10 Things You Need to Know to Live on the Streets
By Walter Mosley and Rae Gomes, The Nation Mag
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. This will not be as easy for your CHILDREN as it is for you. You know your family's history. You know that although you earned 4 times minimum wage per hour, you bought a home at the wrong time and lost it and all your furniture through no fault of your own. You were not a math major. You did not understand how ruthless interest rates could become. Explain to your children that the system was deliberately left flawed, like leaving a manhole cover off the road so that people would deliberately fall into it and get their homes taken away. Maybe they'll grow up to be committed activists. However, it is likely rage combined with the feeling of 'entitlement' can make them anti-social, so be careful. Always give them hope that AMERICA will change the rules. This MANHOLE is momentary until we find good jobs.
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. Carry a wash pan big enough for your child to stand in, pour water over him. There should be shampoo, conditioner, soap, washclothes, towels & a big, plastic cup for dipping water all kept in that wash pan in the back of the car. Leave it handy, too.
4. It's difficult to have much control over when, where and what you eat, so learn soup kitchen schedules and menus. Carry the most nutritious proteins with you like nuts, peanut butter and jerky. Find a list of soup kitchens in your city. Church feeds are better than skid row Missions. They are a last resort as your children will see these homeless men and go into shock.
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 non-police 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 HOW LUCRATIVE THAT AVENUE HAS PROVEN. 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 in on the bailout!"). Find good, high-traffic spots where the police won't bother you. Near a posh cafe where the yuppies eat, or shop, near an up-tone department store. Stay away from schools!
9. Housing is a human right! Squat. Forge coalitions with non-homeless but potentially displaced people in this era of mass foreclosures. Support United Workers in 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.
This monthly feature was conceived by writer and Nation editorial board member Walter Mosley as a kind of do-it-yourself opinion and action device, and Rae Gomes provided research. Most often "Ten Things" will offer a brief list of recommendations for accomplishing a desired political or social end, sometimes bringing to light something generally unknown. The purpose of the feature is to go to the heart of issues in a stripped-down, active and informed way. After getting a visiting expert--or everyday citizen--to construct the list, The Nation will interview that person and post a brief online version of "Ten Things," with links to relevant websites, books or other information. Readers who wish to propose ideas for "Ten Things" should e-mail NationTenThings@gmail.com
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