It’s all about people. Most people want a good life, not only for themselves and their loved ones, but also for others. Given half a chance, most people would like to help other people. In fact, they would even make an effort to do so–if they knew how. The missing link tends to be information. And it’s only through direct action and organization that the information needed to cause positive change can reach the people involved.
Sound simplistic or overoptimistic? Simply put, it’s not.
Consider this: Back in 1998, there were 100 families on the waiting list for emergency shelter, a then-shocking statistic–shocking enough to jolt the members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors into taking “immediate action.” What did they do? Simple: they passed a resolution saying that no family that sought housing in San Francisco would be turned away. Nice intentions; favorable press; no result. Today, there are half again as many families on the list. Why? Because that resolution had absolutely nothing behind its nice sound: No cash, no clout, no staffing.
But don’t sigh or go to sleep yet; this isn’t another negative, “hate the government; nothing changes no matter what” piece. Because, if you stop to think about it, that number–the number of families seeking city-controlled housing, that is–should be way higher by now. After all, current administration policies continue to foster the growth of the overall US homeless population. And that’s not even taking into account the “homeless magnet” theory. You know, the one under which San Francisco, with its balmy Mediterranean weather and “relaxed” moral climate-widespread acceptance of a variety of sexual preferences and practices, even wider spread availability of virtually every drug known to humankind-acts as a beacon beckoning the nation’s homeless from far and wide. And every local public policy decision that even seems as though it might better the lot of homeless people just brightens that light.
So why is this a positive story–that is, why aren’t there even more homeless families on the streets of San Francisco today?
Remember where we started? The answer comes down to people. And the right people organizing to get the right information into the hands of the right other people to enable them to take the right action–themselves–to create positive change.
The Family Rights and Dignity Project (FRD) of the Coalition on Homelessness is a sterling example of precisely that–and it has the track record, the reputation, and, yes, the figures to prove its effectiveness. It addressed an apparently intractable problem: growing numbers of families out on the streets without a clue as to how to make the move indoors; numerous well-intentioned but relatively ineffectual (and increasingly frustrated) service providers; and a Housing Authority bureaucracy entrapped in ranking systems and regulations that even its people didn’t truly understand, but that somehow seemed to be geared toward keeping the homeless families that way. FRD pulled together the necessary information, and put that information in the hands of the people involved.
How did they manage this impressive feat? Again, can’t emphasize it enough, it was people, organization, and direct action.
It started back in 2002, when the FRD created Eye on Housing, a campaign designed to unite all the interested parties–including in particular the homeless families themselves, as well as service providers and others–pool their existing knowledge and draw on and channel their energy toward increasing that knowledge to the point that it could make an actual impact on the problem.
By conducting their own research, drawing on the Freedom of Information Act and Public Records Act, program staff learned that there were numerous unoccupied public housing units in San Francisco. Then through a variety of community outreach programs (for example, actually surveying homeless families to assess their needs and wants accurately and crafting from the gathered materials a list of demands to take to policymakers) and public actions (conducting visible counts of the identified vacant and potentially habitable units and then–even more visibly, in a few cases–occupying them to demonstrate the reality of that potential), the Eye on Housing campaign increased both public awareness of the problem and its own sum of information that could be used to alleviate it.
More specifically, the Eye on Housing surveys showed that a significant number of the homeless families were willing to live in existing city projects, no matter what their condition, and its counts found that 300 of the currently vacant units could be brought on line relatively swiftly. Concurrently, through direct contact with policymakers at the Housing Authority and elsewhere, information was gathered about the actual workings of the bureaucracy that were preventing more homeless families from qualifying for public housing, such as a ranking system that gave applicants points for working, when, in fact, many parents find it impossible to seek out work without first putting a roof over their children’s heads. Integral to the Eye on Housing efforts were ongoing informational workshops open to all comers, designed to keep the information being gathered about the mechanisms perpetuating family homelessness in San Francisco flowing out to the homeless family members and their advocates.
To date, the results have been nothing short of phenomenal–though, of course, still falling far short of the optimal, pie-in the-sky, “What homeless?” outcome still desired by all right-thinking people. Less than a week after the results of the unit count were publicly communicated to and acknowledged by the authorities, Eye on Housing had families lined up, ready, willing, and, most important, much better informed–whether directly or through service providers who had also attended the Eye on Housing workshops–about how to qualify to move into them. Also, as a result of direct action–in this case, the behind-the-scenes work with the Housing Authority policymakers–that qualifying process was better geared toward the needs of these families rather than skewed toward working families with higher incomes, most of whom are understandably much less interested in the marginally habitable public housing than are those whose only housing alternatives were the overcrowded, generally non-family-oriented shelter system or the streets).
So OK, that’s certainly a big “YAY!” But there are still all those makeshift tents and sleeping bags (and tattered blankets and ragged tarps and shredded mounds of various packing materials, all functioning as de facto homes to slumbering humans) out there on San Francisco’s streets every night. So why are we crowing over merely moving some of the families that were once among those sleeping affronts to our common humanity into project housing?
The answer is simple: The FRD program’s work is living proof that change IS possible–that direct action can have a positive impact on even the most complex of issues. It shows that when individuals get together to dig into a problem with an eye toward actually solving it, they can collaborate effectively to remove the barriers of ignorance and layers of bureaucracy that prevent people from following their natural instincts to help one another (leaving those who can’t see a positive path forward all too prone to following that other, also natural, all-too-human, and WAY-too-easy-to-act-upon instinct to help themselves at the expense of others). So each and every organization looking to effect positive change in this city can not only metaphorically heave a sigh of relief at the alleviation of a certain degree of individual human suffering, they can also take a valuable lesson from this positive outcome.
The answer may be simple, but the underlying process is anything but. Gathering and then disseminating the information a
bout the needs and wants of the homeless, the number and condition of available units, the history of public policy and layers of political agendas, and the various bureaucracies currently involved–right down to the minutiae of the housing authority regulations–was a monumental task.
But when you hear FRD’s Bianca Henry (the young mother who spearheaded the entire operation) chuckle infectiously about this phase or that phase of the project’s efforts to date, or talk to any member of the ever-growing number of families now off the streets, cooking in their own kitchens and sleeping in their own beds, it’s impossible to doubt that all that effort was WAY worthwhile for everyone involved.