Paul Boden, the executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), has been fighting the same fight around sweeps of people experiencing homelessness for nearly 40 years. He’s got the video to prove it.
A media team put together clips of a progressively older — but just as salty — Boden in 10-year intervals going back to the early 1980s saying, as he puts it, “the exact same shit about sweeps.”
“That’s how little this approach to addressing homelessness has been impacted by reality, by the fact that it clearly doesn’t ... work,” Boden said. “It’s been 39 years of approaching this [stuff] this way.”
Official reaction to homelessness moves in fits and jumps, he said, hiding people and the problem from view.
“And then you’ll see spurts of intensity and then die off, and then intensity and then die off, but the overall system of homelessness only exists if people see it,” he said, describing the tactic. “If we can get this ... to a place with ‘no lodging’ signs and ‘no sit’ laws and closing parks at night and private security ... and loitering enforcement, if we can get this ... to not be so ... visible, we don’t have a problem.”
WRAP has once again been pairing artists and organizers to develop a new messaging campaign, this time featuring a series of 1920s- and ’30s-style posters meant to enforce what research and, Boden would argue, common sense dictate is true: Moving people out of sight and out of mind using legal bans and carceral means does not end homelessness.
The look and feel of the posters was intentional, Boden said, and comes out of a tradition of artwork-as-activism at WRAP developed with artist Art Hazelwood, who has been the group’s minister of culture since it was founded in 2005. Hazelwood is “the reason that WRAP has been able to produce and share the powerful artwork artists have created for us over the years,” Boden wrote in an email.
“His spirit of art as an organizing tool and artists as part of the organizing is what makes it work,” Boden wrote.
Hazelwood was asked to do a traveling art show based on a webinar he’d done about art and activism. He and Boden looked at the artwork from the Depression era and examined how poor people were being presented in the artwork that was being created about them.
“They were all standing up tall and fighting the cops and proud of being who they are,” Boden said. “And then you look at the ’60s, and all of the poor people in the artwork were commodities for nonprofits raising money. They were bunched over, they were leaning up against the garbage can, they were pathetic.”
It wasn’t empowering at all. That’s why art that WRAP uses leans on evocative imagery, like hands literally pushing back on police, buzzards in police hats and statements of strength such as “We Will Not Disappear.”
“It’s very important to us that, yeah, the message might be a little dark. It’s definitely snarky sometimes. It sure ... is direct. But it is never sending out the message that the people being talked about in this ... don’t have power and dignity,” Boden said.
Communities across the country are engaging in one of those “spurts of intensity” around visible homelessness right now.
In Los Angeles, the City Council banned encampments within 500 feet of schools and day care facilities, effectively excluding people experiencing homelessness from 20 percent of the city, according to some estimates. The vote occurred as Project Roomkey, a federally funded effort that housed as many as 10,000 people in hotels, comes to a close.
In Tennessee, officials passed a law making it a felony to camp on public property. One lawmaker managed to invoke Adolf Hitler in his positive comments on the bill, saying that the mass-murdering fascist had used his own experience of homelessness as a way to connect with people.
“People can come out of these camps and have a very productive life, or in Hitler’s case, a very unproductive life,” Sen. Frank Niceley said, according to The Tennessean.
Seattle officials have engaged in highly publicized sweeps of established encampments, notably at Green Lake, Woodland Park and recently SODO in the midst of an historic heatwave. While they report that people living in these encampments have been offered services, interviews conducted with people swept suggest offers either do not materialize or are inadequate to people’s needs.
Will art stop this structural onslaught against some of the nation’s most vulnerable people? Boden is under no illusions that it will. But it’s a start.
“An image, in and of itself, or a meme or something like that, is not gonna change [anything],” Boden said. “It’s going to reflect what it is what you’re trying to change. But the shit won’t change until you build the organizing base to change it.”
Read more of the Aug. 10-16, 2022 issue.