From the 1999 National Summit on Homelessness
I'll never be able to tell you everything about the National Summit on Homelessness in Washington DC. The National Coalition for the Homeless gathered up over 700 homeless advocates and activists, including a couple hundred homeless and formerly homeless people, and informed, workshopped, paneled and inundated us for three days on housing, health, human rights, livable income, education, veteran's issues and other aspects of homelessness and the ending of it.
Now that I've gotten my breath back, these were the highlights for me:
I've exchanged a lot of Virtual Hugs by email, now I got to exchange some in person. Two of those hugged were Tom Boland and Catherine Rhodes from the Homeless Peoples' Network list. HPN is an email list where a hundred or so homeless and formerly homeless people discuss everything from immediate survival to setting up shelters to ending homelessness, from our own perspective. Tom, Catherine and I went out to dinner the first night with a few others -- and "talked shop", about setting up shelters, ending homelessness and immediate survival in Washington DC.
I was very pleasantly surprised by Washington DC. It was as clean, calm and safe-feeling, even at night, as I've found Canadian cities to be. Not at all equal to the reputation that drove my room-mate to cancel and go home when she found she would have to travel ten minutes at night because we were lodged in a different hotel than the conference was being held in. One evening Catherine and I went downtown. A local homeless man attending the conference guided us to "the best feed in town," where several nuns served about twenty homeless men. (I never saw an apparently homeless woman. They seemed even more invisible than in Seattle.) The nuns were from Mother Theresa's order, come over from Calcutta to minister to the poor Americans.
All of us from HPN were in the workshop on self-advocacy, listening to the stories of other formerly homeless people, several of whom also spoke in a panel given for the entire 700 in attendance. Each story was a refutation of the individualist credo that people can make it out of any circumstances on their own with enough True Grit. All of these people had the support of a community -- often a community of formerly homeless people -- reaching back to help others as they were once helped. Our Own Tim Harris was on a panel on homeless encampments -- Tent Cities -- reporting on Seattle's experience and the SHARE/WHEEL encampment proposal. In addition we heard about encampments in Aurora, Illinois (successful for 14 years); Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; and Broward County, Texas. Other panelists agreed that the elements WHEEL and SHARE identified in our proposal as necessary would indeed create a workable camp. Veneria Knox of Seattle's Department of Human Services and Lisa Whitter, legislative assistant for City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, were there taking notes.
I attended several workshops on housing. I decided to concentrate on housing issues because even I -- the founder of Over-Commitment Anonymous -- knew that I couldn't cover everything. (There were nine different workshops going at any particular time, except when we were all gathered for a special speaker.) Housing -- not just the need for it, but the complexities of policy and law and funding and construction that go into actually getting it -- is such a brain-breaking issue that most people don't want to even deal with it unless they're getting paid for it. Everyone I spoke to at the conference agreed that we could increase the amount of housing by simply cutting the amount of paperwork. When I got home, I heard the exciting news that HUD is actually simplifying the housing paperwork, cutting out 22 steps in the process.
Back in my getting-paid-for-computer-work days, I attended a few business conferences -- long leisurely breakfasts, lunches and dinners, then everybody goes out partying. I have now attended four non-profit conferences -- where you get run from pillar to post on half a donut and a plate of cold chicken. I would like to know who came up with the formula, "The less we pay you, the harder you have to work?"
Maybe that explains the reception given Andrew Cuomo. Everybody was already pretty ragged and brain-soaked when we gathered together to hear the head of HUD, the United States Secretary for Housing, tell us that homelessness can only be solved by getting down into the trenches. Well, that's good, we go for that, we're in the trenches, we cheered him. Then he said that the government -- he and other people getting paid $100, 000 a year and up -- can't do any more to solve homelessness, and we who are in the trenches have to work harder. That got less applause. When he opened for questions he got grilled over the barriers that HUD's complex paperwork creates for grassroots housing programs and homeless housing applicants. In response to criticism of the Clinton Administration, he took his feet that had been held to the fire and stuck them in his mouth to cool off -- he told 700 homeless advocates and activists that "welfare reform has had no negative impact on homeless people." I swear he was running when he hit the back exit.
This conference was excellent. I learned a lot that will help us locally with Dorothy Day House, with Tent City, with expanding our other housing and resources. I was able to give other folks information about setting up new shelters, about organizing groups like WHEEL and StreetWrites; I will probably be visiting San Francisco to help them with their computer workshop. But I do have a dream for something more: a national conference on the order of the Homeless Women's Forum, where Andrew Cuomo and his brothers and sisters in government come simply to listen, to hear the "folks in the trenches" tell them what kind of hard work still needs to be done.
In the meantime, we're setting them an example to catch up to.
Homeless Columns ed. by Anitra L. Freeman
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