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It takes an angry village

When he started helping poor people with housing six years ago, Ed Mayer knew he would have to balance budgets and untangle federal red tape.

He didn't know he would be shouted at, called "heartless," sneaky and a liar and, lately, accused of violating the human rights of the very people he means to serve.

"I don't know why," he said in a recent interview. "It doesn't seem fair. It's one thing to discuss policy. It's another to start just chucking spears."

When she became president of the board of Missoula's Poverello Center three years ago, physician Liz Rantz knew she would spend long hours at no pay guiding its charitable work of providing food and shelter to the poor and homeless.

She didn't know she'd be called "malfeasant," attacked on public-access television for weeks and accused of mistreating the very people she volunteered to serve.

"First, it impacts the morale of the people who are working so hard for the organization," she said in a recent interview. "Then you get to the point you don't answer your telephone."

Increasingly, working in human service means weathering attacks that seem to carry a newly bitter edge and personal jabs.

In Missoula this winter, angry words have been part of the air pollution.

Mayer and the housing authority's volunteer board of commissioners have drawn attacks at its public meetings and in the media since November for its plan to sell single-family houses and use the money to build smaller townhouses.

At a recent public hearing, tenants and activists from the advocacy group Working for Equality and Economic Liberation called Mayer's language "dangerous," the staff's procedures "violating" and the plan a threat to the human rights of the tenants.

Four days before Christmas, members of Montana People's Action confronted Community Medical Center president Grant Winn in the hospital lobby and accused him in front of TV cameras of putting profits before people. They announced that Community and St. Patrick Hospital both had earned grades of "F" on their "Charity Care Report Cards." Winn called the attack "ill-informed and unfair," and a St. Patrick's official called it "ludicrous."

"It felt like a kick in the shins," Winn said.

Also at Christmas time, a San Francisco filmmaking couple called for the entire Poverello Center staff to be fired and the board reconstituted, involving the police chief and the county sheriff. Edward Guzzi and Philomena Ryan accused the staff of stealing donations, trading cigarettes for sexual favors and mistreating homeless clients. They said they would start broadcasting attacks made by themselves and Poverello clients every Monday night on Missoula Community Access Television, and they did.

To Rantz's knowledge, the 25-year-old Poverello has never before been attacked.

"It's been a nightmare," Rantz said in December.

Mayer wonders, "Is this something new that we have to negotiate now as a part of doing business? I don't know."

Until there's change, probably so, say many of those involved in activism and organizing.

Raquel Castellanos Miller, co-founder four years ago of the now-1,800-member poverty rights action group WEEL, said relationships have become more adversarial since welfare reform, which came to Montana in 1995 and '96.

"I don't think there was a crisis before," she said. "There is now."

Today, wealth is concentrating at the top across the country at unprecedented levels, she said. Women, who are more likely to be poor than men, are frustrated by being blamed for their own poverty, being told that work raising children is not valued, and being the scapegoats of the Reagan era and its "welfare queen" stereotyping.

They feel they are not heard, she said, by agencies that are supposed to help them.

"I think we live in a fascist state," Castellanos Miller said. "We do not have a true democracy, where people's voices are really heard. If we did, I think welfare reform would have never happened."

Rantz, who's a lead organizer of the faith-based social activist group People of Faith, People of Action in addition to her work on the Poverello board, believes the contentiousness comes from deep social trouble.

Reports of the robust economy and the prosperity of stock-market investors surround poor people, who are without capital or the means of getting it; they feel powerless, she said.

"Working at the Holiday Inn full time making beds won't support you and your three kids," she said. "Everybody knows this. And it's not just Missoula, it's everywhere. And people are angry.

"The dream that you can do anything, be anything, is gone. You can't."

In that state, Rantz said, people are easy to organize.

"People are scared," she said. "And when somebody comes along and says, 'You're being screwed by the system, Ed Mayer's taking your house away, St. Pat's is generating millions in profits,' people buy into it. They're afraid, and they're poor, and they're tired of seeing their children being hungry.

"That's what I see … just such a tremendous societal tension that these people are able to mobilize."

That tension grows from an enormous shift in Americans' attitude toward the poor, said Paul Miller, University of Montana sociology professor. Miller, whose scholarship has documented trends in hunger, wages and other poverty issues, said the national attitude in the past 20 years turned away from entitlement.

"Welfare reform turned it on its head and said everybody has to work," he said. "The switch there is about as big as you could do, from protecting poor people against the low-wage economy to requiring them to work in it."

"The belief behind this is our society is a ladder, and once you get on it, you start climbing," Miller said.

"You're a good American if you work. But we're in a world right now where nobody knows if that's going to work. If this economy is not a ladder, if that doesn't work, then we're going to have a permanent underclass. You'll have a lot of children growing up malnourished and eventually unable to compete in the next economy."

In an era where the stakes are much higher, advocacy groups respond accordingly, he said.

"Advocacy groups have in mind that they're not fighting for changes in benefit packages," he said. "They're fighting for issues of wages and child care and transportation and child abuse."

That new paradigm makes activism much harder, and, necessarily, more dramatic and aggressive, said Jim Fleischmann, the Harvard-educated development director and 15-year veteran of the organizing group Montana People's Action.

"You can barely have a civil discussion about is welfare good or bad," he said. "You're up against an even tougher set of layers when you have the view that there is a role for public programs for people who need to be taken care of, that government has a role in economy."

"We get told, 'Oh, that's '60s stuff, it's not in fashion anymore,' " he said. "But the issues are timeless. They're about values."

Fleischmann and Nina Cramer, Montana People's Action administrator, said anger is both a legitimate response and a great motivator. They harness it in organizing their members. They've also found that calm reasoning behind closed doors in glass buildings works less and less often; the dramatic works better.

