ourselves. They’re central approach was “positive youth development” which seemed a very client centred approach. The fact that they had smaller case loads must of helped. However I can’t help but think that the fact there is no safety net and street homelessness is very much a reality if you mess up must encourage the young people to take more responsibility. In the USA there seems to be a strong culture of personal accountability more so than the UK I think. 

How do they help young people maintain their tenancies in the long term?

At NWYS I was constantly told its all about the relationship with the young person to the point of giving support even when a case has been closed. Riannon put it to me like “if you left home from supportive parents you’d still call now and then for advice or when you find yourself in crisis.” This I think gives the young person confidence to make mistakes. Also the vocational program which gets young people into work obviously helps them to maintain their long term future.

These are my initial thoughts. When I write my report I will try to explore all this further.

The Left Side of America

“We do for self like ants in a colony. Organize the wealth into a socialist economy.” (Dead Prez 2000) 

Bernie Sanders plaque on a lawn in Bellingham

As I prepare to travel to New York it’s with a little sadness in my heart. Bellingham and the Pacific North West in general is a beautiful part of the world. Bellingham is one of the greenest cities I have ever visited. Southampton has some great green spaces and trees but I don’t think it quite matches Bellingham. Bellingham has a back drop of lush green pine forests and the snow capped Mt Baker which is part North Cascades range.

Bellingham is at the far left of the USA in both geography and political ideology. This is the thing I’ve liked the most about Bellingham. I came to the US with some preconceived stereotypes. So was quite pleasantly surprised that the second day I was here I found myself having a conversation about Palestine that reflected the conversations I have with my colleague Jon.

Its clear the owner of this car ain’t gonna vote Trump

I have not seen a single poster or sign supporting Trump or indeed Hilary for that matter. It’s all Bernie here in fact he beat Hilary by a landslide in Washington state primaries 73% to 27%.

A rice list outside a recreational cannabis shop
A recreational cannabis store
A selection of some of the cannabis on sale
A medical cannabis store
Another recreational cannabis store

They have legalised cannabis for both medical and recreational use. They have a big community co-op food store and bakery with a restaurant and coffee shop which is excellent. This co-op seems to be popular with all sections of the community. When eating there I saw a group of old men and to me they seemed out of place. In the UK I would expect to see a group of old men in a pub not eating vegan food in a co-op restaurant.

The local food co-op

The local credit unions are huge and seem to have more of
a presence than the banks or at least equal with it. One the Whatcom Educational Credit Union boasting 13 branches including a business loan centre and a home loan centre.

Yet there is massive inequality and people are living on the streets and in camps in the woods surrounding Bellingham. Black people and Native Americans are disproportionately represented in those groups. I have to say that neither of those groups were represented well in any of the trades I saw in Bellingham. The housekeeping staff at the hotel I stayed in were mainly Hispanic and I guess on minimum wage. 

A small homeless camp in the woods, I didn’t spot a larger one.

Speaking to people in Bellingham I got the sense they’d like to distance themselves from the rest of the USA. However I think maybe there’s a bit more work to do locally. 

I’m glad I visited and am incredibly grateful to NWYS for hosting me. I will blog more about some of their programs in the coming days. 

Growing Human Beings

“Thinkin’ of a master plan. Cuz ain’t nuthin’ but sweat inside my hand” (Rakim 1987)

Northwest Youth Services know that youth homelessness is not simply solved by putting a roof over a young persons head. This is particularly true if you have no way of making an income. Typically a housing subsidy is time limited financial help for housing costs. It is possible to get a section 8 housing voucher or shelter plus assistance (which can be indefinite) but these are difficult to get and it seems to be a bit of a lottery process to get one. So ideally it’s best to be able to financially support yourself by the time the housing subsidy ends (usually up to two years). 

As mentioned in previous blogs there are some serious blocks to employment in the US. If you do not have your high school diploma it can make it really hard to get work. Even having a GED (an equivalent to the HSD that you can get through going back to community college) can be frowned upon. It’s ironic that the country that champions and claims to epitomise meritocracy has a serious and lasting barrier to social mobility before you even reach adulthood. 

Another huge barrier in the USA is having a criminal record. In the UK we have the “Rehabilitation of Offenders Act” allowing ex-offenders a certain amount of rights and privacy. That does not seem to be the case in the US. Having a criminal record can stop employees giving you a job or landlords giving you a tenancy. Of course there are further barriers class, race, gender and sexuality. Also mental health, substance use or long periods of homeless. 

