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The Outsider


Often enough, local government is like Kabuki theater; the plots are so ritualized and familiar that you don't have to be there, or even understand the language, to know what's going on.

At last Tuesday's Council meeting, the Housing Advocacy Coalition demonstrated, as they do from time to time, to protest the lack of affordable housing in this community. We all know what happened, don't we? They were ignored, and/or treated to soothing platitudes, as in: It's a nationwide problem; We already do a lot; We're actively engaged in private-public partnerships; Look at past failures in public housing. Blah, blah, blah.

When I served on Council a few years back, I was an eager shill for the establishment line. I remember telling a skeptical Jerome Page, president of the Urban League, that prosperity would, by the miraculous operation of the free market, solve our housing problems without a nickel from the government. Jerome was right to be skeptical; I was wrong.

When we think about the homeless, we think that we know who we're talking about. We know them; they're the shabby, often visibly demented men and women who mingle uncomfortably with the prosperous young folk flocking to our freshly yuppified downtown. But they're just the tip of the iceberg; most of the homeless -- or near homeless -- are invisible.

Let me tell you about my friend Cathy. She's a slender, attractive woman, a few years shy of 40, whose hair is just beginning to go gray. She's lived here for most of her life, and has held a lot of different jobs. She's been a waitress, delivered flyers, worked the concessions at Coors Field, been a mover, worked for a landscape company in the summer, cleaned houses, etc., etc. Decent enough jobs, except that they don't pay particularly well.

Like many of us, Cathy has made some bad decisions. A former boyfriend turned out to be a dealer; he got busted, and Cathy happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. She copped a plea, and ended up with a felony on her record, which pretty much prevents her from holding a responsible job.

She has a problem with alcohol -- occasionally binges on the weekends, gets sick, misses work, loses her job.

A few years ago, when the economy was flat as a pancake, Cathy had a pretty decent apartment. She gave it up to move in with a boyfriend; when they broke up, she couldn't find a place that she could afford. Since then, she's bounced from place to place; rented rooms, a friend's couch, a cheap motel room by the week. Her possessions are stored in a friend's basement, where they've been for three or four years. And despite her travails, Cathy's optimistic; she sometimes goes to AA and she knows a lawyer who might be able to get her felony conviction erased from the books, if she could just scrape together a few hundred bucks to pay him.

There are lots of Cathys in our community, lots of people living on the precarious margins of our booming economy. How many? I'd guess that there are many thousands, far more than can be accomodated by our pitifully modest public housing programs.

Opponents of public housing will point at past failures. They'll remind us of the dreary brick monoliths of the '50s and '60s, the disastrous experiments in social engineering that became "the projects." They'll use the failures of the past to convince us that future success is impossible.

It's a convincing argument, until you realize that failed government projects that benefit the prosperous are not abandoned, but simply re-created. For example, publicly funded multi-use stadiums that accommodate both baseball and football were disasters, both economically and aesthetically. The solution: get rid of the old white elephants, and let the taxpayers fund two new stadiums, one for each sport (sound at all familiar?).

Closer to home, even our largest charitable foundation, El Pomar, pays little attention to affordable housing. The august trustees of that body preferred to drop $30 million into the World Arena, thereby making it possible to see Metallica without driving to Denver.

Maybe we ought to learn from European countries, many of which believe that decent housing is a human right, not something that is automatically denied to those who work for minimum wage.

So the next time a council member characterizes a $35 million infusion of taxpayer dollars into a money-losing convention center as a "good investment," think of Cathy. I'm sure she'd understand; it just wouldn't be prudent to put that money into affordable housing.


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