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The importance of Grassroots Organizing to End Homelessness

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

I have interviewed so many unhoused people who have found the violence, victimization and exploitation of homelessness to be overwhelming.

Check out the Voices of Homelessness Podcast for an in depth look at the reality of homelessness.

Many people experiencing homelessness reject the shelters based on reputation or bad personal experiences within the system. From theft to staff mistreatment, the shelter system in the United States has gone from emergency housing by people of good will to permanent institutional incarceration.  I hear all the time, those without housing begging for someone who will understand and will listen in order to help them steer through this most difficult time in their lives.  The amount of danger living on the streets is far greater, but there is a degree of freedom outside. US citizens love their freedom. The tremendous loss associated with homelessness in the destruction of family relationships and the giving up all your valuables is often too much to bare for some. These individuals accept their fate as a forever condition and stop trying to find housing or stability.  

This is a mock groundbreaking that a group of artists staged in Cleveland for the development of a new women’s shelter designed, built and run by those experiencing homelessness.  It never materialized but it was a good idea.

Unfortunately, the social service system is not built to be supportive of the unique needs of most of the population. It is built to be cost effective, sterile, with a rigid code of conduct.  It is run like a military barracks with curfews, lights out, no pets or anything comfortable, a schedule for eating, rules and mandates that many compare to a jail that kicks out everyone in the morning who then voluntarily return at night.  It is not the shelter provider’s fault.  They are dealt a hand that would be impossible to manage in the best of times with full employment, universal health care and cheap housing.  The shelters are stuffed every day full of people with multiple barriers to housing.  They are regularly over-capacity and the only way to keep order is with strict lock down type procedures.  This is the system we have built in the United States.  We have created a mental health/ drug treatment system disguised as a homeless system.  

We need a safe space for those experiencing homelessness to come to relax, listen and talk about the issues they are facing. We need alumni to come back and be willing to provide some advice to their peers.  We need the people who oversee local homeless funding to come to the space as guests and hear from those struggling with housing about the messy system they have created. Those without housing need to push community leaders to make changes in a timely manner and then come back to show that these changes are in the works.  The unhoused need help with the mundane like cutting through the bureaucracy of getting ID to the major undertakings of getting a crime from 12 years ago expunged from their record. They need government to get their boots off their necks and not be so tied to the sacred property rights of abandoned housing/warehouses/land.  They need landlords, employers, health care professionals to forgive and see every person entering the office for their humanity and not their past mistakes or solely their economic status in society.  If we provided safe spaces, leaders would emerge to push good ideas to provide affordable housing to the masses.  A million good ideas would bloom.  Some would work and some would fail, but in the end fewer people would give up and sleep on the nation’s sidewalk. 

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