Every institution has a founding legend, and Picture the Homeless, an organization formed by homeless people to advocate for themselves, has one that started at my own church. The founders, Anthony Williams and Louis Haggins, Jr., met in a homeless shelter during a time of virulent demonization of homeless people, particularly African-heritage men. In 1999, they gathered support to form an organization whose slogan is “Don’t talk about us, talk with us!” They trudged from house of worship to house of worship looking for “room at the inn,” a place where they could set up an office. In New York City, spare space is rare, and people willing to take a chance on two homeless men even rarer. Exhausted and discouraged, the story goes, they were ready to give up. But as they stood in Washington Square, they saw a church they hadn’t tried. They knocked, and minister Peter Laarman, a former community and labor organizer, offered them an unused room in the basement.
The organization has been a thorn in the side of the city and a resource for increasing numbers of people ever since. As shelters for people without homes have been pushed further north, where the sight of poor people will not “offend” tourists and business interests, the organization, too, moved north. But every year, on National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, the longest night of the year, members and allies return to that first haven, Judson Memorial Church. Here, around the Winter Solstice, they hold a service in memory of all those who died on the streets in the previous year and are perhaps buried in the Potter’s Field on Hart Island, those for whom no other service is held.
It is a moving event, especially coming in the days before a holiday whose origin story involves a temporarily homeless family and a long, cold night changed by a light shining in the darkness. When I first started attending, I did so both because I’d been active in the church when Williams and Haggins asked for space and also because two homeless street vendors on our block had died recently of AIDS. I wanted to say their names out loud in memorial.
Over time, the service has put less emphasis on personal testimony and more on including interfaith allies, so that what started as a primarily Christian observance now includes a rabbi, a Christian minister, a Buddhist priest, and an imam. Members of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary help in the organizing. Over time, too, I’ve heard the stories of people who collect hundreds of cans a day to earn $30 or so in redemption fees; of people in despair, shivering and hungry, whose lives were literally saved by small gifts from strangers; of people who stood up for themselves when all of society seemed to ignore them.
This year, on the night before the solstice, the weather was unseasonably warm, but it still recalled the “Valley of Death,” as one speaker said. Every night, he testified, is one of fear and uncertainty when you’re homeless, because you don’t know whether you’ll have to do battle, whether you’ll find a place to sleep, whether you’ll wake up in the morning. (The week before, the New York Times had run a devastating exposé of the rise in homelessness under the Bloomberg administration, and speakers noted that they had little hope of memorializing fewer people next year.)
The name of Jose Perez, a 42-year-old man who died from being beaten in September in a Queens park solely because he was homeless, was the first to be spoken. Others followed, men and women who were somebody’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and whose fate had been to die in a train station, on a park bench, in a car that had doubled as a home. The eulogies slid into calls for action, changes in city policies, hope for a new administration that might do something to reverse the city’s housing crisis.
A young man with dreads passed out candles. We formed a line to light them and say aloud the name of a person dear to us, living or dead, with a home or without, and to place the candle in a tray of sand. Ahead of me, a young woman in a cotton print dress, who might have been a Mennonite, instructed her children on what to do. Behind me, children from a shelter played tag. Pale electric light came through the rose window at the front. Someone called out the name of Paul Mayer. I’d first met Paul three decades ago, when he was in his fifties, organizing interfaith support for the Nuclear Freeze and most recently, two years ago when he was leading services at Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street. Darkness surrounded us. The line was ragged, its solemnity broken by friends greeting each other. And then I was in the front, blinking from the light of 50 candles nestled together. I placed mine in the group, remembering Meg Jacobs, who had worked with me in support of welfare rights. Yes, I thought, this is the power we speak of, the power of light, of community, of witness in dark times.
Maxine Phillips is the former co-chair of DSA’s Religion and Socialism Commission, which is re-launching in early 2014. If you are interested in working with this commission, please contact her at maxine.phillips(at)gmail.com. She is also an honorary vice chair of DSA; the former executive editor of Dissent; and will be editor of the Democratic Left magazine as of 2014.
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