When you first meet Paul Boden, the executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) that’s working to end homelessness, his initial shyness leaves you unprepared for what’s about to come. Just start chatting with Boden about homelessness, and his energy surfaces as if he’s explaining the crisis for the first time. Within minutes, he’s waving his hands and dropping f-bombs, which oddly makes you warm up to him quickly. It’s probably because the best part about talking to Boden is you know he’s the real deal. While homeless himself in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in the ’80s, Boden started organizing to eliminate homelessness and he’s continued ever since.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Boden to talk about his new book, House Keys Not Handcuffs: Homeless Organizing, Art and Politics in San Francisco and Beyond, which details what he’s learned from over 30 years of community organizing. Images are dispersed throughout the book, chronicling the role art played in the movement (slideshow below). One of the first things Boden emphasizes is that homelessness isn’t inevitable. It was the result of massive federal cuts to affordable housing, approximately $50 billion between 1979 and 1983 under the Reagan administration.
“That’s when shelters began,” Boden writes in the book. “That’s when people were beginning to be forced to live on the street in numbers unheard of since the 1930s.”
The city of San Francisco responded by creating bureaucratic programs that provided only short-term solutions. That’s why, in 1987, he and a few others created the Coalition on Homelessness, so people on the frontlines could push for change. Boden went on to develop WRAP in 2001, after speaking with other homeless advocacy groups about the need for a larger network on the West Coast. WRAP is currently focused on passing a Homeless Bill of Rights in several states to stop the criminalization of homeless people.
One of the key things Boden learned from his decades of organizing is the importance of connecting homeless rights with other oppressed people’s rights.
“Homelessness is a visible manifestation of a society that is sorely lacking in justice,” Boden writes. “When we speak to all our communities in the spirit of what is socially just, we will be banding together to create a government that respects us all.”
But doing the actual organizing work—and doing it the right way—is essential to precipitating change, Boden says. He calls WRAP’s method “accountable organizing.” Here are several takeaways from my interview with Boden.
Why he focused on “accountable organizing” in his new book: “I didn’t need to write a how-to manual. We don’t need to institutionalize community organizing. What we need to talk about is the spirit behind it, the power within it, and how to be accountable for using the word, ‘we.’ … For poor and homeless people, we got so many people that claim to speak on our behalf. … All are presenting themselves as speaking for the homeless people. But fuck that. We may not have housing, we may not have a job, we may not have a lot of money in our pocket, but we have a brain and we have a mouth. And so the role of the organizer needs to be how to connect that.
…I’ve seen it too many times over too many years to not know goddamn well that the reality of neighborhood-based community living and community working is what goes around comes around. If you’re out there pimping off of people without their input, without their respect, without them ever hearing their voices in anything you got to say as an organization, you’re a self-identified leader. You’re not a leader of shit. … When groups contact us, the first thing we do is send them the outreach forms, and say, ‘Start doing outreach and then we’ll talk to you.’ Nobody comes to our table that hasn’t been doing street outreach and documenting it and doesn’t have community forums. Otherwise, we don’t really care what you have to say, you’re just some person who identifies as an organizer. … I find that some groups are worried, ‘Well what if they say something we don’t agree with? What if the feedback I get isn’t what I’ve been pushing?’ And I think there’s a fear there. And that to me is where your organizing starts becoming skewed and starts becoming driven by the organizers.”
To inform their organizing, WRAP organizers go out and ask the same set of questions: “We have talked [to] over 1,300 [people] to create the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign we’re doing now. And homeless people help out with that. So I’m homeless, I’m living in a fucking shelter, which means I’m sitting around for hours. Or I’m on line at St. Anthony’s to get something to eat, which means I got two hours to fucking spare. I can talk to my brothers and sisters on the line. And I can get feedback. And so I can automatically start participating in the process and be connected to something and have a legitimate, vital role in building something just right where I am in that moment.
So for the Homeless Bill of Rights, we talked to a lot of people. 81 percent said they were getting busted for sleeping, 78 percent for sitting, and 66 percent for loitering, which is basically standing fucking still. So those are our top three priorities. The organizers don’t decide what’s the priority, the street outreach and the community forums do. … And when we submit the legislation—you know all organizers have to deal with compromise. So if the legislators want to take something away, all we had to do is look at the priorities from our outreach and maybe have to say ‘We can’t cut a deal on that.’ People tell you what’s up and then you go and cut a deal behind their back? You better not keep doing outreach on that block.”
Organizers shouldn’t let funding determine priorities: “We talk a lot about not letting the money drive the agenda. It’s important to remind yourself, when you actually do start getting a small little paycheck or you do get an office that, ‘We started this shit with nothing. So no matter what, we can’t end up with less than we started with.’ So if we’re freaking out, it’s about freaking out about what we got now, not starting over again because we’ve already been there. And it gives you this incredible amount of power to say, ‘Well, we’ll just stay within our means.’ And if the foundations want us to do something other than what we’re doing, then that’s not money we want.”
Even the artwork around a movement has to come from the community (slideshow below): “The artists we’ve worked with, they’re not creating a piece of artwork and then giving it to some poor people’s group and saying, ‘Here’s my interpretation of your life.’ … They’re actually organizers themselves. They’re getting feedback from the community. They’re incorporating that into creating images and connecting the message with the image that then resonates with the people being talked about. … When you think about poor and homeless people, you think about images: the images of some guy’s face with no teeth or some woman bent over curled up in a corner or some bag lady with all this shit. That’s the image people think of because that’s what’s projected out. And that resonates in people’s heads. They may not purposefully think it, but they’re not going to see homeless people as empowered, righteous, intelligent, dedicated and hard-working if the image in their head is projected as being pathetic and in need of help.”
WRAP hopes its Homeless Bill of Rights will be up for debate in California, Colorado and Oregon in 2015. In Oregon, State Rep. Chip Shields (D-Portland) recently introduced Right to Rest legislation. And the California state legislature is expected to introduce it in the coming weeks. The campaign is a step toward winning bigger change: “Especially at the local level, [the bill] is a way to…say the first thing we can directly address is you can’t fucking get rid of us. You can’t criminalize our existence. We’re here. And we’re no longer going to allow you to use the police, to use private security, to use discriminatory laws, to incarcerate us and harass us until we leave town. We no longer accept that as the way our relationship is going to function with local governments and communities where we happen to fucking live whether we have a house or not. We have the right to exist. And we’ll use that as a building base for getting strong enough, for overcoming the corporate influence of decision-making and government and all of that.
People keep saying, ‘Oh that’s so long-term.’ It’s like fuck you, we’ve been doing this for 32 years around homelessness. If we had started this 32 years ago we’d be a hell of a lot further along than we are today, so we might as well start it now because the way shit is going now, it’s only going to get worse if we don’t start doing it. … And you know, you’re going to lose more than you are going to win. So you need to understand the issue isn’t: did you win? The issue is: did you fight? And, did you fight with accountability? And are you ready to fight again tomorrow?”