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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Thinking about Poverty and Law - Part 3 - Homelessness and Civil Rights

Homelessness of Families Result in Curtailment of Civil Rights
Before 1981, there was no homeless population in Westchester County, New York where I worked for a Legal Services field program. When a family was evicted or burned out of their home, the family quickly obtained replacement housing. However, with welfare grants not keeping pace with the rising costs of housing during the 1970s, many families were able to pay their rent only by using the portion of their earned income that was exempted by law from consideration in calculating their welfare grants (the first $30 plus one third of the balance of gross income). One of the supposedly cost saving welfare reforms of the early Reagan years was the elimination of this exemption. It was then that we first saw families become homeless. Over the years, rooming houses were eliminated and many single people also lost their only affordable shelter.
The massive numbers of homeless people, including thousands of children brought about a system of so-called “emergency housing,” arranged and supported by the welfare department. In time, the welfare department contracted with corporations to provide “emergency” services to the ever growing numbers of homeless people. The result was a system where due to no fault of their own, many children and adults found themselves in environments where the normal conditions and rights of civil life and society did not apply. Instead, families became subject to strict supervision, a lack of basic privacy and a set of special rules and controls.
Some examples: Homeless families and single people became "licensees" of their accommodations, rather than tenants. As licensees, they could be evicted from emergency apartments and shelters without any of the normal rights of tenants. They could be denied overnight visitors and allowed restricted visitation during the day. They had little or no redress from unsanitary and unsafe housing conditions. They could be required to submit to physical and mental examinations and therapy sessions as determined by case workers and housing managers. Their rooms and apartments were subject to unannounced searches, even during the night, to ensure that there was no unauthorized person on the premises and that they possessed no contraband. Below, I set forth the text of a brief I filed concerning privacy violations in emergency housing.
These and many other restrictions on normal living conditions were rationalized as necessary incidents of the "emergency" situation created by a large homeless population. This was not a temporary dislocation of people caused by a great storm, fire, riot or other massive disturbance. It was a persistent situation that was created by welfare and housing policies and it could have been remedied by governmental policies. But the homeless were for the most part poor people of color and they were not desired in any community's "backyard.”
There is a major problem with fighting for the rights of homeless people to the have normal protections of privacy, freedoms to come and go, rights to protest unhealthy living conditions and to challenge unjust evictions and other arbitrary governmental decisions. That problem stems from the very concept of civil “emergency.” The government used the rubric of “emergency” to justify its curtailment of civil liberties and statutory rights of homeless families. Homeless families might complain that they were being deprived of entitlements, freedom and privacy without “due process of law,” but that constitutional concept is by no means absolute.
Due process and our other constitutional rights depend on the circumstances, on what people demand and on what each of the branches of government say they mean. What protections are available under “due process of law” is determined by balancing the interests of the government against those of the individual. As the Supreme Court stated in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, resolution of what process is due requires a “consideration of (i) the nature and weight of the private interest affected by the official action challenged; (ii) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest as a consequence of the summary procedures used; and (iii) the governmental function involved and state interests served by such procedures, as well as the administrative and fiscal burdens, if any, that would result from the substitute procedures sought.”
A state of emergency shifts the resolution of what process is due to the favor of the government, in order for it to reduce or eliminate the emergency. There is severe danger to civil liberties and other rights whenever the government determines that an emergency exists, especially if the emergency is indefinite in duration, widespread geographically and indeterminate in its scope and details. The government can be expected to take advantage of any shifting of the balance between government power and individual rights. The executive branch, especially, will not voluntarily give up whatever powers it can accumulate from the legislative and judicial branches in order to maintain surveillance and control of people. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Memories of Lebanon


I loved our time some years ago in Lebanon, what an interesting country! Janet and I were relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed the jubilation of a Lebanon which had just about recovered from fifteen years of brutal civil war, a Beirut that had rebuilt and restored its self-confidence and sophistication as the “Paris of the Middle East.” We were welcomed enthusiastically by Janet’s large family on both sides. We visited with her first cousins and their families in Beirut and in villages of the mountains behind Beirut and over the mountains, in the Bekaa Valley. We visited the ruins of Byblos, one of the most ancient cities of the world, the wineries of the Bekaa Valley and the family home in a village in the southern Bakaa Valley. We saw the treasures of Roman architecture at Baalbek, Anjar, Saida and Tyre. What shame that the region is once again torn by strife.

