At the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress in June, 2019, homeless union organizers met from across the country and voted to form the Committee to Re-Establish the National Union of the Homeless. In the 1980s and 90s the NUH was represented in 25 cities and had over 25,000 members. Today there are well over 8 million people who are living without homes. The logic of the economy in the U.S. and around the world demands that the cost and value of labor must be reduced and even eliminated. The crisis of homelessness is perhaps the most dramatic sign that this economy increasingly has less value for human life. The NUH represents the front line in a struggle against this failure of society. Their leadership helps us see what is coming for the vast majority of us if action isn’t taken.

This week the NUH is meeting in New York City to continue a week long intensive training of its leaders. Please take some time this week to learn about the work and history of the National Union of the Homeless. 

Kairos will be sharing some of the stories that emerged out of this struggle over the years. We are beginning the week with an essay recently written by NUH and MA Poor People’s Campaign leader Savina Martin, documenting some of the current conditions in Boston. If you are in New York City please also come out to the public events that are part of the NUH gathering this Wednesday, Sept. 25, at The People’s Forum! You can find more information and RSVP here.

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Homeless union Takeover film
A scene captured from the film 'Takeover' that documented the National Union of the Homeless' coordinated takeover of vacant houses across the US.

The Mission of the National Union of the Homeless:

The heart and soul of the National Union of the Homeless is to commit our lives to ending homelessness and poverty and to work tirelessly for the human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for social and economic justice for all. We dedicate ourselves to raising the awareness of our sisters and brothers, to planning a sustained struggle and to building an organization that can obtain freedom through revolutionary perseverance. We pledge to deepen our personal commitment to end all forms of exploitation, racism, sexism, and abuse. True solidarity demands that we create not only the new society, but also the new human being.

Everywhere, USA

by Rev. Savina Martin

The poor must unite!

The State, in its various institutions and forms of power,  regard those who are poor as human industrial waste. We know it has all happened before…

 “They jailed us, then sent in the trash trucks to crush our belongings, then called it “Operation Clean Sweep”! This is nothing new; I recall similar state tactics during the days when we were organizing with the Historical National Union of the Homeless. I also remember the same tactic during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta Georgia, they conducted a “sweep and jailed the poor for the duration of the Olympics. Some sources stated, “At least “they” get three hots- and- a- cot”!

Today, over twenty years later, Boston is reliving these conditions.  A recent headline in Common Dreams read, 

‘Heartbreaking’ Scene on Boston Streets as Police Destroy Wheelchairs Belonging to Homeless Residents

“Can we all agree that it is inhumane and cruel and a waste of resources to crush the wheelchairs of people who are living on the street after a car accident in a full body cast?” 

“Police in Boston Tuesday night reportedly destroyed three wheelchairs belonging to homeless city residents in a garbage truck compactor as part of a crackdown targeting the city’s transient population”.

According to the article, “Operation Clean Sweep” began on August 2nd after a county corrections officer was allegedly struck during a fight involving a number of people on “Methadone Mile.” Methadone Mile is a stretch of the city near Massachusetts Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard where there are a number of clinics and treatment centers. The area has a high homeless population and it was mostly folks from this area that were targets of the “operation.”

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Boston homeless camp sweep
Images from 'Operation Clean Sweep' in Boston.

The destruction of wheelchairs is only the latest incident involving the trashing of personal possessions belonging to the poor and unhoused. We can see clearly how these officials perceive the people on Methadone Mile in the language they choose to describe their response, “Operation Clean Sweep.” 

“Mass removing homeless people (e.g. human beings) and calling it ‘operation clean sweep’ (the obvious implication being said human beings are trash) is genocidal rhetoric and it’s disturbing no one in Boston government or media feels the need to point this out,” @adamjohnsonNYC  

Journalist Miles Howard questioned whether the images of a homeless person’s wheelchair being crushed in a garbage truck would have any effect on the future of the operation. 

“The questions at the heart of #OperationCleanSweep are whether there’s dignity in being human (I believe there is) and whether government should honor that intrinsic dignity (I believe it should). “[Boston Mayor Marty Walsh] has chosen to treat the homeless as subhuman trash. What do you think?” @MilesPerHoward

After these events tensions rose on the streets of Boston. A coliseum like meeting was held by city and state officials (No mayor). Residents yelled, screamed, and nearly collapsed expressing their anger at what they believed was unfair and a form of retaliation after the incident involving the Corrections Officer. Activists and youth from the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival attended and voiced their position around the cause and effect of poverty. Other activist stood in solidarity from homeless groups and other support from the city of Boston and surrounding neighborhoods. The moment is now to unite, this is everywhere, USA!

The Island

What were the conditions that led to this sweep? What has the mayor, the governor, and our other elected officials done to help mitigate years of increasing homelessness, opioid misuse, overdoses, and death on the streets?  And what can we do?

Five years ago one of the largest homeless facilities, Long Island Shelter, abruptly closed its doors citing the safety of the sole bridge to the island as the primary reason.  Long Island is located in Boston Harbor. It is part of the City of Boston and the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. In October 2014 all access to Long Island was cut off for the indefinite future by Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh. All of those living on Long Island and being serviced by recovery programs, or who were guests in the homeless shelter were no longer able to access these facilities and resources. They were relocated elsewhere on an emergency basis. The future uses of the island and its buildings are still under discussion, 

 While some of the Long Island folks were offered beds in shelters around the city, many ended up roaming the Market Square area because of the shock of being removed so abruptly and inhumanely. Some tried their best to adjust to new surroundings, new rules, and new regulations in new shelters. Some chose to go back to the streets and inevitably succumbed to the seduction of drugs and small economic survival crimes. Many of these folks ended up along Methadone Mile.

For the most part, medical professions, jail officials, and Health and Human service officials all looked the other way until things boiled over on August 2, 2019. 

Methadone Mile looks like a scene from a bad movie where human beings are incoherent, sick, and dying from disease, overdose, and the lack of proper treatment. If you talk to people you learn that many of these folks were stable and drug-free, but became increasingly vulnerable once dumped back on the streets after the closing of Long Island Shelter. When folks are back on the streets they succumb to what is familiar and the pull of drug is often too overwhelming. Most shelters have strict rules that force folks to carry backpacks with all of their  possessions all day. This causes fatigue, emotional distress, and invites harassment and searches from the police. For many it also became a barrier to employment search or even to visiting hospitals, which often have rules against large baggage. 

Shelters also have strict time constraints about when you enter and exit. If you arrived even one minute late you could lose your bed for the night. Violating these rules or refusing to deal with the indignity of these shelters, many end up returning to the streets. This is part of the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

Boston! Please do not be surprised at how the “State” treats us. This is part of what we, the poor and disenfranchised, are up against! It is not just Boston. We are part of a much broader, global war waged against the poor. Whether it is the Shack dwellers in South Africa People, tent encampments in Oregon and California, or the hidden poor of West Virginia and Aberdeen, Washington, all of the world people are made poor, kept poor, and criminalized and dehumanized for their poverty.  We stand together with the poor in the US and across the world, because we know that we are in a fight for our lives. What can we do? We must study, unite, and mobilize!

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Homeless Union at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress
The formation of the Committee to Re-Establish the National Union of the Homeless at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress in Washington D.C., June 2019.