Community Reparations to Transform Community Desolation

Throughout my childhood, when Mama and I were sleeping in our car, we were regularly arrested, cited, and eventually incarcerated for doing so. It is illegal to be houseless in this country, and it is, in fact, a punishable offense. So is sitting, lying, or sleeping on a public street and/or convening on a corner or on a public sidewalk if you are a young person of color, im/migrant, indigenous person in diaspora seeking day labor, or someone who “looks homeless.” All of these are what I call “crimes of poverty”: overtly raced and classed “crimes” pinned on poor people and people of color, resulting in our ongoing police harassment, profiling, removal, incarceration, and, often, state-sponsored murder.

Displacement = Death: a collaborative mural created by lead artists Carina Lomeli, Asian Robles, Muteado Silencio, Charles Pitts, Vivian Thorp, Jasmine Hain, and many more under the auspices of POOR Magazine.

Sometimes I and my disabled mama of color (she was African-Taino-Roma—although I look like my white father, the descendent of colonizers) would save up enough money from the tireless hours of extremely hard work we were always doing in our street-based micro-business to rent a motel room or a tiny apartment. Because of my mother’s disability and my young age (between eleven and twenty-one during this time), we were surviving on only what we made by selling handmade art on the street without a license. But there were times, albeit rare, when we would get “inside.” During these times, we had many “landlords,” and at least four of them were observant Jews. They treated us no differently than other landlords did. They went to synagogue, observed Shabbat, and celebrated sacred Jewish holidays. I know this much about them because those holidays were the few times they wouldn’t be calling us, sending us notices, or pounding on our shabby doors in the single room occupancy hotels or the overpriced and uninhabitable apartments they owned that we barely resided in, asking for their rent money. Every single one of these landlords evicted my mama and me for unpaid or late rent.

Each time we were evicted, my young heart would jump out of my chest, filled with terror about returning to the street or the back seat of our current broke-down “hooptie” (car), which was constantly being towed for the “sleeping in vehicle” citations we were always receiving; or even worse, the cardboard motels (as my mama called them) in doorways or alleys or parks.

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One thought on “Community Reparations to Transform Community Desolation

  1. I was initially intrigued when coming across Lisa Gray-Garcia’s article. However intrigue quickly gave way to dismay, as I found the piece full of anti-semitism and revealing of a fetishistic relationship to poverty & the experience of ghetto life, abrogating personal responsibility & accountability. While I doubt any of us would argue with the author that the social service net is full of holes & many very desperately poor people are way under-served, attempting to guilt the readers of this publication by reviving those old anti-semitic canards of rich, uncaring Jews is not going to work. This kind of bias & prejudice needs to be brought into the light & named for what it is.

    In recounting her history, Gray-Garcia waxes nostalgic about how hard her Mama worked to take care of her. I would counter that either the story her mother told was not quite true, or perhaps her mother could have made some better choices for their family. Far from needing to survive “on only what we made[..]” a disabled woman with a minor child would have been eligible for mulitiple forms of Welfare, Social Security, Medi-Cal, Food Stamps, WIC & Section 8 housing, Additionally, between the ages of 16 & 21, Gray-Garcia might have considered getting herself a J.O.B. While fast-food service is no one’s dream, it would have brought in much needed cash to help pay rent and supplement the social serviece provisos that this family very much needed.

    Gray-Garcia quickly moves on to the stereotypical evil Jewish landlords, who evicted her & her mother because of late or unpaid rent. While we can all empathize with the anguish, anxiety & even terror that being put out caused, Gray-Garcia’s request “Don’t evict us if we don’t have the rent money” creates personal villains, when the blame should rest elsewhere (public sector). By positing herself as a Victim, she becomes her own sole focus, unable to “see” anyone else in her drama as a whole person, with an equally valid story & pain of their own. It does not occur that those landlords had mortgages, taxes, insurance payments, and families to support. Could we imagine for a moment that the building owners bought hoping to make improvements, but were unable to do so, because they did exactly what Gray-Garcia requests later in her article: renting shelter w/out requiring credit. Every time landlords don’t get paid or have to go thru an eviction process, they lose money, risk defaulting on their mortgage, fines for lates on their taxes & loss of insurance for lack of payment. This is the central flaw in the narrative of the Victim: her need supercedes all else, disregarding the costs to others.

    While Gray-Garcia is writing in response to Aryeh Cohen’s Justice in the City, she does not seem to understand that although we are indeed personally required to help those in need, our tradition encourages us to do so thru community groups, those social service organizations filled with people trying to make a difference, whom the writer accuses of profiteering without caring about the struggle of those it serves. (Seriously? I’ve never met anybody getting fat in a social service job!). Those agencies are not there to perpetuate negative perceptions of poor people, they are there to provide some support so people can start availing themselves of every possible opportunity to change the direction of their lives, for themselves and their children.

    If we were to compare hard luck histories, I’d say that of most Jewish Americans is equivalent to the one Gray-Garcia has presented. Most Jewish people in America came here fleeing the flames of the first world war or the ovens of the second, after having survived thousands (not merely a couple of hundred) of years of brutal persecutions in the Diaspora. Jews are the original niggers; lower than any other human, for having not only known & rejected Christ, but also being held responsable for killing him. Needless to say, we were not welcomed here either. We arrived w/little more than the rags on our backs, beaten, starving & sick. I think the most interesting question is why does my community thrive no matter where we end up, while Garcia-Gray’s continues to flounder?

    Those answers are found within the Jewish traditions. We place a very high value on learning not just to read & write, but to study at great depth the teachings of our faith. We are taught that part of what we are here to do is help heal & repair the world. We start with ourselves, our family, our community. In the past every Jewish community had some kind of charitable/ lending organized to take care of those in need & help those who were able, start helping themselves. Today we have Hebrew Free Loan Association, interest free micro-loans, co-signed by 3 established members of the Jewish community. Where is the African-American or Puerto Rican Free Loan Association? Why isn’t Gray-Garcia reaching out to those members of her own communities who’ve made it, to create something that would help empower those still struggling to move forward? Why isn’t she shaming them, the way she has attempted to shame the Jewish community in this article? Not knowing her audience beyond the stereotype in her head, Gray-Garcia doesn’t seem to know that research shows Jewish-American families are more likely than those of other faiths to give to charities focusing on food and shelter (see

    Lastly, I was left wondering whose indigenous, stolen land the writer would like returned to her? Does she even see the irony of her living in Californina as a non-Mexican? An African, Puerto Rican, Roma, Euro descendant, what land does she believe she has claim to? Again we see the anti-semitc subtext, as this article was directed to Jewish people, the majority of whom haven’t been in this country long enough to have engaged in the historic land theft & appropriations committed by the colonizers.

    And yet… I recognize the good work this author & her collaborators at POOR are doing. I may even choose to support them with either my time or my money, not because I owe these people anything; but simply because that might be where my heart leads.

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