"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, March 6, 2015

Crime and Section 8: Blaming a Victim?

Last week I related the tale of a few Pottstown residents who decided to fight back against the crime and drugs in their community.  They hounded the Montgomery County Housing Authority (MCHA) to remove a Housing Choice Voucher from a woman who was blatantly violating the rules.  It took many months, but was eventually successful; in fact, these citizens were rather more successful than the Pottstown Police Department in dealing with this woman.  I commended this last week, and I shall continue to do so.  But I have a question about the affair, one that attempts to introduce some perspective into the issue, which I believe is sorely needed.  This is why I often refer to myself as the “Wet Blanket of Reality,” and why I am never radical enough for those who see the world through the lens of their ideology.  I know better, but here goes.

It’s time to ask the question that has been nagging at me as I read the continuing Facebook and blog posts about this story.  Section 8 is the featured topic, but isn’t this story really more about crime than Section 8?  Tracey Accor continued to have the MCHA (that means you, the taxpayers) pay a portion of her rent for much too long a period of time, but the abuse of Section 8 may have been the least of the offenses committed by her and the various residents of 377 N. Charlotte Street during their residence there.

Why the greater focus on one of her targets—the Voucher Program—than on the perpetrator and her crimes?  Aren’t we in a sense blaming a victim?  Yes, the way the Housing Choice Voucher Program was written and is administered virtually invites abuse, but that excuse does not fly with people, so why apply it to government programs?  Isn’t abuse abuse, regardless? 

There is definitely a very relevant factor here, not so much rational (read “financial”) as visceral, but no less real or important for that fact.  To see daily evidence of criminal activity is certainly cause enough for anger, but to know that your neighborhood criminal is living on your dollar, partially subsidized by a program designed to help the needy but otherwise law-abiding, really sticks in the craw.  Facebook’s “Pottstown Homeowner at Large” put this feeling quite succinctly: “Here we are, working, paying our taxes and contributing to society, but by us doing the right thing we are enabling others to do ‘nothing’.”  The writer was being kind; taxpayers are enabling such people to do positive harm to their communities, and that is much worse than nothing.

The results of this quite legitimate feeling, multiplied by the many who experience something like it somewhere else, produce a tragedy no one intended, and visits it on those who don’t deserve it.  The voucher program’s weaknesses and glacially slow procedures turn people not just against the criminal who abuses them, but the program itself.  The law-abiding neighbors of its abusers are victims, and have collected a multitude of very personal—and thus quite valid—reasons to hate the program.  The greater number of victims here, unfortunately, are those voucher holders who do obey the law and the program regulations, because they don’t have to live anywhere near the violator to be hurt.  It is this last group of people that scammers like Tracey Accor truly victimize, because amid the almost daily evidence of a criminal mentality, the thing people tend to remember is the Section 8 Voucher part.

We simply must establish a sense of perspective, and see the problem for what it is, a criminal problem, not a Section 8 problem.  Section 8 is most certainly part of the problem, and in its present form cannot be the solution.  But to conflate “Section 8” with crime is to do a great disservice to the complexity of the reality that is the Housing Choice Voucher Program. 

So, keeping with my reality thing, what does the future hold for the program, and thus for the innocent victims of its shortcomings?  There are—in theory—three broad options regarding the future of Housing Choice Vouchers.  In truth, however, two of those are not options, because they require government action.  Only the third is possible, because it can be undertaken by private citizens.

First, the government could simply eliminate the program.  To those who recommend this, I ask only, “as opposed to what?”  If you think your neighborhood and your community’s streets are unsafe now, just try to image them after a substantial source of income for many malefactors is cut off.  Calls to simply eliminate the program are many things, beginning with un-Christian.  They are also pure posturing, designed to score visceral points without having to actually be serious about the issue.  Simply eliminating welfare programs solves nothing, and will only make things worse.  It won’t happen.

Second, Congress could undertake a wholesale, thoughtful rewrite of the program, addressing the flaws that everyone knows about by now.  If anyone thinks that the Republican-led Congress will undertake such an effort any time in the near future, please contact me.  I have a bridge to sell you.  And please, don’t write me about how a Democratic Congress wouldn’t do this either; that’s not relevant to reality, and therefore another example of pure posturing.  When either political party comes up with an improvement, then my attitude will change.  I'm not holding my breath, and neither should you.

What this means is that we all must continue to live with (and perhaps next to) the results of a horribly flawed program, because our government is not going to do anything.  In the face of this unfortunate truth, that leaves only the third option: people, within each of our communities, not just attacking the Voucher Program, but focusing on those who violate it.  That’s the only real option, if your goal is to make things better, and not just bitch.  Let’s not just give thanks for those citizens willing to undertake such a thankless, repetitious task as prodding a Federal Agency, but emulate their example.  Citizens must get involved, report Housing Choice Voucher violations to the Authority and then keep on hounding it relentlessly.  That’s what the citizens in Pottstown that I wrote about last week did.  The story demonstrates what can be done, but fully acknowledges the time and effort required.  To call something time consuming, difficult and productive of—at best—only a “small victory” is pretty much the definition of a “wet blanket,” but that is the reality. 

If you ask the people who hounded the MCHA for a long time just to remove one voucher from its holder, I’m not sure they would say things are really any better.  N. Charlotte Street in Pottstown has much greater problems than abuse of a Housing Choice Voucher, witness a recent headline about drug and weapons seizures a few blocks up from our subject building.  But it also still has those citizens I wrote about, and others who keep the public’s focus on the problem, so there is hope.  We must remember that for them, the problem is not only real, it’s real close.  That makes what they do not only a thankless task, but also a downright risky one.  Perspective must tell us that also.

Perspective also says that the people I wrote about last week only lit one candle in the struggle against urban crime, so the view is not much improved.  But what if many others, in other communities, undertook such actions?  Even a wet blanket couldn’t put out the fires they would kindle.


Note:  I will resume my current blog schedule in two weeks, posting next on Friday, March 20.