Feet to the Fire

Anitra Freeman (anitra@speakeasy.org)
Thu, 27 May 1999 15:20:16 -0700 (PDT)

Tom's been bugging me for this ever since he find out I wrote it.  So
although I have been up all night and was hoping to catch a nap before
StreetWrites workshop I am holding my poor little eyelids up and
forwarding this right *now*.  Do you have any guilt buttons, Tom? :)


Advocates and activists at [NCH]
National Homeless Summit [May 1-4]
raise the bar for government

by Anitra Freeman

reprinted from Real Change
Vol 6, Number 10, May 1999
[Seattle, Washington's street newspaper]

I'll never be able to tell you everything about the National Summit on
Homelessness in Washington, D.C.  The National Coalition for the Homeless
gathered up over 600 homeless advocates and activists, including a couple
hundred homeless and formerly homeless people, and workshopped, paneled,
and inundated us for three days on housing, health, human rights, livable
income, education, veterans issues, and other aspects of homelessness and
ending of it.

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
poverty is fundamentally about injustice, and 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 stood up and 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 unless we who are in the
trenches "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 600 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.

After the ritual sacrifice of the HUD Secretary, we returned to the less
exciting business of workshops and networking.  Other highlights included:

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 People's Network list <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn>.  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 homeless, 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, D.C.

I was very pleasantly surprised by Washington, D.C.  It was as clean, calm,
and safe-feeling, even at night, as Iíve found Canadian cities to be.  Not
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 intown," 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 600 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 (as well as
another on starting street newspapers), 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 of WHEEL and SHARE identified in our proposal as necessary would
indeed create a workable camp.  Seattle Department of Human Services head
Venneria Knox was there taking notes, as was Lisa Whitter, legislative
assistant for City Council  member Peter Steinbrueck.

I decided to concentrate on housing workshops because even I -- the founder
of Over-Commitment Anonymous -- knew that I couldnít cover "everything".
(There were 9 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 brainbreaking 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.

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.

Okay, there were 40 of the rest of you there.  Where's your 2 cents? :)

/ Anitra L. Freeman /
"Never doubt that a small group of imperfect people can improve the
world--indeed they are the only ones who ever have." not Margaret Mead