Thursday, April 19, 2007

Various Communists I Have Known

A few days ago I ran across this 1986 article on the Union of the Homeless and their pressure campaign to get the City of Boston to deed them an abandoned building. The National Union of the Homeless was founded that same year, and claimed 15,000 homeless members. This was, of course, total bullshit, but they had locals in LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, New York, and Boston.

I wasn't around for the Boston campaign, but heard about it when I moved there the next year. The Union of the Homeless had held an organizing conference and claimed to have signed up over a thousand homeless members.

"Membership" meant little more than signing a card, but still, it was an impressive feat. They held a high-profile City Hall speak-out before things fizzled. I would see Boston chapter President Savina Martin at various meetings representing the Union of the Homeless, but there was no evidence she had an organization behind her.

Chris Sprowal, the charismatic President and organizer of the National Union of the homeless, flamed out by the late 80s when his coke addiction went out of control. I didn't know him, but I did get to know Savina. She was a smart, committed, effective leader, but wrestled with similar issues. This was a secret to be kept within the family. She later formed another organization for homeless women, the Women's Institute for New Growth and Support (WINGS). Her habit and the pressures of leadership got the better of her in the end, and the organization collapsed.

The National Union of the Homeless was vehement that only the poor, the homeless in particular, could build a movement of homeless people. It was, perhaps, an inevitable reaction to the dehumanization people often undergo within the emergency shelter system and the condescension of middle-class advocates. Over the 80s, the emergency shelter system tripled and quadrupled in size.

I worked at an organization called Boston Jobs with Peace, which was tucked into a small room in their National Office at 76 Summer Street, about four blocks east of the Boston Common and four blocks north of the "combat zone." My days were spent in organizing homeless people to take various forms of direct action while making connections to federal budget priorities. We excelled at getting in the papers, which made us look much bigger than we actually were.

There was some relationship between JwP, the Communist Labor Party (CLP), and the Union of the Homeless that was very unclear. The CLP had its strength in California and Chicago, and believed that the lumpen-proletariat was the revolutionary vanguard. There was a Boston contingent, and they found me.

I was in my mid-20s, naive, and largely oblivious, and, since their members were only out to various degrees, was never really clear on who was CLP and who was not. I had between two and four of them on my 11 person board.

Their theoretician Bruce Parry, who wrote for the People's Tribune, would always show up at the national conferences with dense papers describing how fallout from increased technology was the core problem poor people faced.

I found an online People's Tribune archive where he calls for 95% taxation on incomes of over $100,000. Amazing.

As Boston Jobs with Peace went into crisis over the problems of homeless empowerment organizing going sideways, the CLP folks formed a bloc. They didn't have enough people to prevail, but they definitely made things a lot harder. When CLP influence on the National became an issue during a nightmare strategic planning process in around 1991, Parry delivered a position paper describing the CLP's role in holding JwP accountable. It wasn't well received.

With the Union of the Homeless, it was equally unclear where the CLP fell on the initiator-supporter-co-opter continuum. You would just notice a lot of the same folks being involved. There was more than 80% overlap in cities with Union of the Homeless chapters and Jobs with Peace chapters. They had a role the National Welfare Rights Union too, which was active in the same cities.

The CLP dissolved in 1993 to eventally reform as the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, which backed Nader in 2000 to their detriment. Apparently there isn't much left.

The NWRU and the Union of the Homeless were pretty much ground zero for the once dominant idea that the anti-poverty movement needs to be exclusively of and by the poor. While this idea has lost some of its shine, it still persists, despite the limited evidence that this movement building model actually works.

1 comment:

Lyn said...

This has a link to some people who seem to have a pretty good handle on helping the homeless.
When you listen to some of the stories you find they know the help they need the most.