HOMES NOT JAILS!


root - Posted on 22 July 2002

A ReViEwsForTheReVoLution Book review by TJ Johnston

by TJ Johnston/PNN

Starting Michael Steinberg’s latest novel, my first impression of Homes Not Jails! was that it’s a thinly disguised manifesto. The homeless advocacy and squatter organization’s logo, bolt-cutters and a crowbar superimposed on a broken circular chain, adorns the cover. The opening chapters lay out the political landscape of San Francisco, circa 1992:

"Over a decade’s worth of Right Guard Republicanism’s wicked waves appeared to be surging hard onto the battered shores of California’s bankrupted liberalism, knocking the last duplicitous demagogic Democrat into the foaming fulmination emanating from every ass crack and crotch crevice of the Groping Ogre Party.

"With Pistolwhippin’ Pete in the Governor’s Mansion and the other Jordan’s rules insinuating their way into San Francisco’s tarnished-topped City Hall, there was no reasonable doubt that they were in complete control from sea to oil slick sea."

Steinberg, a longtime Homes Not Jails(HNJ) member and author of I Work the Tenderloin and The End of Tobacco Road, then introduces us to protagonist and narrator, Joe Singleton. Joe contents himself with a low-wage job at a produce market (where he smokes weed each morning with his coworker, Jerry, a fiery Food Not Bombs activist) and a tenuous relationship with his live-in lover, Corrina. On a whim (as well as with a sense of fatalism), Joe agrees to occupy an abandoned building with Jerry and his new, homeless comrades.

Thus begins an early fictional history of Homes Not Jails, the group known for taking over vacant and neglected buildings and claiming it for the city’s roofless occupants. Initial legal victories and burgeoning public support charge this crew. Mayor Frank Jordan, a former police chief, enacts a campaign of harassment where cops ticket the residentially challenged for "quality of life" violations. Jail cells swell with spare-changers unable to pay their $76 fines on Matrix charges.

These factual incidents inform Steinberg's book, but he has a specific intention in employing a fictional narrative. "I wanted to tell the story of my experiences working with HNJ," mused Steinberg, "but in a way that also allowed me to express the emotional parts of that experience, which I think journalism isn't as good for."

Evoking the early 20th century pulps, Steinberg also briefly takes us to the newsroom of a large metro paper. The editor strong-arms a reporter into championing the repressive policies. The reporter, himself a victim of the system, meekly complies.

Amidst such grimness, some momentary comic relief is provided. In the middle of a clandestine HNJ meeting, a woman interrupts and comments on the lack of gender balance in the proceedings. Also, an anarchic band of squatters calling themselves Damage Incorporated meets the HNJ’ers while scoping out a squat. The contrast between Damage Inc. and the almost parliamentary HNJ couldn’t be starker. Another episode illustrates the absurdity of the real estate enforcers: immediately after the squatters comply with orders to leave the premises, they’re detained.

Concurrently, Joe’s newfound activism takes its toll on his personal life: as he loses his job and his relationship ends, Joe joins the numbers of the homeless. He is jailed on an inflated trespassing charge. Upon his release, he’s intermittently housed in squats, his former workplace and on the beach. To top things off, his bicycle and other possessions get stolen.

More people are displaced by the pogrom on the poor. China Basin occupants need to make way for the Giants’ new ballpark.

A reunion between Joe and Corrina proves itself bittersweet. "You’re not like the rest of us who can blithely pretend it’s not getting worse," Corrina admits. "Nothing can ever make you forget or ignore them, not love, not money, not nothing. And whoever loves you, whoever pays you, whoever engages you in any other kind of significant human relationship is gonna learn sooner or later that they’re gonna lose out to that, and there’s not a damn thing they or you can do about it." Later, she begs for change on Sixth Street because she could no longer make rent.

The novel ends with Joe entering one more squat, but doesn’t resolve, much like the continuing plight of the backpack/shopping cart brigade or the officials lacking the political will to create more affordable living space.

To get a copy of the book you can email Michael at blackrainpress@hotmail.com, or by sending $10 to Michael Steinberg, 31 Grand St., Niantic, CT 06357. or through AK press at www.akpress.org

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