Plight of the Poor and Dispossessed
The closing of hospitals has been a crisis across the United States over recent years, getting very little media coverage, and now with our nation facing a global pandemic the problematic nature of the closings is even more apparent.((Partners for Dignity & Rights fact sheet on hospital closures: https://dignityandrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Hospital-closures-fact-sheet-4-14.pdf)) While I was doing research on hospital closures, I discovered Pennsylvania had 7 hospitals close in 2019 and, more recently, in 2020 UPMC closed a hospital in Sunbury, PA and another hospital in Philadelphia owned and operated by Trinity Health, who stated they would be closing their inpatient services.
I’m seeing many articles coming out that talk about the issues of “cost” and shortages of supplies in reference to our nation’s hospitals. One that upset me the most was the one published by the Washington Post with the headline “More life saving ventilators are available. Hospitals just can’t afford them,” which quoted healthcare profiteers stating the reason for not wanting to spend the high costs for ventilators is because to them it would essentially be a waste to spend those high amounts for devices they wouldn’t need after the pandemic.
At Put People First! PA we know healthcare is a human right and should never be viewed as an industry for profit. Put People First! PA is a multi-racial grassroots statewide organization established in 2012 to unite the working class in PA and build our power. Our campaign is Healthcare as a Human Right, which is led by our base, the Nonviolent Medicaid Army. We chose healthcare as our first campaign because it’s a unifying issue that affects the entire working class. We have nine chapters throughout the state and members in 17 counties and we are one of the organizations that helps to lead the coordinating committee of the PA Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
At Put People First! PA we know healthcare is a human right and should never be viewed as an industry for profit.
The Philadelphia Healthcare Rights Committee of Put People First! PA has been organizing around the issue of the closed Hahnemann Hospital. That hospital closure affected many in the community from people who needed that hospital to seek care, healthcare workers who lost their jobs and Drexel University med students who had to scramble to find new residencies. Many of those Drexel med students had to also relocate and incur additional financial debt due to the unanticipated move.
I live in Lancaster, PA and I’m a member of the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee of Put People First! PA. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is the only home I have ever known and I care very deeply for the people of my community. In the research we have done so far for our audit and moral budget for Lancaster County, we discovered the real poverty rates of our community. Lancaster City has a poverty rate of 49.91% and the nearby area of Columbia has a poverty rate of 45.05% followed by Ephrata with 36.61% and New Holland borough with a 27.29% poverty rate. The percentage of Lancaster County that is uninsured is 12%, which is a total of 65,148 people, the highest uninsured rate in the entire state of Pennsylvania.
In Lancaster, PA we have been fighting against the closure of St. Joseph’s Hospital which was perpetrated by UPMC for about 15 months now. UPMC is Pennsylvania’s largest employer and a leading force in research. They have recently created their own test for the coronavirus, which can get results within 24 hours, but instead of trying to cooperate with the necessary authorities to get their test widely distributed across the state, they are choosing to set up test sites in high density areas and in communities where they dominate the healthcare market, so they are assured to make huge profits. I fear they will do the same with the vaccine they have been working on as well. UPMC is the sole healthcare profiteer in Pennsylvania that is going against the orders of Governor Wolf to suspend all elective surgeries at this time.
Fight of the Poor and Dispossessed Before Covid-19
In Lancaster our fight over the last 15 months went from trying to stop the closure of our hospital, to fighting to “Take Back St. Joseph’s Hospital,”((Fox 43 coverage: https://youtu.be/gLbvXlgCVq8)) to pushing back against the rezoning petition being proposed by UPMC to change the property from a Hospital Complex Zone to a Mixed Use Zone, and finally organizing to “Save the Legacy of St. Joseph’s Hospital” by developing a redevelopment vision of our own, so the land on which St. Joseph’s Hospital sits would serve the poor and dispossessed. Over its 135 year history the hospital has been both a place that cared for the poor and dispossessed as well as being a tool used by powerful people, and now the ruling class wants to take it from the poor all together.((Anne Wenger presentation: https://youtu.be/w5d2vnII9fU)) Around May of 2019 PPF-PA members in Philadelphia began their fight against the closure of Hahnemann hospital.
Over its 135 year history the hospital has been both a place that cared for the poor and dispossessed as well as being a tool used by powerful people, and now the ruling class wants to take it from the poor all together.
