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January 2004 • Vol 4, No. 1 •

Budget Cuts Kill People

By Art LeClair

The temperature outside is 12 degrees Fahrenheit, the frozen ground covered with ice and snow, as the season’s first arctic blast wraps its frigid arms around New England. Reporters on the nightly news tell viewers that they “need to don extra layers of clothing for extra insulation from the cold,” and recommend that they “don’t go out unless absolutely necessary.”

Sound advice generally speaking, but what if you have no choice but to “go out?”

In what has become an annual event, more than 250 volunteers recently took part in a citywide survey of the number of homeless people in Boston. When they had completed their rounds, 6,113 people were classified as homeless, a figure which is 1.1 percent lower than last year.

However, 230 people were identified as living out on the streets, an 8 percent increase from one year ago.

“In the context of the numbers being down, the shelters are overflowing. We had almost 100 people that we couldn’t find beds for that night. You have to put the numbers in the context that there are still not enough shelter beds for the individuals,” says Lydia Downey, who runs the Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest homeless shelter.

As a result of budget cuts on both the federal and state level, shelters have been forced to cut staff and services to the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Furthermore, there is a critical shortage of detox beds in the “Commonwealth.” Last year alone, the Massachusetts State Legislature slashed the number of state-subsidized beds from 997 to 420, at a time when most detox centers already had waiting lists.

Tough love.

Which brings us to the story of Jack McDonnell. The 58-year-old Vietnam veteran, a chronic alcoholic, was a well-known regular at the Friends of the Shattuck Shelter, which houses 200 people a night in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

McDonnell was barred from the facility in June 2003 for six months after he stumbled into the shelter drunk, swore at staff members and raised his fists when warned to stop, according to shelter officials.

The Shattuck had been McDonnell’s refuge during more than a decade of homelessness. He was one of hundreds of men and women routinely banned from the shelter for a variety of reasons.

On the night of December 4, Jack McDonnell stripped off his clothes, shouted a number of expletives at the cancer that had taken his wife, and laid down on the frozen ground, declaring his desire to die. A short time later, his wish was granted. His six-month suspension would have ended the next day.

Advocates for the homeless report that the shelter had recently laid off McDonnell’s longtime social worker because of the budget crunch. I’m sure that is not very comforting to his family.

“The system failed him, maybe even defeated him,” stated Joe Churchill, executive director of the Shattuck Shelter. “You feel a sense of despair whenever you hear about a case like this.”

When examined on a national scale, the plight of the homeless and mentally ill is a constant and deepening source of despair. But what can you do when the money just isn’t there? Right! Spend, spend, spend!

When I opened today’s online edition of the New York Times (Friday, January 9), I read with great interest that, thankfully, there is apparently enough money for the important things, at least in the minds of some people.

The headline that first caught my eye read, “Bush to Announce Ventures to Mars and the Moon, Officials Say.” Talk about having the Nation’s priorities in order. At a time when the administration’s foreign policy has the national deficit in the trillions of dollars and rising fast, Bush will take to the airwaves in a week to outline a “major space initiative.”

It seems Mr. Bush, like his daddy before him, thinks it is more important to establish a permanent base on the moon, “as a prelude to a longer-term goal of sending humans to Mars,” than to deal with the health and welfare problems of his “constituents.” My current computer lacks disk space adequate enough to store the variations of “What kind of screwball came up with this scheme?”

In reality, and this is obviously nothing new, the money being handed out to the billionaires who own the defense industry to “liberate” the people of Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t nearly enough. To think that the space program is anything other than a cash cow for the same folks would be, and I’m being polite, foolish.

NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is now and has always been part of the Department of Defense, even though it has been given the appearance of an independent entity.

NASA’s top dog, administrator Sean O’Keefe has spoken on a number of occasions about the numerous problems posed by attempting a manned landing on Mars. In particular, he talks about how “the nation,” not the above mentioned defense contractors, would have to develop new technology to deliver new and better forms of propulsion and ways of generating electricity in space, as well as protecting astronauts from exposure to higher levels of radiation.

Two things to consider here: O’Keefe, speaking on behalf of the power brokers is trying to sell the citizenry on their obligation to pay for this program and at the same time promote the illusion, no the myth, that great advances in technology to benefit mankind will only result if the national coffers are emptied to fund the corporate welfare system.

The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree

In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, Dubya’s father, King George the First, called for permanent colonies on the moon and an expedition to Mars when he said:

“I’m not proposing a ten year plan like Apollo; I’m proposing a long-range, continuing commitment for the new century. Back to the moon, back to the future. And this time, back to stay. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet: A manned mission to Mars.”

Thus far no one has mentioned how the funding for this adventure will be procured. When the elder Bush proposed the project fifteen years ago, the estimated price tag was between $400 billion to $500 billion.

While no firm cost estimates have been announced, insiders say the cost will be in the neighborhood of nearly $1 trillion. A nice neighborhood indeed.

On January 3, NASA landed a state of the art rover named “Spirit” on the surface of the red planet. Unfortunately, this expensive toy is stuck because the air bags designed to cushion its landing have malfunctioned and are obstructing its movement.

Fortunately for the space agency, a second rover named “Opportunity” has also been sent and is scheduled to land on January 24. The cost of this preliminary exploratory mission, a mere $800 million.

My memory isn’t as good as it used to be, but wasn’t “bringing back fiscal responsibility” and revitalizing a stagnant economy a center piece of the Bush/Cheney ticket in 2000?

By the way, one of the primary tasks of the current mission to Mars is to hunt for signs that there was at one time an abundance of water on the surface of the now bone-dry planet. Perhaps they’ll have better luck than the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In any event one thing is crystal clear: Any pretense that this or any other administration, be it Democrat, Republican or independent, in the context of capitalist rule, has an iota of interest in the health, education or any other social concern of the people of the United States, is folly.





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