Category Archives: Essays

Where Have All the Classics Gone?

My Essay, ‘Where Have All the Classics Gone?’ was published by Banango Street.

 Where Have All the Classics Gone?


Gary Beck

In the early 1970’s, Off-Off Broadway theater expanded rapidly, fueled by hordes of recent theater majors seeking performance outlets.  Dozens of small groups presented an incredibly diverse scope of productions of highly mixed quality, from the imaginative to the excruciating. Few groups lasted more than a month or two, attributable to the basic fact that they were unprepared to deal with the reality that theater is a business.

Many inexperienced young actors and directors, who had no concept of their theatrical limitations, talked art day and night, but did not grasp that money made production possible. Without cash, there is no continuation of artistic purpose, since sweat equity efforts last only so long and the demands of day to day existence compel young practitioners to move on. 

Because America never had a national theater, there are no measurable goals for young actors and directors to aspire to. Unlike opera, ballet and classical music, with their rigorous requisites for performance, theater is a haphazard amalgam of temporary relationships and there are no universal standards of requirement for performers. Selection of casts and directors takes place through loosely related networks, word of mouth, and auditions in response to ads in the trade papers. Casting, a speculative process at best, generally offers no dependable levels of accomplishment suitable for the demands of classical theater.

The absence of theater education in grade school and high school, except for the privileged, along with the commensurate lack of exposure to live performance, does not build a widespread theater audience. Deadly exposure to Shakespeare in the classroom inflicted on students without tools to grasp the language and history, makes classical theater virtually inaccessible. The school system designed to develop appropriate skills for factory labor with the goal of job readiness in an industrial economy, cannot conceive that properly presented, theater can be practiced by anyone, regardless of talent or ability, as long as the purpose is to build self-confidence and self-esteem, rather than turn our hordes of performers. Music and dance mandate an early start in training, hard work, lengthy practice, intense instruction and technical mastery. The lack of these requirements for theater provides youth an excellent opportunity in school for personal development, using theater as a mechanism to build self esteem and self-confidence, when properly encouraged, to get up and do things in front of others. The absence of these requirements for professional actors is one of the many factors that has contributed to the decline of classical theater.

Actors tend to discover theater in college or university, ten or more years after musicians and dancers began their training. Colleges took control of actor training from the professional theater in the mid-1960’s. This legitimized the once disreputable profession by bestowing aspiring actors with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. The emergence of regional theaters, invariably affiliated with a well-endowed college, bewitched masses of drama students enchanted by the state-of-the-art theaters. Enthusiastic local audiences encouraged student actors into believing their future would take place in equitable surroundings. Trained in sophisticated and protected venues, outside of the safe haven of the university, the students were woefully unfit for the harsh realities of the Off-Off Broadway theater world.

Theater education now firmly embedded in the college system, flourished academically, providing comfortable livelihoods to legions of teachers and administrators who would otherwise intermittently wander the unpaid wilderness of small theaters. The standards established by the classroom advocates were sufficient for actors intending to seek work in film or t.v. They were woefully inadequate preparations for the classical actor, who needed the same basic discipline and structure that would be the equivalent of music or dance training.

Another factor diluting serious theater was the graying of the current audience, without a new demographic audience to replace them. When adventurous classical theater lovers ventured Off-Off Broadway to see Moliere or Sophocles, they generally encountered an awkward, arbitrary updating. Deconstruction of the classics, advocated for student directors by many drama departments, invariably eliminated the class distinction of the original drama, the fundamental structure of the classics until Ibsen. This democratization removed kings, princes, barons, fatuous lovers, scheming servants and great issues, reducing the scale of drama to middle class reenactments. To add to audience travails, performances were often offered as a shouting match, rather than a dynamic, well-presented period play.

