Monday, May 14, 2012

Can homeless folks and service providers join in their struggle?

Springfield, Lobby Day, Nov 29 2011. Source: FB
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) was established in 1980 by service providers and charities - it was not initiated by homeless folks. The coalition mobilizes service providers or neighborhood organizations (institutional community organizing) and homeless peopleCan the two parties equally assert themselves in different campaigns through this community organizing strategy?

CCH sets its campaign agenda based on research and by canvassing the residents of shelters for the homeless. The organization organizes active listening tours in service providing institutions and the community organizers talk to hundreds of homeless folks. They want to know what the most pressing issues are for their constituency. (Who are you and what have you gone through? What do you think about it? What makes you angry?) Or they ask the opinion of homeless folks on a concrete campaign.

In CCH every new community organizer starts with a listening tour, and in the first month they conduct a one-on-one with at least 50 homeless or formerly homeless people. The people interviewed, however, are not involved in the actual decision-making process, but the campaign goals are set by the staff of the organization.

Personal relationships with homeless folks are very important for CCH community organizers. The one-on-one is an important tool to build trust and to find out to what extent the group is organized and what skills its members have which they could use for the benefit of the whole group. The community organizers try to figure out who can be involved in specific tasks in an action, and determine who are real leaders, those members who are able to represent the interest of the broader community.

The community organizers hold regular events in shelters and they agitate homeless people to accumulate power and get involved in running actions to make the decision-makers accountable. And the leaders tell their own story in different places, take part in talks with decision-makers or less often give interviews to the media. CCH does not stress, however, urging the leaders to establish autonomous chapters (or cells) in their shelters, which can set their own agenda or decide about new campaigns.

Furthermore, CCH does not represent homeless people against service providers. The organization goes no further than mediating between the social worker or the institution and the homeless person. The community organizing strategy of CCH focuses more on issues which both parties have a self-interest in and can line up joint support (e.g., to increase state budget support to service providers or to increase housing benefits), rather than building the movement of homeless people. As a result, the organization does not put particular effort into strengthening cooperation and communication between different groups of different shelters and establish a strong network of organized cells. In addition, CCH in most cases works with people living in shelters or who are affiliated with a service provider. It does not organize people living on the streets and it does not directly represent their interests.

This does not mean that homeless people do not take part in the decision-making processes of the organization. In bigger thematic campaigns, such as the decriminalization of prostitutes and the reentry of former felons, persons who were affected by these issues sit on the campaign planning committees along with representatives of civil society organizations. And homeless or formerly homeless folks sit on the board of the organization or are employed as staff members.

CCH works in most campaigns in different coalitions, therefore service providers are their important allies. Just like in the case of homeless people, community organizers lay great stress on finding out their self-interest. They want to see and feel what kind of cooperation can be in the interest of these institutions and what would make them join the particular campaign. One-on-ones are therefore crucial with the representatives of the institutions, too. (During their listening tour, new community organizers also interview almost 50 shelter representatives besides the 50 homeless or formerly homeless people.) CCH sometimes ally with organizations who have less experience in doing advocacy and campaigning. In this case, they understand and start at the level where partners are the most comfortable and they gradually raise the stakes. Building trust is a process in institutional organizing, too: you have to know who is in the organization, who is worth negotiating with, who is capable of what and what they are ready to do.

Read it in Hungarian.

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