Of Poverty and Cellphones

Can we talk about poverty and cellphones for a minute?

For a long time, any discussion of poverty in the US would inevitably lead someone who was born privileged and opposed social safety nets on “principle” to declare that poor people in the US are not really poor, because they have refrigerators. (This in turn led the always amusing Jon Stewart to declare, “Those food-chilling motherfuckers!”) And it is true that if you should be fortunate enough to be able to rent an apartment, you will almost certainly find a refrigerator there. That’s because we, as a culture, have decided that rented apartments ought to come equipped with major appliances, not because poor people aren’t poor. Of course there’s also a sizeable population of homeless people who do not, in fact, have refrigerators, and are therefore doing poverty right.

Lately, I’ve noticed the “not really poor” complaint has shifted to designer duds and cellphones. On comment forums all over the internet one can find this sentiment: “They wouldn’t need food stamps if they didn’t spend their money on fancy clothes and iPhones!” Sometimes the especially partisan commentators will call them “Obamaphones.” And it is true that poor people in the US look pretty much like everyone else (except for the correctly tattered homeless, I mean). That’s because we, as a culture, have more stuff than we can possibly use and are producing still more stuff by the metric shitload.

Our economic system is based on a nearly religious belief in scarcity, and like most religious beliefs, it’s a load of hooey. In fact, we have plenty of everything in this country, though it is distributed very unevenly.

In order to make the economy go, we have to keep producing and consuming stuff, even though the stuff we have is still perfectly usable. This results in a massive secondary market in perfectly good stuff that has been cast off by people who want newer, better stuff. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of gadgetry. The gadget market moves so quickly that a cellphone that cost you $800 a couple of years ago is now worth bupkis. So if you see a poor person holding what used to be an $800 phone, that tells you nothing whatsoever about their poverty level or choices.

Furthermore, cellphones are so ubiquitous that continuous availability has become a baseline expectation for modern, functioning Americans. Many young people use them exclusively and don’t even have landlines. And further furthermore, an ever increasing number of jobs demand familiarity if not expertise with up-to-the-minute gadgetry, including cellphones, tablets, and computers of all sorts. If you, as an anti-safety-net nut, think those poor people should just get a fucking job already, but you want them to not have cellphones and laptops to preserve their poverty-cred, your motives are suspect, to say the least.

Poor (but not homeless) people in America can get gadgets and they can get non-tattered clothes. Those things exist in mega-abundance. Here are some things that are harder to get when poor: decent housing, safe streets, health care (access now much improved, thanks to the ACA), good schools, healthy food, and the cash cushion that allows you to lose your job and still pay the rent for a few months.

My anarchist friends in Portland are involved in a truly subversive movement aimed at challenging the doctrine of scarcity. It’s called “Free Store.” Recognizing that the community is already awash in a mega-abundance of stuff, Free Store provides a way for people to divest themselves of unwanted stuff and acquire new stuff without participating in the stick-up job of modern commerce.

It’s very simple. A space is reserved, usually in a church (for free), and the community is invited to bring usable things they don’t need but someone else might want. And the community is invited to come and take anything they find there, in any quantity they like, with no requirement to contribute. There is no exchange of money and there is no bartering. As you might expect, Free Store is just the kind of place a poor person might find an iPhone. Also as you might expect, it is sometimes hard to convince non-poor people to take things as well as contributing them. But it’s not about charity—it’s about stepping out of the phony scarcity economy for the afternoon and creating a gift economy.

My friend wrote up instructions for anyone who wants to try this. She gave me permission to post it here.

Having your own free store:

1) You need a place and time. One way to get that is to call up churches that seem to do a lot of outreach work, free suppers and stuff, and ask them. If they ask if you can pay, explain that this is a free store so you can’t pay any rent for the room, but usually they don’t ask. Tell them it’s like a rummage sale except no prices, everything is free. Promise you’ll clean up after yourselves and set their room up however they want. Ask whether it would be okay to bring food, and if so what their rules are about that. Work out a date and time that work for them and for you. We usually hold ours on Saturdays from 1-4, which means we need the room from about 11-6, for setup and cleanup. Ask to see the room first, and make sure they have tables or you’ll have to bring your own, that’s hard. An available bathroom is nice because you’ll be there all day. Ask if you can use their dumpster for the trash. Ask if it’s handicapped-accessible.

