Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Re-Invention of Homeless Advocacy


People often ask what drew me to homelessness. My first involvement was as a student in 1984. Mitch Snyder’s Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) was engaged in a life and death fight in Washington DC to adequately shelter that city’s homeless during a decade where the need for emergency shelter tripled and quadrupled in most American Cities. Thousands of people turned out from around the nation to protest at the Capitol. More than one-hundred were arrested. Ten of us drove there from Amherst to be hosted for three days in DC’s Central Cellblock. Shortly after, the city capitulated to Snyder’s demand for $5 million to make the CCNV shelter for that City’s homeless liveable.

It was the forty-ninth day of Snyder’s fast. The nation’s most famous and militant homeless advocate had lost fifty-seven pounds. When a reporter asked if he was afraid to die, Snyder said “No. It's painful, but I have a greater fear of allowing people to languish like animals, and sometimes I'm afraid I'm not doing enough."

I have been inspired by the moral clarity and extraordinary heroism of those, like Snyder, who have come before me. Those who — in building the civil rights, labor, and poor people’s movements — placed their lives on the line when the cause was just and the situation dire.

The second part of the answer has to do with respect. Over more than two decades of engagement in the survival struggles of the very poor, my regard for those who, each day, place one foot in front of the other to simply keep going in the face of troubles that would break many of us has steadily deepened.

Extreme poverty sucks. Nobody should have to endure the deprivation, loss of identity, and dehumanization that homelessness entails.

And yet, there is another side to this. While most homeless people would be happy as the next person to have a comfortable home with a flat-screen TV, the trivial desires of our consumer culture often become a distant concern. Life is reduced to bare essentials. Humor becomes a survival skill. People become strong or they break.

These are the folks I want to be around. Our brokenness, for me, is a reality to be embraced as part of what it means to be whole. In witnessing and, in my small way, participating in the everyday heroism of those who have nothing, I have grown more than I can measure.

This, for me, is an enormous privilege. My activism doesn’t flow from a sense of charity. It springs from a deep respect for the struggles of the poor and a sure knowledge that, in pursuing this work, I gain far more than I surrender.

Beyond inspiration and respect, my commitment flows from a deep, systemic, appreciation for what mass homelessness in the midst of extreme affluence means. The economic restructuring of globalization has brought thirty-five years of growing inequality. This widening of polar extremes will only deepen. If one wants to understand where this leads, they need only look to the horror show of the urban mega-slums of the southern hemisphere.

Mass homelessness grows out of an economic system that blithely accepts the abandonment of the most vulnerable. Anyone who’s paying attention knows that multiple systems are deeply and profoundly broken. Homelessness, however, is often defined as a matter of broken people; not as evidence of a broken system in which some of us are regarded as “less than.”

This, finally, leads to an intolerable acceptance of the logic of dehumanization, and this, I believe, is the core issue of our time. We have come to accept the existence of a large and growing class of throwaway people. The homeless, too often, are defined as an expensive, dirty, and inconvenient problem to be managed. One in ninety-nine Americans has disappeared behind bars to exist as the out-of-sight and out-of-mind casualties of an economic system that has embraced human expendability.

In the face of this, homeless advocacy is in dire need of re-invention.
  • To regard homelessness as a largely depoliticized social services issue — divorced in practice from the realities of growing poverty and inequality — is to fight an unending rear-guard action in an ever-expanding theater of war on the poor.
  • To engage in forms of advocacy that privilege inside politics and value narrowly technocratic forms of expertise over movement building is to miss the point: this is about power. If we’re not building power, we’re not even in the game.
  • To treat opposing the dehumanization and criminalization of the very poor as a leftist distraction from the more important work of “ending homelessness” is to collaborate in the inhuman oppression of the least among us.
  • To narrowly pursue the empowerment of a handful of homeless people at the expense of building for power across class is to misunderstand our mutual interest in broad system change. Our movement needs to amplify the realities of the street through the respectful power and clout of our allies.
  • To organize around “issues” without taking the time and effort to build relationships that value our mutual humanity, life experience, and self-interest is to embrace an empty, bloodless politics that surrenders movement building to short-term expedience.
The Real Change Organizing Project is reinventing homeless advocacy and changing the rules of the game. Our cross-class, relationship-based organizing model reaches beyond the “usual suspects” to engage, involve, and inspire. We have rejected co-opted, bureaucratic, insider strategies for “ending homelessness” to engage in the impassioned business of building for power.