The further erosion of the actor’s potential was facilitated by the implementation of the showcase system. This was an ill-considered collaboration between the actor’s union, an organization characterized by 95% professional unemployment of its members, and producers. This travesty of the arts stipulated three unpaid weeks of very limited rehearsals and three unpaid weeks of performances, for a total of twelve, on three successive weekends. The showcase code specified that the actor could leave the show anytime for paid work. Forgetting the risk to the producer, who could lose his lead actor to a margarine commercial, as well as his investment, the superficial preparation for Macbeth or Othello guaranteed  a dismal performance. Unlike opera singers or ballet dancers, who maintain roles in repertory, the actor learns a role during brief, mostly discussional rehearsals, frequently resulting in mundane superficial recitations, rather than exciting shows.

The advent of cable tv, with hundreds of shows and thousands of roles, eclipsed the lure of the classics by offering the actor paid work, audience appreciation and recognition. Technological advances in filmmaking eliminated the appeal of theater’s feeble efforts to compete with spectacle. Audiences conditioned by the big screen, were disappointed by shabby productions, often clothed by the same old costumes from the Costume Collection, on the small stage. Mega-musicals were the only type of theater production that still attempted to dazzle the audience with special effects. The scale of production was necessarily reduced for touring, to the disappointment of local audiences. At the same time, the Broadway musical audience was diminishing in numbers.

Theater had forgotten its key historical ingredient that riveted audiences since ancient Greek drama; intense emotional experience conveyed by the quality of the play, and the skills of the actors. With regional theaters spread across the country disseminating shows tailored to the tastes of their local community, and Off-Off Broadway testing the limits of small audiences, the classics were in severe decline. Classics were less frequently produced on Broadway, and when they were presented it was invariably as a star-vehicle, generally without a strong supporting cast. Audiences quickly discovered that a star alone cannot enliven a Shakespeare play, let alone the lesser known plays of Aeschylus or Racine, who are even more alien than ‘old Will’, who bored them silly when they were forced to read Shakespeare in high school.

It is improbable that the disappearance of classical drama as part of American cultural life can be halted. The only remote possibility would require a zen-like flash of enlightenment in the members of the college theater departments; emotion and highly skilled actors are the tools to engage audiences. If we are to retain classical theater, actors and directors not only need to be trained appropriately, they must be cautioned that there is little fame or fortune compared to movies and tv. Few actors would be willing to devote themselves to the intense training required for the classics for meager rewards. Audiences offered endless entertainment, will not accept poorly produced theater. The visual spectacle of the big screen is the final undoing of the classics in America.

Thoughts on the Decline of the American Dream

Ignorance and complacency are the great enemies preventing solutions for what is happening in our society. We go about our business, education, diversions, with insufficient thought given to the economic erosion of our nation and the growing loss of income for most of our people. Our system, created by wealthy land owners or merchants, was designed to protect the privileges of the prosperous.

The Industrial Revolution started a process that replaced humans with machines. This process continues today, with automation continuing to replace blue collar workers who were once the backbone of the nation. The loss of manufacturing jobs effectively destroyed an entire class that labored for basic comforts and the advancement of its children to a better way of life. A class that was willing to resist the abuses of the bosses. The loss of jobs and stature as breadwinners undermines the idealistic concept of parents wanting more for their children then they had, a cultural enhancement, now ending.

The great democratic experiment, more spontaneous than planned, offered virtually unlimited opportunities for those capable of adapting to their times. A working class flourished like no other time in history, producing goods and resources in hitherto unimaginable amounts. After World War II, millions of ex G.I.’s went to college, the most radical educational revolution in history. They jumped, in a few short years, to the middle class. Their children were given unprecedented luxuries, once reserved for the wealthy.

And so our nation prospered and we achieved material abundance. But we did not understand our system. As capitalists, bloated with profits, replaced more and more workers with automation, they speculated wildly. And when their financial bubbles burst, they took losses, but they destroyed the lives of millions who lost jobs, homes, savings, because they couldn’t absorb the losses. Now the workers spared by automation, are facing extinction form information technology.

The few who control the bulk of our nation’s wealth do not care about the sufferings of the many. They refuse to recognize the value of ordinary citizens, whose labors keep delivering food, fuel, keep transportation moving, repair planes, security systems, power supplies, yet they are being abandoned. The wealthy, like French aristas of the 18th century, are blind to who enables the flow of goods and services. The wealthy are so swollen with acquisition that they do not realize the system will collapse without maintenance. They are deaccessioning the maintainers.

