Social Security Works’ Ernie Powell Says Baby Boomers Are At Risk of Homelessness

Karen Ocamb News

Prop 21 is turning into the penultimate clash of the Baby Boomer generation. Ernie Powell, Public Policy consultant for Social Security Works, and billionaire Stephen Schwarzman were born into middle-class families just two years apart in the late 1940s. But after Powell heard President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 Inauguration exhortation – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – he joined the Vista service program to help at home rather than go abroad to work for the Peace Corps. Schwarzman, on the other hand, joined the secret high society Skull and Bones at Yale University and went on to become “a modern-day robber baron” and advisor to Donald J. Trump.  

Today, Powell says Social Security Works endorses Proposition 21, also known as the Rental Affordability Act, as a critical tool with Social Security and Medicare to provide the Greatest Generation and aging Baby Boomers with dignity and protect them from homelessness.

Proposition 21 is the November ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases. It protects people against corporate landlord greed and keeps them in their homes. It’s supported by trusted civil leaders and organizations, such as U.S. Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, Congress members Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, the California Democratic Party, and the Los Angeles Times, among numerous others.

Over the years, Schwarzman has become one of the most notorious corporate landlords in the world, unrelenting in his greed-driven war on renters. Indeed, on Sept. 18, the ‘Yes on 21’ campaign filed a formal complaint with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission against Blackstone Property Partners, L.P. and others over questionable contributions to the Big Real Estate-funded No on Prop 21 campaign.  

Powell, meanwhile, became a conscientious grassroots activist called to serve America’s common good. In 1969, he became a boycott organizer for the United Farm Workers, working with iconic UFW co-founders Dolores Huerta (who has also endorsed Prop 21) and Cesar Chavez. Powell’s last assignment was with the Philadelphia boycott in 1973 fighting to get the lettuce industry to sign union contracts.

“I lived in Philly for nearly two years. During that time, Cesar was invited to attend the commemorative event honoring what was called the ‘Lattimar Massacre,’” commemorating the horrific event 75 years earlier when 18 coal miners “on a march to win union recognition were gunned down by company cops,” Powell says.

“Cesar gave a beautiful speech commemorating the sacrifice of these slain workers as he spoke about the need and hope for unity for all workers,” recalls Powell, a moment memorialized in his story “Driving Cesar Chavez” for Zocalo.  

Today, Powell, who receives Social Security, is still fighting for economic and social justice – which now includes fighting for Prop 21 to prevent homelessness.  

“We’re in the middle of a God-awful pandemic. We can’t have people thrown out on the streets!” Powell exclaims. “The growth of homelessness was dangerous to begin with. But we’re in a coronavirus pandemic. That adds to the layer of danger for people if they lose their homes or if they lose their apartment. So, there’s an immediate need for Prop 21.”

Powell says Social Security Works disagrees with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent opposition to Yes on Prop 21.

“Social Security Works is a national organization that fights to protect and expand the earned benefits of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. One key factor for older Californians to maintain stability and a secure retirement is the cost of housing. And, in California, housing costs are out of control,” says Powell. “That is why we are so disappointed in the governor’s recent decision to oppose Proposition 21. Senior homelessness has increased by 20% just this year. Older Californians are rent burdened, which means that renters from the age of 65 to 79 spend half their income on rent. For California renters aged 80 and older, that number is 42%. Proposition 21 — in spite of what the opposition commercials say — is not forced upon any city or county. Rather, it amends the law such that local municipalities can decide if they need to institute rent control. In other words, it is still up to local leaders and voters. And finally, Yes On 21 means that affordable housing is protected and limits rent increases for all generations. We urge a YES vote on Prop 21 on November 3rd.” 

Powell notes that homelessness has often unseen ripple effects. “Nobody’s homeless because they want to be. They’re forced into it,” says Powell, pointing out that children are now 33% of the homeless population.

“That’s probably a single parent with two kids in the backseat, driving around LA looking for a place to spend the night in their car,” Powell says. “And let’s say you make a mistake and park in the wrong loading zone. You didn’t see it. It was late at night. You pulled over. You thought it was legal. Then an officer comes up, sees these two kids and government kicks in. The policeman gives the mom a ticket and calls child welfare. All kinds of governmental protective actions take place at that point. Why don’t we protect them ahead of time with rent control?”

“So, is there a moral imperative here? You’re darn right there is,” Powell says emphatically. “It’s outright immoral that the economic conditions have allowed for such an increase in homelessness. Is Prop 21 the perfect panacea? I don’t know what the perfect panacea is. But does it work? Yes, it does. And we really need it!”

Photo: Social Security Works Public Policy consultant Ernie Powell and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. (Photo courtesy Powell)