New York City’s homeless shelters are overflowing with record numbers of people desperate for a bed. The New York Times covered this story in August 2012 by quoting the Bloomberg administration’s homeless commissioner, Manhattan’s borough president (a likely mayoral candidate), the chair of an Upper West Side community board, and a policy analyst. Only at the very end of the piece did they quote an unemployed mother applying for shelter: “My plan was to get help and save to get my own apartment. Right now, it’s not easy,” she said.
“In pop culture and mainstream media, poor people can’t speak our self-determined solutions to poverty, houselessness, [and] addiction,” says Lisa Gray-Garcia, a.k.a. Tiny, cofounder of the organization POOR Magazine. “If we do that, we’re taking profit and power away from the nonprofits, journalists, social-service agencies, and all the people and institutions that talk for us and about us and claim to be helping us.”
The NYT focused on how the city opened nine new shelters without much warning to the surrounding neighborhoods, where “local officials” and “neighborhood leaders” felt “blindsided.” They expressed concerns about safety and the adequacy of social services, and Manhattan’s borough president called the situation a “conundrum.”
What would the story look like if the quotes from policy analysts and mayoral hopefuls were replaced with a few more from people actually struggling with homelessness? On POOR’s website, Michael Glynn, who knows poverty firsthand, wrote a report in July 2011 on a shortage of shelter beds in San Francisco. His piece was titled, with no lack of clarity, “Shelter Beds Are NOT Housing.” Glynn’s article started from his own experience of struggling to get hired after getting out of prison, and quickly discovering that a welfare check isn’t enough to cover basic needs these days. He then breaks down how a city policy, the Fair Shelter Initiative, has redirected financial assistance away from individual homeless people and into the city’s shelter system, benefiting a few specific shelters while actually making it harder for most people to get beds. He calls out the “smooth talking” affordable-housing developers and shelter managers whose self-interest has trumped the needs of people struggling on the streets. Yet when it comes to the NYT covering the devastating rise in the number of people without homes, it’s these smooth talkers we hear from.
This is what POOR wants to change. The California Bay Area–based organization is a poor- and indigenous people–led arts and media organization and an instigator of revolutionary approaches to media making, media-justice organizing, popular education, and social justice.
How many times have you seen global poverty represented on tv with an image of the swollen belly of a nameless dark-skinned child? Or domestic poverty signified by shots of people silently pushing shopping carts or lying on the street? The voices actually heard in these stories are most often those of privileged people charitably helping “the poor” or offering abstract solutions to poverty from a comfortable distance. POOR works to end poverty by amplifying the real-life wisdom of people who have lived—or are living—it.
POOR was cofounded in 1996 by Gray-Garcia and her mother, Dee, a woman of Taíno, African, Roma, and Irish descent. The two had survived bouts of houselessness and incarceration, chronic poverty, domestic violence, and severe post-traumatic stress. (According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, half of all women experiencing homelessness are fleeing domestic violence, and 26 percent of homeless people struggle with severe mental illness.) Gray-Garcia and her mother lived in cars, motels, and storefronts. They made art and media to support themselves both materially and creatively, selling their line of clothing, Street Wear, on the Venice Boardwalk in Los Angeles and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and using performance to offer scathing critiques of the economy. In “The Depressed Box,” they dressed in black, stood next to a giant donation box with a sign that said, “Give us a dollar and we’ll tell you why we’re depressed.”
After Gray-Garcia began publishing articles about poverty in Bay Area newspapers, she became convinced that poor people need to tell their own stories and have outlets in which to share them. She started organizing impromptu writing workshops in welfare lines and on the streets where she and Dee were vending. In 1996, they published the first issue of POOR Magazine. Short on dollars but huge on resourcefulness and vision, POOR has continued to grow and transform, and now publishes online at poormagazine.org, broadcasts a twice-monthly 15-minute “POOR News Network” radio segment on KPFA in the Bay Area, posts video reports via their own YouTube channel, and more.
POOR’s media-justice ethic is rooted in the notion of “ ‘I’ journalism”: “We refute the notion of journalistic objectivity and ‘real’ and ‘legitimate’ media,” says Gray-Garcia. POOR believes instead in the expert wisdom—or “scholarship”—of people who have lived what they’re making media about. After all, what’s so legitimate about the perspective of a person who has studied poverty academically but never lived it? What’s objective about a privileged person’s distant, disconnected view of someone else’s daily struggle?
