“You Say Something. You Write Something. You Do Something” : An Interview with WRAP’s Paul Boden

by the Stolen Belonging Team

Paul Boden: I’m currently with the Western Regional Advocacy Project. Before that, I came up off the streets through Hospitality House, where a bunch of us together created what is the Coalition on Homelessness, in the mid-eighties.

I was homeless for six years, as a kid, from the time I was 16 till 23, when I hooked up with Hospitality House and have been engaged in fighting against homelessness and helping out my brothers and sisters that happened to be homeless since I was 23 years old, in 1983.

Photo of Paul Boden by Leslie Dreyer

Can we talk a little bit about sweeps, the theft of people’s belongings in San Francisco, versus other cities where WRAP organizes? First start by the other cities that y’all are in.

Right now, the sweeps campaign that we’ve just launched, which is citywide and national in its focus, [is] organizing that originates from and stays accountable to people and groups that are being swept in local communities.

After 37 years of this issue happening on a daily basis in people’s lives, we hadn’t really felt that there was a direct connection between the human rights and civil rights organizing work and those that are actually the ones being oppressed and violently attacked by police and private security every day.

The only way to address that is to create it. So, it wasn’t a big stretch. It was just a matter of tweaking stuff a little bit, fine tuning stuff and understanding as we see with gentrification and business improvement districts and other neoliberal tools that are used to take over public spaces and local communities, they have their little flavor differences, but their core is identical.

It goes back to the ugly laws of the 1860s and the anti-Okie laws and the sundown towns: Make people’s lives miserable and hope that that will be enough to get the hell out of your fuckin’ town.

It’s like looking at how we colonized America and what Israel is doing on the West Bank and in Gaza. There’s recipes for this shit. The recipe is, make sure they know that the systems of power don’t want you here.

They don’t need you. They don’t want you. They don’t care about you. You’re not one of them. You’re those people. You’re the homeless. You’re the gay. You’re the trans, whatever. You’re them. You’re not us.

The laws that we put on the books we enforce on you, not on us. So, it’s illegal for everybody to stand still. Only some people ever get messed with for it.

It’s illegal to lay down in a park. Who doesn’t lay down in a park? But who goes to jail for it? It’s illegal to sit on a sidewalk. Who goes to jail for that shit? So this is tried and true, the ugly laws. This is tried and true shit…

That’s what we need to be organizing around. That’s why we need to set up legal defense clinics in the streets, defending people, because the law is not going to protect us.

[So] attorneys and artists and community organizers and the homeless people themselves are fighting this shit, working together to build power and have music and bring artwork and bring legal skills and bring writing skills and create our own papers and do all of those empowerment things that empower us, not them.

It’s not about empowering them. They have power. It’s about creating the avenues and the venues to get that out and to hook it up with other people.

I mean, I always joke that for 35 years we’ve been getting our asses kicked, but we can party better than any group of people because when we come together and we see how awesome we are, we get uplifted. That puts us in a good mood, and we have a kickass party. And then tomorrow, we’re right back in the streets getting our asses kicked, but so what?

What progress are you seeing in some of the legal campaigns to stop the theft of belongings? Do you see the legal campaigns working?

I mean, I don’t see them working on a broad scale basis. You can point to the Boise decision [a federal case that bars cities from punishing street sleeping when alternatives aren’t available], which wasn’t so much about taking property, but it was in a way, because it was about removing people from spaces.

We have yet to witness a court decision that said, “This is wrong. Don’t do it.” Instead of giving caveats of what needs to be in place in order to justify doing it, that just says people don’t have housing.

We know, from Without Housing and a million other reports—but I would say Without Housing did it with the best artwork and shit—we know that there is a clear correlation between wiping out affordable housing funding and people ending up homeless in the early 1980s.

We’ve never restored that funding. In fact, we’ve exacerbated it with HOPE VI and RAD and the USDA housing cuts and the VA housing cuts.

So, we’ve expanded that draconian policy, but we’ve never refilled the pot. Homes for All, [a bill to expand affordable housing] that [Rep.] Ilhan Omar introduced, that’s an awesome thing and even the Democrats aren’t supporting it. It’s not on Biden’s campaign. So we’ve got a ways to go to build power.

I’ve not seen a court decision that just said to local governments, you’re being racist (which they are), you’re being classist (which they are), you’re being discriminatory in your enforcement (which they clearly are). So just stop it. Stop it, and figure out another way of addressing the issues.