For instance, Fleischmann said, Montana People's Action was instrumental in getting the state's largest banks to invest $40 million in loans to people in the state's poorest neighborhoods in a campaign from 1989 to 1992. The organization's members squared off with bankers in public meetings, organized letter-writing campaigns - and carried coffins around the outsides of banks.

"The negative consequences of dealing with us are not as bad as the negative consequences of not dealing with us," he said.

Montana People's Action also uses the media whenever it can, he said - "and we're very open about it." Members telling personal stories of hardship can have a powerful effect on public opinion.

Shannon Parker considers herself both an activist and a service provider. As director of Community Exchange, she helps indigent people while they wait to qualify for Social Security disability, and she also helps welfare recipients find work in community service. She sees increasingly adversarial activism and disapproves of many of the tactics.

"I'm a bomb-thrower myself," she said. "But you can't just go around bombing. All you'll get is rubble."

"Some of the advocacy groups have become like the Islamic mullah," Parker said, "picking people out as not adhering to some moral standards that they deem right. Service groups are spending precious time when we have to answer to the police, answer questions from lawyers. What they're creating is a climate of fear."

Parker believes activists choose groups that are easy to advocate for: single white mothers with children. When the 1989 Legislature cut general assistance for the able-bodied, and food stamp cuts began, "it was virtually impossible to arouse much interest in doing anything about this," she said.

Many of Parker's clients are alcoholics and drug addicts who have lost their federal benefits, mentally ill people who have been deemed suddenly "cured" by the Social Security Administration after 20 years of benefits, and indigent single men, who can receive food stamps only three months out of every three years.

"We've got a large group of people who are affected by these cuts," she said. "Advocates in general have skewed the effects of welfare reform by picking the groups they want to advocate for."

Advocacy has been fueled by money available from foundations interested in measuring the effects of welfare reform, and groups are more sophisticated in writing grant applications, said Miller. Congressional tax-credit initiatives created incentives in the past 20 years that encouraged growth in numbers of nonprofits. Human services crises have sparked the formation of advocacy groups that didn't exist a decade ago, said Mayer of the housing authority.

"I celebrate that," he said. "That's a good development. So often, economically disadvantaged people don't have the means or the leisure to go out and advocate for themselves."

But then, he said, "You get advocacy groups with the need to advocate. They have to have issues. So you get one person with an ax to grind, it's an issue."

The role of advocates, however difficult the relationships, has been vital in shaping welfare reform and later in telling state and county officers of its effects, said Carole Graham, who was director of the Office of Public Assistance for Missoula and Mineral counties for 11 years before she retired last year. Montana was ahead of most other states in crafting its own welfare reform program, and its policies were among the most progressive from the beginning, she said.

The design came out of meetings in Helena with advocates like Judy Smith of Missoula, bankers, clients, human services officials, even Montana Power Co. representatives.

"It worked very well," Graham remembers. "There was no arguing or pounding on the table."

Relationships became acrimonious only later, she said, when the effects began. Some criticisms were legitimate, but some were inflammatory.

"They'd insist on putting these extremely negative, one-sided stories about how mean the department is in newsletters," she said, "stories the department knew weren't true."

Outside of public life now, except for some contract consulting, Graham sees a new animosity in public life.

"That's a new wave," she said. "I don't know where it comes from."

"They can be effective if they do it right," she said. "But they seem to want to step out of the boundaries. An advocate has to be willing to mediate. It's a give-and-take process."

Hank Hudson, administrator of the Human and Community Services Division of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, said good can come out of the most heated arguments. When he was the director of the old Department of Family Services, he once had to sit in a lone chair in front of a mass meeting of parents in Missoula who had had their children taken from their homes.

"It was very large and very intimidating," he said. "This was the angriest group of people that I've ever had to go before."

But, he said, the process made for better policy. The development of intermediate services helped parents much earlier, giving them more time with social workers and keeping more children at home.

Advocates and officials usually have common ground if both sides believe - in this case, children should be safe and should not live in poverty.

"I have a lot of respect for these groups," Hudson said. "I'm not just saying that to be careful. They operate out of principle.

"Government is usually in the role of having to balance the perspectives of all Montanans," he said. "Someone needs to articulate the issues from the point of view of the participants."

Yet Fleischmann of MPA as well as Castellanos Miller of WEEL say that human services officials dish up more than their share of empty rhetoric.

"They create this kind of faux public participation - you know, 'You know, we want your ideas.' They say, 'Oh, we're interested in your input.' Then they do whatever they want," Fleischmann said. "So that's part of this new acrimony."

Jack Burke, a vice president at St. Patrick Hospital, says the acrimonious view is not always the mainstream one. The hospital regularly receives thank-you cards from people who have received its charitable care, which the nuns who own it mandate. When relationships are personal, they often are good, said Burke, who grew up in a public housing project in Boston.

"I think sometimes people see these huge buildings, and they think we're just really rich people who have no consideration for the poor," he said. "But anybody can come here."

The day after last week's contentious housing authority meeting, Mayer and current WEEL director Kate Kahan set up their own meeting. Mayer, a Yale-educated practicing Buddhist, tries to apply the principle, "Seek first to understand and then to be understood."

Kahan, a progressive who was former director of the Women's Center at the University of Montana and a former single mother on welfare, doesn't want housing authority staff and commissioners to feel demonized and attacked. She wants to establish a better model, she said.

"Poverty is a human rights issue," she said. "And welfare reform has put people in crisis."

But, Kahan said, "If people are pitted against each other, there's not room in the middle, and there's no room for movement. Where we have tremendous opportunities is in collaboration. But let's be smart about it. And let's really think about how we can move forward."

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