I’m Back!

On Tuesday, May 28 I came down with a very bad cold or something worse. Minor panic. In four days Embry and I were supposed to go to the 60th reunion of the Class of 1964 at Davidson College. How could I miss this occasion to reunite with old buddies, and miss the opportunity to stay at the home of one of our dearest friends? Plus, I had the honor of introducing one of the main speakers, also a close friend. I went to bed immediately, tested negative for covid, drank plenty of liquids, and took it day by day. On Friday morning I was starting to feel better. In discussing the situation with Embry, she made the comment that this could be my last chance to see my Davidson classmates, noting that there was no such thing as a 65th reunion at Davidson. Decision made: gut it out.

The reunion was all I could have hoped for. Five of my best friends—all former fraternity brothers– were there with their wives, along with an equal number of people I knew pretty well, which added together accounted for over half of the Class of 1964 who were present. When I attended Davidson, our class totaled 250. Some 86 of us have died, about 34 percent. About a dozen of the deceased I knew, some well. One was one of my best friends. Many others are probably struggling with serious health issues or have stopped traveling. Some have never attended any reunions. So, the 23 of us accounted for about 15 percent of the survivors. Sounds low to me, but we were told that our participation was par for the course for a 60th reunion.

The six couples sat together at our class dinner on Friday evening, attended on Saturday  the talk by the new college president (a 40-something male alum), who passed muster, and we all agreed was a good choice, toured the campus including the new, vast athletic complex, and went to a lakeside restaurant together for dinner. I managed to stumble through my introduction of friend and classmate, Bill Ferris, a famous folklorist, author, film maker and former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, who made a terrific talk.

The pedometer on my iPhone showed we had walked over three miles on Saturday. Normally this would be a good thing since for the last several years I have been walking between 12 and 15 miles a week albeit at a pace which has been diminishing each year and this year with the aid of a hiking stick. But my body was telling me that this time, maybe not a good idea.

But Embry was right as she is most of the time.  The reunion experience was worth the effort and important. Hey, we are now old codgers. We members of the Davidson Class of 1964 will all be 82 before the year is out. In five more years when in theory the next reunion would happen, those of us who survive will be 87. But how many of us will still be kicking? If nothing else, class reunions underscore human mortality. That is just the way it is for us humans and for all plant and animal life on the planet Earth. The challenge for each of us living creatures is to make the best of our limited time on the stage.

While most of the reunion conversations could be construed to be small talk—“How’s the family, kids, grandkids?”—they are more than that. Something more important  happens at reunions . Reconnecting is what counts, and here is where we humans join the rest of the animal kingdom. Have you noticed how animals connect or reconnect with another of their kind? Dogs are the extreme example. Hardly ever do two dogs  pass each other without a brief smell of each other’s rear end followed by a wag of the tail. This is like saying, “OK, I remember you, you’re a friend,” or “Gee whiz, I would like to get know you better,” and then they move on. This is very important in what it means to be a dog. It is part of their DNA. It is what must give meaning to their lives. Well, we humans are not all that different. Just a kind greeting, a smile, handshake or brief hug reestablishes that connection with an old friend. You do not have to engage in a deep or lengthy discussion. Reconnecting is why reunions are so important. It is also part of our DNA.

So, despite not feeling so great, I am very glad we attended the 60th Davidson reunion, but I paid a price, and that will be the subject of the next blog post.

 

 

 

Oh, My Goodness, It Could Never Happen, Could It?

Annie Jacobsen’s new book on the possibility of a nuclear armageddon, Nuclear War: A Scenario, is causing quite a stir. But who thinks much about nuclear war anymore? (When I was growing up in Nashville in the early 1950s, I remember atomic bomb war drills in grammar school when we kids crawled under our desks. In the 1960s, my younger brother brought home from the navy a sign that read, “In the event of nuclear war, extinguish all cigarettes.”) Afterall, atomic bombs and nuclear weapons have been around for almost 80 years and “only” used twice. In fact, while we know that large arsenals of these weapons still exist, the theory of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) has worked well so far, so why worry? Besides, what can anyone do about it?  Don’t we have enough to worry about already as many in our country alarmingly are supporting a candidate for president, who is sounding more and more like a fascist?

I have not read the book yet but have listened to a three-hour-long interview on the Lex Fridman podcast and viewed a YouTube video interview with Jacobsen of about the same length. Go to the internet and view or listen to these interviews. However, be forewarned: It will scare the bejesus out of you.

Jacobsen is an investigative reporter for The New York Times who has covered military and national security issues for many years. For this book she interviewed hundreds of experts and uncovered formerly classified material. She says that the reason that she wrote the book is that she believes the world at large has accepted the fact that thousands of nuclear warheads exist, albeit with a shrug and ho-hum attitude that MAD seems to be working just fine. She raises the question, “But what if it doesn’t?”

If it doesn’t, according to Jacobsen, and if a full scale nuclear war happened, it could mean the end of human and animal life on the planet. She describes in her book a scenario where we are attacked by North Korea, a rogue nation which now has an estimated 50 nuclear weapons. We counterattack sending dozens of nukes toward them. Because of the way our nuclear silos are set up, aiming toward the east, not the west, to hit North Korea the nukes must fly over Russia. When the Russians pick up the signal of missiles headed toward them, they think we are hitting them and retaliate with even more missiles unleashed toward the U.S. Then we respond with missiles headed to Russia. And all this happens in less than an hour. Then other nuclear nations join the fray. The planet Earth is forever changed.

Since the main target for the nukes from Russia is the Pentagon, this would mean that every building within a 20-mile radius would be instantly destroyed, and all the inhabitants instantly killed. But we in Washington would be the lucky ones. Our demise would be swift. What would follow would be even worse for those who survived as governments collapsed around the world and lawlessness prevailed. Food supplies would vanish and within hours the soot and debris would begin to block the sun resulting in a twilight lasting for years, decades, or longer. Temperatures would drop  20 or more degrees and without light plants would die and agriculture would cease.  Nuclear winter would set in, and the Planet Earth would join the other desolate planets in our solar system. Game over.

What struck me most about this doomsday scenario is that it tracks with the five mass extinctions that have already occurred on our planet, roughly every 130-150 million years. Each mass extinction wiped out between 85-95 percent of all plant and animal life. The last mass extinction happened about 130 million years ago when the dinosaurs got wiped out when a huge asteroid hit the Yucatan in Mexico. It turns out that according to scientists who keep track of this sort of thing, that technically the Earth is already entering the Sixth Mass Extinction due mainly to the destruction of animal habitats by us humans.  Should the unthinkable happen, this would complete the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Good heavens!  Nothing like this could happen—not to us—could it? Jacobsen is scaring the living daylights out of us for no reason since there is nothing we can do about it. But I suppose that is her point. We must figure out a way to assure that it won’t happen. That would mean getting rid of the thousands of nuclear weapons now stockpiled in nine countries and to make them illegal forever. But what are the chances that will happen? She would argue that it must happen if life on the planet is to survive. The nuclear holocaust may not happen in our lifetime, or our children’s or our grandchildren’s, but odds makers say that the chances are close to 100 percent that if we humans have these weapons, eventually we will use them again. It is only a matter of time.

