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.
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.
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