By Zachary Bernstein, Summer 2021 NCH Civil Rights Intern
During our conversation, Loh asked me to imagine my family and I were victims of one of the wildfires currently ravaging the western part of the country. Imagine your documents—passports, birth certificates, etc.—were destroyed in the fire, Loh said, and you do not qualify for assistance based on your economic status. It takes a while to get those documents back, Loh pointed out, and meanwhile you have nothing, and no help—nothing more than people staying in shelters, or tents in the woods, or directly on the street. “This is how people fall into deep poverty,” Loh told me.
Cleveland is one of the most historic cities in the United States, Loh said, and yet they allow nearly half the children in the city (46.1% in 2019) to live below the poverty line. That means one of every two children does not have enough to eat and goes to bed hungry nearly every night in Cleveland. This is clearly not the fault of each individual person, Loh emphasized again and again, but a failure of the system to keep people from slipping into poverty.
Loh, a community activist in Cleveland, Ohio, works with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the Homeless Congress, and with the Poor People’s Campaign to amplify the voices of those struggling with housing. Loh has experienced homelessness for the past ten years. We spoke for just ninety minutes, but over the course of that time, Loh painted me a portrait of a system of shelters, service providers, and government bureaucracy that has failed its most vulnerable citizens at every level. Having dealt with activism and struggling as a person experiencing homelessness and as an activist, Loh understands the ins and outs of this system in great detail—Loh understands why it has allowed its citizens to live on the street, why it has allowed its shelters to fall into disrepair, and why it has repeatedly stonewalled efforts to help these people. But most importantly of all, Loh understands how to thwart that system.
To Loh, the most important principle of organizing for the homeless is that you cannot solely organize people experiencing homelessness. The reason people are homeless, Loh points out, is because they do not have resources, they are already overwhelmed with their own economic and personal issues. In addition, Loh observes, homeless people often do not want to go out of their way to let people know they are homeless. Loh believes that organizing for homeless advocacy must involve targeting those who are housed as well as those with resources and political will. A key is to target the powerful and those who have decision-making authority to enable the movement to thrive and achieve its goals.
In one story Loh told, a class at the Cleveland Institute of Art wanted to start an artistic outreach project for the homeless community, but had several eye-opening experiences attempting to gain access to people staying in shelters, realizing the extent of the systemic failure experienced by the homeless. Working with Loh and other members of the Homeless Congress, one student in the class changed his project to stage mock groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies that included testimonials from homeless people about their experiences in shelters. The project got publicity in newspapers, and Loh recalls how people were amazed at the stories that shelter residents had to tell. This is merely one example, but it demonstrates the power of pairing the knowledge of people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness (such as Loh) with the power, time, and resources of those who are not. “You have to be able to organize people outside the system,” Loh emphasizes. Loh is a fixture at the County Council meetings railing against the lack of oversight of the shelters and services by the funders. By respecting the resources and points of view each other brings to the table, we can build activist movements which have power and influence and are also built around those with lived experience and knowledge of the system.
In speaking about the importance of a systemic understanding, Loh emphasized that it is not enough to merely understand that the police do bad things to the homeless community, or that the justice system is broken, it is necessary to grasp the wider scope of the problem, to understand how systems interlock with one another to produce the problem. This is especially important, Loh says, because homeless people do not have the time or energy to think about why the system does not work. Several of Loh’s stories from the field have demonstrated how the system has failed the homeless community. The story of the art class attempting to reach out to the homeless community is especially demonstrative—at every step, Loh related, the government and service providers would delay or divert their attempts to reach out. When they wanted to create a sculpture for a shelter, they were told that the sculpture had to be metal because, a director told them, the people in the shelter were crazy, angry, stupid, and violent, and would destroy the sculpture in a short time. The reduction and mischaracterization of an entire community based on a dangerous stereotype is just one example of the pervasive and ingrained misunderstanding of the issue of homelessness.
Loh has extensively documented the mistreatment and horrible conditions at shelters with some amount of creatively particularly in the use of photography and poetry. The shelter Loh stays at, which Loh refers to as “The HELL”. In a series of photos and captions, Loh shows insects on the floor of the only area the homeless people are allowed to eat, mold growing on the showers, and broken toilet stall doors. In a poem, Loh describes the inadequate facilities at the shelter which were originally built as two business buildings, and now involves lots of stairs, heavy doors to navigate. Loh characterizes her experiences as painful due to the injuries sustained from the unsafe environment of the shelter. Loh views these problems as a direct result of systemic failure, a system which causes Loh and thousands of others physical pain because of their lack of care. Loh described to me the network of service providers and government agencies in a dizzying flurry of acronyms. These agencies, which purport themselves to be non-profits, have no real intention of helping homeless people, Loh told me, they simply play politics to make more money. “Society produces homeless people,” Loh often says, because there is simply a lack of care and effort put into solving the problem, and these seemingly impenetrable systems of bureaucracy and capital foreclose any attempt at undermining it.
But that does not mean that there are no ways of doing so—in fact, Loh has successfully staged resistance from the inside. On one occasion, Loh was offered housing in response to complaints about the quality of the shelter. When they offered it, Loh asked if they could give 200 units because there are other people with problems like Loh’s—but they refused. Loh observed how demonstrative this experience was of the systemic failure: “You claim you are an organization to help homeless people and especially those with mental health struggles, but you have no real intention to help them.” But Loh also shows us how the system can be undermined—Loh’s request of 200 housing units is a perfect example of a way in which we can take a stand in spite of the failure of the system. Loh’s tireless dedication to solving the problem of homelessness for all and keen focus on understanding the very roots of that problem can inspire us to think in new ways about homelessness and the systems that perpetuate it. After all, if we can understand what causes the problem, we are one step closer to finding its solution.