When the Homeless Took Over

As the homeless and affordable housing crises become a focus on local and national campaigns, we must remember the rich history and critical contributions of homeless organizers.

Homeless organizers protest outside councilwoman's office with signs that read "Organizing for Justice and Respect" and "We Need Housing, not Warehousing."
Members of Picture the Homeless protest outside council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office after she blocked an anti-warehousing bill in 2010. Photo courtesy of Picture the Homeless

The affordable housing crisis is finally gaining significant political traction in America. Years of catastrophic increases in rents and real estate values have made housing a prominent issue at the grassroots and beyond, especially in electoral campaigns throughout metropolitan areas. Given its absence from electoral politics for years, it’s remarkable that campaigns and the public alike are now asking whether housing will “Swing the 2020 Election.” 

Among the most severe consequence of this crisis has been the dramatic number of people experiencing homelessness. In 2017, over 1 million people either currently or had very recently been homeless; in 2018, numbers rose even higher. But too often, conversations around—and even proposed solutions for—the housing crisis do little to include the homeless. Those who experience homelessness are commonly thought of as too burdened at best or, at worst, too pathological to propose solutions of their own.

But this is a strange and recent bias. In the 1980s, the first decade of modern homelessness, the homeless played a crucial role in the struggle for affordable housing. While little acknowledged at the time and long forgotten since, this movement of poor people of color offers rich lessons for today’s struggles around housing. Simply put: it will not be possible to resolve the current housing crisis from the top-down; instead, doing so will require bottom-up challenge. If the homeless themselves do not have a leading role in the fights for affordable housing and livable cities, the battle will not be won.

In the late 1970s, the homeless population in the United States began to skyrocket, owing to federal and municipal cutbacks to housing and social services, the slowdown of the national economy, and accelerating real estate markets.

The first groups that organized to combat the crisis were overwhelmingly led by housed persons, not the homeless themselves. There were reasons why advocacy groups took this approach. Homelessness was rapid in its growth and punishing in its effects. As thousands of individuals and families lost their housing, most had to focus on day-to-day survival. Activists with greater time and resources therefore played an important role in advocating on behalf of people grappling with emergency circumstances.

But this left the homeless in a secondary role, which many found both disempowering and politically ineffective. Many people “talk of giving us power or enabling us to have power which they don’t really intend to allow us to have or to give up themselves,” as Annie Q., a woman experiencing homelessness in the 1980s in New York City, said to reporters. In response, those experiencing homelessness began to launch a range of initiatives that put the homeless at the center of struggle.

The most important was the National Union of the Homeless (NUH). Growing out of the Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless, which formed in 1983 by three Philadelphia homeless men, it soon added chapters in cities from Boston to Los Angeles, guided by the principle that, “we, the poor and homeless, can and must lead our own struggle to end poverty!” The group employed a range of strategies from education—including a six-week organizing and leadership training session for homeless activists—to direct actions like its 1988 “Take Off the Boards” campaign, in which members took over vacant housing in dozens of cities.

Groups like the NUH did more than demonstrate the political capacities of the poor when the homeless (especially those of color) were routinely pathologized. They also illustrated how the priorities of the poor were often distinct from the agenda of professional advocates and service providers. At a time in which many advocates and sympathetic politicians focused on temporary shelter, the NUH demanded jobs and housing“no housing, no peace!” was a principal slogan—as the solution.

The NUH saw housing as the linchpin to solving homelessness. This sounds obvious. But demanding housing simply on the grounds that someone did not have it ran against the common sense of the 1980s. Providing housing for the homeless, as New York City Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Anthony Gliedman proclaimed to reporters at the time, will make “people see [homelessness] as an attraction,” and “enter the system voluntarily.”

More radical, the NUH argued that a person who lacked housing should receive it without first needing to prove their deservingness, such as by first securing a job or seeking treatment. “The theory of the Union of the Homeless was and is that a person has to have a place to start,” NUH’s Ron Casanova explained in Each One Teach One. “Our strategy was to get them moved in first, then from that base of privacy, plentiful food and clothing, work on everything else that’s necessary.” This notion—pioneered by people experiencing homelessness—is remarkably similar to the “Housing First” model that only in recent years has begun to gain significant traction among broader portions of the homeless advocacy community.

