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Power to the [Homeless] People

A grassroots group works to build better relationships between cops and community.

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On an unseasonably mild Thursday night, a small group is gathered around a bright yellow picnic table on the spacious back patio of Manna House on Jefferson.

Their names (the Flyer is using first names only of some members since not all wanted their last names revealed) are Frederick, Lisa, Tony, and Marcus, and although they're currently without housing, they don't look like the disheveled homeless stereotype. Frederick and Marcus are wearing pressed, button-down shirts. Tony's sporting a green tank top and skinny jeans, and Lisa's dangly shell earrings compliment her sleeveless floral-print top.

"People think you have to look and dress a certain way if you're homeless, but everyone is just a paycheck away from being in our shoes. You can wake up tomorrow, and everything you have can be gone in the snap of a finger," Frederick said, addressing the small group.

The four are part of a "dignity" group, one of four breakout groups during the weekly meetings of H.O.P.E., an acronym for Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality.

Each week, about 30 homeless and formerly homeless people and their allies meet on the colorful patio of Manna House, a Midtown hospitality house, to discuss ways to fight against discrimination and maintain their dignity.

The dignity group has been tasked with developing one action plan that can help H.O.P.E.'s members achieve the respect they feel they deserve. After 15 minutes of tossing around ideas, the four decide on a plan: They'll pick a vacant, overgrown lot in the city and spend a day cutting grass and making it look nice.

"That way, the community can see that we're moving in a productive way, and we're not just looking for a handout," Marcus said, as the others nodded in agreement.

Projects such as this are at the core of what H.O.P.E. stands for — homeless people standing up for themselves to gain respect from the larger Memphis community.

Since the group began meeting last winter, they've secured $510,000 in county funding for permanent supportive housing, services for the most vulnerable among them, and the creation of a county veteran's court.

They're working with the Memphis Police Department (MPD) on anti-harassment training for officers, and they've appointed a homeless liaison officer from the MPD. The group is establishing a worker's cooperative, through which they'll make T-shirts for local organizations to earn a little income, and H.O.P.E. members have fought back against alleged sexual harassment at a homeless service provider. And that's only the beginning.

"We believe that nothing will ever move the ball forward with homelessness, unless you have an organization made up of people who have lived it," said Brad Watkins, organizing coordinator for the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, which provides the group with support but does not actually run things. The homeless themselves have the power at H.O.P.E.

Standing Up to Poverty Pimps

"You shouldn't have to have sex to sleep in a bed!" screams Linda Enshes as she walks along Madison Avenue in front of the Beers Van Gogh Center of Excellence on a scorching afternoon in mid-July.

Linda is one of about 15 protesters from H.O.P.E., some holding signs that read "Play To Stay Is Not Okay: H.O.P.E. Demands Dignity" and "We Condemn Sexual Harassment," gathered outside the shelter that H.O.P.E. alleges has committed acts of sexual harassment against some of its members.

"As I heard our members share their experiences [at the center], I was stunned," H.O.P.E member Tony Whitfield said. "This situation with a staff person here is out of control, including offering one of our members $20 to show him her breasts and telling her and others about the size of his penis and asking a woman if she wanted to be in a three-way with him and his girlfriend."

Over the past two months, H.O.P.E. has received numerous complaints from members about alleged sexual harassment by a Beers Van Gogh Center staffer. A worker at the center told the Flyer that the organization would have no comment on the allegations.

The Beers Van Gogh Center, a Tennessee Mental Health Consumers' Association organization that provides housing to homeless people with mental disabilities, is one of three homeless service providers H.O.P.E. is targeting in its "Play To Stay" campaign. The others, which haven't been publicly revealed, are accused of sexual harassment of homeless women and misappropriation of funds. Campaigns will be launched against the other two organizations in the coming months.

"We're in the process of reaching out to people and documenting their cases. We have an attorney who has volunteered to help, and we're going to take legal and direct action," Watkins said.

H.O.P.E. members went before the Shelby County Commission to ask for a total of $510,000 to fund three efforts in its "Road Home" campaign.

After members shared their personal stories of life on the streets during a commission meeting, the body approved funding for "wraparound" services for 100 of the most vulnerable homeless people, renovation of 78 units of permanent, supportive housing, and a veteran's court (see "Vetting Justice" on page 11).

The $250,000 awarded for wraparound services includes medical, mental health, and substance abuse treatment for 100 of those whom Community Alliance for the Homeless executive director Katie Kitchin deems the "sickest people" — those who have a combination of physical, mental, and substance abuse problems.

Those people will be placed into housing and given a case manager to help pair them with the services they need. The Community Alliance, a nonprofit that provides planning, technical assistance, and service coordination to public and private agencies working to end homelessness, already has homes lined up, but it needed this funding to ensure, once housed, that people have access to the services they need to get their lives back on track.

