With rents skyrocketing, New York City’s homeless population has swelled to levels not seen since the nadir of the Great Depression, nearly quintupling over the past 40 years to more than 48,000 sleeping nightly in the city’s shelters and thousands more in the streets and on subway platforms and cars.
Six-in-10 New Yorkers in the city’s shelters are African American although Blacks account for just a quarter of the Big Apple’s population. By some estimates, it would cost roughly $41 billion to expand the federal government’s housing voucher program—popularly known as Section 8—to house every single homeless person in the U.S.
So it was with considerable trepidation that Danette Chavis learned that Congress has approved $54 billion in military aid for Ukrainians fighting a war with Russia nearly 4,700 miles away.
“We were always told you are supposed to take care of home first,” Chavis, an African American housing and police reform activist, told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder in an interview. “And yet the politicians send all this money to Ukraine with the homeless population exploding in New York and across the country. I am sure that I am not the only one trying to figure out the logic of that.”
Compounding matters, she said, are estimates that it would cost approximately $40 billion to repair New York City’s notoriously dilapidated public housing stock, which is overrun with mold, mice, rats and cockroaches.
“Why are Ukrainians more entitled to that money than African Americans in your own backyard?” Chavis demanded to know of lawmakers and the White House, noting that nearly half of the tenants in New York City’s public housing are Black.
“Where is the money, where is the land, where are all the things that we are owed in terms of reparations?” She paused and then said: “And why isn’t anyone screaming bloody murder?”
Increasingly they are, on social media and in barber shops, hair salons, and other gathering places as the U.S. government’s profligate spending in faraway Ukraine begins to sink in, and a potentially ruinous recession bears down on the global economy.
By turns irate and amused, African American bloggers, podcasters and activists have taken to quoting Tupac Shakur lyrics—“they got money for war but can’t feed the poor.” They are paraphrasing Muhammad Ali’s iconic anti-war declaration—“Ain’t no Russian ever called me n—-r”—and recalling a story that former Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. was fond of telling.
To underscore his assertion that government spending is a reflection of societal priorities, Jackson, who was born in 1965, would note that in his lifetime he had seen O’Hare International become the world’s busiest airport, witnessed the city actually relocate Lakeshore Drive and renovate the downtown State Street corridor, but he had never once seen a working light bulb at the 47th Street L stop on Chicago’s South Side.
When asked how Ukraine’s military aid might’ve been better spent, Michelle Smith, an African American advocate for criminal justice reform in St. Louis, told the MSR without hesitation: “Reparations.” But the African American community in St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs was in such dire financial straits that she acknowledged it is difficult to know where, specifically, to begin.
“Well, the first place I think that money should’ve gone is for universal health care, or Medicare-For-All,” she said in an interview, recalling published estimates that a single-payer health insurance plan would cost taxpayers roughly $30 billion annually.
“The Black community in St. Louis continues to have serious healthcare challenges with long COVID. We’ve got people dying because they cannot afford to see a doctor. Our politicians are always crying broke until they’re ready to give the money to some other country like Israel or Ukraine.”
Continuing, Smith rattled off a laundry list of needs: “Job opportunities, free college or at least free community college, canceling student debt, and more money for public defenders. Our public defenders in St. Louis County are the lowest paid in the state of Missouri,” often resulting, she said, in poor legal representation for indigent Black defendants who cannot afford an attorney on their own.
Many African Americans who champion reparations note that news reports indicate that the military conflict in Ukraine, which is entering its fourth month, is not going well for Ukraine, with Russian soldiers seizing the key city of Mariupol earlier this month. Some estimates put Ukraine casualties as high as 1,000 per day.
Continuing to finance Ukraine’s military defense is tantamount to throwing good money after bad, and several Blacks have posed the question on social media, “Wouldn’t the U.S. be better served by urging negotiations between the warring countries and investing taxpayer money in African American communities that never fully recovered from the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in 2008?”
In Minnesota, Black homeownership is at 25%, while White homeownership is at 77%, according to a Minnesota Compass report. Nationally, only 44% of Black families own their own home, compared to more than 70% of White households.
All of which leaves Blacks wondering if the U.S. will ever address the profound material disparities that have defined the lives of African Americans since their arrival in this country 400 years ago. Said Chavis:
“Poverty is such a great evil,” she told the MSR, “and here in New York City, Black folks don’t even own their homes anymore; they rent. And we have generations coming up who think it’s normal when your ceiling leaks, or you got rats, and it’s normal to walk out your door and the trash is not picked up.
“We’re spending all this money halfway around the world, but when do Black folks get the opportunity to live in decency?”
Jon Jeter is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, who has also served stints at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The Washington Post, among others.