Looking south, over the Litani River in the Bekaa valley.

Jupiter’s Temple at Baalbek, across to the eastern side of the Bekaa Valley.

A delicious home cooked lamb and rice dinner

A cup of strong coffee follows dessert

Some of the family live in Shweir, high above Beirut.

Cousin Adel preparing a Sunday barbeque dinner for the family.

Looking west across the Bakaa Valley from Baalbek; Beirut and the Mediterranean coast is on the other side of the distant mountains.

Hills behind downtown Beirut

 As rebuilding continued, ancient ruins are preserved in the heart of downtown Beirut

Details of a Roman temple at Baalbek where so much is so well preserved.

A memorial of the 15 year civil war by Arman. His 1995 work Hope for Peace is 32 meters in high and contains 83 tanks and vehicles.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Thinking About Poverty and Law -- Part 2 -- Problems of Homeless Families

Hopeless Station, a fictional account based actual cases
The call came in to the Hopeless Motel reception desk at 2:45 p.m., a bomb would go off at precisely 3:30 - “Get them homeless out of there,” was the only further statement of the caller; there was no bomb, but because the caller had first asked for room 308, a family found itself summarily dispossessed the next morning. It didn’t matter to the management that Barbara was a victim of spouse abuse, nor that it was almost certainly her husband who had made the call to make trouble for her. He had been sued by Social Services (DSS) for failing to support his child. He beat Barbara and had threatened their child when she told DSS his whereabouts and signed an affidavit against him for DSS to use in Family Court. The management was concerned only that trouble was brewing and there was enough of that already in the letters to the management and the local newspaper. So, Barbara was ordered out the following morning.
For Barbara and her seven year old daughter Debra, it was back to DSS and on to another motel in another town, on another highway, in another non-neighborhood, amidst fast food restaurants, automobile sales rooms, automobile fumes, bags of clothing and more bags. Barbara was assigned to live with other homeless families at the Bull Moose Motel in upstate New York. She and the other homeless families must hike along a busy corridor to shop for food at a nearby shopping center.
With only a parking lot for a playground, Barbara and Debra faced a summer of heat and boredom. Barbara’s search for a place to live produced nothing but responses of “No welfare” and an occasional offer of an apartment at a rent far beyond what DSS allows. Barbara counted the days until school would start. Registration Day finally arrived. Barbara and Debra arrived a little before 8:30 a.m. at the front door of the Benton McIntyre Elementary School on Monday September 4th. Barbara expected no difficulty, after all, there had been no problem when she registered Debra in school in Hopeless Station. Debra had had a pretty good year there, so why shouldn’t she be able to adjust and do just as well in this new school district.
Mother and child were not prepared for the cold reception and rejection she received from the staff and then the principal at McIntyre. She was told that the school district did not accept motel children, that she was not a resident of the district and so, her child could not attend without payment of the tuition. Debra and her mother returned to their room only with the suggestion that they ask DSS to transport Debra back to her previous school district. DSS agreed to provide transportation, but despite the pleading of Barbara and her DSS caseworker, the previous school district also refused to accept Debra, saying that she was no longer a resident of the district and could not attend without payment of tuition.
Barbara appealed to the state commissioner of education, who issued a temporary emergency order directing the McIntyre school district to admit the child. The following summer, the commissioner issued a regulation which he hoped would solve the homeless problem, directing that homeless children have a choice of continuing in the school where they became homeless or attending school in the district where the motel or shelter is located. For Debra, this worked out well, but for many children living in motels far distant from their old schools and friends, it has meant a ride of an hour or even two hours by taxi or special bus each way, thus excluding all after-school activities.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thinking About Poverty and Law - Part 1

Things may have changed since I wrote this but maybe not for the better. Here is a fragment of my writing on Legal Services and poverty in New York State