 

 

The Times We Are In

 


This morning (May 14, 2024) there were several articles about the 2024 presidential election, which to a bleeding heart Democrat like me are unsettling. The latest New York Times, Siena College and the Philadelphia Inquirer poll shows Trump leading in five of the six key battleground states—Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Biden is ahead only in Wisconsin where he leads by a mere two percent. There was another article in the Times about Robert F Kennedy Jr. who is polling at nine percent with his popularity rising. The gist of that article was that while Kennedy is pulling voters from both Biden and Trump, his candidacy is hurting Biden the most and could well be the spoiler that hands the presidency to Trump. And when these polls were taken, the New York trial of Trump in the Stormy Daniels coverup was well underway, and the tawdry actions of the former president were common knowledge. There was also another interesting article about how inflation was hurting lower income households far more than higher income households because a much higher percentage have credit card and student loan debt, which translates to having to pay more for interest and being priced out of the home buying market. Many–including Black and Hispanic voters–are blaming Biden and turning to Trump, cutting into the traditional Democratic base. If all this is not enough to cause discomfort to a Democrat, a third poll this week showed that while a majority of voters were dissatisfied with both candidates, the electorate clearly wants a change from the status quo. A majority also answers the polling question about the economy that Trump did a better job during his term than Biden is doing now.

What? Are we Americans nuts? Unemployment remains close to historic lows, for the first time in decades wages are rising faster than inflation, and massive infrastructure projects are underway in every state. Furthermore, a majority of respondents to recent polls about the economy say that while they believe the country is worse off economically under Biden, their own financial situation is the same or better than it was several years ago. Go figure.

And these troubling findings are on the domestic front. It may turn out that the international front may be even more unsettling due mainly to the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza. Biden initially supported Netanyahu’s retribution actions in Gaza, which have left over 35,000 Gazans dead, mostly women and children, and over 1.9 million homeless—over 85 percent of the population. The U.S. has spent billions of dollars in aiding Israel and supplying weapons, some of which presumably have been used in destroying thousands in of homes in Gaza and killing innocent civilians. We see on the evening news every night the inconceivable destruction that has happened, the weeping mothers and dying children. It is heartbreaking.  Now our policies seem to be changing, but the “Final Battle” in Rafah is just beginning. Will Biden’s actions be a case of too little too late?

Biden finds himself in a no win situation.  By limiting support for Israel, Biden will likely lose votes from those who support Israel, but by supporting Israel he will lose votes from the Progressives, who may choose to stay home on election day. And what about all the protests on college campuses? These remind me of the 1968 demonstrations when Embry and I were living in New York’s Upper West Side across from the Columbia campus, except they are more violent and involve students fighting students and more aggressive police interventions. It is likely that Trump will use these demonstrations to make the case that America needs a strongman like him, not a wimp like Biden, to quash the disturbances and bring “law and order” back to the country. If Progressives disrupt the Democratic convention as they say they are going to do, it would add more fuel to the fire for the Republicans. That was tried in 1968 and resulted in a victory for Nixon. Been there, done that. Not a happy outcome.

And the trial of New York versus Donald J Trump continues, with three other trials waiting in the wings but not likely to happen before the election. If convicted, would it make a difference? The polls tell us that for between 70 and 80 percent of Republicans the answer is no. (According to a 2023 CNN poll this is the same percentage that believe the 2020 election was stolen.) It appears that there is nothing that Trump could do to earn their disfavor. Some continue to believe that he represents the Second Coming of Jesus. But that leaves a healthy number of moderates, who might change their minds. However, most pundits think that the Stormy Daniels case is the least serious of the charges and if Trump is convicted, it won’t matter that much.

Has there ever been a time post Civil War when the country was more divided, the stakes higher, or the outcome more uncertain? And there are still almost six months left to go. Lots of water left to flow under the bridge. What more surprises are out there that could change the trajectory one way or another? Fasten your seatbelts. These are the times we are in.

 

 

Project 2025

If you want something to alarm you even more than you already are about a Trump victory, Google “Project 2025” and read the various articles that are posted on the internet about this effort, which has been quietly going on behind the scenes for years. The Heritage Foundation and other right wing, so called “think tanks” have been working during most of Biden’s term on a playbook for Trump’s hoped-for reelection this year. This effort has produced a 900+ page manual listing all the actions that should happen when and if Trump gets reelected. Here is what we can expect to happen if a second term President Trump follows Project 2025:

  • Trump will announce in his inaugural speech that he is invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows the president to deploy the military to act as police to arrest and jail “insurrectionists,” which Trump will define as any group or individual he does not like. If there are any protestors at the inauguration, expect them to be arrested and jailed. Anyone involved in college campus protests regarding Gaza can also expect the slammer. Trump has already said that any general or military commander who does not follow his orders will be executed.
  • He will announce that he is reclassifying high level civil servants as political appointees and will fire the ones on the Project 2025 enemies list, to be replaced by right wing sycophants, which the Heritage Foundation has been screening and recruiting for months. All of Trump’s top level advisors will be sycophants this time around. The guardrails will disappear.
  • He will announce that beginning immediately, he will order the military to round up all undocumented immigrants and deport them, beginning with the “Dreamers.” This will take some time since they are estimated to number over 10 million, the vast majority hard working and committed citizens. Huge, guarded tent encampments will be constructed in Texas and border states to imprison the immigrants while the deportation process is underway, and which could take years.
  • Project 2025 spells out the process for slashing funding for the Department of Justice, dismantling the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security , gutting environmental and climate change regulations in favor of fossil fuel production, eliminating the departments of Education and Commerce, and ending the independence of various federal agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.
  • The plan calls for making virtually all abortions illegal including the use of all abortion pills that are accessed through the mail.
  • Project 2025 directs the government to recognize only heterosexual men and women, rescind anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals, and eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion provisions from federal legislation.

And this is just the beginning. The goal is for Trump to have complete autocracy in all matters. The United States will become a dictatorship flying under the banner of Christian nationalism. Term limits for the president would likely disappear, and the only consolation is that Trump probably would not be alive or healthy enough to seek a third term. There is not much in the plan regarding foreign policy but surely one of Trump’s first acts would be to get out of NATO and abandon Ukraine, maybe even get out of the UN. Russia would likely become an ally.

Of course, he will never be able to get away with all this. Afterall, we have three branches of government and a constitution. Our resilient democracy will fight back and withstand the onslaught. There is no way that a wannabe dictator like Trump could possibly pull this off. It could never happen, never.

Or could it?

Check out all the stuff on the internet about Project 2025 and fix yourself a stiff drink. You will need it.

 

 

 

How Worried Should We Be?

I confess to being an old codger and chances are that at least some of you reading this are too.  Hey, don’t apologize. Those of us who have passed 80 or are close to passing that milestone are survivors. At 82 I have outlived by six years my life expectancy of 76 when I was born in 1942. I know that life spans are also affected by gender, lifestyle, stress, genes, parenting, health, social class, race, where you were born, and plain luck. And I know that bad things happen to good people. More than half the people born in 1942 in the United States have already died. I know that I am among the lucky ones.

