[Hpn] Homeless Activism - DC history - CCNV, Olive Branch, IMC, HNJ fwd fwd

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Thu, 14 Dec 2000 14:12:05 -0800 (PST)

Olive Branch Community in DC & "homeless activism" history:

FWD 13 Dec 2000 / REPLY TO: "Harold Moss" <OLIVEMOSS@aol.com>


December 2000
Dear Friends,

    At two in the morning we were awakened by the loud noise and intense
light of the helicopter as they permeated our bedroom.   Soon we saw the
flashing lights of police vehicles as they maneuvered to block off the
street corners.  They had closed down the Convergence Center earlier that day
-- we knew we could be next.  For at least two months we hosted the legal
team of the WTO demonstrators and for the entire week hundreds of calls had
come in documenting police harassment and abuse. We waited anxiously--
expecting any moment to be raided.

     Since then we have been besieged with fire, DC and insurance housing
inspections. With no help from the landlord we have spent much for
renovations  to pass unfair inspection criteria that reflect selective

    As the Mobilization for Global Justice moves from Seattle through
Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles to Prague the police abuse
intensifies. For weeks Jamie (see articles on rear) couldn’t contribute in
our soup kitchen as a consequence of her beating in Philadelphia.

     As the economy improves for the rich, we find ourselves again having
to focus on a shortage of affordable housing.  Although the new members in
the community have diverse political involvement's we have come together to
support and to provide the majority of the arrests for the efforts of Homes
Not jails to house homeless families  (see clippings on rear)

    At a minimum, as the city struggles through horrid failure and court
ordered receivership in most of its services,  the victims who have suffered
and made homeless as consequence need to be sheltered.

    Thanks for your response for our need for a van and your help for our
Christmas party. We intend to have an even larger celebration  Saturday the
23rd of December and we will need help with the purchase of gifts and
preparation of hams and turkeys. Please call if you can help in any way.

    We can afford only one mailing for donations this year so please give as
much as you can.

For the Community,
Harold Moss

Olive Branch
PO Box 73497
Washington DC 20078-0009

CITY PAPER/    This Old Dysfunctional House

    A new generation of rabble-rousers questions long time homeless activist
Harold Moss' housekeeping

    By Robin Bingham

In the group house that serves as the
headquarters for the Olive Branch community, an orange-toned oil painting
overlooks the dining room. Bright golds and reds augment the dusky blues of
a cityscape horizon, brightening the dark room and making it appear warmer
than it is. It's November, and the heat hasn't been turned on yet. The
people padding by in flip-flops on their way to the kitchen wear several
sweaters and socks.

    But, say the chilly residents of Olive Branch, at 1006 M St. NW, life has
improved a lot since last winter. There are no more rats in the house. The
holes in the walls and the ceiling have been plastered over. There is less
peeling paint. People are cleaner, generally. No one gets up at 5 a.m. and
blasts loud music in the kitchen. No one makes death threats. No one has to
keep a baseball bat by the bedroom door.

    And Harold Moss is in a better mood. That's because he's leaving soon,
going on sabbatical. "I'm not going to abandon the house or abandon the
community," he says. "I'm just leaving the leadership aspect of it."

    For the last eight years, Moss has run Olive Branch, a group house in Shaw
that provides volunteers for the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen, run out of the
basement of a nearby church. Moss' policy has been to welcome anyone to
Olive Branch who needs shelter, if there's room, and to make the house a
space "where the homeless could be themselves" without having to adhere to
lots of rules and requirements.

    More recently, Moss has opened the house to a new generation of housing
activists and protesters, throwing Olive Branch into crisis. For years a
home for homeless men and women unwilling or unable to live in shelters,
would the group house continue to be a refuge or would it become a center
for political activism? Professionals at negotiation, the newcomers seem to
have won.

    Moss is one of the original members of the Community for Creative
Non-Violence (CCNV), and one of the few remaining activists still proudly
working within CCNV's orginal ideological framework. Founded in 1970 as an
anti-Vietnam War group, CCNV catapulted homelessness onto the national
agenda in the mid-'80s through hunger strikes and theatrical protests. All
the homeless needed, according to the group, were homes.

    The group's accomplishments piled up fast. A 51-day fast by CCNV leader
Mitch Snyder got the Reagan administration to underwrite a 1,350-bed Federal
City Shelter on 2nd and D Streets NW in 1984. (See "Helter Shelter,"
2/25/00.) That same year, CCNV spurred passage of the D.C. Right to
Overnight Shelter Act, which guaranteed emergency shelter to anyone in the
District. And the group pushed Giant Food supermarkets into creating a
food-donation program distributing blemished and imperfect, but still fully
edible, foodstuffs.

    But by 1990, the group started to come apart at the seams. Snyder
suicide that year, and Moss left his post as director of the shelter under a
cloud, having been accused by other CCNV members of having ignored drug
dealing at the shelter. D.C. residents voted in a referendum to repeal the
Right to Overnight Shelter Act after the city proved incapable of fulfilling
its provisions. Two of Moss' successors also left in disgrace, and city
shelters soon began replacing open-ended services with time limits, entry
requirements, and expectations participate in structured programs for drug
and alcohol abuse, mental illnesses, or job training.

    Asserting that food and shelter are rights, not privileges, Moss calls the
world of training curriculums and rehabilitation efforts a mass
"reprogramming" of homeless people. In an attempt to emulate St. Francis of
Assisi, Moss lives solely on donations, draws no salary, and actively
opposes the rule-heavy homeless programs of today.