You might try housing people. Because just in all the years I was living out there and I’ve been doing this stuff, frontline service provider, organizing, whatever, you offer people a decent place to live, they’re not going to choose to be in the street, or not enough of them to warrant the kind of shit we see today.

So it’s this simple, basic, [thing]: Treat people like human beings and see what happens. But that isn’t the mindset and that isn’t the war on poverty, 501(c)(3) charity shit, that we’re going to address poverty by doing charity and ignore the reality of politics.

No. Hell no. This is political. This is a political structure and a political system that says, profits for the corporate and the elite are way more important to America than the needs and lives and education and healthcare and housing of poor people. That’s what we’re dealing with and the meanness.

This stuff is so important that they’re lugging it around with them, while they have nowhere to live, while they have no safe place to store it. They’re lugging it around with them. You’re going to steal it and say it’s trash?

It’s important enough that they’re carrying it with them, that they’re pushing it in carts, whatever the hell they’re doing, that they’re storing it in their encampment and getting their friends to watch their shit for them. It’s that important to them.

More and more, we’re seeing local governments contracting with corporate entities, like Urban Alchemy here in San Francisco, or Rapid Response up in Portland and the BIDs[business improvement districts] in Skid Row.

They’re hiring corporations to go and steal people’s stuff and throw it away. That’s a clear message to those people, that you ain’t shit to us, man. We don’t want you here. Get the fuck out.

That means we got to fight. You don’t reasonably debate that. You don’t look to justify what they might be thinking when they’re treating human beings that way.

You’ve been houseless. You’re housed now. How do you think we can connect with more housed people to help them understand the hypocrisy and that this is rampant city theft that should care about?

I’ve thought about it even in my own context, so not pointing fingers. Why do we call it camping? That’s not fuckin’ camping. I never considered myself camping. Why do we call it sweeps? Sweeps is a euphemism for kicking someone’s ass. So, why don’t we call it that?

I think, oftentimes we get caught up in using their language and then trying to explain why it’s bad.

It’s an eviction. You’re living somewhere, and you’re being kicked out of that spot. If you were housed, it would be an eviction. When you’re unhoused, it’s a sweep. That’s kind of semantics to the people.

I think one thing is, even in our own stuff, we define it on our terms. It may not be how the media and the general public and the politicians define it, but it is how it is defined by those that are living it.

I see it growing. We really need to talk about institutional racism and classism on a broader basis.

Clearly, there’s a movement afoot against policing. I think that that extends out. I think we need to push [that movement] and extend it out to the others, because it connects to all of us that are experiencing forms of oppression. We need to understand that oppression is oppression. It’s all part and parcel of the same.

The Reagan revolution is alive and well in America. So, we need to be reminding people of that. The issue of racism started when we built the shit, when we stole the shit.

The issue of neoliberalism really connects as early as 1980, in terms of, now, this is going to be the system of governments.

When we think that we address poverty with the war on poverty and creating the United Ways of the world and the National Alliance to End Homelessness of the world, that this is about being nice, being polite, being white, being highly educated and being incredibly well paid, so that we fit in where the corporate elite and the politician elite hang out. That’s how we’re going to change shit?

No, those days are over. Those days are over. Our music and our artwork and our street theater and our direct actions and our newspapers and our messaging needs to all get incredibly realistic, that the Chronicle may not run this article because of what we say, but we don’t care.

We’re going to spread it through our own networks. We’re going to get this message out. I don’t care if we have to go back to the mimeograph days, but people have done it before and we can do it again.

Now, we have a lot more tools that we have access to, in order to be able to spread a message. I think that we all can.

I’m, again, not pointing fingers here. I think we can all do a hell of a lot better at uniting our shit to each other and spreading each other’s messages out through our networks.

Talking about policing, can you imagine a world without policing? If so, what would a city like this look like without it?

Well, I mean, the Right to Rest Act was our intent to envision a world where, if you ain’t obstructing, you ain’t bothering nobody. You’re sleeping. You’re sitting. You’re standing still. You’re eating. You’re hanging out. You ain’t bothering nobody. How could that possibly be a criminal offense?

So, I think the first thing about imagining a world without policing is to really look at, what are we saying is illegal? What are the activities that we’re saying we don’t want in our society? Really, what’s the intent of those laws?

Because even the people that wrote the no sit/lie law that Newsom ran a whole campaign off of, they all sit. The people that wrote no sleep laws, all sleep.