And just think about over the past 82 years the strides we have made and the changes for the better that have happened. We in the U.S. got rid of Jim Crow laws in the South where I grew up and have made strides in racial and gender equality and acceptance of  sexuality diversity. We have had an African American President, and women now head up major companies, as do people of color.  We have made progress by providing stronger social safety nets. In 1942 Medicare and Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act did not exist, nor did food stamps (now SNAP) or Housing Choice Vouchers or the earned income tax credit. The Allies defeated Hitler and the Axis powers in World War II and Soviet Union fell as did Maoist Communist China. For a while democracy was on the rise around the world.

And look at what we humans have invented. When I was born there were no widescreen, high definition television sets. In fact, there were no television sets. There were no jet airplanes, no cellphones, no internet, no space stations, no giant telescopes, no satellites, no EVs, and not that many cures for infectious or life threatening diseases.

Of course, the years during my lifetime have hardly been perfect. In the U.S. we made huge mistakes by getting involved in the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Afghanistan turned out to be a disaster. Inequality and racism have persisted. The divide between the superrich and everyone else has widened. The gap between developed nations and nations with emerging economies is still large. In the U.S. life has not gotten a whole lot easier for a lot of people especially those who live from paycheck to paycheck. Gun violence and mass shootings continue. Deaths from drug overdoses are rising. Mental illness persists. Homelessness is on the rise.  We suffered through the Covid pandemic with many thousands losing loved ones. Our country has never been more divided since the Civil War. Throughout the world there is so much suffering and hateful atrocities. Think about what is happening today in Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, Myanmar, and, of course, Gaza.

Also, when I was born there were no nuclear weapons, no drones, no artificial intelligence, and no threats about global warming due to man-made greenhouse gases. And the population of the world in 1942 was only a tad above two billion. Today it has passed eight billion.

Given how much our country and our world have changed over the last 82 years, is there anyone reading this blog who believes that we Homo sapiens on the Planet Earth will merrily go along indefinitely without a change of course?

The course we are on is unsustainable.

Some may argue that we codgers need not worry since we won’t be around to see how this movie ends. I looked up the life expectancy of someone my age—just over seven years. You could argue that we codgers have gotten off easy.  But what about our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and great great…. At what point does the reckoning happen?

In my recent studies of the cosmos (for a presentation that I did at our neighborhood church), I learned that over the course of the four billion years our solar system has been around, the lonely planet Earth has experienced five mass extinctions of almost all animal and plant life. These have happened about every 130-150 million years. The last mass extinction on our planet happened about 130 million years ago. According to scientists who keep track of these things we are now officially in the early stages of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction—so far mainly wildlife due to us humans destroying animal habitats. The existential question is this: Will we humans survive the Sixth Great Mass Extinction on the Planet Earth.

 

 

A Day in the Life

I have owned a large iMac desk top computer for about six years and love it. A few days ago, an ominous sign briefly appeared on my computer screen with a lot of numbers and then vanished. Then my Microsoft Word program shut down and froze up. Not only was I unable to type anything into Word, I no longer had access to any of my Word files.

No problem, I thought, I would just call Apple Help. I have had good luck with Apple Help in the past. Someone will usually call you back within  a few minutes and they almost always speak with an American accent and know what they are doing. As usual I got a call back from a polite Apple tech woman, who listened to my problem, and to whom I gave permission to screen share. I love the screen share feature. The expert can see everything on your screen and lead you through the process of fixing what is wrong. Usually, my problem is solved effortlessly by the Apple tech person within minutes, and I move on with my day. Not this time. After directing me to try this and then do that to no avail, she checked with a supervisor and informed me that the problem was not a computer problem but a software problem–a Word problem– and since Word is a Microsoft product, not an Apple product, Apple would not be able to help me. I should call Microsoft.

Hey, I can handle that, I told her and immediately called Microsoft. I got a guy who informed me that he knew nothing about Apple computers and that I would have to go back to Apple. He said it could not be a software issue and had to be a computer issue.

Back to Apple Help. This time I got a guy who seemed to want to help me but after a few minutes admitted that if Microsoft could not help, then I would just have to accept that my Word program was permanently frozen and I would permanently lose access to my files. I pointed out that I had many thousand Word files on my computer that would be lost forever. This would likely result in my having a serious mental breakdown. He replied apologetically that nothing could be done.  I would just have to accept it.

Panic time. When I told Embry about my situation, she suggested I take the computer to the Apple store that I usually go to in Bethesda, Maryland, a neighboring suburb of DC. I clicked online to their website and called their number, a local 301 number. The person who answered asked me what state I lived in. When I told him Washington DC, he switched me to another local number, which rang but turned out to be a downtown Apple store, not the Bethesda office I wanted. The person I got this time said that yes, I could bring the computer in, convey it to them for recycling and buy a new one or that they could try to fix it, but probably would not be able to since a Microsoft software product was involved and hung up. I did not want to fight the traffic or try to find parking so I decided to stick with the Bethesda store.

 I called the Bethesda number again. This time a guy with a strong accent answered and asked me which country I was calling from. Which country? I was dialing a local area code number for goodness’ sake. I had no idea which country he was in, but by this time I had had enough and lost it. I screamed at the poor guy on the phone almost breaking down into tears. I explained the situation and told him that if someone could not figure out how to unfreeze my Word files, my whole life was ruined. I would lose several thousand, maybe several hundred thousand Word files dating all the way back to the 1980s when I purchased my first Apple II computer. Certainly, they had to be in the cloud someplace and that certainly someone could help me. He was very patient and after confirming that I lived in the United States in Washington DC. said he would make an appointment for me as I had requested at the Bethesda office—which miraculously he was able to accomplish. I was set for the next day at 10 in the morning.

Now while I like my 27-inch iMac desktop, it must weigh at least forty pounds, maybe even fifty. With great effort, I managed to lift it into a very large suitcase, put it into the back of our car and headed to the Bethesda office where I had a scheduled appointment at the Genius Bar. I staggered into the crowded store lugging the suitcase and checked in with one of the guys wearing an Apple shirt, who was greeting the customers. When asked to explain why I was there, I told him my sad story, to which he responded that I need not waste my time. Apple does not deal with customers who have Microsoft software programs, and that I should instead go to a Microsoft store.  This time I kept my composure. I was committed to seeing this through. Rather than break down in tears or let out a primal scream, I pleaded with him to allow me to see one of the geniuses even though I understood that it seemed to be a problem no one could solve. He reluctantly agreed though warned me again that it was futile. I could, however, leave my broken computer at the store and buy a new one.

After waiting patiently for about 20 minutes at the Genius Bar, I perked up when a tall guy probably in his late 20s and wearing an Apple tee shirt and jeans meandered over and agreed to take a look.

In about five minutes he had figured out what was wrong and in less than ten more minutes, had fixed it. I wanted to give him a bear hug. All that was required was deleting the old Word program and replacing it with an updated version. I celebrated by buying myself a new iPhone 15 (My old one could no longer charge.) and drove home smiling the whole way.

Just another day in the life (of an old codger).

 

Why are Mainline Christian Churches Dying in America?