In POOR’s model, “skolaz” on poverty, race, the prison-industrial complex, and more determine in a “community newsroom/indigenous newsmaking circle” what news is important and how it should be told. (POOR deliberately plays with language and spelling as an act of resistance, noting that “colonized and oppressed peoples in poverty do not speak the colonizers’ languages with academic precision.” This language of resistance centers marginalized voices, and demands readers enter on skolaz’ terms.) In the pages of POOR you’ll find reviews of free meals offered throughout San Francisco and “poetry journalism” like A. Faye Hicks’ series of poems about the abuse she and other women suffered in the welfare and shelter systems.
POOR is about poor people acting with agency—for instance, leading GentriFUKation tours of San Francisco’s Mission District. Costumed in suit jackets and wielding bullhorns, members of POOR blaze into posh restaurants and hotels that have displaced longstanding businesses and housing, announcing that these places used to be gathering spaces and homes for working-class people of color and before them, the indigenous Ohlone people pushed out by the original colonization of the area by Spanish missionaries, who gave the neighborhood its name.
Years of kitchen-table talk among Tiny and other single mothers of color led to the formation of POOR’s performance-poetry group welfareQueens. In emotional poems where voices and stories intersect and overlap, the welfareQUEENS describe their lives: families torn apart more than helped by Child Protective Services, women untreated and impoverished by the U.S. healthcare system, poor mothers figuring out how to raise kids on next to nothing. They call themselves “superbabymamas,” vociferously countering myths about lazy “welfare queens” with the reality that they are doing the tremendous unpaid labor of mothering in the midst of crushing poverty. From college classrooms to theaters to the sidewalk outside welfare offices, the welfareQUEENS challenge mainstream narratives about poor mothers, and they’re just one way POOR is changing the dialogue around poverty.
“Corporate and independent media producers talk at us, create useless cover stories based on our lives and fronted by ‘beautiful’ images of our broken bodies for voyeuristic consumption,” Gray-Garcia writes in the manuscript for her second book, Poverty Scholarship (for which she is currently seeking a publisher). “After we critique voyeuristic, violent models of photojournalism, we offer some teachings on how to ‘seize the gaze,’” explains Gray-Garcia. “For example, it’s never okay to photograph a person sitting or sleeping on the street, or who falls into a stereotype of a houseless person, unless you first build a relationship with that person in which you not only ask if it’s okay but also offer remuneration—50 to 70 percent of what you’re going to get for that picture, whether it’s cash, a line on your résumé, or something else. But mostly we request that you just don’t take that picture at all. Realize that you have no ‘right’ to take that picture, and consider simply not taking it.”
A book-publishing wing, POOR Press, has published more than 65 titles. POOR Press’s bilingual anthology Los Viajes/The Journeys offers the stories of people crossing borders all over the world. The content was drawn from a year and a half of free, bilingual, multigenerational writing workshops POOR conducted in shelters, schools, and community centers. The resulting stories, told in prose and poetry, are intimate and varied, revealing in crushing detail the damage done by “false borders”: the separation of families, the loss of home, the silencing inherent in being undocumented and not speaking the dominant language. The stories in Los Viajes are presented in Spanish first, followed by English translations, to counter the silencing of Spanish speakers in the United States.
When the Occupy movement of 2011 showed clear signs of replicating the racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of hierarchical violence of dominant U.S. culture, POOR Press rushed to publish the Decolonizers Guide to a Humble Revolution. This multivoiced, 82-page guidebook to resistance movements past and present offered a clear and heterogeneous vision of intersectional activism—and was pulled together in a couple of weeks on a minuscule budget for distribution to Occupy sites across the country. With correspondents all over the world (a Toronto branch was launched this fall), POOR is connected to a worldwide movement of street newspapers created by houseless people.
To effectively center the voices and stories of often marginalized people, POOR has innovated numerous models of “horizontal media production.” In a process called writer facilitation, people with educational privilege will collaborate with skolaz to tell their story through interviewing, transcribing, and/or editing. POOR’s “byline real estate” ensures a shared “byline equity” between poverty scholars and people with educational or language privilege. “In the ultimate act of…equity sharing by the facilitator,” Gray-Garcia says, “the name of the facilitator would be completely absent from the byline.”
Beyond making media, POOR organizes court and hospital support for people in their community, educates poor and privileged people alike about media and economic justice, and fights policies that criminalize poverty (like the “sit-lie” laws cropping up in numerous cities that make it illegal to stop and rest on city sidewalks) and developments that displace people. POOR also makes sure there’s childcare and food to eat in any given workshop or meeting, and offers people rides to and from media-making classes and direct actions. This isn’t accidental or ancillary—rather, it’s integral to who and what POOR is that media making is constantly connected to other kinds of work to build community and fight poverty.
