Why I don’t donate canned goods and bottled water to the poor and homeless?
Boje in Philadelphia giving sc’MOI keynote
Ivan Illich, Catholic Philosopher
“The man who produces his own ‘housing’ is looked down upon a a deviant who refuses to cooperate with the local pressure group for the delivery of mass-produced housing units” (Illich, 1977: 10).
We at Veterans Theater are deviants. We don’t cooperate with the local pressure groups. We have no plans to build a shelter or mission. We give direct, not through such intermediaries. We are all about building empowerment, socioeconomic entrepreneurs, the people putting their own roof over their heads need to be the people themselves, not HUD.
I, a deviant Vietnam veteran, met Ivan Illich in Los Angeles, while I was a full professor at Loyola Marymount University, in 1996. I was donating my own goods and services to the people living in Nickerson Gardens, the largest public housing development west of the Mississippi, 5,000 people living in 1,024 mass-produced housing units. I volunteered three days a week, and taught two days a week at the university. I worked in the food bank, wrote grants with community members to bring the Peace Corps there, to develop job-training for residents to work in the city’s bureaucracy, etc.
Then I met Ivan Illich, and I was shocked and puzzled, when he told me I was part of the problem, not the solution. Why not donate canned goods to the poor and homeless?
I will tell you his answer. The flow of donations disempowers the poor and homeless. Wait, I thought that donating food, plastic bottles of drinking water, reams of toilet paper, and so on to shelters, missions, and units of public housing, empowers the homeless! What if it doesn’t he asked me?
I was all proud of my hours of service to the community. Then I met Ivan Illich. Here’s the living story. I got an email from the Philosophy Department Chair, that Ivan Illich was coming to Loyola Marymount University, and they invited faculty to attend a gathering, and to bring students. I did not know it was one of these invitations you are not supposed to take literally. So I canceled class, and took 45 undergraduate students there. Upon arrival I could see my mistake. In the room were no more than three philosophy professors and one student. Ouch! We awaited Ivan Illich’s arrival.
He was in Los Angles to speak at a conference, something he had not done for decades, since the Catholic Church imposed a silence order on any of his public speaking. What had he done to invoke such punishment? Mostly it was “his criticism of the Vatican’s pronouncements on birth control.” Also, in his writing he had declared that orphanages depended upon keeping orphans out of the care of the community, in order to use orphans to raise more money for orphanages. Before the orphanages there were no orphans.
Ivan Illich did not begin with a speech. He asked to individually meet and greet each person in the room. That is, 3 philosophy folks, me, and 45 undergraduate management students, who stood encircling the conference table, once those 12 chairs were filled.
Ivan Illich asked each one, “who are you, and why are you here?” Each of my management students said their name, and then “I am here because Professor Boje told me to come.” He looked each in the eye, and they were deep penetrating eyes, the kind one would expect of a holy man. You were drawn from those starry, dreamy eyes, to the neck, where pulsating monsters had made a bulge under the skin, about the size of a golf ball, and it keep moving, vibrating to the sound of each voice. Illich did not believe in surgery, something he called Medical Nemesis, so he refused to be treated, and the monster stayed with him, on his neck, glaring at everyone present. The introductions continued, and then a young student from Germany, broke ranks, and said “I am here to interact with the homeless.” Ivan Illich and the monster stared at him, and in a deep assertive voice said, “The homeless are not computers. You don’t interact with them.” My German student, undaunted said, “I want to know how I can help the homeless.” Ivan Illich, replied, in almost a yell: “If you take them home, then they will not be homeless!” The German student replied, “I cannot do that.” To which Illich, replied “Precisely the problem.” The student, “There are institutions, shelters, missions, set up to do that. Its not my job to house the homeless.” And Illich said, “Precisely the problem. Institutions need homeless to keep them running.“
I actually read two of his many books, in preparation for the meeting. He was intrigued by my questions, and agreed to have dinner with Grace Ann Rosile and I, at a Thai restaurant. At dinner, I pressed Ivan Illich about the exchange with the student.
“I agree that the Housing Authority, and HUD, need residents of public housing, just as shelters and missions need the homeless, and to send the homeless to live in HUD housing units. But, surely donating toilet paper, canned goods, used clothing, setting up tutoring programs, and sending in the Peace Corps to do economic development, to plant gardens, that has to be a solution.” I ask very long questions. “Professor Boje, you are part of the problem, not the solution!”