This post is based on a forum presentation on April 14 this year which I lead at All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, where Embry and I have been members for over 40 years. The statistics I cite are from Pew and Gallup surveys and from research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

I could be classified as a “lifer” or what is commonly referred to as a “cradle Episcopalian.” When I grew up in Nashville in the 1950s, I did not know anyone who did not attend church regularly or was not an active member of a Christian church. My parents attended Christ Church, the downtown Episcopal Church, and all my friends were either “traditional Protestants”—mainly Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists—or Southern Baptists. I had no friends who were either Jews or Catholics and certainly not any atheists. In those days churches were also segregated by race, though no one thought much about that. It was just the way things were.

My, how the country has changed!

“Mainline” denominations are the Protestant churches that began in the Reformation, some of whose members immigrated to the United States beginning in the 16th Century. The “Seven Sisters,” which are the dominant, mainline Protestant denominations are the United Church of Christ (which was a successor to the Puritans), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church (not to be confused with the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention), the Disciples of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church.

No one is certain exactly where the term “mainline” originated, but these denominations mostly use traditional liturgies, over the years have generally been middle of the road theologically, and for the most part have attracted middle and upper middle class (white) people and elites. Until recently parishioners have been evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and the denominations have steered away from politics. These are now the churches that have been losing the most members; and if the present trends continue, more  will fail.

Today the United Methodist Church continues to be the largest mainline church with over 5.7 million members in 2022, followed by the Evangelical Lutheran (2.9 million, note that even though it is called “evangelical,” it is considered mainline. The Missouri Synod is the Lutheran evangelical wing.), the Episcopal Church (1.4 million), and the Presbyterians (1.1 million). Here are the losses in just the last ten years experienced by the Seven Sisters:

The mainline denominations stand in contrast to the (white) evangelical church. It is important to point out that there are many differences within what I am referring to as the evangelical church. There are members of denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention with over 13 million members, the largest denomination by far, but also to a growing number of independent, nondenominational churches, some of which are mega churches with thousands of members. There are also the Pentecostal and Holiness Churches, where it is not unusual for people to speak in tongues, and the growing “Praise Churches.” A significant percentage of people in these churches are part of the MAGA movement and support Donald Trump. Theologically most evangelicals view the Bible as the inerrant word of God and believe that to be a true Christian you must have been “saved” by Jesus as evidenced by a personal religious experience and publicly take Jesus as your savior.

Today evangelicals vastly outnumber traditional Protestants. By some estimates over  25% of the adult population in the United States in 2020 were white evangelicals (and 5% Black evangelicals, who are very different politically) compared to just 10% for traditional Protestants, even lower for the mainliners. The gap is probably higher today. Good heavens! I grew up thinking that mainline churches were dominant, not evangelicals–or fundamentalist churches, as we used to call them. There are more than twice as many evangelicals as traditional Protestants, and there are also  a lot of Catholics, who are estimated to comprise about 20% of the adult population. The mainliners are by far the smallest group of all—and losing members the fastest. However, while traditional Protestant denominations have been hit the hardest, all churches have experienced declines, even the evangelicals. (The Southern Baptists numbered over 15 million in 2005.) For the first time in over 100 years, church membership in all religions (Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others) is below 50% of the population. A 2020 Gallup Poll  showed church membership dropping from 76% of the American population in 1976 to 47% and is probably below 45% today.

In the last few years, two new categories have popped up; “Nones” and “Spiritual But Not Religious,” or the SBNRs, which have increased to about 20%  of the adult population in 2024.

What is going on? Here is my take:

  1. Religion and culture have always been intertwined, and the United States has become more secular. When I was growing up in the 1950s, religion was part of the weekly routine of everyone I knew. You went to church on Sunday morning because that is just what people did. In Nashville church membership was part of the social culture. That is not the case anymore. Soccer games now happen on Sunday mornings, along with golf and tennis matches, family outings, and many other diversions, and there is no longer a stigma for not attending church. My guess is that there were many in the past who attended church who did not get much out of the experience and were not particularly religious people but were members since they felt they had to be because it was required socially. They are now staying home or doing something fun. Unless church attendance can compete with the other options, don’t count on getting the refugees back any time soon.
  2. The split between the mainline churches and the evangelicals is driven in part by race, social class, and place in society. The United States has been divided by race and class throughout its history and today is no different. While there are exceptions, I doubt that you are going to find many PhDs attending white evangelical churches and that race, education, type of work, income, and wealth tend to be indicators of what church people end up attending—or even whether they attend church. Many years ago Embry and I attended a “camp meeting” in Covington GA where the main preacher for the week was a youngish Southern Baptist minister who to my astonishment was preaching about inclusiveness. Toward the end of the week, he surprised his congregation of several hundred people with these remarks: “I’ll bet there are many in this gathering who will say that based on what I have been preaching that since we are all Christians there is not that much difference between us.” People nodded. “Well, I am here to set the record straight right now. There are big  differences and don’t you forget it.” Everyone suddenly perked up. What was he going to say? “I am a Southern Baptist and proud of it. A Southern Baptist is a Christian who has been washed.” People nodded. “Any Methodists in the audience? A Methodist is a Southern Baptist who can read.” A few chuckles. “Any Presbyterians? More hands went up. “A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college….and an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments turned out all right!” This brought the house down. Everyone knew exactly what he was talking about.
  3. A challenge facing many mainline churches is that some believe mainline churches have become too secular, too liberal, and too “woke.” Many conservatives say that the problem is that many mainline churches have abandoned their Christian heritage and have become wishy washy with humanist-like values tracking very closely with secular, liberal values. The charges hardly apply to all mainline churches but to enough to having some truth. If these churches do not believe that heaven and hell are very real and that if you do not believe that Christ is your only ticket to heaven and salvation, why bother? Furthermore, mainline churches have become too involved in social justice issues beginning with the civil rights movement starting in the 1960s (which Embry and I have both been part of). Well, I for one plead guilty as charged. I have trouble saying the ancient creeds and believe that the central message of Christianity is “love your neighbor as yourself,” a message which has strong implications for social justice. I would describe myself as more of a universalist, who likes “bells and smells” and most of the solemn traditions of the Episcopal Church, applauds the progressive posture of the Episcopal church on sexuality, racial and social justice issues, and sees God acting through many faiths: one destination, many pathways. As to theology, the saying goes that Episcopalians tend to check their hat at the door when they enter a church, not their brains. There is more wiggle room here as to belief than in some other traditions. At the same time, many people I know have become part of the SBNR exodus, including many of my classmates at Union Seminary in New York which I attended in the late 1960s. Many of us who remain church members today are hanging on by our fingernails.
  4. The exodus of church members, while a threat is also an opportunity. One thing is for sure: If church membership continues to plummet, a whole bunch of churches are going to be in trouble. Many church leaders are struggling to find new ways to remain faithful to the central message of the Christian faith and remain relevant to the secular world we live in today. We Homo sapiens on the planet Earth are spiritual creatures. We ask the fundamental questions of why: Why are we here, what is the meaning of life, why all the suffering and pain, and how do we deal with death? Formal religion has been the vehicle we humans have created to try to answer these questions and to create communities where we herd animals can explore these questions together. This aspect of religion will not change because of secularization. What I believe needs to happen is for Christians to adapt to our changing world by emphasizing the fundamental message of unconditional love and acceptance by a loving God and by welcoming all who believe that there are mysteries in life that cannot be explained by science to join us in our feeble effort to live good lives, strive to make the world better, and to make sense out of the human condition and the spiritual grounding of what it means to be fully human. Afterall, the Pew and Gallup surveys show that of those who answer the question about belief in God, only about two percent say they are atheists and only about five percent say they are agnostic, and these numbers have remained about the same over the past several decades. People have not given up on religion. They are just looking for something more authentic and meaningful than what is generally available. Those churches that figure out ways to do this while remaining true to their traditions will navigate these troubled waters. Of those that don’t, many will fail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crisis in Affordable Housing: Why It Is Happening and What To Do About It