We, like the dinosaur and dodo before us, have neither an inherent right to life, nor a guarantee of continuation. We have moved so far away from nature that we no longer comprehend interdependence. Greed prevails over reason. The wealthy revel in their possessions. Their ignorance and complacency of the need to sustain those who keep the machinery functioning reveals how they live: après moi, le déluge. As they doom the future of our children, they also doom the future of their children. Wealthy parents seem to be oblivious to the troubles to come. Unless the system is controlled by single old men, beyond humane concerns and compassion, there is a lack of awareness that we’re all in the same boat, even though most of us are in steerage. If the boat sinks, we all go down together. We are hurtling to destruction and, so far, no one knows how to prevent the fall.


Thoughts Why We Don’t Need Background Checks to Purchase Guns

Many people are understandably upset at the shootings that took place in schools, movie houses, other places once thought safe. Many citizens are outraged at the shocking violations of public safety. Some families and friends are devastated by the loss of loved ones.

However, that is no reason to abandon the laissez-faire of capitalism that has served to enrich the privileged. After all, they’re not out on the streets shooting anyone. So why should we infringe their rights by intruding on their privacy with demands for distasteful registration forms when they want to acquire guns.  It’s up to all concerned citizens, despite moral repugnance, to accept the violent rampages that destroy our tranquility as part of the American heritage..

The Founding Fathers didn’t consider individual attacks a reason for concern in the new nation. They created a wonderful document to guide a nation. Yet nowhere in the constitution does it say the right to bear arms should be denied to the mentally ill, or the criminally inclined.

If we acknowledge the validity of the pre-eminent document that defines our society, we should not inhibit access to guns for anyone. Full equality under the law should grant anyone the right to purchase firearms of choice, without interference from psychologists, monitors of proper intake of medications, or law enforcement officials.

If we deny one person the right to acquire automatic weapons, we set a precedent to deny all. The opportunity to mow down a deer with a burst of automatic fire is inherent in the fundamental values of America. The occasional disruption of lives by individual lunatics only affects a tiny percentage of our population. Majority rule mandates our tolerance of the rights of others not to be discriminated against in arbitrary and capricious background checks. Jeffersonian philosophy would not prevent equal opportunity under the law, granting all the right to acquire the firearms of choice, without the embarrassing experience of background interrogations.

Thoughts on the Abandonment of America

As the empire declines, the wealthy are feasting, buying Rothkos at auction, gloating over clever investments, amassing offshore bank accounts. They do not seem aware that when the American hegemony collapses, Western Europe will inevitably follow, inextricably linked by countless ties, values. After the fall of Western civilization, and it need not be sacked by barbarian hordes, just dwindled to poverty nations, struggling to survive in a harsh world, most of whom hate America.

 Where do privileged Americans hope to withdraw to? Asia, Africa, Europe and the Mid-East are too dangerous. South America, with envy, anti-Americanism, and nationalism as a prevailing attitude, make the climate inhospitable. The Caribbean is the remaining illusion, and unless the émigrés have a large, sophisticated, well-equipped, well trained, well-paid, private army, island life will at best be insecure, at worst, a place of constant threat of attack, looting, murder.

 Unfortunately for all of us, the wealthy suffer from political blindness and historical ignorance. They do not realize that they still live in the most secure country in the world. Yet they sit back as it declines, unknowing, unwilling or unable to apply resources to prevent the fall that would insure their future demise. If they are just a cabal of old men, with little concern for tomorrow, there is little hope for their understanding that our fate is bound together. Wealthy families with children should realize the future well-being of their children is completely dependant on the well-being and stability of the nation.

The privileged apparently do not see that when the police cease to function, no one is safe. The private estates, guarded compounds, protected enclaves are only preserved by the rule of law. Angry, hungry, frightened mobs, ruthless gangs, will inevitably select targets of luxury, whether in city or countryside. When they can’t summon law enforcement, the National Guard, invoke martial law to protect their possessions, they will not survive the inroads of violent, desperate people.

