Monday, April 23, 2007

What Would Jonah Do?

I'm finding that the more I think about ending homelessness the more confused I become. On the one hand, we have the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness set of solutions, emanating from the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Bush administration's United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. This strategy, in an echo of Baudrillard's idea of the simulacrum, seems more geared to promoting the idea of ending homelessness than to ending homelessness itself.

On the other hand, we have those who insist that an end to homelessness can only come from homeless people themselves, who alone have the experience and motivation to organize against their own oppression. The history of homeless-led organizing has been dismal, and the past twenty or more years offer few examples of successful or sustainable models. While not everyone admits it, homeless identity-based politics has been discredited as a strategy and is another organizing dead end.

A number of years ago, I came across an excellent ethnography of various types of homeless organizing called Checkerboard Square. In this, several organizations were profiled that represented the options at hand. The homeless only group was basically this guy who claimed to be representing "the homeless" but had no real following. I have to say I've seen numerous variations of this phenomenon, both in Seattle and Boston. Then, there were the advocates, who mostly acted without regard for the actual experience of homeless people themselves. They were well-intentioned, but didn't really understand organizing. The most interesting organization was a day center which operated on a cross-class model that combined the empowerment of poor people with the stability offered by middle class allies. This held, I believe, the most promise for what organizing around homelessness should look like, and was part of the inspiration for the Real Change model.

I still believe that this is where the future is. Somehow, we need to reinvent a model of organizing that exposes the realities of extreme poverty within an affluent society and harnesses the political clout of the middle class. We need to bring the very poor out of their political and social isolation, and find where our mutual self interest is. The middle class should see action on homelessness as a means of creating the sort of society in which we would all rather live. Acting to end homelessness shouldn't be seen as merely something that we do out of altruism for others, but rather as something we do in our mutual self-interest.

But how all of this actually works is far from clear

And so, I fall back on biblical metaphor. Mythology is full of heroes who grope their way through confusion before arriving at a point of clarity and conviction. Jonah comes to mind. God says "Go to Ninevah," and Jonah says, "Fuck that!" and heads the other way to Tarshish. But he gets swallowed by a whale, and is eventually delivered to his reluctant destiny. The whale symbolizes the creative confusion that comes of not knowing the answers but still being on the journey. Sometimes, I think, not knowing is just where one needs to begin.

1 comment:

Mark said...

you wrote"While not everyone admits it, homeless identity-based politics has been discredited as a strategy and is another organizing dead end"

There are peaks and valleys, birth and death of everything. Nothing lasts forever. People have to understand that its the natural life cycle(birth+death) and rebuild projects learning from the failures in the past.