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Posts Tagged ‘Civil Rights’

Advocate Spotlight: Loh Defends the Unhoused in Cleveland with Support of Homeless Congress

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

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.

Sign on in support of people who are unhoused in Austin, TX

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

On May 1, 2021 a political action committee convinced voters to pass an ordinance forcing the City of Austin to ticket people who violate the ‘no camping ordinance’ within the city limits.  This was contrary to guidelines by the Center for Disease Control which recommended that communities leave people alone to shelter in place until the pandemic is passed, or take advantage of the FEMA and other recovery programs to pay for hotel rooms for the population.  NCH has documented 40 of the 100 largest cities has also undertaken sweeps over the last year contrary to CDC guidelines. The City began warning people to leave their tents in June and then began ticketing people in July.

Proposition B was passed in a special election with only 20% of the voters actually bothering to show up. The dubiously named “Save Austin Now” PAC spent $1.9 million to convince Austin voters to be afraid of people who are unhoused. The legislation also demanded a crackdown on panhandling, despite sweeping judicial protection of the right panhandle. So, a deeply flawed law which violates the constitution and basic humanity for those struggling during a pandemic passed by voters and implemented by local law enforcement began to make criminals out of those who lost their housing in one of the most expensive places to live in the South. 

A number of Austin-based groups led by people who have experienced homelessness reached out and asked for help from the National Coalition for the Homeless. We worked with local groups to draft this national sign-on letter, asking for the Austin city officials to act in favor of humanity and refuse to further criminalize people for having nowhere to go. We are not taking additional endorsements at this time.  If you have questions, please e-mail them to bdavis@nationalhomeless.org

There is news that the Orwellian-sounding Save Austin Now, along with four local businesses, were filing suit against the City of Austin for not enforcing Proposition B against enough unhoused people. The City has denied the charges stating that 18 tickets were issued over the last month. The City of Austin has attempted to place more of the unhoused into hotels, but has not used much of their HUD emergency assistance to give housing relief to those struggling because of the pandemic. In an attempt to pile on, the state also passed HB 1925 which prevents local government from not enforcing anti-camping ordinances.

The millions that have been spent in this effort to criminalize people for being poor by the Texas government and governor, as well as “Save Austin Now” political action committee could have been much better used in ensuring safe, accessible housing for Austin residents!!

Please click here to view the sign on letter supported by 17 local and national groups.

Member spotlight: Anita Beaty

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

After the Peachtree-Pine Shelter was forced by the city of Atlanta to close its doors in 2017, Anita Beaty has remained dedicated to activist efforts in the homeless community, continuing her decades-long career advocating and providing for those in need. Beaty, who oversaw the Peachtree-Pine Shelter for twenty years, has worked in the homeless community for much longer, her history of activism stretching as far back as the eighties. Whether it was activism or overseeing the shelter, Beaty consistently abided by a philosophy that no one should be left behind or left out. She has always placed high value on “letting the people who needed the service run the service,” and described how this philosophy of care for others informed her activism through the years. 

In one story, Beaty described a march she organized every year for twenty-nine years to celebrate homeless memorial day on November 1st. Various shelters, congregational groups, or other facilities would carry banners representing their group, made in the Peachtree-Pine art studio, along with a procession of crosses with the names of homeless people who had died that year. Each year, she recalled, there would be around 60 to 80 crosses. The procession finished at the Cathedral, where there would be a ceremony addressing the issue of homelessness, with a Litany created by the Task Force, and remembrances of the dead, name by name. 

Beaty and her organization, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, would hire buses to pick people up at every shelter that would participate, and the cathedral served them a hot meal. Looking back, Beaty recalled the event with fondness for the community it fostered. 

Beaty also reflected that a key component of her personal philosophy was an element of playfulness. “I need to enjoy what I do,” she said. In one story she recounted, Beaty and the Task Force were protesting the improvement project the city of Atlanta was undertaking at Woodruff Park prior to their hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics. The park had been a gathering place for members of the homeless community, so when the mayor of Atlanta showed up in a hard hat for a photo-op groundbreaking on the construction, several of the protestors laid in the hole the mayor was to stand in, completely preventing their chance at a photo-op. Beaty chuckled as she recalled how the mayor’s face turned purple with rage, and when he retreated to his car the protestors followed, and it looked as if he was the one leading the march. Beaty also recalled a city council meeting they attended, when she handed out signs to everyone with them that said “true,” “false,” and “bald-faced lie.” When one of the council members said something about homelessness, the crowd held up their “bald-faced lie” signs, and Beaty recalled it was “hysterical” as the council member tried to talk down the signs. 

The visual arts have always been a major part of Beaty’s activism. During her time as its leader, Beaty opened an art studio at Peachtree-Pine, where shelter residents could come to draw, paint, and be creative. Beaty sometimes brought in artists from around the country, especially artists who had been homeless or experienced similar struggles. They “had a ball with us,” she remembered. “It was so exciting to intentionally bring in like-minded people who can show folks who’ve been excluded from all that that they, too, can dream.” Beaty emphasized that giving shelter residents access to resources that they would not otherwise have access to was a way of lifting them up: “There are artists who don’t even know it, don’t have the leisure to explore that, or could become artists and become part of that culture.” Beaty’s art studio is living proof that art has the power to bring out the best in people who are experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, or other problems. Not only that, Beaty noted that putting shelter residents’ work on display helped to bust public stereotypes about them. 

 “Let’s break the mythology,” she said. “Let’s take care of the fear by being together in fun places: food, art, coffee.” 

Beaty is sure to acknowledge that activist efforts do not always turn out the way we hope they will. When she took part in the Housing Now March on Washington in 1989, she recalls the immense expectations they had: “It was an action that we thought was gonna change the world, change this country at least, and sensitize the policymakers to the absolute necessity of changing laws,” she remembered. Obviously, the march did not have the effect Beaty and its organizers hoped it would.  The funding of a growing homelessness services “industry” was a direct result, but the right to housing, permanent affordable accessible housing, was then and is still the emergency need.

But Beaty also believes the march did make a difference, even if it wasn’t on the wide scale she had hoped it would. “Success is relative,” she said, recalling many times when she thought an effort she was part of was more successful than it was. But activism can still be successful, even if it’s in the smallest of ways. One outcome that Beaty pointed out from the Housing Now March was HUD policy, which, she says, she is still looking at to determine how it has evolved over the decades since the march. 

Beaty’s long career in activism shows us that success, whether small or large, can be found through determination to make a difference and a passion for celebrating inclusion. It is the stories of activists like Beaty that have the most to teach us about how to make change happen, and Beaty’s stories remind us that change happens in and with communities, leaving no one behind, including the excluded in operating, managing, and developing of all services designated for those very people, and working together to foster a just and creative world.

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