“Poor people actually hold solutions to ending poverty if you understand and recognize that our agency is already there, then make space for the solutions that we have already,” says Gray-Garcia. “We talk about deep solutions like moving off the grid, our own food production, healing that has to do with people-to-people care, and system-wide change. Maybe it will never happen in the U.S., but it’s worth a conversation.”
What is happening, now, is POOR’s visionary project of poor-people-led self-determination—and it’s called Homefulness. “Isn’t that the real solution to houselessness?” asks Gray-Garcia.
Homefulness is a vision that goes back decades. It was the theme of the first issue of POOR Magazine in 1996. It is a poor people–created vision of good housing, where home, garden, childcare, education, community, and art and media making are fluid and shared. It’s housing that is permanent, that offers a balance of privacy and community, and that you can have access to regardless of how much money you have. Homefulness is worlds apart from shelter beds, or transitional housing for low-income people that comes with paternalistic strings attached.
In the early years of POOR, Tiny and Dee and the organization survived by living together with other single mothers of color in rented apartments they named Mamahouses. “Isolation kills,” says Gray-Garcia, “especially for single-parent women.” By living together, they could share childcare, cooking, emotional support, and more. They held community dinners and initiated projects like the welfareQUEENS. But Mamahouses were always precarious, rented from slumlords who would kick the mothers and their children out on short notice to reap the benefits of increasing rents in gentrifying areas.
That’s why Homefulness is so important. This cohousing project provides affordable, permanent homes for houseless and formerly houseless people in a major U.S. urban area where “solutions” to homelessness usually involve temporary beds. To do this requires both self-determination (for POOR) and redistribution (by people with access to material wealth). Although in the bigger picture POOR questions the entire concept of private property, in the world we’re living in, POOR needs to own the land Homefulness is on to be safe from evictions. And to own land in this economy requires dollars—but instead of fundraising from foundations and government agencies (who likely have restrictive ideas about housing for poor people), POOR is focusing on relationships with individuals who believe that the current economic system is unjust, and that poor people should be able
to create their own housing solutions.
Land for Homefulness was purchased in East Oakland, California, in summer 2011 through collaboration with the POOR Solidarity Family (of which I am a member). The Solidarity Family is a group of people with class, race, educational, and/or other privilege who recognize that our humanity is bound up with everyone’s humanity, and that we live in a violent, dehumanizing economic structure that disconnects us. We share resources through a framework called “community reparations,” which involves giving and fundraising money (e.g., the cash to buy land for Homefulness) as well as time, skills, connections, and heart.
At the Oakland site, which is down the street from a spot where Dee and Tiny sometimes slept in their car 16 years ago, POOR will build housing for up to eight individuals and families using sustainable, green methods. There will be a community garden, offices for POOR, classrooms, and a cafe and performance space. A team of pro bono architects from the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity has drawn up plans. A whole slew of people have helped pull up asphalt and start planning the community garden. The Solidarity Family and others are raising funds for construction. The hope is that this site will serve as a model for poor people–created housing in many communities and many places.
The creation of multifamily housing might seem an ambitious direction for a media organization—something people schooled in the typical ways of the nonprofit world might call “scope creep.” But thinking outside of a narrow, dominant-culture frame, it makes perfect sense that a poor people–led media organization would be building housing. Plus, Homefulness is not an isolated solution, but part of a global resistance movement. The project is proudly anchored in a legacy of landless people’s self-determination efforts such as MOVE, a Philadelphia-based black-liberation group founded in the 1970s; the Landless People’s Movement; the Shack Dwellers Union in South Africa; and the Zapatistas in Mexico.
“Speaking our own stories and our own solutions challenges dominant media messages and mythologies,” says Gray-Garcia, “like the mythology that as poor people we have no agency and have to be spoken for and spoken about. But our agency is already here. And that’s how Homefulness was born: We demanded, we created acts of media resistance, we refused and refuted fetishizing, labeling, and stereotyping in education, art, and media, and continued forward. The obvious solution to homelessness is Homefulness. And the obvious outgrowth of poor people speaking for ourselves is self-determination.”
Jessica Hoffmann is a coeditor/copublisher of make/shift magazine and a member of the POOR Solidarity Family.
Illustration by Sze Wa Chen.