Homeless Leaders Come Together In Sacramento
by Cathleen Williams

On a Thursday early in February at Loaves and Fishes, the main service center for homeless people in Sacramento, California, a group of homeless people came together to talk about the need for leadership. They were diverse - both Anglo and African American; young, middle aged and older; women and men. And as they described the problems they faced, it was clear that there is no one answer for homeless people - some have developed skills that allow them to live in hidden places and support themselves through recycling, or the sale of handicrafts, for example; others are homeless because life issues overtook them, and they found themselves unable to afford stable housing.

As the individuals around the table described different personal situations, it was also clear that there is a great need for leadership. Leaders can speak out on behalf of homeless communities who are trying to establish a safe place to live outdoors and can protest and change the present policy of arresting and harassing homeless people. Leaders can assert the immediate demands of homeless people: Some have pets for company and protection, animals which cannot be taken into shelters; these homeless people want kennels made available for their pets: Some are concerned that there is nowhere for homeless people to be - they are chased out of parks, harassed by the police and private security patrols, told to move on even if they have an organized camp.

But how to lead? Several suggestions were made. First, leaders can become active in homeless organizations like the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, document the violations of the human right to housing and dignity, and encourage others to become active in community affairs, both in terms of homelessness and other issues that are personally important, like building a sustainable future. There are city boards and commissions where homeless members could contribute their first hand knowledge of the hardships and needs of homeless people.

But to do this, to represent the interests not just of the individual but the entire population of homeless people, it's also important for leaders to learn about the context of homelessness. This is important even for those who have accepted, and come to welcome, living outside without support from this society. These homeless people believe in their own dignity and have concluded "I'm tired of waiting, I'll survive on my own, if you let me alone."

But without understanding the context of homelessness, it's all too easy to blame the individual. The media and the federal government have publicized the idea that homelessness is a matter of individual failure, rather than acknowledging that since the early eighties, as the homeless population exploded, the federal government has systematically eliminated funding for affordable housing. Now we see in New Orleans that structurally sound public housing is being torn down and people are being housed in tin trailers poisoned with formaldehyde fumes! Also, "blaming the victim" is extremely dangerous for homeless people, because it encourages violence against them - violence that has risen to hundreds of attacks per year across the country, especially by disoriented youth who have been taught not to care - and in fact to look at homeless people as not even human.

That it's not just a personal problem can be seen in Ontario, California, where the city fathers decided to permit a tent city on a muddy vacant lot near the airport. In a matter of weeks, in the dead of this winter, over three hundred tents sprang up, including seniors and children, all people who simply can't afford apartments or, with the "sub-prime" mortgage meltdown, have been evicted from their homes. One woman, disabled and out of work, said "I never thought this would happen to me."

It 's up to homeless leaders to point out it's not her fault and it's not just an individual problem. We're all human, we're all vulnerable. We all have a right to dignity and, if we choose, housing; we all have a right to live without harassment even if we are not rich in material things.