By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, April 3, 1987
Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
–Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”
The Jabberwock may be dead, but the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch are still living in Washington, speaking in their age-old tongue of gobbledygook and making the rest of us pay for their nonsense. Their latest mumbo jumbo, nowhere near as amusing as Lewis Carroll, takes away food from those who have none and gives more of it to those who are already getting three meals a day. “All mimsy were the borogoves.”
Here’s how it works out, under new law and policy on food stamps for homeless people. Washington decided that homeless people living in welfare hotels already cost the public so much in rent that they should have their food-stamp allowance cut by more than half — a reduction for a family of four from $143 a month down to only $62. They get other grants that are earmarked in part for food but the overall stipend is meager, so these are often siphoned off for such needs as clothes and transport. This makes the food stamp aid critical. And the result of the recent cut is that from Washington, the land of the Jabberwock, the hotel-homeless now receive 17 cents per meal for each family member. That’ll buy you half a Twinkie. “The rule is [said the Queen], jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday — but never jam today.”
The thinking behind this flummery is that since homeless families have no control over where they are placed and since government at all levels has failed to provide anything resembling housing for them and since the owners of the welfare hotels to which most of these families consequently get assigned are gouging the city blind on rents, the homeless — most of whom are children — should be punished for all this. Just eat your half a Twinkie and shut up!
Apparently some of the people in Washington gazed down on this scene and decided that the food stamp program for the homeless needed some repairs. So they took out their crowbars and sledgehammers and fashioned a new law last year, entitled “Homeless Eligibility Clarification Act.” Curiously, it was tacked onto something called the “Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.” But let’s not quibble over form. Who cares what company the “Clarification” keeps if it redresses the half-a-Twinkie scandal?
Ah, but those sly Bandersnatches! They fooled us again. What they clarified wasn’t food stamps for the flea-trap-hotel homeless who need them most but, rather, food stamps for the homeless who live in government and private shelters where they already receive three meals a day. The shelter people, both families and single people, hadn’t been eligible for stamps before. But now they are. “And the more raths outgrabe.”
The new law went into effect on Wednesday. Fairly soon, there’ll be even longer lines than usual twice a month at the check-cashing outlets and banks where people take their plastic welfare cards to get their allotments. Individuals living in shelters will get $81 a month in stamps and a shelter family of four will receive $271. This $271, just to keep the gibberish factor in focus, compares with the paltry $62 a month that the welfare-hotel family received simply because they are in a hotel and couldn’t get into a shelter if they wanted to because there isn’t enough room for them. Makes complete sense, doesn’t it? “Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
Thus, in this strange housing lottery, hunger becomes the accidental result for those who get picked for the cells without the food stamps. Of course, all the cells are part of the same prison, the one know as the lower depths. And, too, people who live in the shelters, even though three meals a day are served there, can certainly benefit from food supplements. But what will also happen is that some of the new food stamps, since the recipients have their institutional three squares, will be sold on the black market. Just as all these people need food, all of them need money.
Maybe, also, some of the charitable soup kitchens around town, strapped for funds, will start asking visitors to pay for meals with food stamps — since the new law allows this. But then, what will happen to the homeless who are street people, who have no address, neither shelter nor hotel — and therefore no food stamps. Will they lose out at the soup kitchens in this Darwinian snakepit of regulations?
To recap, New York City now “houses” nearly 14,000 people in welfare hotels, usually one room per family without kitchen or cooking facilities, usually in neighborhoods where the only food sources are either high-priced corner groceries or restaurants. Twinkie-land on 17 cents a meal. Another 14,500 homeless, the ones newly endowed with food stamps, live in the city shelters.
Meanwhile, down in Washington, the Jubjub birds can’t seem to see past their whereases. They can’t see that it’s a housing problem and that the national government has to help. A few months ago, the chief Jubjub, though he may not remember, said he wanted to know why New York City was paying welfare hotels $37,000 a year to house a single family instead of building that family a permanent home. Then, after the press conference, someone whispered in his ear and told him why: It was because he had decreed that the federal shelter allowance could not be used for permanent housing. He hasn’t brought it up again.
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam today,’” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”