"We have to be very aggressive about making sure they have what they need to be successful, and that's access to medical care and treatment. That's very expensive, especially with a population that's sick," Kitchin said.

H.O.P.E. won't be dispersing the funds. That's the Community Alliance's job, but H.O.P.E. members were responsible for convincing the Shelby County Commission to provide funding.

H.O.P.E. also convinced the commission to fund another of the Community Alliance's efforts: $200,000 to renovate 78 apartments for homeless families with children. At least 25 of those units will be reserved for families with one or more disabled parents.

"There is a shortage of space for people with disabilities. Some shelters aren't accessible, and some get no public funding so they may not have the staff to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities," Kitchin said.

Although the Community Alliance is a separate organization from H.O.P.E., Kitchin says H.O.P.E. is a valuable partner that's making her job a little easier.

"They do a better job of speaking for themselves than we do," Kitchin said. "H.O.P.E. has done a really good job of being a cohesive group and putting forward efforts that will benefit the whole community and themselves. They're a valuable part of what we're trying to do to end homelessness."

Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, who sponsored the homeless funding initiatives, agrees. He thinks H.O.P.E. members telling their personal stories in front of the commission helped convince commissioners to approve the funding.

"Their personal testimonies were very moving. They put a human face on homelessness, so the issue wasn't just an abstraction," Mulroy said. "It demonstrated a real constituency for this and made it harder for anyone to say no."

The commission also approved another of H.O.P.E.'s funding requests: $60,000 to launch the Shelby County Veteran's Court, which will pair veterans who have committed crimes with Veteran's Administration services and a mentor in exchange for possible expungement of their records. Watkins said the court was important to H.O.P.E. members, since so many homeless people are veterans.

"This is the most money Shelby County has ever contributed directly to homeless service providers," Watkins said. "It was a historic victory, and it was won by people experiencing homelessness."

For Power and Equality

H.O.P.E. meetings begin with pizza and sodas. At 6 p.m. on Thursdays, the crowd gathers on the Manna House patio to load their plates.

Watkins, who acts as the meeting facilitator, makes a few announcements. If the group has a planned protest or event, that discussion dominates the first half of the meeting. Then members break into one of four groups representing H.O.P.E.'s core values of dignity, self-determination, solidarity, and mutual support. In each group, members discuss ways to promote those values and develop action plans.

For example, the "dignity" group devises ways to show outsiders that they are like everyone else. Plans have included the vacant lot cleanup and the development of a comic book with a homeless character who wears a suit and tie.

The "solidarity" group brainstorms ways H.O.P.E. can team up with other local organizations fighting for equality. At the last meeting, they decided to show their support for the Tennessee Equality Project, which fights for LGBT equality.

The "self-determination" group plans ways the group can make money for its members, so they can stop relying on handouts. The "mutual support" group plans team-building activities, such as providing each member with a journal to record their personal "street stories."

The groups gather around brightly colored picnic tables, which provide an appropriate setting for the diverse mix of 30 or so homeless and formerly homeless people who attend meetings regularly.

"We have black people. We have white people. We have Christians, Muslims, atheists, straight people, bisexual people, gay people, transgender people, and a wide range of age diversity," Watkins said. "Homelessness is a rainbow issue, and if you don't have diversity, then your action is skewed."

There's "Sunshine," a transgender woman with long hair and a slender physique. She spent years on the street as a prostitute battling drug addiction. She's no longer homeless and no longer a prostitute, but she comes to H.O.P.E. meetings because she wants to fight for her homeless brothers and sisters.

"I'm one of those people who hasn't forgotten where I come from," Sunshine said. "Even though I have a place to stay now, I can't forget, because that's when you fall. I know about being arrested for sleeping in a public area."

And then there's Edward, a 59-year-old Memphis native who has been homeless since 2009, in part because he has struggled to find work.

"My situation is a vicious cycle. Some days, I'm so upset because I can't find work, so somebody will buy me a beer. The police will pull up and write me a citation for having an open container," said Edward, who has been plagued with misdemeanor citations.

The soft-spoken Robbie Howard, who wears her curly hair short, suffers from bipolar disorder, and she voluntarily left her father's house because her mental illness made him feel unsafe. She's been in and out of women's shelters for more than a year.

Tony Whitfield, a former truck driver, fell on hard times during the economic downturn. When the price of diesel rose, he eventually lost his house and moved to a homeless encampment in the Washington Bottoms area of Midtown.

Marian Bacon, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities, struggled with homelessness for years as she battled alcoholism. After she got her life together and found a home, an identity theft left her homeless yet again. Bacon has a home now, but she volunteers with H.O.P.E. because she wants to be an advocate for homeless people with disabilities and mental illness. She also wants to help do away with the shame some homeless people feel.

