Saturday, November 10, 2007

Notes From Homefront '88

Tonight I found a notebook I kept as a participant journalist covering a three-month homeless encampment in 1988. Homefront began as a "spontaneous" encampment at the Statehouse following a Boston Common memorial service for those homeless who had died the previous year.

While Homefront started as a protest that was backed by middle-class advocates, this support eroded as the homeless increasingly saw the encampment as an end in itself. Within the first two weeks at the Statehouse, the camp had become entirely self-managed, and most of the advocate support fell away. In the third week, Homefront was chased by police from the Statehouse steps across the street to the Boston Common. Within days, the camp was moved again, this time to the steps of City Hall, about four blocks away, where it remained for the next two months. While church-based allies continued to bring meals some nights, the people in the camp were left largely on their own to scavenge for food, manage security, and negotiate with the City.

My roles as journalist, activist, and increasingly, friend, became hopelessly intertwined as I tried to support the often difficult personalities that led the camp. Over the course of covering Homefront, I saw street homelessness at both of its extremes. On one side was a rawness and brutality that took my breath away. Whatever blanket notions that I had of the noble poor died at that City Hall encampment. At the same time, I saw people who had absolutely nothing pull together to form a community that was fiercely their own. As difficult, violent, and riven by faction as that community often was, it always aspired toward something better. At its best, Homefront represented the idea that those who were on the very bottom of society could take control of their lives by camping on the doorstep of power to demand something better.

The following three character sketches are written from drafts done in 1988. Sadly, I've lost the article that came out of the three month experience.

An aged Black man sat straddle legged on the City Hall steps. As a half-dozen Homefronters looked on disinterestedly, he uncapped a bottle of Mennen aftershave and raised the strong-smelling liquid to his lips. "The one good thing about Mennen," joked an onlooker, "is that you can buy it on Sundays."

Tilting his head back he closed his eyes and poured the green cologne down his throat. He gagged and drooled, and then dropped straight back, hitting his head on the bricks with a sickening thud. The man sprawled across the steps, unconscious.

Homelessness hardened people, and the vibe at Homefront had taken on more and more of the viciousness of the streets. All of their targets — The City, the State, the Federal government — sat comfortably in air conditioned offices and had guards protecting their doorways. The homeless, on the other hand, were easy targets for everyone, including themselves.

"Someones going to die on Thursday," one woman prophesied. She whispered it again. "Before this is over, someone's going to die." The violence had been building for weeks, and fights were now nearly continuous. The frustration of nearly three months of squatting with nothing to show were taking its toll.

In the late evening, Lee, a thin white girl who was as tough and mean as any man I'd met, viciously beat a blind crippled woman named Carol as the Homefronters looked on, although a few women tried unsuccessfully to intervene. City Hall security looked on from behind a glass door. Carol was taken away in an ambulance.

Homefront security usually broke up men's fights, and their inaction as a blind woman was kicked, punched and stomped was hard for some to understand. "When women fight, it's different," said Grizz, "cuz then you get involved with their boyfriends. You just have to let it alone.

It was true. Behind Lee stood Jerry, and behind Jerry stood most of the Puerto Rican Homefronters and some of the Cubans. Lee was protected. Lee was also crazy.

On Thursday came the news that the camp would break the next morning. Homefront was at peace. The violence of the previous day disolved as people digested the news that it was over, and that these people who had been so close for these months would all go their own ways. A body was found that night in a South Boston drainpipe. She was identified a few days later as Lee. She'd been strangled.

Crazy Joe
He looked a little like a long-haired Jack Nicholson. "I got an old lady I'm taking care of," he said. "She's crazy. Proposition 2 1/2 released her five years ago from Mass. Mental to the street and she's been there since. She wears miniskirts and no underwear and the guys all want pussy but she don't give none up. She needs a protector." Her medicine costs $6. Money that neither she or Joe had. "We had a fight this morning and she's on the Common somewhere. I told her she knew where to find me."

Joe showed off his tattoos. Love across the knuckles and a death's head on the shoulder. "I worship death," he scowled. With a wink he pointed to a small cross on his other shoulder. "But there's this too." He paused for effect. "But I got that one when I was fourteen."

"I worship death," he said, "because death is the only thing that ever lasts."

The Prophet
Wilamena is a striking Black woman who likes to preach. You can find her on the street, at the Statehouse, at the Copley Library, on the Common, wherever the homeless gather to spend time, talking self-help and Jesus.

Walking down Tremont toward Government Center, Wilamena placed her bags on the sidewalk and spread her arms to the sky. "I'm HOME-less, but not hellllplesssss!" She crossed her legs and sat on the pavement. There we sat for the next hour.

"Shelters and welfare are the bondage of the soul," she said, curling her lips and widening her eyes for emphasis. "If they can't possess your soul, your mind, your body, they'll try to take your dignity away. And that's the bottom of the pit. That's homelessness."

"I've always spoken the truth, and people beat you down for that. The schools, my parents, the church, welfare, they all tried. I'm not religious," she said. "But I have religion. God talks through me. Churches just split people up."

Homefront, for Wilamena, was a place to find herself. "To participate politically," she said, "I'm coming back alive, 'cuz living in that shelter I was dead. They manipulate you, and they humiliate you. My life means nothing if they destroy my soul."


Carolyn said...

Mike Dukakis' presidential campaign was going on at the time. That's probably why they let them stay in front of the state house as long as they did. The state house police and the BPD are not known for their tolerance.

Tim Harris said...

The Flynn administration in the City's side had a liberal reputation to protect as well. Both the City and the State were loathe to arrest, and relied instead on intimidating the campers into being someone else's problem. Each the camp moved, there were some who would argue that the time had come to force arrest and make a statement, and others who would argue that keeping the camp going was the goal. In keeping with this pattern, there were numerous attempts during the City Hall encampment to bully Homefront across the Plaza to the Federal Building. This might not have been a bad option, but by then the political goals of the camp were murky at best, and it had become mostly about holding turf. I'll write more abou this later.