Now, years later, and more than a decade after the death of Ivan Illich (born September 4 1926; died December 2 2002), I get it.
All the food drives, giving goods and services to the local shelters, missions, and HUD transitional housing developments, is part of the problem, and not a sustainable solution.
Donation drives occur with round-the-clock, seven days a week at my university, and I even volunteered a week ago Sunday to stand in front of a Wal-Mart and ask consumers to buy toilet paper, water in plastic bottles, to put some change or dollars in the donation box. I even wore a sign around my neck “I am a Vietnam Veteran!” I had totally forgotten the lessons of Ivan Illich. I live in the USA, which is socially engineered to standardize us all in order to paralyze entrepreneurial creativity and innovation.
Surely this is irrational. To not give toilet paper and bottled water to homeless shelters and mission. Is that not cruel? Yet, these missions, shelters, and standardized HUD housing units are part of the bureaucratic machine, the administrative order, the institutions of welfare distribution, financed by all those widespread donations of every kind of sorority, fraternity, professional association, and so on.
Hypocrite. You are collecting donations in GoFundMe accounts for Veterans Theater, and putting on theatrical performance to an audience who passes the donation basket, which funds those self-same performances. Rationalize. Rationalize. Yes, but, we are making space to tell the antenarrative side of things. That the act of donating escalates the administrative order, and places the homeless veterans and all the homeless in “their self-imposed cages” (Illich,1977: 3).
Here is the bottom line. “Human responses to everyday occurrences have been standardized” (IBID.). How could I forget that. It is the thesis of my very own book (Boje, 2015: Organizational Change and Global Standardization: Solutions to Standards and Norms Overwhelming Organizations).
Global standards are overwhelming not only corporations, universities, but the missions, shelters, and HUD transitional housing developments set up to care for the homeless.
These shelters, mission, and HUD agencies are set up to invite the homeless veterans, and the homeless to join the standardized majority, to mach to the rhythm of the same “megamachine” (IBID., p. 3).
What megamachine? It is for Illich, the war of global standardizing capitalism, on the subsistence of the poor, the so-called sustainable development aid to the Third World by the Developed Wealthy World. Instead of direct help and care for a neighbor, intermediary agencies get in the way, and become self-sustaining, while disempowering the poor. The shelters, missions, and HUD housing developments displace dozens of ways in which people had helped other people directly, without a standardized administrative order.
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than $1.25 a day. Regular poverty is what defines half the world’s population of 7.3 billion people, living on less than $2 a day (what World Bank notices as the average income in the developing world). And in 2011, “1.65 million U.S. households fell below the $2 a day per person threshold in a given month” (Washington Post).
Shelters and missions have replaced people helping other people, and the number of homeless globally has continued to escalate, to spiral out of all control of donations to a food or clothing drive.
Part of the problem is with donations, homeless people learn to distrust their own self-care competence, and give over care to shelters and missions. Shelters and missions have become a competitive brutal, Great Condemnation administrative order, that grows and grows, by generating feeder donation networks. Their donor tentacles penetrate the corporations, universities, cities, and government agents, in ways that present a packaged dominant narrative of the only viable way to help the poor, is for the richer half of the world, to give freely and generously their goods and services to the other half of the wold making less than $2 a day. Their only solution is ‘housing first’ to put homeless in housing in section 8 HUD standardized housing units, hoping they will transition into the more expensive standardized housing units of the community.
Homeless are thereby isolated into shelters, cut off in the missions, warehoused in HUD developments, or put under lock and guard in prisons and jails, in order to keep them away from the richer half of the world, living in gated and guarded suburbs, in apartments with armed patrol and security guards.
All over the world, shelters, missions, and HUD are encroaching with their standards, codes, and discipline, surrounding people with “the standardization of human actions grows apace”, spirals to outpace demand for standardized goods and services (Illich, 1977: 4).
In my new book (Boje, 2015) I call this the narrative-fractal, the spiraling-narrative-fractal, of standardization, on a global to local scalability of self-sameness recurrence. And its a fractal-narrative, that spirals, branches, and lops in the same direction, toward surrounding the homeless with donations of goods, services, used clothing, and putting them in shelters, missions, and refugee tent cities, around the world.
Is there any other way? Is the donation box, the food and water drive, the only way?