The Roberts family hadn’t given the motel manager, Kenberg, any reason to call their caseworker at the department of social services, not for over a year, but on their way back from shopping, an onion dropped unnoticed in the hallway, and a security guard found it on his 6 p.m. tour of the halls. He sniffed at each door on the floor, and coming upon a telltale odor of frying onions, he knocked hard, then waited only a moment before bursting in, so the family would not be able to hide the evidence. Ben waved to his boys to stash the plates under the bed. A mad scramble ensued but was not fast enough. The frying pan stuffed under the bed did nothing to hide the smoke and smell of the onions and hamburger. “Too late, Roberts, we been watching you, your kids dropped an onion in the hall, you're all history here, tomorrow morning, you're  outta here. Now give me the stuff, your pan, your hot plate, you can go to jail, you know for cooking here.” “My kids gotta eat, don’t they, they gotta eat....” Don’t you cook for your kids?” “Speak to Mr. Kenberg in the morning, first thing in the morning, I got my orders, nothin’ I can do ‘bout it;” the door closed.

“Dad? What about school tomorrow? We gonna miss school again like when got homeless? I got a test in geometry.” Don’t worry, Mark, just go on to school like nothin’s wrong. I’m gonna speak to the manager in the morning, maybe he’ll let us stay, he’s got to.” “Can we eat the burgers, Dad, or are they gonna come back and take them too?” “Take it easy Steve, turn on the TV.”

“Mr. Kenberg, I been here over a year, no fights, no drugs, nothin’. I got three kids in school, all doing good, you can’t kick us out ‘til school’s out, please, I don’t know where they’ll put us, might be far away or back in a hole in Yonkers, I can’t miss work, please, just give me a break, once.” “I can’t keep you, just can’t do it Ben. You and your kids made no trouble here, but I told yah, I told yah lots a times, the town wants me closed down, the fire people are over here every other day looking around to close me down. They don’t want no homeless here. It’s gettin’ hard as hell to run this place. You gotta go, sorry Ben, you gotta get down to welfare right away, with all your stuff, down to welfare this morning. Check-out’s at eleven. I’ll call the worker for you if you want.”

I had to hand it to Roberts, sending me a fax from a neighborhood store was ingenious. He explained later that getting through the host of intake workers at our office was if anything more challenging than getting in to see an emergency worker at the DSS office. It hadn’t always been that way at our shop, but I had to agree, it was so nowadays. Anyway, Roberts’s fax was brought to me without going through ”intake screening,” lucky for him. I asked him how he got our fax number: “Simple, I asked at the police station next door to the welfare office.” Roberts explained that he would lose his job if he had to spend all day at the welfare office. It was already pretty late in the morning when he had arrived there, having to take a bus from the motel all the way to the Yonkers district office of DSS.
He had called in to his job, but they told him he had already taken off too much time. He said he couldn’t tell them what was going on; he had to get to work by 1 p.m. or he would surely lose the job. He said he had to come down to welfare almost once a month for some damn thing and often had to spend the whole day, the usual story. He just couldn’t do so today. Yet, he had no place to sleep that night, and welfare was getting on his case for having gotten himself evicted from the motel. Apparently, they were letting motel and hotel evictees sit around until they finished with new applicants with emergency problems and newly homeless families that had just been evicted from “permanent” housing. A caseworker who did an initial intake on Roberts told him that she didn’t know but what he would be given low priority and placed out-of-county because he had gotten himself into trouble by violating the “no cooking” rule.

When I called the supervisor, Ms. Bonloch to stress my client’s need to stay in the area in order to retain his employment, her response was a curt refusal to interfere with the worker’s judgment call. Her view was that there were more deserving people for the limited slots available in-county. My only hope of getting him accommodations reasonably near his job was to act boldly and quickly. I sent a fax to the district director stating that out-of-county placement was not only arbitrary in the circumstances of this case, it would be contrary to the policy of the State DSS, which mandates emergency placements in or as near as possible to the homeless family's original residence. I then told Roberts to call me again in a half hour if he hadn’t been given a new placement within commuting distance to his job. I got no further call from him that day.

When Ben Roberts did call me back, three days later, he said the DSS worker had given him an “emergency apartment” in the New Rochelle, close enough for him to get to work by bus. Ben Roberts said he and the boys were very happy with their new place with its kitchen and two bedrooms. He thanked me for my intervention and said he was sure that if I hadn’t been involved, he would have been sent far away. He then told me that he had received a notice of reduction of his grant from DSS. I suggested where a fax could be sent to me at no cost, and a few hours later, I found Roberts’ reduction notice in my mailbox.