Beginning in the mid 1970s, I have been involved in developing affordable housing (and seniors, market rate housing). I started my housing career working for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington as the project manager for a huge, mixed income and mixed age community to be located on 624 acres in Prince George’s County outside of Washington, D.C. That development never got built because of zoning opposition, but St Mary’s Court did. A 140-unit, HUD Section 202 affordable housing community for seniors, which opened in the late 1970s, Saint Mary’s Court is located at the edge of the GW campus and within a five-minute walk to the Kennedy Center. The community serves a diverse community of low income seniors, provides a full range of services, and remains my favorite affordable housing community. This was followed by a three year stint at the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships where I was the Director of Development, responsible for developing about a dozen   low income housing communities in the DC/Baltimore region, followed by 25 years at Howell Associates, a consulting company which I formed, which performed market studies and helped affordable housing and market-rate seniors housing throughout the country get built and occupied. (In 1998 the company was sold to ZA Consulting.) The last couple of decades have been devoted mainly to lecturing on affordable housing finance at the University of Maryland, teaching a seminar on affordable housing as an adjunct professor in the Honors College at George Washington University, and serving on several affordable housing boards. It has been, as they say, quite a ride. Here is what I have learned:

  1. The affordable housing crisis in this country is really an income crisis. While in 2023, some gains were made toward narrowing the gap between the rich and everyone else, beginning in 1980, with the emphasis on deregulation and tax cuts, the median household income adjusted for inflation has increased only modestly while strong increases have occurred for the top 10 percent of households with extreme increases for the top one percent—and the most for the top .1 percent. The rich are getting richer while others are struggling just to stay even. About 25 percent of all households in the U.S. had incomes in 2022 below $35,000. These are the households most in need of financial support and have been the focus of most HUD housing initiatives. Good luck on finding an affordable, market rate rental apartment with an income of $35,000 when the top rent you should pay should be no more than 30% of your monthly income including all utilities or about $875/month. The lowest rents are twice that amount in most large cities and almost triple that in the Washington metro area where the lowest rents for most two-bedroom apartments start at over $2,000. Reducing income inequalities should be a top priority of our country going forward. Increasing the minimum wage to a living wage of something closer to $25/hour is important and would contribute to increasing the pay of those working in the service sector and entry level jobs. These initiatives remain highly controversial, impact the economy, affect inflation, and are unlikely to happen without Democrats controlling the Congress and the Presidency, which would also appear to be a long shot. In 2024 we will be lucky to keep our democracy.
  2. We have the basic tools to address the affordable housing challenge. The major tool available today for helping people with low incomes afford decent housing is the federal “Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program.” The Section 8 program began in 1974 in response to the housing crisis at that time, the failures of public housing, and the civil disturbances of the late 1960s and early 1970s when cities were burning. Initially HUD awarded Section 8 contracts to private developers of affordable housing allowing developers to charge market rents and providing subsidies to cover the difference between the contract rent of the unit and the rent paid by the low income household. Under the Section 8 program, the renter household pays no more than 30 percent of its income for rent and utilities. (These were the type of properties I worked on in the 1970s and early 1980s.) The program produced well over a million units during its 10-year life but was discontinued in the mid 1980s due to high costs. Many developers who initially signed 20-year contracts to keep the community in the Section 8 Program have opted out as the time limits have expired and neighborhoods have gentrified. When project-based Section 8 was terminated, it was replaced by the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program. Administered by local housing authorities, vouchers allow low income households to live in market rate, middle income housing wherever they want. They pay only 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities. The vouchers pay the landlord the additional amount needed to cover the market rent for the unit. There are many issues affecting the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Funds come from the federal budget and need to be reauthorized every two years; and most public housing agencies have very long wait lists. In some states and cities landlords are not required to count vouchers as income when determining eligibility or required to lease units to voucher holders if they do not want to. While over two million low income households now have vouchers (five million people in these households benefit), only about 25 percent of those eligible (with incomes below 50 percent of area median) are served by the program due to lack of sufficient federal funding. Many voucher holders end up staying in low income neighborhoods because they have difficulty finding suitable units in middle class communities. Some are not even able to use the voucher. While the program is not perfect, it is the best tool we have in enabling low income residents to find housing they can afford. Making Housing Choice Vouchers an entitlement like Medicaid, TANF, or SNAP (food stamps) would make a huge difference though it would require a lot more money from the federal government. (SNAP would probably be the best model since the first two are governed largely by state rules and regulations.)
  3. Building more housing remains an important goal. The country is experiencing a housing shortage due in part to covid-related factors, NIMBYism, higher interest rates, and lack of properly zoned sites to permit higher density housing. This applies to all types of housing but especially to low income housing, which invariably rallies the NIMBY crowd to show up in protest. Building new housing is also very expensive and faces huge challenges for the properties to be feasible and to attract capable developers. The main financing vehicle today for multifamily housing is the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC), which raises equity capital from wealthy investors (mainly banks) by providing a dollar tax credit for every dollar invested. This program is not administered by HUD but rather by the U.S. Department of Treasury in partnership with state housing finance agencies, which issue tax exempt bonds to cover a portion of the costs. The program is very complex and can be described as the “real estate lawyers’ and consultants’ relief act,” but has been around long enough so that a cottage industry has evolved, which produces over 100,000 units of affordable multifamily housing annually. Some of the major developers are nonprofit corporations, which unlike what happened in many earlier HUD housing programs, are allowed to earn substantial developer’s fees, enabling these groups to remain going concerns. The LIHTC initiative, however, does not provide “deep subsidies” like the Section 8 program, but rather requires a property to discount rents so that tiers of pricing are targeted to households with incomes between 30%-60% of area median incomes. Very low income households with incomes less than 30% of AMI still need vouchers (from the housing authority) for them to afford to live in these units. Finally, the equity from investors and the mortgage financing from state housing finance agencies are usually not enough to cover all the costs involved. When this is the case, state or local jurisdictions are often needed to provide “gap financing,” which covers the difference between total development costs and the funds provided by investors and housing finance agencies. There is also much discussion today regarding the need to encourage adding new units in existing communities by allowing homeowners to construct “granny flats” in back yards, to add basement apartments, to replace single family units with duplex units where space permits, to encourage infill multifamily housing, and for new suburban developments to be higher density and mixed use. All are important pieces of the puzzle. While taken together they are not enough to “solve” the problem, they are making an important dent.
  1. Homelessness is the stickiest challenge of all. There are other reasons for homelessness besides not having sufficient funds to pay rent. The movement to shut down mental institutions began in the late 1960s. For many years most of these large institutions have ceased to exist. The idea was to replace these prison-like “hospitals” with community-based, smaller, health centers and group homes. Some of this has happened but not nearly enough to compensate for the vast number of beds that were eliminated. Typically, about two-thirds of homeless people are single persons, more men than women, and many with serious mental health or substance abuse issues. They need more than just housing. For many years the main initiative for providing housing for people with mental or emotional challenges was also to provide “transitional housing” where intensive social services were involved to help get people back on their feet to be able to live independently.  About ten years ago this initiative was phased out and replaced by “Housing First.” Under this approach, the goal is to get homeless people into permanent housing first and then provide social work and mental health support. For a number of years, I have served on the board of Housing Up, a faith-based nonprofit which provided transitional housing for many years and now under the Housing First initiative employs close to a hundred social workers serving approximately a thousand clients. They help homeless families find market rate housing (paid for by a housing grant from the DC government), and then stick with the family to help them access the services they need, find better paying jobs, help their kids in school, and, if needed, help the parent deal with mental health or substance abuse issues. The main failing of this program is that it is supposed to last only for only a year, assuming that by the end of the year the family will be back on its feet. Wishful thinking. The DC government is rethinking how to deal with the problem since it is now evident that one year is not enough to get people back to work. The District, however, does offer a similar program (“Permanent Supportive Housing”) which has no time limit and provides housing for those with mental, emotional and physical disabilities preventing them from working. In the meantime, tent encampments persist in the city, and the number of homeless families and individuals continues to increase. There is no silver bullet which will fully address this challenge, but surely there needs to be more permanent housing options to replace tents and more than one year in a conventional “Housing First” apartment before being tossed out. Shelters are available for those in desperation but do not have sufficient beds to meet the need, must be cleared out during the day, and are not pleasant for anyone or a long term solution.