    "I'm against programming," says Moss. "Some people need insitutions, but
everybody should be valued as a person with infinite possibilities
regardless of who they are... They don't fit in, and they don't want to fit
in. They are very confused. [Programming] is impoverishing them. It's
obvious that it's not producing healthy people."

      Joe Brown, a D.C. housing activist for the
last 20 years, moved into Olive Branch last winter. He soon concluded that
Moss' laissez-faire methods for dealing with the homeless weren't working
very well. "It was a hell house," Brown says, alleging that there was no
toilet paper, that rats and thieves had the run of the place, and that the
front door's window was continually broken. "Harold's extreme theology is:
'If it's not donated, we don't have it. We don't get it. We don't buy it.'
He had to fight the crackheads and prostitutes and heroin addicts and
she-hes. He really ran a rough ship. Violence was a part of the house."

    Brown says that three members of the house were actively involved in
stealing food from the soup kitchen to sell. When confronted, he says, they
threatened to destroy the community's car. And following a fight shortly
after Brown arrived, a household member broke out the bathroom lightbulb,
purposefully leaving shards of glass on the floor for his opponents to walk
on when they stumbled inside in the middle of the night. When he arrived,
says Brown, Moss kept a baseball bat by his bedroom door for protection.

    These might not have been the idyllic conditions Moss envisioned, but the
alternative, he says, is allowing homeless people to freeze to death
outside. "These aren't just people without a home," Moss says of the people
he lives with. "[Homelessness is] not romantic. It's not pretty."

    Moss was determined to find a way to empower the homeless on their own
terms. "We don't know what to do with people who don't fit into the system,"
he says. "There are some people you can program, but there are a lot of
people for whom programming doesn't work. People are trying to fit poor
people into certain roles. They figure that if a person is homeless, they
should give them a job, but often this puts them in the same position that
made them homeless in the first place."

    The troubles at the house notwithstanding, Moss has managed to keep two or
three household members heading off to volunteer at Zacchaeus Community
Kitchen four days each week, get food picked up and distributed from Fresh
Fields and Giant, organize protests against D.C.'s control board, throw an
Olive Branch Christmas fundraiser every year, write letters and push for
laws to support homeless families, and picket the White House now and then.

    In other words, Moss has continued to lead his followers to demand food
shelter as their right, not something they should have to work for.

     Last spring, D.C. saw more peace signs and safety-pin-patched backpacks
than it had in years. Sandal-clad protesters flooded sidewalks and doorways
to scream at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, their hair
still musty from Seattle rain. Moss opened up the house to them. "I'm hoping
that with this new energy of radicals, the movement will be revived," he
says. "Most people are not willing to fight the bureaucracy that's there.
People have come to really blame the homeless."

    After the protests were over, much of the energy (and new muscle) stayed,
as Moss had hoped. Olive Branch took in 5 new residents. But years of living
with rough people had made Moss a little rough himself, and he quickly found
himself at loggerheads with the very people he had hoped would be his
ideological heirs.

    "He needs to go away for a while," says Chas Sippel, an activist who moved
into Olive Branch last April and has since become one of Moss' most vocal
critics. "He is so tense, he's completely wired, sick of it all, tired of it
all." Sippel has threatened to picket the soup kitchen in an effort to get
Moss to set some rules for the household. "There are no rules. There's
Harold's rules," says Jaimie Loughner, a scruffy-headed self-proclaimed
anarchist who has a mattress on the third floor. "I'm not scared of the
police, I'm not scared of being beaten, and yet I'm concerned for my safety
in this house."

    Across the hall, Laura Pearce, a 21-year-old from rural Virginia, came to
D.C. "to be an activist." An ardent member of the group Homes Not Jails, she
came to Olive Branch as an IMF protester. Now, though, she's preoccupied
with fighting injustices a bit closer to home. "He's a control freak," she
complains of Moss. "He storms out of meetings. He was yelling at me, sick of
me. [He said] I was a child, he had no respect for me, and things like that.
I was talking about his authoritarianism, and he started screaming at me."

    Brown alleges that Moss has used violence against several members of the
house, including him. "He threw all my stuff outside, which is completely
illegal....He broke a few of my things. I cooled down by leaving. When I
came back, it was as if it never happened," says Brown, who says that since
the incident Moss and he have made amends.

    When asked about these accusations, Moss shakes his head. "They're still
living here, aren't they?" he says. "If they were that upset, they could
just leave." But they don't. Because of the living arrangements at Olive
Branch, the activists are free to do their work without worrying about how
to pay the bills. And, according to Moss, "most of their materials, the
paint supplies [for Homes Not Jails] still come from this community...They
can use this space. A lot of the members live here."

    Just the same, Moss has decided to leave for a while and reflect on what's
happened. "I'm a little offended, but I'm excited by their spirit," he says.
"I've got more experience living in a community, and living in a community
is not an easy thing. They think I've been dictatorial, and it's true--I've
been that way."

    More important, in Homes Not Jails, headed up by 22-year-old Virginian
Jennifer Kirby, Moss sees the housing movement coming full circle. Moss was
first mentioned in news accounts in 1978, for taking over an abandoned house
in Columbia Heights--just as Kirby and her cohorts did last summer in the
same neighborhood. "I'm old," Moss says. "This is nothing new for the city,
but I'm excited about their energy, and I think it's good....They are seeing
horrible things and they want to confront the system and the evil that they


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