‘You only get what you’re organized to take’—lessons from the National Union of the Homeless

“You can’t talk about the problems of poverty—the pain of it, the daily struggles to survive, the plight, the fight and the insight—without involving the newly emerging leaders from the growing ranks of the poor.”

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: Autism Housing Network

This July, unhoused leaders set up tents in front of Atlanta City Hall to demand a meeting with city officials. They were met by nearly 60 armed police officers who gave them 15 minutes to disperse. Only moments later, 10 of the activists — members of the newly-formed Atlanta Homeless Union — were arrested. 

The group had four demands: permanent housing, health care, access to water and sanitation, and a “seat at the table” to negotiate with city officials regarding housing policy. “Nobody else that’s not walking in our shoes gonna tell us what to do,” the unhoused leaders announced in their first press release. “Teach us how to fish, and we’ll eat forever. The homeless have unionized, and we’re here for what we deserve.”

The Atlanta Homeless Union came into being at a critical moment for the nearly 600,000 people experiencing homelessness across the nation — a number that is likely much higher since data on homelessness hasn’t been gathered since before the pandemic. While COVID-19 poses a particular threat to people who are unhoused, the pandemic has only exacerbated the U.S. government’s callous, yet purposeful, abandonment of the most vulnerable. This violence has taken many forms: In some cities, homeless sweeps have become more frequent, disrupting the lives of the unsheltered by forcing them to replace their possessions and secure alternative living arrangements with little to no warning. At the same time, public space has become increasingly gatekept, and measures like vaccine passports have posed an additional challenge for houseless residents, who often don’t have access to IDs. In New York City, the number of homeless people dying in the streets has more than doubled over the past year. 

All the while, homeless people have been dehumanized and scapegoated by those in power — from Andrew Yang’s declaration that New York’s homeless residents are a threat to the economy to new policies that could further criminalize homelessness in cities across the country. 

Mobilizing has never been more crucial — and it is equally critical that the work is led by the poor themselves, who understand better than anyone what is at stake.

The need for homeless people to rise up and organize is more urgent than ever before — but one need not look far for places where the work is already being done. In addition to the Atlanta Homeless Union, coalitions of unhoused people exist in Kansas City, Sacramento, Chicago and Rochester, New York

Although the history of homeless organizing is seldom told, these groups are taking up the mantle of a long line of activists before them: Nearly four decades ago, the National Union of the Homeless had 25 local chapters and 35,000 members in cities across the United States. Guided by a commitment to working-class solidarity and a vision of collective liberation over neoliberal reform, its members staged various successful housing takeovers, shifting people’s material conditions as well as public perceptions of homelessness. As the pandemic continues to devastate America’s poorest, the union’s victories — as well as its decline — have much to teach activists in the months ahead.

‘Projects of survival’

The earliest iteration of the National Union of the Homeless was the Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless, a Philadelphia-based grassroots group that emerged in response to deteriorating conditions in cities during the 1970s and ‘80s. The committee’s first meeting was held in an abandoned building in 1983. At the time, all three founders — Chris Sprowal, Tex Howard and Franklin Smith — had been unemployed and homeless for over a year. 

Within nine months, the group had over 500 unhoused members. In 1984, they embarked on what they called a “project of survival” — creating Dignity Housing, the first shelter in the United States founded and run by homeless people, all of whom were paid a salary for their labor. The shelter, which sought to provide not only temporary relief but permanent solutions like education and job training, quickly became a springboard for community organizing. 

“Forget about it being against the law. I don’t care. Hell, I’m dying in the streets. That should be against the law.”

Critical to Dignity Housing’s success was Sprowal, a Black civil rights activist and fervent believer in homeless self-determination. His early years were spent struggling with substance use, being shuffled in and out of prison, running political campaigns and organizing with the Congress of Racial Equality and hospital unions — experiences that gave him unique insight into the structural nature of homelessness and the strategies necessary for advancing liberation. “Dignity was not just housing,” Sprowal told City Limits. “It was a way of life.” 

In 1985, recognizing the need for homeless people to unite across lines of division like race, gender and sexuality, Sprowal founded the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley Union of the Homeless. The founding convention brought together over 400 homeless delegates, as well as union leaders, religious leaders, lawyers and politicians. 