We should be able to meet this challenge. We have decades of affordable housing experience and have tried many approaches starting with traditional public housing, evolving into project-based Section 8 housing, then to Housing Choice Vouchers,  to LIHTC properties, and from transitional housing to “Housing First.” Each initiative has had strengths and weaknesses. Each has had successes and failures, and yet the problems persist and are even getting worse. This is due largely to our society, which has become increasingly unequal financially. Social Darwinism continues to be alive and well. The housing crisis will not be fixed in a vacuum. Before the fix can happen, we must address the inequality issue where the very rich are getting even richer and the rest of us are holding our own at best while way too many are slipping. Part of the solution is more federal and state money—lots of it. But this won’t happen until we figure out a way for the rich and superrich to pay their fair share of taxes. This, of course, will play out in the political arena, and who knows how that is going to end up as our country is peering into an abyss as the 2024 elections approach.

 

 

 

 

So, What Finally Happened to the Chavez Family?

It only took a couple of days to get our house back in order and for our dog and cat to realize that it was ok to come out of hiding. For two or three weeks, I did not think much about the family until one day as I was walking from my office to a lunch meeting in downtown DC, I noticed in front of me a family, nestled under a blanket, sitting on the sidewalk on the corner of a busy street. As I got closer, I realized that it was the Chavez family. I immediately turned around and crossed to the other side of the street. Close call. There were several other close calls over the next two weeks, and in each one I wimped out, going to great lengths to avoid them. The thought of their moving into our house again was too much. We also got a call from Rosa asking if we needed any more painting, which we of course declined. After that they seemed to disappear from the downtown sidewalks, and I assumed they had moved on.

Then the next week in the “Style Section” of the Washington Post appeared a feature article with headline, “What Will Become of the Chavez Family?.” The article was extremely critical of the Chavez family accusing the parents of child neglect and abuse due to using their children for panhandling. What had prompted her to write the article was that after she had reported the family to the DC Child Protective Services, the family had not shown up for a mandatory court hearing. Embry immediately took issue with the reporter from the Post and called her to complain about her insensitivity. The Post reporter hung up on her.

Embry had pointed out that the parents loved their children, were doing the best they could, and that there might be some mental illness associated with the father. I do not believe that José was trying to exploit the situation when they were living in our house. He genuinely believed the hourly wage I proposed was below what it should have been and that the total job cost should have been $1,500. For him it was a matter of self-respect and pride.

In any event that was the end of Chavez family for us. We never saw them again. It is unlikely that there was a Cinderella happy ending.

The Chavez story happened in the early 1980s, almost 45 years ago. The children would now be entering middle-age. What kind of lives have they had? Were their parents still alive? I tend to overuse the metaphor of everyone being dealt a hand of cards to play on one’s life journey, and that we humans will be judged according to how well we play the hands we have been dealt. Think about the hand that each of the Chavez family children was dealt. José and Rosa probably started off with poor hands as well. And then think of how many other families and how many other people there are who get dealt very tough hands to play.

Life is not fair.

While homelessness was a problem in the early 1980s, the problem has persisted and even gotten worse. The homeless count in the U.S., based on the annual “point in time” (PIT) survey nationwide, was over 650,000 in 2023 and this does not consider people and families who are doubling or tripling up, staying temporally in a hotel, or “couch surfing” with friends, which if counted would probably triple the number of homeless people. The number of households nationwide who are “housing insecure” is estimated to be 10 percent of the population and increasing. No single cause has driven the troubling trend of increased American homelessness though an unequal financial recovery, a shortage of affordable housing and housing vouchers, limited access to critical healthcare, the cessation of COVID-era aid programs, and an immigration influx  are all important.

In DC the number of homeless in 2023 was just under 5,000 in the PIT survey. The number of shelter beds, however, was only about 1,200. Two thirds of the homeless are single people, many but not all, with serious substance abuse or mental health issues. One third are families. Shelter beds are temporary overnight accommodations, first come/first served, which require everyone to clear out during the day. They are hardly a long term, desirable, or permanent solution to the housing crisis. Tent encampments are now ubiquitous making some areas of the District of Columbia look like a third world city.

Why can’t the richest country in the world do better? Why can’t “the most important city” in the richest country in the world do better? This will be the subject of the next blogpost.

 

 

 

 

 

Oldies but Goodies: Helping the Homeless

This true story happened in the late 1980s and is reprinted in case you missed the first one, which appeared in a blog post many years ago.

In the mid 1980s a homeless family appeared on a cold Saint Patrick’s Day, shivering in front of our local drugstore.  Embry saw them first; and when I got home, she handed me a stack of blankets and directed me to see what I could do to help.  It was around nine o’clock in the evening, and the wind chill had to have been in the twenties.

I walked over to the drugstore, which was only a few minutes’ walk from our house, where in the dark shadows a young couple and three small children were huddled next to the entrance of the drug store. A large beat up  suitcase  rested next to them.  People were walking past them, not making eye contact. You never know what to do in situations like this. But they were not begging, just sitting on the sidewalk, freezing.

I handed them the blankets and asked where they were planning to spend the night. The husband, probably around thirty, answered with a thick Spanish accent, “Church, señor.” Thank God, I thought. The idea of their freezing was bad enough, but the thought of them ending up in our house was out of the question.

What else could I do to help this family?  Our house always needed work. Maybe the guy could do a little painting. When I asked if he could paint, he nodded enthusiastically, and we agreed to a plan. He would come by the next day, Saturday, return the blankets, and I would pay him to do some painting. I suggested he come by around mid morning and gave him our address. I smiled as I returned home and reported the successful outcome to Embry.