 Some brighter wealthy persons learned one lesson from the past. In times of disaster, the wealthy fled with what they could carry, jewels, rolled up paintings, other easily transported valuables. So they diversified their wealth, much of it abroad, presuming they found safe havens. But when abroad becomes unreachable, and international law and order abandon legalclaims, those holdings are at best vulnerable.

 Unlike the brave blind, who venture out into the hazards of a dark world and build a viable life, the privileged are deserting the nation that nurtured them and their children by obstinately personifying “Aprés moi, le deluge”.

Is the Poet Obsolete?

Is the Poet Obsolete? was published by Poetic Matrix Press

Is the Poet Obsolete?

The Role of the Artist in Society


Gary Beck

 The role of the artist in society has changed dramatically at various times in recorded western history. One of the earliest notable exemplars of the reputable place that a poet occupied in society is Aeschylus, who did his public duty in 490 b.c., when he fought against the Persians at the battle of Marathon, participating in the struggle for survival of the democratic polis,Athens.

 The options of the artist diminished rapidly with the growth of empires, since the role of the artist is not vital to the existence of the state. For almost two millennia, the normal pattern of life for the artist was dependency on patrons, sponsors, or commissions. The exceptions were the select few born to privilege, for example, Byron, who gave his life for Greek freedom, perishing in 1824 at Missolongi, during the Ottoman siege. During this span, the artists outside the system led difficult lives and were fortunate to practice their art, however difficult the conditions.

 The industrial revolution diversified the control of wealth by the lords of power, bringing forth a new class of financial barons, who turned to the arts in imitation of their betters. Suddenly artists were able to create their work without it being pre-sold, consequently they were no longer mere craftpersons. Many became personages of some stature in the eyes of the new prosperous middle-class society.

 From the 1870’s on, some artists had a world view that allowed them to look beyond their individual discipline, as they searched for a more significant role in the life around them. Poets patriotically enlisted in World War I, and the British poets in particular wrote about the horror they experienced. The poets who dutifully went to war in World War II returned quietly and never really developed a public identity. The crisis for American poets began in the early stages of the Cold War. American painters skyrocketed to world acclaim, fame, fortune, while the poets composed in relative obscurity. More and more poets sought a modicum of security, finding shelter in universities far from public recognition and reward.

 In a dynamic American cultural revolution, every art form from the 1960’s on, offered the possibility of wealth and status to the artist, except poetry. Poetry had no opera houses, concert halls, museums, galleries, or mass-market publishers to attract large audiences. But the poets now were college-educated and with a few exceptions, such as the Beats, led obscure lives in colleges. The artificial atmosphere comforted the isolated wordsmiths with the illusion of accomplishment, reaching small groups of students, readers of poetry periodicals, and miniscule audiences attending poetry readings.

 Poetry inAmericaexperienced an identity crisis. The anti-Vietnam war movement in the late 1960’s firmly closed the portals on the topic of war, mankind’s most consequential activity, as a suitable subject. Virtually all American poets were liberals and in all good conscience opposed war, so the government became the enemy.  Since the poets mostly could not identify the capitalist owners ofAmerica, they scorned the system of flawed representative government and retreated further into safe niches.  Internal revelations and lurid exposés of parental abuse became valid subject matter, transforming the nature of poetry into microcosmic excursions, rather then explorations of big issues.

 In an era of uncertainties and dangerous conflicts, domestic and foreign, there is no designated role for the artist in American society. The very concept of training poets in college, an environment that discourages extremes and negates any natural inclination to action, leaves the poet adrift in a world that dismisses the practitioners of passivity.

 The poet travels towards his or her destination, a journey of creation of what should be a meaningful body of work, through a haphazard combination of education, exposure and personal preferences. This occurs in an unstructured process that makes the accomplishments fortuitous. In medicine or engineering, students are taught and trained by measurable standards and the results are assessable. Even acting, the most superficial of the performing arts, which lacks the stringent requirements of music or dance, has more predictable goals than poetry. The poet’s path could be adventurous, since it explores an uncharted wilderness without landmarks or traveler’s aids, but it will be a dismal voyage for the timid.

