On a pleasantly dry December morning, social and advocacy workers from dozens of agencies and non-profits across Washington state gathered at South Seattle College for the annual All Home conference. Early into the conference, a challenge presented by an attendee struck me. As we went around the room naming the various organizations we represented, an older gentleman took the mic and addressed the large conference hall:
“We have so many organizations here. People from lobbying groups, service providers, advocates…we’re all here to talk about ending homelessness, but where are they? Where are the people who are homeless right now?”
The question was rhetorical; however, the answer was obvious. Those experiencing homelessness were out there, trying to survive! But his deeper question tore at my conscience. In the hours before, I had passed by, boarded the bus with, and — to my shame — averted my eyes from dozens of people living on the street. What this gentleman was really asking was why I, and every person in the room, had not asked people experiencing homelessness to join us. Our collective work is going to affect them, so why aren’t they included? Guest speaker Colleen Echohawk from Chief Seattle Club discussed the true origins of homelessness in America — the theft of ancestral homelands, and the struggle of indigenous people to be “brought to the table”. She then presented the group with an analogy of breaking that table and meeting our impacted communities where they were.
So, where are the people who are experiencing homelessness in the conversation?
Saviorism has been and continues to be a trap for philanthropists, non-profits, and the government. Our “trickle-down” economy keeps countless resources committed to keeping these organizations, their projects, and their staff afloat while funding and data keeps these well-meaning folks accountable only to the tap. Often, when impacted communities are included, roadblocks, restrictions, and hurdles are placed on them prior to receiving the support they need.
From the perspective of the organizations, a lot of work and resources are needed to continue their work. From the perspective of those served, a lot of work and resources are wasted and provide very little. Reversing this power dynamic is crucial and can change how we uplift and empower communities experiencing homelessness.
If organizations would dedicate their resources to rally impacted communities and allow them to advocate for themselves, we would see a movement against homelessness by those experiencing it. The organizing of impacted communities has repeatedly been the origin of movements and historic revolutions. In a 2013 article about labor rights in Bangladesh, US Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (WA-7) wrote,“…for decades factory workers — often without formalized power — put themselves at great risk by speaking out against abuses, building worker solidarity, and educating the public. It’s this worker-led organizing that has set the stage for real political and legislative change…”
It wasn’t until a century after the end of slavery that Martin Luther King Jr. began to assemble a multiracial coalition aimed at gaining economic justice — The Poor People’s Campaign. Today we’re seeing the global working-class mobilize and pressure their governments for change; but perhaps what society really needs is to mobilize and protect the poorest among us.
Each member of society has the potential and responsibility to contribute to our collective betterment. It’s undeniable that humans fail as individuals and overperform in large groups. Allies are extremely valuable, but only those affected communities can effectively fight for the change they need. They deserve the chance to reclaim their power.