Concurrent with all of the amazing conversations we’ve been having this summer at Peace House about voter ID and the criminalization of homelessness, a buzz has been growing within the community about the harassment of people experiencing homelessness at the hands of the police. Just the other day, two members of the community were having an innocent cigarette in the parking lot when several of Minneapolis’ finest pulled up and searched them without a probable cause. The stories that I’ve heard show that this is an unfortunately regular occurrence; after all, people on the street are exposed not only to the natural elements, but also to the nexus of control and coercion of urban space.
I do a great deal of listening at Peace House, and listening lead me to work with a couple of community members to start an advocacy council to continue conversations that might lead to action on issues such as violence/harassment against people experiencing homelessness in the community. I facilitated the first meeting this past Tuesday using the popular education model, a set of theories and practices that changed my life several times (first when I was 16 and had just started working in community settings, and again this past May when I visited the Highlander Center in Tennessee, a major home for popular education and struggles for change in the US). The spiral model that I used is replicated below:
For more info on popular education and Highlander, check this out (courtesy of the wonderful Larry Olds)
At our first meeting, the group resolved to begin documenting instances of harassment and/or violence within the community. One of the others goals of the group is to eventually become more connected to other advocacy groups in the area, which could lead to a wider effort on the topic. While I was at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington, DC this past month, I attended a couple of sessions about these topics, and came away rather confused. On the one hand, homeless advocates seem very eager to work with law enforcement to help connect homeless people in downtown business districts to housing resources rather than jail/prisons. This relationship certainly flows both ways, as the police would like to spend fewer resources (both human and financial) dealing with “low-level crime.” However, I had (and still have) a critique of this partnership: ultimately, law enforcement is bound to control the way space is used, and people experiencing homelessness defy “proper use” of consumer space, usually found in downtown areas of American cities. So the third player, consumerism, is a hump that I haven’t gotten over yet, at least conceptually.
Hence the brilliance of this group at Peace House, which will surely grapple with all of these issues in a wide variety of vocabularies and with a wider range of experiences and ideas. The spiral of knowledge and power continues!