What is the intention of these laws? What is the intention of the enabling legislation to create BIDs, where you’re privatizing public spaces and bringing private security forces through block by block?

Urban Alchemy, Allied Security are patrolling public spaces. What’s the intent behind this shit? Because it’s the evil intent behind the shit that leads to the need for more policing.

I think it’s why when we look at the old United Fruit Company banana republics, we don’t see police departments. We see military.

Well, look at our police departments. They sure look like military systems to me. So, when your local police are now getting armored vehicles, and you’re talking about sensitivity training, you’re missing the boat, man.

I’ve done those sensitivity trainings at the police academy. It was the biggest waste of time I’ve ever spent in my life. Everything else about that apparatus was military-industrial complex. Then here comes Paul, talking about, you should be sensitive towards homeless people. What a fuckin’ joke.

How do we get more housed residents on our team?

Human rights. Human rights. I think there’s a framing in WRAP, the coalition. I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want you to feel sorry for the homeless. Fuck that. You don’t feel sorry for people you respect.

So, I think the main thing is to be a fierce defender of human rights. When you see something wrong, call it in and react to it. Don’t just see the cops treating some woman like shit, on the street, because she appears decompensated and be like, “Oh, man. That sucks.” Do something, anything.

It doesn’t matter what it is. Do something. Don’t just be a complacent bystander to oppression and abuse, because that’s how they get away with it. Don’t think, I can’t do anything.

You may not fix it. You may not solve it, but you can do something. You can tell people about it. At the very least, you can bear witness to it and tell people about it and tell people why it felt so wrong. That’s something. That’s good, because you did something. Then, maybe those people will tell somebody else. You never know.

It was so amazing to me. We put out a report in 2006, called Without Housing. In 2019, Omar and [Rep. Earl] Blumenauer and [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and [Rep. Rashida] Talib and them are introducing the Homes for All Act.

They were holding the hard copy of a report we released in the 2000s… I don’t even know where they got it, but they were holding it in their hands, when they introduced the Homes for All act.

So, you never know how the ripple is going to go, but you do something. You put it out. You say something. You write something. You do something, and you trust that it will go out further.

Then the next time, you do something again. The next time, you do something again. You don’t call the cops on social stuff.

How do we connect the campaigns more across cities?

I can only speak to how we’d done it. We have a pretty strong screening mechanism about accountability. If you’re not doing street outreach, and you’re talking about sweeps and homeless people, but you don’t have a street outreach component to your work, I don’t understand who “we” is when you say, “We think this.” Organizers must document who they’re talking to.

So our methodology is to work with local organizing groups that are accountable to their local communities. They build the base with individuals and organizations and we build a unified base by connecting them to each other. WRAP doesn’t have individual members. So, having 5,000 members doesn’t thrill us. It might look good on a grant application, but it doesn’t do anything for organizing the revolution. We have 10 organizations in 10 cities, and we’re building from there. 

Any last words for Mayor Breed or any other politician in power right now, that make the executive decisions to change how people are treated on the streets?

I would encourage Mayor Breed to look at some of the WPA-funded artwork that mayors used to create what we call HUD, in 1936. The Public Housing Administration was created in 1937.

We have artwork on our wall, in our office, from [former New York Mayor Fiorello]  LaGuardia saying, “Must we always have this?,” with a big question mark. Why not housing?

It’s like, it took mayors and local organizers and the [Industrial Workers of the World] and others to push the feds to create public housing. Now, we still have the organizers and the fighters, but we don’t have the local governments, because now they’re funded by HUD to do homeless shit.

Newsom said this straight up to me, one time, looking at our Without Housing report. “Yeah, I know you’re right, but you don’t control the purse strings. HUD does.”

Well, they need to stop working for the funding source and start working for the community. They need to understand that, housed or unhoused, this is our community and you work for us. So, you should be working with the organizing groups, to fight the shit that is happening, as opposed to fighting the organizing groups because you don’t want to offend fuckin’ HUD or [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi or anybody else.

Lastly, they all need to read WRAP and Housekeys Action Network Denver’s latest report Pipe Dreams and Picket Fences, which covers the results of a 2022 housing survey that asked 828 people experiencing homelessness what housing solutions they need. “If we are working to ‘end homelessness,’ as is so often stated, this work must be directed by houseless people themselves,” our report states. “From top to bottom, the government response to houselessness has failed for one simple reason: It has never acknowledged through action, only words, that the number one cause of houselessness is the absence of housing.”