On its face, the reduction notice was routine and correct, simply adjusting the amount of public assistance to reflect Roberts’ recent pay increase, which he had duly reported. The facts stated in the notice were correct, the math was correct, and the regulations called for the result: Roberts was being asked to make a monthly payment for his apartment that exceeded his entire net take-home pay of 1143.32 a month. The absurdity of Roberts’ situation struck me as comical. I stared at the paper for some time before filling out a form request for a fair hearing to send to the State DSS. I faxed the request as it was the last day to do so to keep the grant unreduced pending a decision after a “fair hearing.”

In preparing for the hearing, I wanted to see this apartment for which my client was being billed $1239.58 a month. Ben Roberts’ broad smile didn’t square with what I viewed on entering his new place, but I understood full well that almost anything beats living in a single motel room with three children for over a year. The apartment turned out to have two small bedrooms; the refrigerator door was broken, two of four burners and the oven were inoperable, the paint was badly peeling from the walls and a huge colony of cockroaches crawled the walls even in daylight. The intercom didn’t work, there was no smoke alarm, the lock on the front door to the building hung down by one loose screw and the mailboxes were in bad shape. Those were the most obvious problems. This was supposed to be a model emergency apartment sponsored by DSS and one of the many do-good non-profit organizations set up supposedly to assist homeless families.

I asked Ben if he had been given any choice of where he would be staying, “No,” he was not asked or shown the apartment in advance. He was assigned to live there. While I was in the building, I asked Mr. Roberts to take me around to find out what some of the other tenants were paying for similar apartments. Our inquiries disclosed that comparable apartment were renting for $750 to $850 a month, some in better condition than his. I asked Roberts for the paper he signed when he took possession of the apartment; it turned out to be something called a “license,” a document which explicitly told Roberts that he had none of the rights of a tenant, but did have the duty to pay for his accommodations. When Roberts complained to the Building Inspector about the conditions in his apartment, he was told that the inspectors do not inspect premises leased under the DSS emergency assistance program - that DSS was responsible for ensuring compliance with the housing code.
At the hearing, to which Ben invited the press, we argued that the demand that Roberts pay over $1200 a month for an apartment such poor condition is unconscionable, that the license agreement is unconscionable and an attempt to evade the landlord’s responsibilities to provide a habitable apartment, that Roberts was being gouged for rent far above that which other tenants were paying and finally, we demonstrated the impossibility of what DSS was asking him to pay. There never was a decision after this hearing, for the matter became moot when a civic organization found an apartment which the Roberts family was able to afford - as a direct result of the publicity engendered by the hearing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

St. Lucia

 View from the porch at our "Avocado" Cottage at Natures's Paradise

 Overlooking Soufriere and the Pitons

 at the Rainforest Hideaway restaurant, Marigot Bay

 relaxing with a rum punch

 view from the pool at Nature's Paradise, Marigot Bay

Janet's pet for the day, a friendly boa constrictor

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Kaolack and Sobo Badé / L'Engouement

On the way from Sedhiou north to Kaolack we stopped in a village for the driver of our "Taxi Brousse" (vintage 7-passenger Peugeot station wagon) to pick up a large bag of charcoal to take to his family. Charcoal is used to cook. We just wish that solar cooking would take hold at least to reduce somewhat the toll on the forests which are fast disappearing. Where there were dense forests fifty years ago, now there are fields and many fewer
trees in most places, even in the Casamance region of Senegal.

(below: what we want to see, right: trees cut down for cooking)


Baptism celebration in Kaolack

At Sobo Badé we enjoy the sea-side restaurant as well as the sculpture garden and beautiful architecture of this dance recital space and artists' retreat.

Intercultural Dimensions participant Prof. Jay Lutz discusses African literature with Gérard Chenet at the L'Engouement artists' space (see dance stage below)

Intercultural Dimensions at Home in Sedhiou

Our home in Sedhiou is Diedhioucounda. John lived and worked with Alioune Diedhiou fifty years ago and we have kept close ties with the Diedhiou family since then. Senegalese tea (attaya) is a wonderful institution, at least it seems so. See,

Gabbing and drinking Attaya under the Mango tree.


Preparing Attaya in the afternoon

A mid-day meal of scrumptious Maafe was prepared by Néné Diedhiou


(Above) A security person is in charge of seeing that people wash and disinfect their hands before entering the City Hall of Sedhiou. There is no Ebola in Senegal but hygiene is getting a boost all over the country. For example, here is a wall poster about the importance of washing our hands regularly.