At six  the next morning, we were awakened by a loud banging on the front door. I had no idea who could be knocking on our door so early on a Saturday, stumbled out of bed, and inched my way down the stairs trying to see who it might be. It was the homeless family. In the dawn I was able to get a better look at them. The guy was short and stocky and had a big mustache; and his wife had dark hair and was rather pretty. She had the features of a native American and was quite pregnant. The three little ones in tow were about four, two and a few months old.

 “Here to paint, señor!”

“Well, yes, but it is a bit early…”

The guy’s name was José, and his wife was Rosa. Rosa said that her husband was from El Salvador, and she was part Sioux and part Seminole and had grown up in New Mexico. They were very appreciative for the blankets. She said they had found a place they could rent for $250 a month but that they were flat broke. It was hard to understand José with his thick accent, but Rosa usually translated from broken English to understandable English. Oddly, she would repeat to José what I said in English, not Spanish. Then I realized that she probably did not speak Spanish.

Okay, I thought, we have a baseline number to work from. If I could give José a painting job for $250, that would start to solve the immediate housing problem. There was still an issue of food, but at least they would have a roof over their heads, and it would be a start. So, I proposed to José that he paint our master bedroom for $250 and that I would advance him the money so that he could secure the apartment that day.  I also agreed to buy all the painting supplies. I had recent estimates for painting a room, and the $250 I negotiated with José was about the right number. Pretty fair deal—we would get a room painted, José and his family would get shelter and a start on the road to employment.

Day One. Saturday. Andrew, our fourteen-year-old son, and his ten-year-old sister, Jessica, were a bit puzzled to find a ragtag family in our living room when they came down for breakfast on Saturday but seemed to understand. I took  José to the hardware store where we got all the supplies; and he enthusiastically started to paint the bedroom while his wife watched the children, who by now were crawling or toddling around the house terrifying our dog and cat. Shortly after lunch everyone disappeared, presumably to put down the $250 for the apartment.

By six o’clock they had not returned, and I naturally assumed they were warmly tucked away in their new apartment. In fact, I was feeling so good about the situation, I offered to treat everyone in our family to pizza at one of our neighborhood restaurants. As the four of us munched away, I used the occasion as a teaching moment. I had always tried to be a role model for our children and to set a good example. I pointed out how I was empowering this poor, homeless family and not just giving them a handout, how actions like this could change the world, and how proud they should be to have a father who really got it, who understood how to make a positive impact in the world.

I noticed some skeptical, puzzled looks but got generally approving nods.

On the way back home, as I turned into our driveway, I almost ran into the back of a car with the motor running. On the back window was a sticker which said “Dartmouth College.” I figured the car belonged to a friend of our neighbors’ teenage children, who were always blocking the shared driveway. After muttering a few curse words, I got out of my car and walked over to the car in the driveway. As I got closer, I could see two people in the front seat and several smaller bodies squirming around in the back. It was José and his family.

“Oh, just parking, señor,” he cheerfully replied. His children were crying and whimpering in the back seat.

“But where did you get the car?”

His wife translated his broken English, “My husband says he bought it today. Good value. $250 down.”

I took a deep breath and asked timidly, “Well, why don’t you just stay here for the night?” My family had remained in our car, and all were observing the action with great interest.

José protested, saying unconvincingly that sleeping in the car was fine. His wife pleaded for him to let them come in; and before I could walk back to my car to fill everyone in on what was happening, the entire family was on our front porch, shivering. “God bless, God bless,” said Rosa several times.

This happened on the evening of Day One.

Embry was leaving on Sunday, the very next day, for a business trip to California and taking Jessica with her and would not return until the next Sunday. My parents were arriving on Monday, the day after Embry and Jessica returned to spend the week before Easter with us as was their custom. My parents were wonderful, tolerant people but they were also of the older generation. To cohabitate with a homeless family would have sent them to an early grave.

Day Two. Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, I took Embry and Jessica to the airport. We talked about the situation at length in the car. That morning Rosa had confided to Jessica that she was terrified of her husband, that he beat her constantly, and that she had to escape. Jessica considered giving her all her savings from odd jobs. Both Embry and Jessica were supportive and understanding. But they both were headed to sunny California. I grimly headed back to the house.

I had offered the homeless family the use of our bedroom in the basement, which we used as a guest room and where my parents usually stayed. But when I got home it was obvious that they had the run of the house. The living room was a wreck, and the house had the smell of a zoo with soiled diapers rolled up in virtually every available wastebasket.  Andrew had disappeared as had our dog and cat. I went directly to the bedroom, shut the door, and collapsed in bed. I could not help noticing that only a very small portion of one wall had been painted.

Day Three. Monday. I got up as early as possible, left a note that I hoped José would finish the work that day. If the house was a wreck on Day Two, on the morning of Day Three it was in shambles. Having a bowl of cereal—the only food I could find in the house–I bumped into Andrew, who was getting ready to leave for school.

“Dad,” he said cheerfully. “I think what you are doing is really good and I support it. When you get it all worked out and the family is gone, let me know. Until then I am moving in with Bronson.” Bronson was Andrew’s best friend.

So now it was just me and the homeless family. Day Three was not getting off to a good start. I tore up the note and rewrote it saying that the job had to get done now or else. I returned home at the end of Day Three around six, anxious to see what work had been done to the master bedroom.  No one was around, and there was a note scribbled on a typewriter sheet taped to the bedroom door.

 “Dad, I don’t think you want to go in there. Love, Andrew.” He must have had to come back to pick up something.

With a trembling hand I slowly opened the door. The room looked like it had been hit by a tornado. José had taken all my clothes out of the closet and thrown them on the bed; and in painting the room, he had splattered paint everywhere—on the bed, on the rug, on the floor, and most unfortunately, on all my clothes. He had poured the paint into a pan in order to use a roller, and the animals had walked across the pan leaving paw prints everywhere. This was actually a positive sign that the pets were still alive since I had no idea where they were hiding. At least José had gotten the message and was painting the room. I guessed he was about half finished. I slept in Andrew’s room in the attic where to my relief I found both pets cowering in the corner.

 Day Four. Tuesday. I admitted that I had a problem. The first step in any recovery program is to fess up, to realize your shortcomings, and  to take action. I also was aware that on the next Monday, Day 9, my parents would arrive. Should the homeless family still be ensconced in the Howell house at that time, it would be a nuclear event. The clock was ticketing.

I conferred with several of my colleagues at work. Everyone suggested that I should get them into a homeless shelter. The problem was that at that time there were few options for homeless families, only for homeless single people. With some calls I determined that there was one shelter for homeless families called “the Pitts.” It was located in a decent neighborhood not too far from our house, and I decided to drive over and give it a look. The name was derived from its former use, “The Pitts Hotel,” and it was not in the best of shape. The building was rundown and decrepit—paint coming off the sides, a couple of broken windows, trash everywhere, and graffiti.

It looked like a pretty good option to me.

So when I got home, I was pleased to find José, though he was not doing any painting, and the room remained half painted in its chaotic condition.

“José,” I replied, “Have you ever considered living in a homeless shelter? I understand that many are quite nice. In fact there is one very near here, the Pitts.”

“No Pitts, man, no shelter. Shelter no good.”

