Saturday, December 11, 2010
What do we want? HOUSING! When do we want it? NOW!
In 1999, I was living in a homeless shelter called Hannah Moore in Maryland. I had become psychotic, though I did not know it yet, and it was very mild at that time, consisting only of delusional beliefs. I was also manic or at least hypomanic. I wasn't getting treatment for the mental health issues. I was physically quite ill, and was missing out on an opportunity to go to Smith College, because I was busy trying to survive each day. At the homeless shelter, people were being treated unfairly by the sleazy private company that contracted with the state to run this shelter, and so, I was reporting these problems to a non-profit pro-bono law firm called The Homeless Persons' Representation Project, which was already suing this company for violations.
It was at this time that, one day in a bookstore, I found a book called The Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino. In this book, I found the stories of women who, like me, had ended up in serious poverty, and who were trying to survive. In some cases they were trying to organize and buck the system. One of these women, Cheri Honkala, was organizing a tent city in Philadelphia to demand housing for the homeless there. Her organization had taken over foreclosed homes for people to live in them while they were empty. She was a real activist, and not afraid to piss off the government. I quickly came to admire her. She created The Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, which would later become a national campaign.
Yesterday, I finally met Cheri Honkala, 11 years after I read that book. She was in St. Petersburg for a march for the homeless, and poor in honor of International Human Rights Day, and to demand fair treatment of homeless people in the St. Pete area. I was there to join the protest, with a sign that read, on one side "Housing Is A Human Right", and on the other side, "Fund Social Services Not Jail Cells". One of the issues this protest was for, is that the current city government wants to house homeless people in what amounts to a "jail annex", according to homelessness activist, Reverend Bruce Wright of The Refuge.
People who are homeless are often living with mental illnesses. A statistic I heard at the recent state NAMI conference, from an expert in the field, was that 75% of the women in jails and prisons in this state have mental illnesses, and another statistic was that there were 1100 arrests last year in Pinellas County, where I live, of homeless people, for petty crimes such as sleeping on the side walk. It was also mentioned at this conference that people are sometimes more likely to get medications in jail than they are while living on the streets, and so some people think jail is actually a good alternative.
Another reason why I was at this protest, besides my own experience with homelessness in the past, when I was very sick and undiagnosed, was that my sister lived on my couch for several months this year, and is currently about to be evicted from her apartment because she needs a job and doesn't have one. My brother, who also lost his job and has no money is living on my sister's couch because his house was foreclosed on earlier this year. So at this march for homes, jobs, and economic rights, I was taking a stand for them, too.
We marched to City Hall, with TV news cameras filming us, chanting, "What do we want? HOUSING! When do we want it? NOW!", and "This is What Democracy Looks like!", and "They say cutbacks, we say fight back!". And on the steps of City Hall, Cheri Honkala spoke, a local musician sang some rallying songs, and the people took a stand for their rights. I don't know if it will make a difference to the people who work in that City Hall building. It might not. But we were there anyway, to use our voices. After the rally, the homeless people were provided food. And I was glad to have been there, because there is nothing I like better than being part of a protest for a good cause. It is inspiring, and energizing, because, after all, this is what democracy looks like. And it is a beautiful sight.
I was interviewed by a local news station, but I don't believe they aired the interview. They did, however, air some small coverage. And The St. Petersburg Times printed a brief story.