March 6, 1991

Military Camps for the Urban Poor?

By Paul DeRienzo*

It is obvious to residents of lower Manhattan and other inner city areas that urban U.S.A. is in deep crisis. Hundreds of thousands live in the streets. Thousands more have swamped overburdened municipal shelters Communities are living ravaged by crack, heroin, AIDS, and violent crime Even poverty linked diseases as tuberculosis which had largely disappeared two generations ago, art- once again spreading

The idea of using military camps as a solution to the urban dilemma is being eyed with increasing seriousness by the federal government. While the liberal left has widely supported McKinney Act which mandates opening unused military installations to the homeless, radical critics have expressed misgivings about the concept.

Recent proposed legislation calls for using military bases as auxiliary prisons, along with the suspension of constitutional guarantees, which would allow for massive sweeps of decayed urban areas. Critics also point to the central role assigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in coordinating the national response to the urban crisis FEMA has in the recent past been charged with rounding up "aliens" and dissidents in the event of a national war emergency.

FEMA's secretive 1984 "readiness exercise," REX-84 ALPHA, was a practice run for detaining 40,000 Central American refugees in 10 designated military bases throughout the nation in the event of a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. An Executive Order signed by President George Bush on Jan. 8 grants FEMA a central role in coordinating federal response to the national security emergency" declared in response to the war in the Persian Gulf, including mobilization of "food resources" and nuclear weapons fuel for the war effort.

FEMA’s role in the homelessness crisis dates to the passage of the Homeless Assistance Act (the "McKinney Act") in 1987. The Act established an Interagency Council on the Homeless, through which hundreds of millions of dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are channeled to FEMA for administration of homeless programs nationwide. By 1988, FEMA was funding 94 human services agencies operating 371 facilities ranging from shelters to soup kitchens to liberal political groups such as the National Coalition for the Homeless. Much of the money was funneled from FEMA operations through charitable groups such as the United Way, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army.

It was the National Coalition for the Homeless which took the Defense Department to federal court under the McKinney Act for failing to move quickly enough in making unused military facilities available as homeless shelters. By the beginning of1998, eight military bases in Maryland. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington - were being used to warehouse the homeless.

The McKinney Act had doubtless been authored and pushed by well intentioned liberals But many critics were disturbed by the' blurring of the distinction between, homeless shelters, military camps and prisons In October of 1990, Now York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) closed down the decrepit and disease ridden Bellevue Men's Shelter on East 29th Street, giving hundreds of homeless men 24 hours notice that they were to be transferred to other shelters. Prominent among those other shelters was Camp LaGuardia a women's prison in upstate New York.

The move had been prompted in part by opposition to the presence of a large "intake shelter" for homeless men on Third Street on the Lower East Side. Neighborhood pressure from the conservative group BASTA (Before Another Shelter Tears Us Apart) had resulted in the Third street "intake shelter" being relocated to the Bellevue facility after the original inhabitants had been bounced up to Camp LaGuardia and the building rehabilitated.

Many homeless people maintain that New York City's shelters, with their curfews, unsanitary conditions and pervasive violence, are themselves little better than prisons. These claims sparked controversy when the administration of then Mayor Ed Koch announced its policy of forcibly sweeping the "mentally ill " homeless off the streets and into shelters and psychiatric wards in 1997.

The trend toward a prison/military camp solution to the problem of the disenfranchised urban poor became more obvious with the signing of Executive Order 12692 by George Bush on July 7, 1989. This Executive Order established an interagency Commission on Alternative Utilization of Military Facilities, made up of representatives from the Defense Department, HUD, the Prisons Bureau and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

The commission was charged with investigating the feasibility of using "nonactive military facilities" as "minimum security facilities" for nonviolent prisoners, drug treatment facilities for nonviolent drug abusers, and facilities assist to the homeless."

More blatant still was the National Drug & Crime Emergency Bill (I HR 4079) introduced to the House of Representatives by Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich list year The bill mandated declaration of a "national emergency" to deal with drug trafficking and violent crime, "guided by the principles that energized and sustained the mobilizaton for World War II..."

The National Emergency was to last for five years, during which time no offenders convicted of violent or drug related crimes would be released. In fact thousands more would be arrested as constitutional protections against arrest without charges and unreasonable search and seizure would be severly limited.

The bill called for removing limits on prison populations, but also charged the Defense Department with providing the Prisons Bureau and state law enforcement agencies with a list of "available military bases" for use as "confinement facilities"

The bill charged the president with directing "the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers to design and construct temporary detention facilities

The labor to build these "detention facilities would come front the detainees themselves, under "mandatory work requirements for all federal prisoners." The prisoners would not be paid for this labor. On the contrary all drug convicts would be fined to cover incarceration costs and victim compensation," with wages and property being confiscated if the prisoner cannot afford the fine. Mandatory urine tests would be imposed all prisons, detainment facilities and even schools receiving federal funds.

The National Drug & Crime Emergency hill died along with the 101st Congress without ever having been voted on. But Gingrich and his cosponsors may introduce it now that Congress is back in session. The contempt for the disenfranchised, which this bill represents, is widespread among conservative elites

The urban crisis has its roots in the changing US economy. The high-tech and capital intensive fields of finance, real estate and media have been slated by City planners from San Francis to New York as the key to urban recovery Labor intensive heavy industry has largely been moved overseas, where wages are lower and environmental standards looser. Massive numbers of people whose labor was needed by the old economy have been rendered expendable under the new. Simultaneously the Reagan and Bush administrations have done their best to dismantle the social safety net established by the New Deal.

Unless efforts are made to address these roots, it seems that the federal government will continue to pursue a solution based on human warehousing in military camps

*With Bill Weinberg