I encouraged him to be open minded and told him I was making a call to the Pitts to see if they had any room.  A pleasant enough woman answered the phone and replied that they did have room for homeless families. I explained that I had a family temporarily living with me and would like to bring them over to take a look at the place.

“Well, don’t waste your time,” she exclaimed, “We are not taking the Chavez family. They are disruptive and we have already evicted them twice. They are banned from the premises forever.”

“Wait a minute, I didn’t say who they were. I don’t even know what their last name is.”

“The guy, a Mexican with a mustache and short?”

He was from El Salvador but he was short and had a mustache.

“Wife, some kind of American Indian, pregnant?”

“Well, yes.”

“Three tiny kids?”

“Now hold on one minute. I turned to José. “José, what is your last name?”

“Chavez.”

I sadly reported that it was Chavez family. She told me not to feel too bad since I was the fourth or fifth family who had tried to bring them in over the past year. “Where do you live, Georgetown?” she asked. I told her Cleveland Park.

 “That figures, “she said, “But Georgetown is their favorite.”

When I asked her how I could get them out of my house, she said except for the Pitts, there were no shelters for homeless families with vacancies in DC; and if there were, they would not take the Chavez family. They were blacklisted. Maybe I should try one of the counties where the family was not known.

I thanked her for her time and immediately called Fairfax County, explaining that I had a very nice, temporarily homeless family staying with me and wondered if they had space available. Absolutely, she said, Fairfax County had a brand new facility, state of the art, and there was plenty of room. It seemed most of the homeless families were in DC. Thank God, I thought, at last a break. I told her I would bring them by in about an hour. All she needed was a little information starting with my address. When I told her I lived on Macomb Street, she paused for a moment and said that it did not seem like a Fairfax County address. I told her it was in DC.

“Sorry, we only take homeless Fairfax County families. You must go to DC. You will find that policy applies everywhere.” I explained my desperate situation, to which she volunteered, “Well, you can bring them across the bridge and then dump them. Then call 911 and high tail it back to DC. They will probably end up here that way.”

And that is how Day Four ended. Work on the room seemed to be at a standstill.

Day Five. Wednesday. When I briefed my colleagues at the office on the latest events, someone gave me the name of a good landlord tenant lawyer, whom I called immediately. I explained the situation and asked him what my options were. The key issue, he said, is whether I had invited them into my house. Well, yes, I told him that it was very cold and I did actually invite them in.

“Bottom line, sir, they own your house. DC has the strongest tenant-favored laws in the nation; and if you invited them in, they will stay there until they are ready to leave. Even if the law were in your favor, it would take six months to get  a judge to rule and he would probably rule against you. They are now yours, baby.”

I felt a panic attack coming on and considered calling 911.

That was the end of Day Five. I returned home late, around nine, avoided the Chavez family, fed the pets in the upstairs attic, walked the dog, and collapsed in Andrew’s bed, hoping I would wake up the next day to find that all this was just a bizarre nightmare.

Day Six. Thursday. I awoke somewhat refreshed but with the somber realization that I had three days to get them out of the house by whatever means necessary. I took off from work. My sole objective was to make this happen, recognizing that I had virtually nothing left in my arsenal. I had no option but to throw myself at their feet and beg for mercy.

Around ten in the morning José wandered upstairs with a paint brush in hand. This was a good sign. When I asked him if he thought he would be able to finish, he said he was stopping work because he had not been paid. Not been paid? I had advanced him $250. He replied that he had already worked more hours and needed more money to finish. Enraged, I regained my self control and told him I would pay him $12 an hour to finish up.

Hearing that, José screamed at me, “$12 an hour? You no good sheet! You are a no good sheet! $18 an hour they pay in California!”

Rosa was watching and translating, “My husband says you are a no good shit”

“I heard what he said! Okay, forget the hourly rate. Let’s discuss how much money total it will take for you to finish up the room and clean up everything.”

 José calmed down and did some calculations in his head. He said it would be $1,500.

This time it was my turn to lose it. I exploded. “This is a complete outrage! I got an estimate a month ago to paint the room from a professional painter and it was $250. I have already paid you $250 and what do I have? The room is only half painted. Paint is everywhere—on the rugs, the floor, my clothes are ruined. You have eaten me out of house and home. Soiled pampers are in every corner of the house. The house is a complete wreck. My dog and cat are hiding in terror. My wife has left me. My daughter has left me. My son has left me. And even if I had $1,500 in the bank to give you, which I do not have, I wouldn’t give it to you. You have destroyed my life….” I was sobbing before I finished.

He turned his back and charged down the stairs. Rosa said I had hurt his feelings and followed him. I sat at the top of the stairs, alone, feeling a little better that I had gotten it off my chest, though as a practical matter I was still in deep trouble. The nuclear event when my parents would arrive was now on a three day count down.

A few minutes later, he trudged up the stairs with Rosa. “Okay, señor, $1,000.”

“Do you swear, do you swear on a Bible and on your mother’s grave…” I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded like it might mean something to a Salvadorian. “Do you swear on your mother’s grave that you will finish and clean up everything and be out of this house by Saturday evening, at the latest? Do you swear?”

He nodded, yes.

I breathed a deep sigh and wrote him a check for $1,000. At last, we seemed to be getting somewhere.

Day Seven. Friday. I fixed breakfast and went downstairs to see what was going on. Rosa said that José had torn up the check, stormed out and would not paint until he was paid in full in cash. I explained that I could only take out $500 a day from the ATM, which was the policy at that time. He then appeared and said he was not doing anything without the cash. I exploded and told him it was $500 in two installments or nothing, and that he had to be out of the house in 24 hours. He consulted with Rosa and reluctantly agreed. We both went to the ATM around the corner and I took out all I was allowed to and would get him the balance the next day. That afternoon he returned with a friend and they started to paint.Two days until the nuclear event.

Day Eight. Saturday. Jose and his friend, who seemed to know how to paint, finished the job around two in the afternoon, cleaned up the bedroom, took their belongings and were out of the house by five pm, paid in full and broadly smiling. A miracle, to be sure! I sat on our front porch in relieved disbelief. How could I be so lucky? All the agony, yet they were gone. Our cat and dog cautiously returned from their hiding places in the attic. 

Day Nine. Sunday. Embry and Jessica returned from their California trip at noon. Andrew, hearing the news that the coast was clear, returned at three. I gave them a briefing of my eight days in hell. They listened wide-eyed with great interest as I described every incident, smiling, and summing it all up that at last everything was back to normal and all was good in the world.

But was it? Where were the Chavez headed? Did they have another place to stay? The family did have a thousand dollars, but how far would that get them? And what did the future look like for this family? What about  their three–soon to be four–children? Well, I thought, whatever happened was not on my watch anymore. I do not recall a time in my life I ever felt more relieved.

Day Ten. Monday.  My parents arrived in a cab at noon from their flight from Nashville. After the hugs, they asked how everyone was doing and if there was any news. “Oh, no news to report.” I replied, smiling painfully and breathing a long sigh of relief. Over the course of the week, however, I did fess up, telling them about the Chavez family as they listened with painful looks of disbelief, realizing how close they had come to what I have referred to as a nuclear event. They had dodged a bullet, albeit barely. 

While all was well with the Howell family, all did  not turn out well with the Chavez family,  and what happened next  will be the subject of the  next post.