 Poetry, once the preeminent literary art, has been supplanted by mass market commercial fiction. The authors of novels have become far more prominent than any poet, whose limited possibilities of achievements are determined by effort, talent, and coincidence. Rarely is anything meaningful achieved without a mentor, the sponsorship of a like-minded network, or a supportive artistic community. The poet can be susceptible to a stifling tendency to huddle together in protective enclaves, rather than move in the sphere of the world at large.

 The poet must learn to expand his or her perception of existence and enlarge their scope of interest, or risk becoming inconsequential in this demanding life. There is an urgent need to reach out to diverse audiences, prisoners, seniors, the culturally underserved, and most important, to youth, not to make them poets, but to introduce them to a broader view of life. With proper instruction, poetry is the most accessible and cost-effective way to reach large numbers of youth. The constriction of the classroom rarely develops confidence in youth, the quality that allows them to choose who they will grow up to be. The poet can help launch venturesome journeys for youth that will promote their contribution to the future of our society.

 It is implausible thatAmericawill produce warrior-poets who will fight on tomorrow’s battlefields of freedom. But those poets who wish to participate in the life of their times, participate in a grander arena of creativity, design a meaningful role for themselves in their society, must outreach to needy and deprived audiences.  The poet’s efforts will enrich their audiences, who in turn will reward those poets who are receptive with the great satisfaction derived from serving humanity.

An Assertion of Poetry

‘An Assertion of Poetry’ was first published y Wolf Moon Press, then by several other literary magazines.

An  Assertion of Poetry
Gary Beck

More than fifty years ago, at the age of sixteen, I began writing poetry. My first efforts were imitations of the Romantics; Shelley, Keats, Byron, my favorite, who brought order and structure into my chaotic life. School so far had been depressingly sterile, offering me little in the way of knowledge that I could not  glean on my own, even less exciting was the pathetically sterile challenge of learning. So without a guide to direct my efforts, I plunged into the English Classical poets, having already read diversely in English drama and American fiction. I had memorized large chunks of Byron, Grey’s Elegy and many others who delighted me, which was consoling as I struggled to find my path. After careful reading and evaluation of my poems, I found that I appreciated the developmental process, but concluded that they were wanting in originality. I burned them ceremoniously and reassuringly, this did not launch a career of book-burning. I did not regret their destruction and never looked back and said: ‘If only I had saved them’!

I moved on to reading the American poets and devoured Eliot, Pound, Cummings, many others, who I found more timely than their English predecessors, sometimes almost as elegant, but never as beautiful. Beauty seems to be less compatible in the torment of the industrial age. Then, at the age of seventeen, I hitchhiked to California. I lived in San Francisco and discovered the Beat poets, who were just erupting in the formerly more tranquil landscapes of literature. I admired their vitality, but was turned off by their colossal naiveté. One of their loudest voices proclaimed that he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. I knew the best minds of my generation were preparing to send men to the moon. An immense and irreconcilable difference of opinion. Their movement offered me no safe harbour.

For the next few years I kept the semi-noiseless tenor of my ways, finding college almost as drab intellectually as high school, with virtually everyone focused on career. Whatever happened to the love of learning? Several slightly compatible companions helped keep me anchored, which let me endure in the wilderness of poetry. I, an emperor of impracticality, wanted to be a poet. I dreamed of tasting the immortal fire. I was ill-equipped for the academic environment, the protected haven of many poets, so I wandered aimlessly in an unknown land. One of the few benefits of my education was enough mastery of french to read the symbolist poets, then the more moderns, particularly Mallarmée and Apollonaire, from whom I rediscovered the invention of free verse. (French also allowed me in later years to translate Moliere for my theater work.) I read more and more of the younger American poets, looking for kinship. At the same time, I read the Russian, Japanese and Chinese poets, always feeling that the language barrier mandated translations, which altered the fabric of the writing. I began a search for my natural voice, an aspiration that imposed strenuous difficulties, since I was on my own and had to reinvent the wheel daily, a  complicated task when working without blueprints.

