Fighting for the Homeless

Community Empowerment Activist Emily Garcia reflects in this week’s blog on her internship experience with the Coalition on Homelessness.

I was interning with the Coalition on Homelessness (CoH), a grassroots community organization that works to fight in solidarity, and work with, the homeless community in San Francisco. This organization operates on many levels to engage community in discourse, to educate and to work directly in solving issues and fighting for policy that works for the homeless population. At CoH, I find myself involved in many tasks and aspects of the organization. On the ground, I work directly with homeless folks and families who find themselves living in encampments on the street, in their vehicles and single-room occupancies or hotels. I have also contributed to the organizations paper, The Street Sheet, which provides a platform for folks to voice their experiences, concerns and frustrations with a system which actively aim to make them invisible.

In the 2018 midterm election, I worked closely with the organization’s staff and community members in the campaign for Proposition C. This proposition successfully passed, and will provide affordable housing, mental health services, bathrooms and will boost assistance and visibility for homeless families and individuals within the city. This was one of the most fulfilling community experiences I have had the privilege in participating. The thing I enjoy most about my CEA internship has been my ability to make connections and take part in community that I otherwise would not have been apart of. Taking part in this organization has actively challenged my understanding on a systematic and personal level of how violent the undertakings that encompass the experience of homelessness. Despite working in a field that can be seemingly full of sorrow, I have made connections and been surrounded by an energy that is incredibly positive accepting and full of fight.

For many folks involved in community organizing, the concern of “burnout” is incredibly real. However, I have found that those who are in the same fight as you, provide the energy to keep going in the name of justice. Taking part in organization like this has pushed me to be highly critical and inquisitive when it comes to the notion of power, representation and government. In a city that is one of the wealthiest in the country, it is devastating that this wealth is not distributed to those who are actively displaced and forced to survive on the street. Methods of “dealing” with the homeless which are considered legal by the city, can determine life or death for homeless folks. Lots of street sweeps are kept from public eye, and happen at obscene hours in the morning or night which “legally” take property. This property can consist of important paperwork, medications (including that for HIV), heirlooms, food, toiletries and more. While this process is approved by the city, this is a clear human rights violation that contradicts the liberalism promoted by the city of San Francisco.

Lessons Learned

While it may seem like the solution for relieving some pressure in this housing crisis is to relocate folks to other parts of the Bay Area, this completely disrupts the social roots folks who have lived in San Francisco for generations. For many, security goes beyond housing, but access to a community network who also provides a social safety net. By moving far from one’s social roots, those with children have a difficult time affording the astronomical price of childcare, all while commuting into the city to go to work and ensuring that your family is fed, taken care of and is secure.

A large portion of children in SFUSD are both food insecure and housing insecure. While many folks believe the homelessness is only defined by those living on the streets, homelessness also applies to those who live “doubled-up” within a home, couch surf, or those who live in shelters. The cyclical problem of poverty will continue if they do not have the basis of all human needs: shelter, food and security. Housing is not only a crisis for adults, but for future generations who deserve to have their needs met.

One thing I have learned and valued while spending time at the Coalition on Homelessness is the intentionality behind accessibility and elevating the voices of those directly involved within the crisis. This process aims to enhance the visibility and platform for folks who are actively marginalized by institutional forces. This process ensures that true power is developed across the spectrum of community, and that the organization does not speak for others, but ensures that they simply provide the tools for empowerment. This process has taught me to constantly reflect, and be critical of, my identities and the ways in which I use privilege to dismantle systems of oppression, rather than reproduce them. While I am still a person growing and learning, I have found that my involvement in this organization will forever alter my worldview, my passion for community, and motivates me to continue to put the work in and do the damn thing!

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