In December 2019, the City Planning Commission agreed to our demand to postpone their vote to recommend the rezoning petition to their January 15 meeting, which just happened to be Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. This gave us enough time to prepare for the next meeting and for the new City Council members to be sworn into office, all before the rezoning petition would come up for a City Council vote.
After hours of deliberation, including a failed motion caused by a tied vote to not make a decision, the City Planning Commission decided to recommend rezoning with the understanding that the redevelopment serve the homeless, have a space for children and provide healthcare services, which happened to be what we had included as a part of our redevelopment vision.((City Planning Commission Meeting video links: Eric, https://youtu.be/8QHX4yFgmoQ Tammy, https://youtu.be/mzKaYyJos_E Matt Beakes, https://youtu.be/NdEdnBLrvLw Planning Commission members, https://youtu.be/rhZ8XdLVODI))
Since that City Planning Commission meeting, the poor and dispossessed in Lancaster, PA have held our own State of the City Address in late January 2020 to counteract the message being spoken by those in power, which showed little regard for the needs of the poor in our community. During our State of the City address, Josh, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), shared his story of a recent experience at the overcrowded emergency room at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital and stated that we needed the property where St. Joseph’s Hospital sits to reopen as some form of healthcare facility.
We heard the UPMC rezoning petition was going to come up to the Lancaster City Council for a vote on April 6, 2020 and it was rumored that many on the new City Council were thinking of voting against the rezoning petition being proposed by UPMC in favor of the poor and dispossessed. However, due to the global pandemic now hitting not only our community but our entire nation and the globe, we believe that it has now been put on hold while they assess whether or not to use St. Joseph’s Hospital in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. This now gives new meaning to our fight to “Save the Legacy of St. Joseph’s Hospital” and has now put the poor and dispossessed in a whirlwind to once again fight to “Take Back St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
Fight of the Poor and Dispossessed: Response to Covid-19
On Thursday March 12th members of the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee of Put People First! PA and the Lancaster County Homeless Union attended the Press Conference hosted by the Lancaster County, PA Commissioners about the coronavirus. They had representatives from Penn Medicine, UPMC, WellSpan, EMS, the School District of Lancaster, the Chamber of Commerce and others on their panel.((Link to County Commissioner’s video — Eric, 57:19, Tammy & Anne, 1:02:06: https://www.facebook.com/259821174228416/videos/2761013320614924/))
All of their statements were pretty much the same: “stay home and wash your hands.” University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) parroted the messages of the others on the panel with no mention of St. Joseph’s Hospital, which they bought in 2017 and closed in February 2019. The hospital still sits empty on College Ave all while reports are coming out that Lancaster County will not have enough hospital beds available, even in a best case scenario!
During the Q&A portion of the press conference, Anne Winslow (a member of the Lancaster HRC) and myself teamed up to address the panel. I started with stating the seriousness of the issue and how our nation’s current healthcare system is not only different but much worse than that of other countries who are being hit tremendously hard by the Covid-19 global pandemic. I began by stating the numbers of one of the models from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),((Article stating how many could be infected: http://hill.cm/grqr1jF)) regarding the number of people in the United States who may become infected and/or die from this pandemic on a national scale. I then broke it down the local possibilities for/in our County and County Commissioner Parsons was quick to try and silence me on the issue.
Anne and I clapped back, asking what was their plan for those who are uninsured and don’t have a doctor to get an order form for testing, and why we are not reopening the old St. Joseph’s Hospital? Parsons had no answer and asked someone on the panel to respond and NO ONE had answers for us. Instead County Commissioner Parsons said he would talk with us afterwards and when Anne said “No we want answers now, so the media can hear,” he then proceeded to take the next question.
Anne and I did go up and speak with two of the three County Commissioners, Parsons and D’Agostino, after the press conference and the interaction was far from delightful. County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino went on about how living in poverty is due to life choices, you know the typical “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. Both D’Agostino and Parsons were really trying to push us off but that didn’t stop us from demanding they get working on hand washing stations in and around downtown Lancaster. They said “we’ll look into it” and we knew we would need to push them because they didn’t seem like they were seeing this as an urgent issue. In that moment we had a sense of clarity and understood that it would take us pushing even harder to get the things we need. We had to amp up our organizing to make it happen.