The more American poets I read, the less connected I felt to their concept of poetry, however much I admired their artistic accomplishments. I saw a world aflame with constant upheavals, disasters man-made or natural, and progressively more destructive violence. Yet I found poets increasingly seeking esoteric metaphors, cherishing style above substance, placing form above content. Suddenly, all the poets were college graduates, many with advanced degrees in the field of poetry. I definitely did not belong in that company. I was the classic loner, but was sufficiently self-sustaining, or ego-driven not to seek entry into the networks of poetry. There was a corresponding classic irony. I, the consummate outsider, had been a theater director for most of my adult life. I had started in theater at the age of seventeen in San Francisco, plunging into an arts discipline that mandated group involvement! I found a curious symbiosis to the world of poetry, since I translated and directed the classics, as well as writing and directing new plays that dealt more and more with political and social issues. My poetry began to reflect the broader range of world problems, with the subject being my primary concern, not the expression thereof. This further distanced me from the practitioners of the art of poetry.

As the years went by, I found myself more concerned with the message, rather than the ‘poetic’ quality of poetry. I saw the arts begin to turn progressively inward, not in the nature of profound meditation, or seeking deeper understanding, but more in the aspect of flaunting personal agonies and confessions. This is what our culture has wrought. It satiates the consciousness with an endless stream of pictorial imagery that stupefies the visual sense and degrades the uniqueness of verbal description. So poets, increasingly shunted aside by a growing public preference for non-stop tv, turned to baring their guts in anguished revelations of childhood abuse, or indignation for their neglected feelings. This type of indulgence and I are incompatible. To me, poetry is greater than my personal sufferings. I feel there should be room in the chambers of poetry for alternatives to academic products and disclosures of angst. I have chosen my own direction and have evolved to expressing thoughts and feelings about issues. And if I may have abandoned metaphor and simile, it is not that I despise them, but I must deliver what I believe to be a necessary blunt message. In an age of increasing insecurity and danger, we must still cherish poetry. But the guardians of the gates of poetry should allow examination of the problems of the world, with direct communication, in order to extend the diminishing influence of poetry on the events of our times.

Not Your Everyday Homeless Proposal

“Not Your Everyday Homeless Proposal” is an essay included in a college textbook, “Reading Critically, Writing Well,” and was originally published by Outcry Magazine, in 2006.

I worked with children of homeless families for 20 years and saw the terrible suffering of innocent children, punished for the failings of the parents. I sent this essay to dozens of elected and appointed officials, as well as not-for-profit agencies. I received two letters in reply thanking me for my interest in the homeless. The inabiliy to explore new initiatives to deal with homelessness condemns children to be victims of a heartless system.

Not Your Everyday Homeless Proposal

by Gary Beck

Homelessness has become a persistent problem in urban environments and multiplies rapidly in the periods of economic downturn that follow cycles of prosperity. InNew York City, for example, recognized by some as the homeless capitol of the world, the dim economic forecast through at least the year 2007 makes it exceedingly improbable that there will be additional funds to alleviate the resurgent homeless situation. Families with children are entering the homeless system in record numbers that have surpassed even the dreadful surge of homelessness during the Koch administration in the 1980’s. Regardless of the reasons that homeless families enter the shelter system, they should be accorded the highest priority of attention, because children are the group most vulnerable to the pernicious effects of homelessness. There is a moral and constitutional duty to insure that homeless children, who are the victims rather than the cause of their family’s plight, will have a chance for education, happiness and an opportunity to obtain a piece of the mythical American dream.

Too often inNew York Citythere is an ongoing struggle between not-for-profit advocacy groups and the Department of Homeless Services, regarding issues related to intake, shelter and services for the homeless. Without the efforts of the non-government organizations the shelter system would be in even more dismal shape. Not every city has a staunch defender of the rights of the homeless like Justice Helen E. Freedman of the New York State Supreme Court. She has played a major role in shaping the city’s policies for the homeless, with particular concern for the treatment of families with children. Despite all efforts by government and the private sector, the situation of the homeless remains perilous. SuccessiveNew York Cityadministrations have continued to house homeless families in deteriorated and dangerous welfare hotels and motels, rife with drugs, prostitution and violence, that are the children’s learning curricula in these unchartered crime academys.