Another way is to do it in the summer and use a park; we’ve never gotten in trouble just setting up in a public park, but your mileage may vary.

2) More people will come if someone works on publicity. Some things we have done to get publicity are

– making a facebook event page and sharing it widely
– making posters and asking for volunteers to put them up around town (sample poster below)
– listing the event in the free event or garage sale sections of online classified ads (usually free or pretty close to free)
– calling the newspaper or local free papers and asking them to write it up, or sending them a press release
– listing the event with local charities to tell their customers about
– calling local radio stations
– tweeting

3) It makes me nervous the night before if I don’t have any stuff ready, so I collect some stuff to start us out with before the free store starts. Some of this is whatever I am donating myself, and some comes from people who can’t make it to the free store or don’t want to come, or who are coming but don’t have cars. Sometimes people just leave stuff on my porch, or I drive to their place and pick it up. I try not to take stuff that has already been picked over, like the leftovers from somebody else’s sale. What goes fastest: stuffed animals, games and puzzles, CDs and DVDs. Hardest to get: men’s clothing and plus-size clothing. Usually I have about 3-4 vanloads of stuff at my house by the time the free store comes around.

4) So you’ll need 3-4 people with vans to come to your house in the morning and drive stuff over to the free store. I just post on the facebook event page or ask friends. But I don’t insist; if people don’t show up, there will just be less stuff at the free store, or maybe somebody will make two trips. Either way it’s okay. If nobody’s bringing lunch, consider packing some lunch because you’ll be there all day. Don’t bring a purse. Wear something with a lot of pockets. Bring a sharpie and blank paper and tape to make signs as needed. Bring any leftover posters to put up on the door to show that this is the right place. Bring ibuprofen 🙂 Bring grocery bags for people to take home their loot in, and big garbage bags for cleaning up.

5) When we get there we unload and set up on tables. We organize in two ways 1) heaviest stuff like books nearest the door, lightest stuff like clothes farthest from the door. and 2) things that are together at Target go together at the free store: usual categories are toys, housewares, clothes, kid clothes, books, music, sports equipment, shoes, coats/hats/mittens, crafts, art, baby… But don’t take charge, let whoever shows up to set up do it however they want to. It doesn’t really matter. If you need more help setting up, let a few people in who are waiting outside to help you. We usually also put up decorations and try to have a boombox or something for music. And someone usually brings cookies to make it seem more like a party. Good idea to have water to drink too! We tell people they can start bringing stuff to donate about noon; most people who donate also stay and help set up. I try not to take any donations I can’t lift by myself. Also no kittens.

If there is too much stuff to fit on the tables, put it in boxes under the right table, as overstock, and restock the tables during the day when there is room. Keep a lot of cardboard boxes to clean up at the end of the day. It’s fine to take things you like as you see them! Stash them in a car if you don’t want to lose them again.

Designate a spot for new unsorted donations, and see if anyone wants to hang out there and discourage people from standing there taking stuff before you can sort it. Ask them to shop on the tables instead; that way you don’t get a mess by the door. But it’s not the end of the world if they don’t listen to you.

6) Right before you open the doors, someone should go out and make a little speech. Tell the people 1) this is not walmart, please don’t tromple each other to death! Don’t snatch things or hit people. 2) take as much as you want, it’s free 3) all the people working here are volunteers so be nice to them 🙂

7) If someone, or several people, want to stand at the door and greet people and give them cookies, that helps to set the tone of being nice 🙂 For the holidays we have a free gift-wrapping table by the door, where people can sit and help shoppers wrap presents.

8) While people are shopping, several people can walk around cleaning up, putting out new things, talking to shoppers, making friends, finding stuff for themselves. New stuff will keep coming in so if people say they didn’t find what they were looking for encourage them to hang out awhile and help sort the new stuff as it arrives. Keep reminding people that this is not a job. If they’re tired, or feel resentful about “having to do all the work,” they should stop and relax, or shop, or go home. If not everything gets sorted, that’s okay. If it’s a mess, that’s okay. Maybe somebody else would like to take a turn sorting or cleaning up. Or not. (sadly, this is less true for the person whose name is on the agreement with the church. But even so, if you’re tired, sit down. You promised to leave the place clean, and that’s your only real responsibility here.) Don’t agree to hold things for people, watch things for people, look out for specific things they want after they’ve gone home, etc. Too hard.

