Wednesday, November 21, 2007

When "Empowerment" Ain't About Power

Tonight I was thinking of all the reasons I moved away from the "homeless empowerment" model of organizing that prizes homeless leadership above all other values. Over the late 80s and early 90s, I organized one empowerment project after another, and witnessed numerous other attempts, and time and again the same sorts of things happened.

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?

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.
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.

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
I'd like to think that the past thirty years of applying the identity politics rhetoric of various separatist movements to the situation of homeless people has revealed itself as an organizing dead end. But it hasn't. The mistake keeps getting made. It's really time to learn and move on. No one benefits from a romanticized idea of homeless leadership. What we need is leadership, built across class, that doesn't define anyone as "less than" or hold anyone down. That's a pretty good pace to start


uta urban said...

No the homeless don't have power, alone. They barely have visibility until they are effectively erased.

It dawned on me, recently, that "homeless" is subclass below the lower class. It's been carved-out of American society and enforced by the powers-that-be since the 80's, and accepted as an unfortunate but necessary state of affairs. What happened is stinking unthinkable, but it's true.

Men, women, children, babies - constantly seeking a roof and food and shelter from weather, disease, fright, predators - everything horrific that goes with the distress of having zero - that's what's left available in AMERICA.

It's like the prison system, only that it's not been officially and absurdly deemed criminal - yet. It's like being conventionally disabled then literally fighting to stay alive without means because you are out-classed. (Oh yeah, if you don't have a way to maintain consistent food, shelter, medicine, identity - you are disabled).

In the lower-income classes we generally have roofs and a single address for at least a little while. We can barely outsurvive the strain to get secured assistance, shelter, food, medicine.

No, the homeless in America can't fucking help themselves without good allies. I can't help myself without good allies. The lower and remnant middle class can't help itself without making good allies - and in numbers.

Thank you forever for making this clear.

Revel Smith

S. P. Miskowski said...

Having seen both sides of this country--as an uneducated, poor person struggling and unable to earn enough to sustain myself, and in pain daily because I could not afford dental and medical care--and much later as a privileged, over-educated person who can get a good-paying job by calling a couple of agencies--I know that most people distinguish between haves and have-nots in a brutal and life-diminishing way. And most people are stubbornly unwilling to see that they do this--that they divide humanity into valuable and not valuable, based on what an individual can command through ownership.

I think most people want to ignore their fellow citizens who are homeless, because to acknowledge them fully would require an admission that we are ALL vulnerable to life's changing circumstances. It's so much more self-comforting to hug Puritanism and secretly believe (like fools, like children) that anyone who is in trouble did something wrong to put himself there. This naive, absurd thinking is rotting our country from the inside out.

The last thing we needed in America was George W. Bush, with his elitist upbringing and his snooty brand of religion. This moral decay in government makes it discouraging for anyone who knows that the road to national/global salvation and happiness is through compassion--real compassion that recognizes that owning stuff is not what makes a person.

Empathy is as different from pity as day from night. I am not a Christian, but I honor the story of Jesus as I learned it growing up. It is a story of non-judgment. It is a story of pure empathy without reservation. It is an ideal we may not achieve, but which may inspire us to try harder, and I don't appreciate seeing it co-opted into churches that practice elitism. But you can't protect an idea from the people who pretend to embrace it.

Your work is helping, Tim, even if it is not apparent every day. Every act extends into the life of the person you assist out of empathy rather than pity, and there it builds strength and power.

Often, people who have nothing but pity to offer enjoy the imbalance of power. Giving itself can become a way of keeping someone weakened and dependent.

You've knocked this method on its ass, and adopted the model of people working with people. There isn't anything that can top that--and that is why some powerful people are afraid of it. Their identity as a "have" relies on someone else's going without.

Bill said...

You likely know, Tim, that this piece you've written points us to the core. What miners called the "mother lode." Two good posts already as well. There is a gap in both directions for those homeless and their allies (advocates seeking, for lack of better words, "an end to homelessness"). Just in the past week I have witnessed the gap shape a breach where histories wedge between allies (to wit, the encampment and sweeps conversation). Heels dig in as if one "side's" strategy is sacred and inviolable. Remember, these are folks who regarding the whole are on the same side. Very little give and a lotta take. Compromise is an ugly word here, even in the recesses of progressive planning. What thus comes to light to counter bad public policy is more like a mist (or "missed" {sic}) than a deluge. I keep defaulting personally to "time and space" for wisdom. These two are often stingy gods about revelation or maybe they are just hard to fathom on my own. Yet when I look at each night of my life, where I am each minute and where someone else is at that moment, me not homeless and someone else very homeless, it sorta levels a good deal of my confusion and the barriers that "having to be right about strategy" can erect. Many homeless persons ought never be allowed to speak for themselves to public leaders regarding necesary changes to the system,... sorry, view from here, AND at the very same time that doesn't mean we ought not listen to every homeless person. Answers revel in paradox. Hell, we are too often afraid to ask something of those who are homeless, which could be something like, "meet us halfway,... OK, a quarter of the way,... just meet us as far as you can get on your own so everyone knows you'll do what you can, cuz truthfully, this is your life." So when we don't ask this or admit it matters, the Right/Rossi/Bush crowd et al bemoan the failures of persons (homeless, poor, etc.) as being their unwillingness to exercise "personal responsibility," as if that can be measured on such a tilted playing field. I'd like to hear more on this topic, Tim, and more from those who by reading thoughts like these will respond and shed more light. Like I said, this is core. I am reminded of a story told by author Sam Keen, who said he left his first wife to follow a gypsy, and chaos followed. Sam's friend, the late (great) Howard Thurman gave this advice, "You need to figure out first where you are going, and second who you are going with. Don't ever reverse the order." Do we really know where we are going? Oughtn't (love that vulgar) we find out, eh?

Anonymous said...

Re last comment: "gap shape a breach where histories wedge"?


Tim Harris said...

Bill writes poetry. If you focus on the sound and rhythm it makes more sense.