Re-humanization

Among the homeless in Gresham, there is fear.

The official statement in Gresham is that homelessness does not exist in their town. This is the statement of the mayor and the police. However, there is at least a hundred chronically homeless folks in the city of Gresham, a suburb of Portland, OR. Yet the homeless that are there, for the most part, have been raised in Gresham, and the town in their permanent residence, so to speak.

The police have done what they can to force the homeless to move out of town, to make the official statement to be true. They regularly force people out of their camps, even throwing away their tents and blankets and sleeping bags. They regularly check on people who look homeless, whether they are or not. In the past, they have waited for the homeless outside of churches where the street folks worshipped in order to pick up anyone who happened to have a warrant. This practice was stopped because of the concern of middle class citizens who express their dismay at that practice. The police also attempted to deny some homeless folks access to the library because they were camping on public property. This attempt was thwarted by a Multnomah County judge.

But more than this, some people have been targeted with brutality. Mitch, a gentle, quiet homeless man, was attacked by a police dog and so was walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Another couple was recently beaten senseless by the police. The homeless are regularly threatened. I, myself, was last year threatened with arrest because I was a witness to the verbal abuse they poured upon innocent people.

The problem, as I see it, is not one that can be rectified by judges or by taking each situation as it comes.

The city that denies the existence of homelessness is only one issue. In Portland, public bathrooms are closed so that the homeless have no place to use the toilet. This is a basic human necessity, yet it is denied to one segment of the population. We all need to have sleep in order to live and to function appropriately, but the homeless are denied the right to sleep because they cannot establish a place themselves. If they get a place to sleep then they know that they will be rousted out of their sleep one of these nights and told to move on. It is a basic necessity of life to eat, and yet some cities are denying even churches an opportunity to feed street people. It is a basic necessity of life to have shelter from the cold, yet every neighborhood wants to deny any place for the homeless to congregate indoors.

Ultimately, all this is based on one issue: the denial of street people’s humanity.

Everyone in all segments of society would agree that street people ARE people. Yet societal forces are denying their humanity, taking away their ability to function as physical beings. They are being denied the very survival necessities that would be considered abuse to any animal—denying sleep, a place to go to the bathroom, a place out of dangerous weather, and food. It is not that there are not resources available for the homeless to have these human necessities met, it is that society is denying their humanity to grant them access to these resources.

My main question is, what can be done? How can we communicate to a society that denies our humanity, our very existence? Is there a peaceful means to establish the re-humanization of the homeless? Does anyone have any ideas?

What would you do if you were here in Gresham, living among the oppressed?

Steve K

Comments (8)

  1. Jason

    Thanks for your post, Steve. Sounds like an awful rough situation there — and that the authorities are stepping up the campaign (trying to arrest people after worship?)

    I’ve been really impressed by the work of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philly — they’ve done things like set up things like a squatter camp or occupied vacant houses, and even once in an abandoned Catholic church. (When the church authorities told them to leave, they said, “No, it’s OK. We talked to God, and he said we can stay.”)

    There’s lots of great resources at the University of the Poor, which is the educational arm of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.

    For the situation you’re referring to, where it’s both a practical challenge (poor and homeless people don’t have a place to sleep, use the restroom, etc) and a cultural one (many are furthering the dehumanization of homeless people) — I would particularly recommend On The Poor Organizing The Poor – The Experience of Kensington by formerly homeless scholar-activist Willie Baptist.

    I could say more, but most of what I’d say would be giving props to the organizations above — how they’re grounded in the everyday lives of ordinary folks and speak from long organizing experience — so I should stop writing here so you can go read what they have to say.

    Or if you prefer the visual angle, here’s Part I, Part II and Part III of a video about people organizing for healthcare with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.

    Reply
  2. somasoul

    Being homeless is tough. I’ve put up to homeless in the last several years and even had the pleasure of talking online, for time, with “The Homeless Guy” who used to run a blog. Maybe he still does.

    The Homeless Guy would often talk about how he didn’t use drugs or drink. He’d have a home or an apartment but he couldn’t do. Forces beyond his will (or something) would pull him back toward the streets.

    What do you do with people who are capable of living off the streets but don’t? What do you do with the addicts? With the mentally ill?

    Many of these people seemingly try to destroy their lives. How do you fix that?

    In the meantime, are we required to help this people? Or does denying them access nudge them toward improving their lives?

    I’m not trying to make a point in favor of any position, just trying to stir the pot up some.

    Reply
  3. SteveK (Post author)

    Jason, thanks for those links. I especially found the writing of Willie Baptist compelling.

    However, whenever I bring up the subject, I get some misunderstandng. Perhaps it is because I am not communicating well enough, or perhaps it is because people are looking at a different issue than I.

    The issue I am bringing up is that of dehumanization of the homeless, not getting them off of the street. Honestly, many of the folks I know would rather live on the street than to be dropped into our A-type personality driven economy. They don’t want to work 40 hours a week for a minimum wage job only to find that they can’t make ends meet.

    What they want is to be treated as an equal human, with people assuming that they have the same wants and needs as every other human around the globe.

    Should a person come into a middle class person’s house to take every item they have, that thief would be shown no mercy and the police would work hard for those “poor people”. But if a homeless person has everything of theirs taken– several times a year, which is common– by the police or by people hired by the city, then it is “just what they deserve.” Why? Because one person can earn enough in 40 hours of work a week to obtain an apartment, and the other person cannot.

    I guess what I’m saying is that we need to acheive some level of equal respect, if not equal pay or equal rights.