The second part of the slogan—“no peace!”—signaled the more militant tactics the group

was willing to employ to achieve their demands. While many advocacy groups were weary of organizing protests or antagonizing officials, NUH campaigns often used direct actions to bring attention to the catastrophic rise of homelessness. “No one is going to fight for low-income housing the way we’re going to have to fight for it,” NUH’s Chris Sprowal put it in City Limits magazine in 1986.

In its “Winter Offensive” campaign that year, for example, various chapters coordinated direct actions using the slogan “Homes and Jobs: Not Death in the Streets.” In Boston, members took over a city-owned building to serve as a base of organizing. “We’re not developers or advocates. We’re the homeless themselves asking the city please to listen or we’ll take back what’s ours,” participant Savina Martin explained to the New York Times. “We won’t tolerate another winter of people freezing in the street or going to shelters that are shells without a heart.”

Likewise, in 1990, when federal officials failed to follow through on a promise to devote 10 percent of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-owned housing to the homeless, NUH coordinated takeovers of HUD properties. In eight cities, NUH members cut the locks off vacant HUD houses and moved in people who did not have homes. The campaign led to officials in Oakland and Minnesota committing several million dollars to local housing programs.

By the early 1990s, the NUH had chapters in over 20 cities undertaking a range of campaigns that supplemented the demand for housing and jobs. In Tucson, for example, activists sued the police department over harassment, leading the police to eliminate its homeless “beat,” while in Detroit, members ensured that homeless children were provided transportation to area schools.

These campaigns demonstrated how organizing by the homeless was not just confrontational but also diagnostic: it could serve to guide the larger professional advocacy community toward the issues those experiencing homelessness believed most important.

While the NUH was the most prominent initiative of the period, those experiencing homelessness formed an array of other groups. A look at New York City illustrates their breadth and impacts.

The mantra of United Homeless Organization (UHO), for example, which formed in 1985– “homeless people helping homeless people”–reflected organizers’ belief that “the very act of participating in such an organization gives members of the homeless community something no other source can deliver.” The UHO held weekly meetings, shared information on topics such as how to receive medical care and secure welfare benefits, and distributed clothing and food. This kind of organizing by the homeless could empower participants in a way rare within organizations led by housed advocates. It also contrasted starkly with the experience of losing one’s housing, which was disorienting, disempowering, and often traumatic. Similarly, many found that navigating municipal services further stripped them of their dignity. In public shelters, “they treat you like you’re not a human being. They treat you like you’re a dog,” a man living in Pennsylvania Station described to advocates.

People experiencing homelessness therefore initiated projects that were not simply about improving their material resources, but also designed at least in part to regain power and dignity. Voices To and From the Streets, a newsletter published by and for homeless people in the 1980s, provided readers with information about legal rights, municipal services, and emotional resources. The newsletter was also a clearinghouse of information that could prove critical to everyday survival, such as where to find clean bathrooms and well-run soup kitchens.

The newsletter also empowered homeless people to shape popular narratives about homelessness. It listed details about recent pieces by journalists and academics who had published pictures or names of homeless individuals without permission. The editors made articles available so people could “know what they are saying” and created avenues for people experiencing homelessness “to respond (offer rebuttal, set them straight, put in your two cents) to” the authors and “to the public who reads them.”

Voices also championed the need for collective political struggle. It cataloged legislative proposals and protests and issued instructions for writing representatives and voting without an address. Doing so was necessary, the newsletter explained, because “the movement for justice for the homeless must come from the homeless.”

In addition to leading their own organizations that foregrounded demands for housing and jobs, homeless people played another key role in the struggle. They worked to hold the organizations led by advocates—who tended to be housed, middle class, and white—accountable to those who were actively experiencing homelessness. Voices, for example, publicized meetings of advocacy organizations like the Coalition for the Homeless, but commonly did so with an accompanying reminder that “these are advocates for the homeless—but we are the experts on homeless: go, be there, share, speak up, listen.”

