April Anthony: I was houseless for the better part of twenty years. During the last six of those years while living at our beloved community at the Albany landfill (AKA the Bulb) I became an activist/advocate for the houseless.
I went to the city’s homeless task force meeting and introduced myself, including telling them where I lived, adding “without one of us representing the houseless community, this task force could be a waste of your time, energy and money. You might make choices and decisions that we wouldn’t approve of or that we would refuse to participate in.”
That task force listened to us and brought a proposal to the city that reflected the concerns and needs of the houseless community, which was rejected without even being read.
To make a long story short, we ended up suing the city. Through this event, I met many housed individuals who worked in solidarity with us, before and after our day in court.
Rev. Sandhya Jha: As a pastor of a small congregation in Oakland, we ended up with a lot of people crashing on our property to get away from the established drug corridor a few blocks away. We started getting to know folks by name and worshipped with them. We also learned how many hurdles there are for unhoused people to be able to get housing if they want it or to find a safe place for them to live in community. Eventually I worked with an organization called East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO) who fights for the right of the lowest income people in our communities to get access to housing with dignity. On a really good day, churches like the one I served can work alongside the houseless community to make a real difference.
My favorite example of that was a church in Walnut Creek I worked with through EBHO. One of the members of the church started making friends with people living in their cars and trying to get by in such an expensive community, where many of them worked but could no longer afford housing. She asked what they needed, got the church to invest in a day program, and as her friends noted their desire for housing, she got the church on board with building housing (with community space at the urging of the houseless community in Walnut Creek) for the people who need and want it.
Between the two of us, we see lots of ways that housed people can show up in support of houseless people:
- Our friend Genevieve Wilson always says “start out by getting to know people by name. Ask what they need.” Recently on a bus ride, she was sitting near a houseless person having a panic attack. The bus driver was agitated and trying to get him off the bus, but enough people were comfortable enough to know they could talk to him, ground him and help him get to where he was going so that he wasn’t left stranded and the police weren’t involved. That only happens when housed people can get over the irrational fear they’re trained into, so they can show up in helpful ways.
- If you have relationships with houseless and formerly houseless people in your community, you can invite them to community meetings or you can ask them what they would like you to share in those community meetings.
- There are some great efforts right now to build tiny homes by, for and with houseless people, such as Needa Bee’s work with the Village. Donate some time with the folks doing the building, and also find out if your house of worship could give up a few parking spaces or a piece of lawn so that those tiny homes have a place to go.
- There are programs in Contra Costa County like Warm Winter Nights that provide shelter and paths to housing. One way to build relationships with the houseless community is volunteering with them and supporting them in accessing services. This is often a really big eye opener for housed people, who don’t realize how hard and humiliating the process can be to sign up for something like CalFresh for access to food. Also consider investing in the emergency relief program with Shelter, Inc to support people who are at risk of losing their home.
- Pay attention to where houseless activists show up on the political front and show up with them. Sometimes our city councils think no one cares about the needs, concerns and activism of houseless people, but when church folks and housed constituents show up and say “we are here because we support our houseless neighbors,” that can force the council to take houseless people’s concerns more seriously…especially if the neighbors aren’t “professional organizers.” The houseless seniors at St. Mary’s Center in West Oakland are really involved in local advocacy; showing up with them is a great starting place.
- The Table in Berkeley is hosting a memorial service for the houseless people we have lost this year. Show up. Hear the stories. Get to know the other mourners. Listen for how you can show up.
- This is just a starting place, but we hope it will help you the next time you think “How can I show up with my houseless siblings?”