Watch our seven-minute video of our recent Camp4Unity at City Hall. Understand what’s at stake in the fight against homelessness. Get involved and support Real Change’s work however you are able.

Organizing takes resources. Since May Day, we have raised nearly $63,260 toward our critical summer fund drive goal of $85,000. Our capacity to sustain the work we have started depends upon your support to reach our goal. Make a secure on-line gift at our website, or send your tax-deductible gift to Real Change at 2129 2nd Ave., Seattle, WA 98121. We’re counting on your support to reach our goal by June 30th. Thank you.

9 comments:

Sally said...

"If one wants to understand where this leads, they need only look to the horror show of the urban mega-slums of the southern hemisphere."

This is really important -- thanks for saying it, Tim. Read anything about urban Brazil, for instance, and you'll be horrified to see what's coming to a city near us, soon.

John Sulmonte said...

Tim you are to right on all time and to read the history of your involvement has inspired me to continue to voice my concerns to the Seattle Housing Authority. AS I was told by two employees that should continue my letter writing to the upper management as most lower level employees agree with me. I did not know this until just recently. I plan on scheduling time to volunteer for Real Change. I will contact those in charge of Vetting volunteers. My background is in management for private Corps. in the Customer Service and Contract area. Your post today and your post with Springsteen did bring up a lot of emotion, due to the subject matter of the song. Thank you so much for your courage and steadfast response to this horrible situation that is going to grow by numbers that will shock people as us baby boomers find no services or a place to live in the very near future. Your work to stem that tide will work and I know I will join with all involved to continue to bring this to the attention of those who have deaf ears to my correspondence as I write as emotional as you. Being a Former New Yorker, having lived in Seattle for over 23 years my heart cries for those from the past who did show compassion when push.

Bill, a bit fed up tonight said...

I am reminded as I read this blog entry of Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian Bishop prior to his death. His "spiral of violence" has always stayed with me. It begins with Injustice, a baic violence that produces covert violence by oppressors, and is often called "institutional violence." When injustice builds and bursts opens, there follows Revolt, where more overt physical violence occurs and people/police/soldiers are injured/killed. To stop Revolt, there follows Repression, such that powers that be call out forces of order to put down the revolt. The cycle repeats and escalates. The only way out said the Bishop is to break the cycle at Injustice and address root causes. Like any theory, even when witnessed up close and put somewhat into practice to confirm the validity, there are new demons that we face. The Bishop might also suggest were he here that unpacking the Injustices, naming them (as Walter Wink does in "Naming the Powers"), and bringing them to light, may be the only way to exit Injustice in a society like ours where we do not have armed troops en masse in the streets. The Injustice here is subtle to too many class levels; that is, until gas prices, taxes, food costs, go up. Our spiral of violence is near wholly economic. Wealth remains individualized, and above all, it is good at all costs; and oh, by the way, I don't want to view the cost as I spend my wealth. In theory our revolt must of necessity be to stop participating. Yet we have seen that our very means of existence have been labrynthed into the sustaining of the wealth the few have. It is a clever trap from which we will create many schemes to escape and even war with each other over which scheme effects the most hope. Turning the tables will mean, such as in "ending homelessness," to perhaps stop participating in the myth that a roof over every bed brings fulfillment, a complete life, joy, and so on. that is the cross class myth that so called Plan-mongers want embraced. A roof brings safe survival, something so basic it ought be an offense, as it is in so much of Europe, to not provide that basic minimum. Thus, we may need to constitute a congress that will pass laws -- a tribunal as it were -- to assess if the basic law of human dignity is being violated, to thus charge the violaters, and to segregate them from society until such time that there is truth and reconciliation. What would that look like with, say, Mayor Nickels? It might mean declaring all his authority null and void -- impeaching him as mayor, even if only in a mock vote, on a mock election day. Maybe sentencing him in court, sadly only as mock as we can make it, to bring to light the truth that nearly everything in Seattle exceeds in importance this mayor providing a safe place for every person to sleep each night. I think Tim wrote a good blog, and that said, it might as well be gibberish (no offense intended). The violence will continue every night. Someone asked the Displacement Coalition if there are enough empty buildings to occupy, a la the SDC's early days. Takeovers. Maybe that is better than a tent in the street. A night of takeovers. 50? 100? What will make the point?

Sally said...

Amen.

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