Saturday, February 16, 2008
Valentines Day, Boston, 1987
I recently came across this transcript of a Union of the Homeless speak-out in front of Boston City Hall on February 14, 1987. During my visit to Boston last November, Jim Stewart at First Church Shelter in Cambridge let me go through his files to see what history I could find. There wasn't much, but this made it worthwhile. The last time I'd laid hands on these speeches was more than fifteen years prior, and it was a bit of a thrill to find another copy.
As homelessness tripled and quadrupled in American cities over the 80s, the Union of the Homeless formed as the militant voice of the new dispossessed. They aggressively asserted the principle that homeless people needed to be in charge of their own movement and were briefly a presence in Boston. By the time I was working as a homeless organizer, the Union wasn't much more than their president Savina Martin, pictured above, and a handful of others. A few years later, the Union had pretty much flamed out entirely.
The transcript of homeless people haranguing a panel of their supporters was produced by Jill Nelson, the millionaire lawyer with Communist Labor Party connections who was founder and President of National Jobs with Peace. I've discussed the CLP's role in the Union elsewhere. Dan Satinsky, who pipes up toward the middle to give the background on the Union and praise their militancy, is a friend of Jill's and, I think, a lawyer as well. Mel King, who aptly quotes Frederick Douglas and is the only panelist identified, is a legendary Boston community organizer who even by then was a revered griot cum elder statesman of the Boston left. The photo here is of me introducing King to another activist I no longer remember at a 1989 Jobs with Peace event.
The Union of the Homeless had demanded that the City deed a house to them for use as an organizing center. The Flynn administration was smart enough to not say no, but they never really said yes either. This 1986 article from the New York Times gives the back story. Much of the testimony of the more than twenty homeless who spoke focused on their demands for the house and their frustration with the City's dilatory tactics.
Needless to say, they never got the house.
Homefront 88, the roving self-managed encampment that formed a year later. would make a house their central demand as well, and were managed just as deftly.
As I read the transcript, the pain of those who have lost so much, if they ever had anything in the first place, comes across loud and clear, but the downside of the identity politics that the Union of the Homeless adopted comes across just as strongly. The blustery rhetoric had little to back it up in terms of organized power, and the city knew it. The Union treated its allies like the enemy even as they sought their support. Homeless pride flips over to become a defensive shield, and some speeches inspire less than complete sympathy.
Yet, their militancy, if things had gone differently, could have lit a fire underneath the whole top down and often co-opted homeless advocacy movement. If their closest allies hadn't chosen to park their common sense at the door of "homeless empowerment," and had offered real resources and authentic partnership, things would look very different now.
Now, the boarded up homes they speak of have mostly been renovated or purchased as tear-downs, but the condos kept coming for the next twenty years. Again, you can download the thirteen-page transcript here.