There, it was established that they would follow a “Johnnie Tillmon” model of organizing — named for the visionary who fought to reimagine the welfare system in the 1970s. The daughter of a sharecropper and a divorced mother of six, Tillmon was a radical who spent her life redefining poverty as a women’s issue and mobilizing welfare recipients in the housing projects of California. The Tillmon model was based on two central principles: First, poverty victims must be at the forefront of the movement to end poverty. Second, you only get what you are organized to take. 

‘Homeless, not helpless’

By the mid-1980s, the union began to expand nationally. To empower affiliate chapters and prepare for a national organizing drive, they offered a six-week intensive training for unhoused leaders across the country. These leaders went on to found chapters in New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Tucson, Los Angeles and Oakland.

“We don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” Sprowal told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “We are prepared to fight. We are the only segment of society that has nothing to lose. We lost it all when we became homeless.”

In one of their earliest victories, the union sued the state of Pennsylvania for residents’ right to use shelters as a voting address — a win that enabled homeless residents to vote for the first time in the city’s history. This triumph also allowed them to receive Social Security and welfare checks. Soon after, organizers began staging bathe-ins at public fountains, securing 24-hour intake in public showers. In a number of cities, the union also won the right to shelter. 

Instead of going our separate ways and fighting all our separate issues, we need to throw all them issues into one pot and stir it up and work together.”

Later, Tucson activists sued the police department for harassment, putting an end to the department’s homeless “beat,” while organizers in Detroit fought to ensure children were provided transportation to city schools. In 1989, representatives from the National Union of the Homeless managed to get a meeting with Jack Kemp, the head of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Kemp promised to make 10,000 HUD units available to the homeless over the next year. After he failed to follow through, the union launched what would become their most militant and most successful campaign: orchestrating coordinated takeovers of vacant urban properties in cities across the United States. 

In 1990, the National Union of the Homeless took over abandoned HUD buildings in seven U.S. cities, a strategy that cemented the union’s status as a formidable political force. In Minneapolis, where activists took over 15 buildings, the city government handed over millions for a homeless-run housing program. In Oakland, activists secured $2 million in land for construction of another Dignity Housing building. In Philadelphia, the mayor agreed not to evict homeless families from HUD properties. 

“It can be done. If people take the initiative of breaking into these houses,” union leader Ron Casanova said in 1990. “Forget about it being against the law. I don’t care. Hell, I’m dying in the streets. That should be against the law.”

Organizing by the poor, for the poor

At the core of the National Union of the Homeless’ efforts was an understanding that all struggles for liberation are connected. Then, as now, one could not challenge a system where people were dying on the street without addressing the essential structures of capitalism, like white supremacy and militarism — and one could not demand housing without also agitating for healthcare, education and climate action.

“One of the mistakes that’s going on in this country is that people think that all they need to do is fight for welfare rights, or fight for housing,” Casanova once said. “They don’t realize we’re fighting a poverty issue. … Instead of going our separate ways and fighting all our separate issues, we need to throw all them issues into one pot and stir it up and work together.”

Despite its far-reaching success, the union entered a decline by the mid-1990s. Willie Baptist, an organizer with the union, attributed its demise to three sources: the devastation of the crack epidemic, the co-option of some of the organization’s leadership by nonprofits and government agencies, and the imprisonment of key organizers after civil disobedience campaigns. 

In July 2020, after a vote by nearly 100 organizers, the National Union of the Homeless was revitalized, with local chapters springing up in 11 states. Today, their message is more relevant than ever: The end of eviction moratoriums has left an estimated 30 to 40 million people at risk of being evicted in the next several months, and some economic experts predict that the next four years will see a 49 percent increase in homelessness, meaning that over 600,000 additional Americans will be unsheltered by 2023.

Mobilizing has never been more crucial — and it is equally critical that the work is led by the poor themselves, who understand better than anyone what is at stake. When the National Union of the Homeless was founded, homeless people were rarely attributed the agency and capacity required for organizing; at best, the poorest of the poor were viewed as a group to be advocated for, rather than advocates themselves. But the union’s work — which represents the most powerful homeless movement ever undertaken in this country —  proves otherwise. 

“The abilities of this growing segment of the population are being neglected like industrial waste, but represent a tremendous resource of intellectual genius,” Baptist once said. “You can’t talk about the problems of poverty — the pain of it, the daily struggles to survive, the plight, the fight and the insight — without involving the newly emerging leaders from the growing ranks of the poor.”


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