"When I was homeless, I was going to Southwest Tennessee Community College. That was the hardest thing — going to school and trying to learn when I didn't know where I would lay my head at night," Bacon said. "A lot of people didn't even know I was homeless."

And then there's Sidney Bailey, a slender, outgoing man. He's been sleeping on the streets since 2005, which he attributes to his battle with drug addiction. Since he's found H.O.P.E., he's secured a room in a boarding house, got his disability benefits started, and has been doing better at managing his addiction. "I got involved with H.O.P.E. because I want to help other homeless people, and the group shows me love," Bailey said.

Although H.O.P.E.'s primary goal is making real change for people on the streets, the group also provides a sort of support network for the homeless. They've formed close friendships, and when they're not planning protests or lobbying for county funding, they're having Fourth of July parties with line dancing on the Manna House patio or planning a H.O.P.E. concert. At a recent meeting, Cordarius (who goes by Superstar) performed an original song for other members.

Coming Together

The group wasn't always so tight. In the beginning, Watkins said some members judged one another, which he believes was a product of their own internalized oppression.

"There's not a homeless community, so it's not like organizing any other population. We have thousands of individuals out here who are alone and alienated, and they each have a unique story," Watkins said.

Enter Laura Sullivan, a local activist who's involved with everything from Occupy Memphis to the Memphis Bus Riders Union. Sullivan suggested the group needed a little emotional healing.

"I designed some workshops for the group that specifically addressed not only how homeless people are oppressed but the type of feelings homeless people have likely experienced, such as fear, terror, shame, loneliness, and isolation," Sullivan said.

In the workshops, members were invited to speak openly and confidentially to the group about their feelings. While some were shy, Sullivan watched group members slowly open up and become eager to share their stories.

The formation of H.O.P.E. didn't come easily. For years, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center tried to convince the city's homeless population to organize around their own issues. They began holding weekly "living room chat" discussion groups at Manna House, where homeless people could discuss the issues affecting them.

They hoped that group would eventually morph into one that planned direct actions, but that was years in the making.

"It was hard because people have very precarious lives and schedules. One of the turning points was Occupy Memphis," Watkins said. "One of our members, Paul Garner, helped found a homelessness caucus at Occupy."

Since many of the campers at Occupy are homeless people, the caucus eventually grew to the point that it had to be moved to Manna House.

H.O.P.E. is loosely modeled on the Nashville Homeless Power Project, a nonprofit made up of homeless and formerly homeless people. That group launched in 2002 and has made great strides for the homeless population in Nashville.

In 2007, the Nashville group convinced six of the city's mayoral candidates to sleep on the streets for one night to gain firsthand experience of the issues faced by the city's homeless population. Watkins said he'd like H.O.P.E. to push for Memphis mayoral candidates in the next election to do the same.

In the coming months, H.O.P.E. is launching a worker's cooperative, through which members will create and sell T-shirts for nonprofits, family reunions, and church groups.

"People are out here trying to survive, and we can talk about the issues they're facing. But at the end of the day, people need a little money in their pockets so they can make ends meet," Garner, who is spearheading the co-op effort, said.

A few nonprofits — the Manna House, Range Line Community Development Corporation, and the Peace & Justice Center — have already placed T-shirt orders. Local business consultant Dan Levin is volunteering his services to help the group with the legal issues involved in starting a business co-op.

In coming weeks, H.O.P.E. will launch self-defense classes for female members. They'll also be spending more time focusing on building better relations with the MPD and instituting anti-harassment training for officers.

During last week's meeting, Sunshine shared stories of police harassment against her and other transgender friends who walk along Claybrook to get to Manna House or the corner store on Jefferson. She said officers often accuse her and others of prostitution, because Claybrook is a known hangout for transgender prostitutes.

The group has already reached out to the MPD, which assigned an officer to be the homeless liaison. But members say problems with police harassment of both transgender and homeless people haven't improved.

Watkins said the next H.O.P.E. meeting would be dedicated to training in how to properly document harassment so it may be filed as a formal complaint with the MPD.

Ending police harassment of the homeless is part of a broader effort that H.O.P.E. will be launching for the rest of this year and next. With funding victories behind them, Watkins said members will now move their attention to exposing people who prey on the homeless, first through campaigns against the homeless service providers that members have complained about.

"There are a lot of predators out there who exploit people sexually or economically and do so under the guise of their faith," Watkins said. "There are going to be serious consequences for that."

At the end of each H.O.P.E. meeting, members recite the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

It would be hard to find a more fitting plan of action for a group working to change the face of homelessness in Memphis.

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