VOL. 127 | NO. 133 | Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Organization Gives Hope to Homeless Community
By Aisling Maki
When two homelessness initiatives received $450,000 in Shelby County funding in the most recent budget, the members of Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (H.O.P.E.) celebrated with a victory party that featured music, dancing, cake and a home-cooked meal.
A party may not seem like a big deal, but it was deeply meaningful for members of H.O.P.E. – unusual among organizations that advocate for the homeless because it’s made up of people who best understand the issues.
“They’re people who formerly experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness,” said Brad Watkins, organizer of H.O.P.E., an initiative sponsored by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. “A big part of our philosophy is that people who are affected by the issue are the people with the solutions.”
The initiatives included in the county budget will be aimed at providing permanent supportive housing for high-need, chronically homeless populations in Memphis.
“That funding was historic, the most money Shelby County has ever put toward direct homeless services,” said Watkins, who has devoted most of his time and energy recently to H.O.P.E.
The group has been slowly taking shape for years, but began to grow rapidly after a homelessness caucus grew out of the Occupy Memphis movement.
H.O.P.E. now has about 40 members who meet weekly at Manna House, 1268 Jefferson Ave., to discuss the issues facing the city’s homeless population.
Watkins said the group’s main goals are dignity, mutual emotional support, solidarity and self-determination.
“We want to comprehensively change the dynamic of what’s happening in this city, where we’re basically conditioning people who are the most vulnerable to accept being disposable, to tolerate being exploited, and to be passive about it,” Watkins said.
H.O.P.E. members have experienced homelessness for a variety of reasons, including job loss, foreclosures, mental illness, medical expenses and addiction.
“People experiencing homelessness are only united by their current circumstances; how they got there is unique.”
–Brad Watkins, Organizer of H.O.P.E.
“People experiencing homelessness are only united by their current circumstances; how they got there is unique,” Watkins said. “Each and every member has a very unique, distinct story. It’s not always drugs, alcohol or mental illness – although those play a role. We have veterans who’ve been denied benefits. I have an older guy who owned his own home and business before the economy got bad, and he went from volunteering at soup kitchens to eating at them.”
Watkins said women experiencing homelessness face distinct issues. For example, domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children.
“And there are grossly insufficient services, particularly for single women without children,” he said. “Shelters are typically set up for men or families, and if you don’t have a substance abuse issue or a domestic violence issue – if you don’t fall into those categories – you’re out of luck. … It’s a 24-7 horror movie for a lot of women out there experiencing homelessness.”
Watkins said H.O.P.E is currently investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing at two local homeless service providers, which he didn’t name. He said H.O.P.E. has been approached by women who claim shelter employees are having inappropriate sexual conduct with female clients in exchange for shelter.
Watkins said H.O.P.E. is reaching out to unsheltered women to document these cases to pass on to law enforcement.
He also says H.O.P.E. has a liaison in the Memphis Police Department to help ease tensions and forge better relationships between the police and the homeless community.
“I said, ‘If you really want to know what’s going on out there, my folks know,’” Watkins said. “We have a lot of crimes that don’t get reported. Statistically, people experiencing homelessness are nine times out of 10 the victims of crime, not the perpetrators.”
In addition to weekly meetings, a H.O.P.E. volunteer leads a monthly emotional healing workshop to help members deal with their trauma and share their experiences in a safe, supportive environment.
“It was really powerful,” Watkins said. “What certain people were saying during the sessions really resonated with the experiences of other people, people who feel supported, who feel they have a place of acceptance, make better choices.”
He said that now that members of the group, who come from all walks of life, bonded, “they recognized the power they had,” Watkins said.
In fact, H.O.P.E. is preparing to launch its own workers co-op, which hopes to provide silk-screened T-shirts to churches, youth groups, and other organizations. Watkins said members will be trained and will completely own and operate the business.
“I think this is something that will really catch a lot of people’s attention and be a way for people to constructively help,” he said. “We’re pricing the materials now. Soon you’ll be seeing our H.O.P.E. shirts, and we’re looking at August to see the members really be ready to start doing some business.”