A vendor asked me last week what the vision was when I started Real Change. It was 24 years ago, but I didn’t have to think very hard. Because, while the organization has evolved, the idea that still animates our work is still pretty simple.
We printed a T-shirt this year for our 24th annual breakfast that captures the thought nicely. It says “Treating People Like People Since 1994.”
That hasn’t changed. A lot hasn’t changed. After 30 years of organizing homeless folks, there is still one thing that pisses me off more than anything: People being treated like human garbage.
I see poor people pushed more and more to the margins, where they are either made invisible or criminalized for being seen.
I see people getting chased around to no useful end, victimized for their poverty and harassed for simply existing.
I see people on the streets dismissed as having no expertise worth hearing. The more mass homelessness evolves, the more these things are true.
When I started this paper, my core insight was this: Homelessness is profoundly dehumanizing and this diminishes all of us.
Homelessness is profoundly dehumanizing and this diminishes all of us.
It is one thing to lose your housing and most of the things you own. But what happens after that is even worse; when people get treated like they have no value year after humiliating year, they come to believe in their own worthlessness. For many, those messages begin long before they are homeless.
That’s when the paralysis sets in and people just stop trying. Real Change was started as an antidote to despair.
Real Change was started as an antidote to despair.
We foster the community that allows people to feel seen and valued. Our vendors aren’t “clients.” They’re entrepreneurs.
We offer a means of earning an income that directly links effort and reward. We allow people to be who they are, and the opportunity to become their better selves.
We create an environment where humanizing relationships can flourish. We build avenues for people to be heard. We create change by supporting people in taking risks, telling their stories and sharing their ideas.
I don’t understand why this needs to be so rare.
From time to time, the city surveys homeless folks to ask what they need. The answers are never surprising.
Topping the list are housing, work and access to medical care.
While everyone agrees on these solutions, they are never adequately available. When people no longer provide a profit, we mostly throw them away.
When people no longer provide a profit, we mostly throw them away.
After those top concerns, the issues that come up revolve around quality of life.
That means shelter that offers a little personal space, is free of biting bugs and lacks curfews that treat you like a child. Where people have a say in their living conditions and are part of a community. It means places that allow couples, pets and a little privacy — you know, the things that help you feel human. More places to store your things so you don’t have to carry them around all day or risk having them stolen. More places that are easily accessible and non-stigmatizing, where you can get your clothes clean and use the bathroom.
As the homelessness industry has become more and more professionalized, policy has been made at the intersection of privilege and politics. It leaves these considerations — the human ones — devalued and ignored.
This, I think, is at the core of why solutions like sanctioned encampments and tiny houses remain so controversial as solutions to homelessness.
What makes sense to someone who sleeps safely inside is going to look different from what makes sense to someone who needs, first and foremost, a sense of community and a safe place to store their things. So that may be a tiny house, or even a place in a clean and safe tent community.
But those are not outcomes that our current system values. When someone moves from survival on a public sidewalk to a sanctioned tent encampment or a tiny house, in system terms, nothing, really, has happened. The dial has not been moved. They’re still just homeless, at least as far as the data is concerned.
Values like community and autonomy, like the existence of the soul, are not observable in the data.
For those things to matter, you’d need to ask a homeless person.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Check out the full Sept. 12 - Sept. 18 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.