But the dream died hard. As late as May, 1993, after I had learned the hard way that this sort of organizing doesn't work, I was still insisting to a reporter from the Boston Globe that it did:
Q: Are you still convinced that the homeless have to lead their own political movement?What a load of crap. I could spend the next 1,000 words on why this is all ideological drivel. But at this point, it would just bore me to fucking tears, so I won't. The funny thing was that by the time I did this interview, I knew better. It was just that I'd been saying the words for so long, I didn't know how to change.
A: Absolutely. A homeless person speaking for himself or herself is far more compelling than any advocate speaking on their behalf. Because they have a direct interest in seeing that something is done about the housing crisis and about rights in the shelters, they're willing to be more militant than the advocates. The advocates have a vested and institutional interest in maintaining the status quo. For example, at the Statehouse they have to protect their access to politicians. The homeless don't have access to begin with. The only way to organize the homeless into a powerful political force is if they're in charge. Otherwise, they just see it as someone else's show.
I'd turned homelessness into an essentialist category, meaning, that this was for me their defining characteristic. It wasn't a crappy thing that happened to people. It was what they were. This isn't a good thing for anyone.
Not surprisingly, the people to whom this appealed were generally those who sensed there was some level of power to be had in the deal. This power usually came at the expense of building broad internal leadership or cultivating allies.
This mistake gets made all the time. It's a natural reaction to want to assert pride and power against dehumanization and social control. But obviously, not every homeless person is honorable and brave and not every advocate is a craven sell-out. And regular people just disappear here altogether.
I'd seen one homeless run organization after another — the Union of the Homeless, Spare Change, The Homeless Civil Rights Project, Homefront 88, the list goes on — fall into the same shortcomings:
- leadership who hold power by creating fear and distrust
- insufficient expertise to build strong, thriving organizations
- stagnant thinking brought about by a reluctance to challenge leaders
- failure to build real alliances or work in coalition with others
- insufficient resources to offer long-term stability
- various vulnerabilities such as addiction undermining organizational stability
- entrenched leadership that never develops a real following
- elevation of homelessness into an identity that limits personal growth
- a focus on bogus external enemies to deflect attention from internal problems