So NWYS offers a vocational program which includes one to one support with creating résumés, looking for work, applying for jobs and college. They also have an art space where young people can learn about screen printing and sewing amongst other arts and craft skills with a shop to sell products made by the young people. 

The We Grow Garden

There is also a project called we grow which is a gardening project which employs five young people for five hours a week during the growing season. They grow vegetables in a garden next to NWYS which are sold to local restaurants and at the local farmers market as well as donating some to the local food bank. The project is run with the support of a local university who provides a staff member who teaches the young people about various growing techniques and know how. Agriculture is one of the biggest employers in the region (and I guess the newly legal cannabis trade need growers too) so being able to put this work experience on a resume is fantastic. NWYS employ youth in other roles such as the janitor at the offices giving young people vital work experience.

A food basket ready for a local restaurant

The vocational program is run by Dan and Bonnie who are both qualified teachers. When I spend the afternoon at the “we grow” garden what I witnessed was not just work experience it was good old fashioned youth work. The young people were encouraged to explore their values, they were encouraged to take personal responsibility and were listened to and interacted with in an informal yet respectful manner. Northwest Youth Services sign on the side of their building said “help us grow a human being” and I guess that’s what I witnessed. 

The Glue

“Streetlights & deepnights cats trying to eat right. Riding no seat bikes with work to feed hypes” (Common 2004)
One of the aspects I have enjoyed the most about spending time with NWYS in Bellingham has been the times I have been out with the street outreach team. I have enjoyed speaking and connecting with the young people as well as the workers I’ve been out with. 

The team are out seven days a week providing seven hours of outreach each day. They typically carry bags full of snacks, Gatorade (an American sports drink that seems to be very popular amongst the young people), sanitary wear, condoms, toiletries, basic first aid supplies and probably other stuff that young people need that I didn’t get to witness being given out. The “Detour Street Outreach Program” as it is known has been going for three years so they are familiar to the young people. Being out every day is invaluable and you can see it in the relationships with the young people. 

There are around a hundred young people waiting for either the transitional or permanent housing programs that NWYS offer and it can take some time to get to the top of the list. The vast majority of those young people are street homeless. Some of the young people will regularly visit the office to get some clothes, have a shower or use the nap room for a much needed sleep. Others are much more self sufficient and rely on the outreach team to update them of any progress with their applications.

Dowtown Bellingham

On the first evening I went out with the team we walked around the downtown area of Bellingham. We first met a young man aged around 20 years old whose eyes were almost closed the entire time we talked with him. It seemed he was taking full advantage of the legal status of weed in Washington state. He had plans to travel down to California, where he wanted to be near the beach and make his own surf board. The team checked to see if he needed anything for the journey and it was agreed he’d bring a list to the office to see if we could sort out any of the stuff he needed. There was no challenge to his choice just a respect of his wishes and checking to see how he can be supported. It was truly young person centred. 

We went to a local church meal for the homeless where we caught up with some other young people. Two of them were able to do their housing applications to get them on the waiting list. It’s debatable whether those two young people would have ever accessed the office to fill in an application. 

We met one young person who was nearing being able to be offered a transitional housing place. Katie the outreach worker was able to remind him that he had an appointment at Francis Place (the permanent supported housing complex where NWYS have 10 units they use for transitional housing) the next day. He was not going to be housed the next day but it would be one crucial step closer. The following day I was on reception at the office and the same young man came in. He didn’t remember the time of his appointment or indeed that it was around the corner at Francis Place. However he came in because of his reminder from the outreach team. Chelsea the worker on reception was able to get him to sign a form needed to help him get a replacement birth certificate that would be needed for him to get the housing subsidy needed to move in. She was also able to confirm the time and place of his appointment. 

It was great to see how this type of assertive outreach can support the young people in their journey. You can also see that if a YP disengages with the vocational program or fails in their housing it will be the outreach team who will catch up with the young person. Giving them the chance to let the young person know they haven’t given up on them and support is still available. The team also visits the county jail so if the young people go inside for a spell there is still contact.

The County Jail

For me it seems the outreach team is the glue that keeps the whole thing together and keeps the young people engaged with the service.