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community building | homelessness

Taking Back Power

Institutional prejudice against homeless needs to be addressed by empowering homeless to stand up against the system.
Most homeless people are not polished. We do care, struggle, incite, and even inspire but God bless us we are not always polite. There is something about living with urgent needs that inspires passion. And we have it.

People used to be surprised when I told them I was homeless, because I didn't fit the stereotype of the lonely figure wrapped in darkness and blankets under a concrete bridge. Many homeless people are a little rough around the edges. After all we are the folks who were less able to compete in the struggle for housing and jobs. My dad used to call it a dog-eat-dog world; somebody has to lose, and you do whatever you have to too make sure it's the other guy. He called himself a Christian, but he lived by evolution's "survival of the fittest" model. Seems like a lot of powerful people do that nowadays.

These days, just like days gone by, power and money are intertwined. If you have one or the other you have the opportunity for access to both. That leaves a lot of us on the outside, and some of us literally living outside. Aren't we living in a free and democratic society were everyone has an equal vote and equal opportunity?

The short answer is no. (Paragraph left intentionally short.)

Corporations and business interests have far more influence and access to politicians and policy makers than the average joe. (Note. "joe" left smaller case to indicate less significance.) One example is Portland City Hall and the Portland Business Alliance (PBA). Tom Potter was elected Mayor by saying he would represent the disenfranchised communities. But lately he has been pushing the agenda of the Portland Business Alliance (i.e. SAFE project, City Charter changes).

People outside disempowered communities often try to advocate for those communities. They don't have the connection through experience, so they can't authentically express the day-to-day trials of the community. Willie Baptist, a homeless advocate and keynote speaker at Sisters of the Road Martin Luther King Day event, said, "Advocates for the homeless community must come from the homeless community to credibly communicate the convictions of the homeless community."

The need to advocate from personal experience seems obvious. But usually it is a representative from a social service non-profit who is at the table negotiating on behalf of the homeless. All too often the "solutions to homelessness" are to fund the salaries of college-educated social workers from middleclass backgrounds with no experience of homelessness. Why aren't they funding jobs for homeless people? Why aren't more homeless people sitting at the negotiating table?

Well, I think it boils down to prejudice and stereotyping against homeless and poor people. Some of it is personal, but the majority of prejudice against the homeless is institutionalized. Prejudice is written into laws discriminating against the homeless. It is written into hiring policy by businesses. It is written into funding guidelines by government agencies that pretend to work toward ending homelessness. It is implicit in credit checks for both housing and jobs. Social service non-profits cannot get funding unless they abide with this prejudice. Together these rules form the "Institution of Homelessness".

The rules are oppressive. No one understands that better than someone who has been squashed by those rules. But even in progressive non-profits whose mission statement espouses empowerment and equality there exists a subtle exclusion. In her autobiography Under My Skin Doris Lessing wrote:
People who have been real movers and exciters get left out of histories, and it is because memory itself decides to reject them. These instigators are flamboyant, unscrupulous, hysterical, or even mad, certainly abrasive; but the real point is they are of a different substance from the smooth, reasonable and sane people who have been inspired by them, and who do not like to remember temporary immersions in lunacy.


Daily struggles to survive tend to sharpen the tongue and attitude. I can think of a few homeless rabble rousers that have been rejected from people's memories and erased from organizational histories. I'm pretty sure I've lost opportunities because of passionate expression of my perspective. Genny Nelson, co-founder of Sisters of the Road, knows this and has pushed for an advocacy group, within Sisters of the Road organization, were the homeless people make the decisions. It is called the Civic Action Group.

The Civic Action Group is comprised entirely of folks with experience of homelessness. We look to the homeless community for direction and individuals within our homeless community to become leaders, gradually developing experience and skill sets to advocate on behalf of our homeless community.

The Civic Action Group is working to put homeless people at the table when policy decisions are being discussed. We are also working to ensure we are correctly reflecting the concerns, experience and values of the homeless community. We are authenticating what we say by doing research into 515 taped interviews with homeless people called the "Community Organizing Project" as well as outreach to our community by walking the streets getting people's views, educating them about the Civic Action Group and encouraging them to attend meetings, trainings and focus groups.

We intend to increase the integration of our community into the greater community that is Portland. By bringing the experience and concerns of the homeless community to a variety of community policy meetings the Civic Action Group hopes to chip away at the prejudice keeping many homeless people feeling isolated and powerless to change. The benefits will be experienced beyond the lonely figure wrapped in darkness and blankets under a concrete bridge.

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