Since it is an acknowledged fact that cities cannot afford to build a sufficiency of low-income housing with concomitant support services for the homeless, other options should be explored. ANew York Cityproposal to house the homeless in an abandoned prison showed a typical government insensitivity to this population group. If the city first announced that they planned to convert the facility to a suitable residential structure, it might have been favorably received. Instead, it appeared that the government was going to put the homeless in jail. Another proposal that must have been intended to entertain the public, rather than offer a serious solution, was a plan to place homeless families on refitted cruise ships, to be anchored in New York Harbor. The New York City Commissioner of Homeless Services actually made a visit to theBahamas, purportedly to inspect unused cruise ships. The safety, security and supervisory considerations that would be necessary for shipboard dwelling should have led to instant rejection of the plan, by whomever it was first suggested to. Of course any resemblance to British prison hulks in the Revolutionary War that stored inconvenient bodies was strictly coincidental.

When the homeless problem became a major embarrassment to the Koch administration in the mid-eighties, homeless families were placed in decrepit midtownManhattanhotels, where no tourists in their right minds would have conceived of spending even one night. These hotels could not previously rent rooms for $29.00 per night. Suddenly they were billing the city $100.00 per night, for warehousing families with children in the heart of mid-townManhattan. There was no apparent government concern that the hotels were far from supermarkets, laundries, childrens playgrounds and other community services necessary for the daily functioning of families. The tiny hotel rooms, barely large enough for one person, hadn’t been painted for years. There were no cooking facilities, a frequent lack of heat in winter and often no hot water all year round. The insect and rodent infested rooms were completely inadequate to shelter families. Crime, drugs, prostitution and violence thrived in the isolated confines of an environment that was totally unsuitable for children.

The Guiliani administration in the ‘nineties’ cunningly moved much of the homeless population to hotels and motels in the outer boroughs. Yet they still paid at least as much or more for rooms, then the Koch administration had for traditionally more expensive rooms inManhattan. The Guiliani administration astutely recognized that the media would only leave the comforts ofManhattanIslandfor major stories such as murder, arson, etc. They knew there was no glamour in the outer boroughs. There was also a cynical awareness that the media would be reluctant to investigate the ongoing problems of a social group that lacks political clout, despite the human suffering, because the homeless don’t vote and consequently are not part of a constituency that has legislators to defend their interests. The homeless are represented by what has become a small but vocal not-for-profit industry, that in turn is dependent on the homeless for its existence. The relationship between the Guiliani administration and homeless advocates was frequently contentious, to the detriment of the homeless, who were in desperate need of services. The Bloomberg administration continues to house the homeless in tawdry hotels and motels at the cost of $3,500.00 to $4,500.00 per month, for rooms that most people would deem uninhabitable.

The cost of rooms to house the homeless is only part of the expenditures on this dependent population. Outrageous housing costs have been justified over the years by the assertion that designated federal funds will only pay for temporary housing. An active New York State Congressional delegation could most probably arrange a small alternate funding stream, for longer term housing solutions. Another infliction on the homeless was that the Guiliani administration rigorously enforced arbitrary rules that allowed them to exclude needy petitioners from entering the homeless system. The reason given was the administration’s fear that the working poor would flood the shelter system as a route for attaining better housing. It was beyond the capacity of the Guiliani administration to address the needs of the working poor. Therefore, a convoluted mechanism to avoid the issue was contrived; emergency funds for temporary housing only, however extravagant the cost of the rentals. We are confronted with a peculiar dysfunction when the government pays upper middle class rental rates, for accommodations below slum standards.