Sometimes, this relationship became quite critical. In one issue, for example, Voices proclaimed that the Coalition “has lost its touch with the individuals concerned”—citing the organization ceasing to offer subway tokens to homeless individuals who came to meetings and condemning its failure to “help ‘teach’ reporters the sensitivity of asking permission” to take pictures at events—missteps the Coalition quickly tried to address.

Similar criticism also resulted in the Coalition employing more people who had experienced homelessness. For example, it hired an African-American woman to steer the revival of the Homeless Clients Advisory Committee, which worked to improve conditions within shelters, securing victories like access to better and more nutritional food and greater accountability of abusive guards.

Even as homeless groups challenged and thereby strengthened the work of advocates, most were also willing to work alongside them as part of a larger movement to improve rights and secure greater resources. This kind of alliance that brought together organizations led by the homeless and advocates would help win some of the most important victories of the era.

This approach was perhaps best reflected by Parents on the Move, an organization led overwhelmingly by African-American homeless mothers that formed in 1984. Like other homeless groups, Parents on the Move asserted that the experiences of the homeless belonged front and center. “We decided we needed to be organized because the politicians and everybody else are not listening,” Ruth Young, lead organizer and mother of six, explained to City Limits magazine.

In addition to their work directly organizing homeless mothers on issues as stopping evictions and establishing youth recreational programs, Parents on the Move regularly joined advocacy organizations in campaigns for improved access to housing for both homeless and low-income New Yorkers. In June 1985, for example, members of Parents on the Move joined hundreds of low-income housing advocates at a march to Trump Tower, protesting $56 million in tax abatements awarded to the luxury development.

Parents on the Move also became key participants in the Housing Justice Campaign, arguably the most extensive campaign for affordable housing in the late 20th century. Launched in 1985, the campaign eventually involved over 100 low-income housing and homeless groups along with religious and labor organizations.

Having both low-income and homeless residents—including those in Parents on the Move and New York’s Union of the Homeless chapter—at the forefront of the campaign enabled its success. By tying together both “the housing and homeless crises” and demanding affordable housing units for homeless and precariously housed low-income residents, the Housing Justice Campaign won a commitment from the city to rehabilitate 47,000 units of low-and moderate-income housing, including 15,000 for the homeless.

After a decade of such victories, however, momentum slowed. By the early 1990s, the greater burdens homeless organizers faced in their everyday lives and organizing began to hinder these efforts. As one homeless organizer put it, “it’s very hard to sustain a movement when everyone is hungry.” Although homeless groups asked advocates for greater assistance and access to equipment and resources to sustain their efforts, these requests were only sometimes heeded. Additionally, in the early 1990s, cities across the country began severely ratcheting up police harassment and policies that criminalized homelessness, leading to incarceration as well as also dispersing populations from city centers in which organizing often occurred. The result was that in many cities organizing by those experiencing homelessness diminished, and their crucial role in the struggle to fight homelessness and secure affordable housing began to fade from memory.

Decades later, the crises of affordable housing and homelessness remain. As these crises increasingly get taken up in local and national campaigns and political discourse, we need to remember this rich history and the critical contributions of homeless organizers. Doing so is not merely about moral piety. It demonstrates the political efficacy of homeless and poor people being at the foreground of campaigns for housing justice.

These lessons are on display in recent organizing by people experiencing homelessness and poverty throughout the country. The Western Regional Advocacy Project, for example, has highlighted the continued fallacies of focusing on temporary shelters and need to instead secure government resources for affordable housing. The Massachusetts Union of the Homeless has shined a spotlight on the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent people from accessing housing. In New York, Picture the Homeless has engineered pioneering campaigns around apartment warehousing and vacant buildings and increasing community land trusts as a means to reduce homelessness and increase permanent affordable housing. These lessons were perhaps most powerfully evident in the astonishing housing reforms won this summer in New York, the result of a multi-year camping in which homeless and precariously housed-led groups of poor and working class-led groups played major roles.

The expansion of these kinds of bottom-up campaigns that center people experiencing homelessness alongside the tenuously housed are the best hope for resolving the national housing crisis today.

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