We used social media to shame the County Commissioners as well as the Water Street Mission. The Water Street Mission is known throughout our community as a “nonprofit” that uses religion in a way that many in the community are not happy about, and there are many people who would rather sleep out on the streets then stay at the Water Street Mission. Instead of using their connections to see that the homeless get what they need during this crisis, they were running Easter fundraising ads, using pictures of poor people and a sales pitch instead of making sure our unhoused get what they need. The mission responded to our online action and messaged me to tell me they changed their ad I had commented on. Realizing we couldn’t count on the County Commissioners alone to get the hand washing stations up, we also reached out to Lancaster City Council to push for the hand washing stations and they complied. Not only did the Lancaster City Government comply with getting hand washing stations downtown and in parks, some now seem interested in working with us in securing the needs of the working class in Lancaster, PA.
In reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic Put People First! PA held a rapid response Steering Committee call on March 14th to discuss our current healthcare crisis, its interconnection with the many other struggles that the poor and dispossessed face and began to plan accordingly. We put together a list of demands for Governor Tom Wolf and plan to place pressure on our government and target healthcare profiteers to do the right thing and secure our basic human rights.
One of the demands is to reopen all closed hospitals across Pennsylvania that are still standing.
The Philly HRC took action on the Hahnemann Hospital after the city ended negotiations with the real estate developer, Joel Freedman, who owns Hahnemann Hospital. He offered to reopen Hahnemann for use during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis if the city of Philadelphia would pay him “fair market rate” or fork out roughly about $1 MILLION dollars per month to use the hospital. In Lancaster we recently filmed the St. Joseph’s Hospital sitting on College Ave — still closed — and made a statement regarding new information that was brought to our attention about why it still sits there not being used.
Insight of the Poor and Dispossessed
We are not stopping our organizing in our fight to “Take Back St. Joseph’s Hospital” or Hahnemann or the recently closed hospital in Sunbury, PA. We have always needed these hospitals and now we need these hospitals more than ever. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic we have had to switch to more digital organizing. We have shared old footage from past actions on our social media platforms that show our outcry of concern. In one of those videos from our archive, Anne Winslow made remarks at a Lancaster City Council Action, where she denounced the over capacity of Lancaster General Hospital. She said, “If the staff continuously is overworked and constantly forced to work over capacity, the care is drastically compromised” and highlighted the following reality, “a local disaster or pandemic, this would lead to at best abysmal treatment and at worst unnecessary death.” We knew from the very beginning that our community would not be ready for something like the coronavirus global pandemic.
One thing that hasn’t died out in Lancaster, PA is the spirit of St. Joseph’s Hospital in our community. The hospital’s 135-year history is remarkable and shows a sense of community togetherness and a spiritual connection that is now reviving amongst the Lancaster community. The poor and dispossessed in our community have never forgotten and continue to speak about its legacy during our actions over the last 15 months, as covered in our three part blog series on the PPF-PA PA website((PPF-PA St. Joseph’s Hospital blog series — Part One: “History”; Part Two: “Personal & Spiritual Connection”; Part Three: “Weekend of Action & Final Chapel Service”
)) and as we have said many times “We will not stop fighting until we Take Back St. Joseph’s and return it to the community which built it with our blood sweat and tears!”((Anne Winslow remarks: https://www.facebook.com/380875522490588/videos/2204663736223802/))
We should be asking why we are putting resources into temporary makeshift hospitals when we should be putting those resources into what we already lost and always needed.
The people in power need to wise up before it’s too late. They need to do what’s necessary to get St. Joseph’s Hospital reopened as a coronavirus testing site and critical care facility. One thing about the people of Lancaster, PA is that we will not sit back during a crisis if our people are in trouble. Our community’s history says as much. I already see amazing togetherness happening, but there is also too much of a us versus them mentality. Although I can’t say I can predict the future, I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine that the people would once again riot if the pandemic hits our community hard and if St. Joseph’s Hospital is not reopened. They may just rush the building and take it over themselves.
This Covid-19 pandemic makes it more clear than ever before that we need St. Joseph’s Hospital property to stay zoned a Hospital Complex Zone and NOT change it to mixed use zone! Imagine if St Joseph’s was still a fully operating hospital! Prior to the pandemic hitting the United States in the way that it did the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee of Put People First! PA has led a fight on this issue for 15 months and stood fast to our messaging. Our redevelopment vision incorporated healthcare, shelter for the homeless and connections to needed resources for the poor, all of which can be built on a Hospital Complex Zone!
More are beginning to see the gaps in our system that leave the poor vulnerable because this pandemic has exacerbated the already existing crisis of poverty.