There are no simple solutions for this desperate situation that devours the futures of hundreds of youth annually. The real problem is society’s lack of will to urgently address an issue that should have been resolved in the 19th century; cooperation between the government and the private sector to provide solutions for the problems of the needy. There is an overwhelming need to develop innovative plans that will concentrate efforts on alleviating the burdens of homelessness on the most fragile group, families with children. One possible plan would target economically depressed communities using upstateNew York as an example, that are struggling to remain solvent and functional. This could be a model for other areas of the country. Depressed communities face a grim future, with little hope of the arrival of new industries that will replace lost blue collar and farm jobs. Certain qualifying communities could be offered a partnership with select pioneer homeless families, in a venture that could benefit both groups.

Appropriate towns that have an infrastructure of schools, transportation, medical services, grocery stores, laundromats and most important, a civic system capable of problem solving would be identified. They would be approached by designated personnel who would present a proposal that would demonstrate the economic benefits to the towns for providing residential sites and a supportive environment for designated homeless families. Abandoned property would be leased, reactivating the tax base for the towns. Renovation of the properties would stimulate local employment and generate earnings for businesses that sell construction materials and supplies. Support services for the families would develop new jobs that would infuse cash in the towns. Some jobs, after negotiations with the towns, would be reserved for the new residents. Living expenses of the families would directly contribute cash to the local economies.

Suitable families would be recruited for ‘small town pioneering’ after a careful selection and preparation process. The first requirement would be functionality. The mentally ill homeless would not be an appropriate target group. But at least 25% to 30% of homeless families are functional, many having fallen into the system because of economic disaster like loss of job, or a fire that destroyed home or apartment, etc. The benefits of small town life would be presented as a positive alternative to the stress of urban shelters and poverty communities. The families would have to be prepared to adapt to a new and unaccustomed environment. The towns would also need preparation to receive a new population group as welcome neighbors. Job development for both town residents and the newcomer families would be a priority.

The small town pioneering program would start as a pilot project. Appropriate personnel would be assigned to contact potentially qualified towns. Ten towns would be chosen to house ten families each, for a total of one hundred families. Questionnaires should be developed in cooperation with NGO’s and the Departments of Homeless Services to identify qualified families, willing to undergo a major change in their way of life. Funds required for the initial phase of the project, outreach to the designated towns and families are minimal. If funds are not available from the Department of Homeless Services, or other concerned government agencies, they would be solicited from private foundations. Once towns and families have been selected, project activities would commence simultaneously in the towns and the homeless shelters.

The towns should identify suitable residential space, preferably one- or two-family homes that have been underutilized or abandoned, that would then be renovated for habitation. Assisted living services would be identified and organized. Social workers, one per town, each to manage a caseload of ten families, would be recruited, with incentives offered to induce them to live in the community. Budgets for living expenses would be prepared. Training for the families in small town living skills would be followed by orientation tours of the intended communities. There would be introductions to the local residents: shopkeepers, teachers, town officials, neighbors, etc. The families and towns respectively should be prepared to fulfill their obligations to each other. The nearest colleges should be invited to participate in the project and provide educational services, as well as job or career training.

Funding for this demonstration program would be requested from theNew YorkStatelegislature, various federal agencies, the New York City Department of Homeless Services, the office of the Mayor of New York City, private foundations and corporations. Small town pioneering should be developed as a model program that would be replicable, after an appropriate demonstration period. The relatively low start up cost per family, as well as proportionately low operating costs, would be far less then the cost of housing a family in a temporary shelter. This would make it possible to run the program for far less than the cost to maintain a family in a shelter, which is approximately $45,000 annually, for a family of three. The savings to the taxpayer would be considerable and the benefits to both towns and families would be immense.

Concerned officials, agencies and NGO’s should consider this program as a possible amelioration to the problem of homelessness for a substantial number of families capable of rebuilding their future. This proposal is presented as only one possible solution to a major problem for which many new initiatives are needed. Other programs that could be explored might include: the development of co-operative apartment houses; an urban pioneering initiative utilizing abandoned buildings in poverty neighborhoods, for reclamation as housing stock; perhaps a more daring venture in commune/kibbutz experiments. Hopefully, these suggestions will stimulate consideration by those concerned with the future well-being of neglected members of our society, of the urgent need for new, practical solutions for the problems of homeless families with children.