Samba Diedhiou surfs the web with a clé d'internet with Ibou Diedhiou's suggestions

Tabokoto's new house to raise chickens

It is not easy for a young man to find a job in Senegal, even a bright, get up-and-go fellow with a college degree. After a year of frustration, Bouly Diedhiou, the youngest of Alioune Diedhiou's children decided to start a business. So, with help from several comrades he founded and directs an association named Tabokoto to raise and sell chickens. The name is taken from a tree where people gather. Tabokoto succeeded in getting grant money to begin their project with a building and a hundred chicks purchased from a source in the Netherlands and necessary supplies.

So far the chicks are thriving.

a meeting of Tabokoto's members

(above and below) Bouly organized a neighborhood clean-up with the Tabokota members.


(Above) Imam 
Janet Diedhiou, named after our Janet

Monday, January 19, 2015

On the Road to Sedhiou, Senegal

Where is Sedhiou?

Map of Senegal

Sedhiou is a town of about 20,000 people located just a little north of the border with Guinea-Bissau; It is on the west side of the Casamance Estuary, a bit north of where it turns northward. You can see it on this map.
Leaving Dakar, our breakfast stop was at Chez Anwar in Kaolack. They generally do not offer breakfast but they kindly made an exception for us. We pushed on to Tamabcounda for a lunch of grilled chicken and fries at Chez Francis, going around The Gambia rather than through it due to the numerous problems presented by crossing that slim country. Tambacounda is known for its extreme heat during much of the year. It is said that it is so hot that a goat and a lion will sleep under the same tree. Tamba is the name of a tree found in the area and "counda" means "home of" in Mandinka. When we passed through, it was not hot but this is the coolest period of the year.

It was actually a bit chilly at Kaolack in the early morning.

Janet does some marketing in Velingara.

We turned south at Tambacounda and passed through the town of Velingara and on to a small village between Velingara and Kolda, in the south of Senegal, (known as the Haute Casamance). There, we had a delightful visit with two Peace Corps volunteers who live and work in the area. The family of one of the volunteers prepared a delicious dinner for us. Velingara gives its name to a meteor that struck the earth millions of years ago and created a crater thirty miles in diameter, known as the Velingara Circular Structure. The remnants of the crater are not visible today except from space.

At her village's health facility, Peace Corps Volunteer Barbara Michel discussed efforts to improve post-natal child nutrition.

Janet Ghattas, an early '60s Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, and current PCV Barbara Michel exchanged stories and ideas about Peace Corps then and now -- the changes are great and fascinating.

This is "funio," a food found in southern Senegal that is very nutritious and tastes a bit like quinoa. It is expensive in Senegal because of the difficulty in preparing the grain for cooking. We first learned of this food when we visited Kedougou in the extreme southeast of Senegal, but it can be purchased in other areas of southern Senegal. We brought some home. Below is a link that explains more and offers a recipe:

Janet gets a hug from the owner of Chez Bintou in Kolda -- we can always count on Bintou to provide a hearty lunch, perhaps a Maafe. What is Maafe? It's a delicious Mandinka dish involving peanuts that Janet makes at home from time to time. Here's a link to a recipe:
It can be made with just vegetables or with chicken as well as with beef.

Intercultural Dimensions 2015 in Senegal -- Dakar area

A half dozen or so years ago, our late friend Bill Griff gave the financial support needed to begin a school garden at the Lycée Thiaroye outside of Dakar. The then principal Abdou Salam Deme was enthusiastic about the possibilities of a garden especially as there was a significant amount of land available for this use and the students and faculty were equally enthusiastic. As the garden grew, support was forthcoming from a European organization and the municipality, so a pump and a water basin were installed as well as drip irrigation. The garden has flourished with technical assistance provided by the Peace Corps.

At the Lycée Thiaroye school garden the Principal, Mr. Kao Diaby explains the importance of the co-curricular educational benefits of the garden as well the economic and health aspects of the project

The Lycée Thiaroye Garden Club with Peace Corps members and ID

Ben Diogaye Beye noted journalist, cineast met with the ID team to discuss his work and that of Ousmane Sembene with whom he collaborated.