July 15, 2009
This article appeared in the August 3, 2009 edition of The Nation.
For millions of Americans, the housing crisis began well before last year’s front-page collapse. Bigotry and criminalization by an unjust system of policing and incarceration, combined with economic privation, have kept even the meager privilege of a subprime mortgage or slumlord lease out of reach for many. As the crisis unfolds, the number of homeless will grow.
Picture the Homeless, a social justice organization founded and led by homeless people in New York City, has joined The Nation to come up with a list of things you need to know to live on the street–and ways we can all build movements to challenge the stigma of homelessness and put forward an alternative vision of community.
1 Be prepared to be blamed for your circumstances, no matter how much they may be beyond your control. Think of ways to disabuse the public of common misconceptions. Don’t internalize cruelty or condescension. Let go of your pride–but hold on to your dignity.
2 There is no private space to which you may retreat. You are on display 24/7. Learn to travel light. Store valuables in a safe place, only carrying around what you really need: ID and documents for accessing services, a pen, etc. You can check e-mail and read at the library. You can get a post office box for a fee or use general delivery (free).
3 Learn the best bathroom options, where you won’t be rushed, turned away or harassed. Find restrooms where it’s clean enough to put your stuff down, the stalls are big enough to change in and there’s hot water so you can wash up. If you’re in New York City go to Restrooms in New York.
4 It’s difficult to have much control over when, where and what you eat, so learn soup kitchen schedules and menus. Carry with you nuts, peanut butter or other foods high in protein. Click here to find a list of soup kitchens by state.
5 Food and clothing are easier to find than a safe place to sleep–the first truth of homelessness is sleep deprivation. Always have a blanket. Whenever possible, sleep in groups with staggered schedules, so you can look out for one another, prioritizing children’s needs over those of adults.
6 Know your rights! Knowing constitutional amendments, legal precedents and human rights provisions can help you, even if they’re routinely violated. In New York, for example, a 2003 court-ordered settlement strictly forbids selective enforcement of the law against the homeless. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement offers another resource, and the ACLU has cards, brochures, fact sheets and films.
7 Learn police patterns and practices. Be polite and calm to cops, even when they don’t give the same respect. Support initiatives demanding independent police accountability. Link with groups from overlapping populations of nonhomeless and homeless people (i.e., black, Latino, LGBT groups) that are fighting police brutality and building nonpolice safety projects, like the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System in Brooklyn. Organize your own CopWatch–and photograph, videotape and publicize instances of police abuse. Consider and support models like the Los Angeles Community Action Network or the People’s Self Defense Campaign of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Brooklyn.
8 The First Amendment protects your right to solicit aid (panhandling), especially if your pitch or sign is a statement rather than a request. To succeed, be creative, funny, engaging (“I didn’t get a bailout!”). Find good, high-traffic spots where the police won’t bother you.
9 Housing is a human right! Squat. Forge coalitions with nonhomeless but potentially displaced people in this era of mass foreclosures. Support United Workersin Baltimore, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, the Nashville Homeless Power Project. Learn about campaigns against homelessness in other nations, including the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil and the Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa.
10 Don’t go it alone! Always be part of an informal network of trust and mutual aid. Start your own organization, with homeless people themselves shaping the fight for a better life and world. Check out the Picture the Homeless Blog for news, updates and reports on homelessness in NY.
CONCEIVED by WALTER MOSLEY with research by Rae Gomes
“Ten Things” is a monthly feature. Readers who wish to propose ideas for it should e-mail NationTenThings@gmail.com.