by Dan Shramo with Alex Grabtree
In an effort to shine light on the absurdity of the glorification of vast amounts of monetary wealth, The Homeless Grapevine set out to find the “Poorest Person in Northeast Ohio.” The intention was to remind the general public that the “have nots” are just as important as the “haves.” After an extensive search, we were able to locate a few individuals who were willing to share their experiences.
In this time of unprecedented wealth and record corporate profits, we reflect on the growing debt in the United States. Major media celebrate the “richest men in America” or the “richest people in the world,” while this month the Grapevine celebrates the “Poorest Person in Northeast Ohio.” October is the United Nations’ World Poverty month, which is an appropriate time to talk about the poverty that continues to pepper the American landscape.
As part of World Poverty month, street newspapers from around the world are all featuring the artwork of Connor Cullinan of South Africa called “Enough to Go Around.” Street papers in South Africa, London, Montreal, Chicago, and Edmonton are participating in featuring a common cover for their October issues.
Our winner for poorest person in Northeast Ohio is Michael Bogan, who is a member of the crew that makes their home on Superior in front of the welfare building. Bogan asked that his picture not be used.
Michael Bogan has been living on the streets for 15 years. When he was 15 months old, he had a benign tumor removed from his brain. His family was compensated $80,000 from Social Security to pay for the medical expenses. Instead of paying the hospital, Michael’s parents used the money to pay off a large gambling debt. Now, decades later, Michael is still paying for his parents’ decision. Bogan is paying back the $80,000 slowly, with $32 each month coming out of his check. At the current rate, he should be clear of the debt in 208 years.
He is stuck in a frustrating cycle of wanting to work but unable to afford to live if he does. Michael resorts to panhandling for extra income. With his large medical debts and a couple of other debts, Bogan has earned the title of poorest person in Northeast Ohio. “My social security income is $369 a month; every time I go to work at a legitimate taxpaying job, SSI takes money out of my checks. I need that money to live.” To get off the streets, Michael estimates he would need roughly $700 a month. This is almost double the amount he makes now. “I sleep on a mattress in front of the welfare office. I’ve been living on the streets for 15 years: I want out.”
A couple of runner-up candidates include David, who has a completely different outlook on the homeless situation. As the self-declared “President of the Homeless,” David isn’t interested in talking about his past, lack of money, or debts, but would rather focus on the future and taking care of the people. “Not only am I the President of the homeless, I’m also the supply officer. If somebody on the streets needs something, they can come see me and I can help them out. I have clout in this city. Instead of using it to make money, I use it to help the poor. The homeless are the fastest growing community in the country. We’re a nation within a nation, homeless for the homeless.” David believes that homeless people should be independent of the system, and therefore he never uses shelters as a place to stay. “I live off the land,” says David. “Everything I need is all around me. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a shelter.”
Another candidate is a very unique gentleman who goes by the name of “Chief.” Chief was born to Native American parents. He was put up for adoption and “bounced around from family to family,” in a series of foster homes. He eventually stabilized contact with his birth father, who assisted in Chief’s acquisition of a degree in architecture from Miami University of Florida. His father died in 1994 and left Chief and his three brothers and sisters 30 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Chief is not interested; he’s content staying in his hut on the place commonly referred to as “Camelot.” Chief is pretty well known in the neighborhood where he lives, both by other street people and by areas entrepreneurs. He takes his role of “Chief” very seriously, and devotes much of his life to assisting fellow street people. “Last winter I was sick for a month, because I gave away all my coats.” Although Chief has virtually no financial debt, for the past year he has been staying on private property and has yet to pay any rent. So far, this hasn’t been a problem for Chief, as most of the community surrounding him knows and accepts his presence.
The final runner-up, Robert Igoe, is 31 years old. He’s been on and off the streets for the last seven years. He has had a place to stay on various occasions, but fines and other financial difficulties have hindered his transition off the streets. He owes fines in excess of $1000, including tickets for trespassing and driver’s license reinstatement fees. In addition, he has several pending court dates pending and future fines and court costs to contend with. He has been rousted and ticketed for sleeping in the public parks in downtown Cleveland.
Robert broke his hand recently, which has added approximately $300 to an already existing medical debt of $200 for previous x-rays. He doesn’t know how to pay for all this, but he’s hoping that a job he applied for recently at a local establishment will help. He currently acquires money from odd jobs and temporary employment services. In addition to these fines and medical expenses, Robert also has to contend with an outstanding credit card debt with various companies.
Even if he gets a full-time job, Mr. Igoe estimates it will take him at least a year to pay off his debts. Recently, Robert has seen no income, due to his trust fund being cut off entirely until his grandmother’s estate has been settled. He has been written out of the will and does not expect to receive any more money.
In response to the rising debt around the world, a campaign is developing to cancel all debts of third world countries around the world in the year 2000. The Jubilee 2000 movement, as it is called, dates back to biblical tradition, when slaves were set free and debts cancelled every 50 years. The Jubilee year, as it was called, rectified social inequalities; land was returned to its original owners and debts were cancelled. The campaign is an attempt to cancel global debt that developed in 1982.
Campaign organizers point to irresponsible creditors, corrupt borrowers, and poor planning among governments as the cause of the huge international debt. The reality is that governments of impoverished countries are servicing their debts by diverting resources from meeting the basic needs of their people.
The campaign is supported by church groups, including the U.S. Catholic Conference and National Council of Churches and grew out of the Summit of the Group of 8 governments in Denver in June of 1997.
Information about Jubilee 2000 can be found on the Internet at www.j2000usa.org . The specific plan is a “cancellation of the crushing international debt in situations where countries burdened with high levels of human need and environmental distress are unable to meet the basic needs of their people or achieve a level of sustainable development that ensures a decent quality of life.”
Other proposals include definitive debt cancellation that benefits ordinary people and some monitoring of international lending to prevent “destructive cycles of indebtedness.”
Copyright NEOCH for the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #38, October-November 1999