To not give: “The idea appears not only foolish but shocking: (IBID.). How are we to conduct Veterans Theater if we do not do GoFundMe crowdfunding, or pass the donation basket at a theatrical event?
Donations are a degradation that underlies the surge of homelessness in New Mexico, and around the world. The solutions of missions, shelters, and HUD are bureaucratic efforts to sort of half house the homeless, and to cut them off from the richer half of the world making more than $2 a day.
“Everyone has been enmeshed in a new web of dependence on commodities that flow out of the same kind of machines, factories, clinics, television studios, think tanks” (IBID.).
Everyone has become enmeshed, entangled in the ever-spiral web of dependences, the spiral-fractal-narrative that says giving toilet paper, canned goods, and donated used clothing from the well-off clubs, universities, schools, and government offices is going to make a dent in the megamachine.
The fractal narrative is a socioeconomic flow, an entanglement in a web of dependency and disempowerment of both the giver and receiver.
What is the megamachine? It is the flow of standardized goods and services world-wide that is overwhelming the population, disempowering people to make a living, to be entrepreneurial, to put a roof over their own heads, without dealing with a mountain of CODES, a legion of code-enforces, and a justice system turning the nation into a debtors prison for the homeless unable to sustain living on less than $2 a day.
This is why the Catholic Church forbade Ivan Illich to speak. But he kept writing, and got the word out anyway.
We are being schooled by the megamachine that factory farms, agribusiness should replace the family ranch and from, and that we living in a “world where economists replace priests” (IBID., p. 5).
The world’s population grows more disempowered with each food drive, less able to put a roof over their head, with each new sheltering agency. What happened to the USA, where there were grub stakes, squatters, the people invited to put up shelter on a piece of open land between a road and the railroad?
A price tag is attached to the urban and rural landscape, making both increasing uninhabitable, in an ecological moment when there is no such thing as sustainability, the natural resources so depleted, what can grow there, but homelessness?
How many spaces each year are given over to shelters and missions, HUD standardized housing units, to colonize the poor, to keep the half the world making less than $2 a day out of the hair of the half making so much more?
We live in the standardized global market place, in the grate dominant narrative fractal of donations to keep the poor segregated from the rich, and the only legitimacy of a shelter-mission-HUD way of Being-in-the-world is to produce more dependents, accept more donations from the richer half, to ignore the worldwide epidemic of the megamachine itself. The flow must go on, the masks kept in place.
Veterans Theater has a different mission than every shelter!. It is to rekindle entrepreneurship, the poor and homeless veteran, the homeless everywhere, to tell their own living story, to poke fun at the fractal-narrative, and do this performance to a paying audience. We sell tickets to plays put on by veterans and homeless, who are first hand witness to the megamachine.
The stupefying donation flow, the shelter-dependency, the missions disempowerment model, the HUD warehousing of the poor model — these come with significant socioeconomic costs to the the life-styles of the rich and famous being sustained at costs paid by the poor, half the world’s population making less than $2 a day.
I actually stood at Wal-mart enabling the flow of toilet paper, canned goods, plastic-bottled-water to the veterans organizations, who would turn it over to the same old shelters and missions. Gone are the people who built their own dwelling,s played in the gardens they planted, made friends with their neighbors, gave a bunch of apples in exchange for some carrots, each had grown themselves.
A couple decades of shelters, missions, and HUD, and the so-called developed way of life has displaced thousands of years of community relationships to take care of their own, to be empowered in self-care, and what have we done: put these shelters and missions and HUD-institutions in-between one neighbor and another.
Lets get back to the time when 99% of the world’s food was produced inside the village, and most food was cultivated within the city limits.”Today, 40 percent of all people survive only because they have access to interregional markets” for food and goods (Illich, 1977: p. 9). Its actually more than that in 2015.
Instead of more shelters, missions, and HUD housing units, lets revers the institutional-fractal-narrative with a counternarrative-fractal: webs of people helping people, to transform each moment into one of directly caring, sharing, and learning from each other.
We are deviants! Let’s break the monopoly of shelters, missions, HUD, refugee camps worldwide, to centralize and segregate caring, sharing, and learning. The first step is not to donate goods and water in boxes along university or corporate hallways. Get on your bicycle, and go and work directly with the homeless veteran, the homeless that are everywhere. Stop the monopoly that puts institutions between neighbors, puts CODES in-between self-help and building-one’s-own-shelter.