    Do you really think that if we demand power that they will give it to us? The Civil Rights movement worked because the oppressed were numerous and had energy. The homeless is less than 1 percent of the population and most are drained of energy even to look for a job.

    I seriously thought about having a demonstration at Gresham city hall/police station. But will the people get behind us, or resent us? The police already resent us.

    What I want to know is, what can we do to open up the eyes of the people of Gresham to let them know that it is time to rehumanize homelessness, it is time to treat the homeless with the basic respect we should give all of humanity.

    Steve K

    Reply
  4. Jason

    Steve,

    Thanks for restating the intent of your post there. If I hear you right, you’re saying — we need to encourage non-homeless folks to recognize the humanity of homeless people, to act accordingly, and to object when the homeless are dehumanized by others (like by the police).

    My community organizer self wants to make a strategy — You’ve got your analysis of the situation (homeless people being dehumanized, possessions taken) your vision (non-homeless folks recognizing our common humanity, speaking up on the issue).

    This approach could then lead to articulating goals (five letters to the editor to oppose the police policy? seven non-homeless folks inviting homeless people over for dinner? an event with informal story-telling and get-to-know-yous among homeless and non-homeless?) With a goal or two set, then whoever’s interested could make a strategy/plan for how to make it happen.

    I tend to believe that most anything that builds genuine relationships across difference (here in terms of class or housing situation) is positive. And that expressions of solidarity, friendship, outrage, conviction about mutual humanity, etc tend to arise from these kind of relationships.

    My saucy self would make some suggestions about signs like “Jesus was homeless” “The authorities took Jesus’ possessions (pic of Roman soliders w/ his clothes) Did he deserve it?” and something about “If you steal from the least of these, you steal from me.”

    What do your homeless friends say they would like to have happen for their dignity to be respected?

    Reply
  5. NicoleB

    i recently began work as a case manager at a homeless shelter for families, so i’m quite drawn into the many themes being explored here.
    i’ll begin with comments on just a couple pieces, though…
    steve, i especially appreciate your recognition that many of the homeless folks you know don’t necessarily want to join our “a-type personality driven economy,” as you put it. as i offer services and guidance to our guests, i often have mixed feelings as it seems that i am simply trying to groom folks to have the skills and connections to function in an upper-middle class mainstream capitalist consumer culture. is this really the best i/we have to offer? and is this the most effective and transformative way for us to walk with our homeless sisters and brothers? as someone constantly struggling to find hope and new ways of living outside of this set of mainstream cultural expectations, it feels quite counterintuitive that the main “service” i offer people is trying to help them be better at making it in a system i don’t even want to support in the first place, to help them change to be more like me (a scary notion to be sure!). at the same time, it also feels that these sorts of approaches fail to recognise the very valuable aspects of low-income or homeless culture.
    so i’m troubled by this framework of values and class prioritisation and capitalist assumptions within which we work. i’m struggling to know what would be a better approach as we envision how, for example, homeless shelters and other services, are conceptualised and offered.

    and, of course, there are other aspects of this work that i’m doing that feel more transformative: i think this setting, in which dozens of volunteers from local churches make this shelter a living, breathing reality, is working at re-humanisation. we are encountering all sorts of “others” – i think that the staff, guests and volunteers here, at least on good days, are learning to see and know each other as real people. the affirmation, the relational investment, the modelling of healthy relationships, positive parenting or organisational skills are all constructive.
    these things i can feel good about, but i have questions about the larger picture of what exactly it is we are trying to do here…

    Reply
  6. SteveK (Post author)

    Jason and Nichole–
    Thanks for your comments.

    Jason is correct, of course. Developing relationships between the homeless and the middle class is the best option for creating possibilities for change. But I am a bit frustrated as to how to do this.

    A few months ago, as I was driving to open up our church site in Gresham before a meal, a neighbor to the church called and asked me to get the homeless folks off of the church property. He said that his daughter could see them through the fence and so he didn’t want them there. Is suburban America so afriad of the homeless that they don’t even want their children seeing them?

    And I am so close to the situation that at times my irritation shows too much at the blatant prejudice of some people. Sometimes I am a poor peacemaker.

    And Nichole, you are right that formal services for the homeless is a good way to get them accepted in the community. But Gresham isn’t open to it now. They want to just move the homeless– who have lived in Gresham for twenty plus years– out to Portland, which is a little more homeless-friendly.

    As far as my homeless folks go, they are ready to do just about anything to help the situation. They want to print nasty things in the newspaper about how they have been abused by the cops and hand out flyers to houses and at the malls.

    I proposed a memoral for one of our dead comrades and a banner which says “Stop HOBOphobia” or “The Homeless are people too” with a website which will have more information exposing the myths of homelessness and about good ways to connect and help homeless people as individuals. My folks are all for that as well.

    Steve K

    Reply
  7. Lora

    I also had a friend who was homeless. He said he didn’t drink or do drugs, and as far as I could tell, this was the case. But he was most certainly mentally ill. It seems like part (just part) of the problem with “re-humanizing” is that it’s more than one issue; mental illness and addictions are both stigmatized on their own. And I think we in the middle class tend to put a lot of faith in our own luck: most of us have enough resources (or think we do) that we can’t fathom ever needing the sort of social safety net homeless people could use. We tell enough lies about poverty that it becomes easy dismiss any obligation to help. I’ll pray that you all will find some way to extend dignity to all involved…

    Reply
  8. SteveK (Post author)

    A great video about homelessness with some discussion about dehumanization is here:

    http://www.markberger.com/movie/tobeloved.htm

    It’s called “…To Be Loved” and even if homelessness on its own makes you sad, it’s got a good song by Peter Gabriel as well.

    Steve K

    Reply

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