9) At 4 pm, or even earlier if most people have left or you’ve run out of stuff, start cleaning up. Shovel the stuff off tables into bags and boxes. Hopefully some people with vans will turn up to carry the stuff away, or you can encourage shoppers to volunteer their cars. (It’s always hardest to convince people they want to do this part). Load up the cars. Resist the temptation to keep stuff for the next store: once people have picked it over once, there’s not likely to be much left that people will want next time. Unless the thing is super cool, just send it away. Of course the people with vans can take the things anywhere they want, but if they ask for suggestions tell them the addresses of local charities that you feel good about. Take down the decorations. Don’t forget your boombox. Sweep and mop, and put all the chairs and tables back where they belong. Take out the trash. Go home and put your feet up, you’ve earned it. Send thank you notes to everyone who helped, and to the church.

free store poster


Only Earth and Sky Last Forever

Recently there’s been some hollering in my town about a muddy lot full of tents. It’s not the Occupy movement—haven’t heard much from them lately—it’s a tent city called Nickelsville.

Much like the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, Nickelsville was named after a political leader—former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels—who failed to solve the problem of poverty and homelessness. This seems unfair as it’s a mighty difficult problem to solve, but the name has stuck.

Nickelsville is actually a well-organized and sensible (from the participants’ viewpoint) response to homelessness. There’s even a website: http://www.nickelsville.org/. While Seattle has shelters for homeless people, there are not enough of them and they have some major downsides. Many homeless people consider sleeping in shelters to be more dangerous than sleeping in doorways or under the freeway bridge. Shelters for families are especially hard to come by. Most of all, shelters are not homes. You have to leave the shelter early in the morning and take all of your stuff with you, and there’s no guarantee you will get to stay there again the next night. In contrast, if you pitch a tent in Nickelsville, you have a home, however crude.

The problem, of course, is that the residents of the tents don’t own the land they are using. The city owns it and so far tolerates the tent dwellers. The neighbors are Not. Amused. Even though Nickelsville is located in an industrial urban area, not in the midst of middle class suburbia, the nearby business owners want it gone. Yesterday.

And this is what strikes me. In this country it is actually illegal to exist if you don’t own a piece of land or have the money to rent one. You are trespassing everywhere you go. And that’s pretty weird, if you think about it, that every inch of ground belongs to somebody. It makes me wonder about the initial instance of ownership. Every single acre was stolen, since no one initially had any particular right to claim it as their own.

A few months ago I read The Man Who Quit Money, a true story about Daniel Suelo, who made a philosophical decision to live without money. He sleeps in caves in the Utah desert, which is illegal, but he only gets rousted once in a while. He forages and scavenges for food. He owns very little and freely gives it to others. Suelo, a deeply religious man, has rejected the precepts of our economic system and lives outside of it.

Indeed, the foundational precept—that we live in a world of scarcity—is highly suspect. We live in a world of abundance and we create scarcity through our economic activities. There are more vacant houses than homeless people in this country. Furthermore, the precept that everyone must work at a money-producing job (or enter a dependent relationship with someone who works at a money-producing job) in order to justify their existence is suspect. We create scarcity and we invent busy work to perpetuate our economic system.

I’ve also been reading some books about the Native Americans who lived on the plains. The nomadic tribes pitched their tipis in their own tent cities anywhere they wanted to and lived by hunting and foraging. Land ownership was not a thing they did. And because they owned nothing, they owned everything. In Lakota Woman, written in the late 20th century, Mary Crow Dog describes some of the long-term repercussions of taking people who lived without money, “giving” them some land to own, and expecting them to simply assimilate into a culture and economic milieu so totally foreign to them.

Crow Dog describes her years as a reservation youth. Bands of aimless young people roamed around the Dakotas in beat-up jalopies, stealing food from the over-priced stores and drinking themselves blind. She didn’t draw the connection between her roaming and foraging ancestors, but it seemed like a modern-day version to me.

The Sioux tribes of the 19th century would have understood the tent city in Seattle. They would not have understood that anyone had the right to force those people to move because the land wasn’t theirs. They would not have understood that there is no place—no place—that those people are allowed to live. What could they have done to deserve that kind of shunning?