MEMPHIS, Tenn. - On May 21, the Shelby County Commission, in a 9 to 1 vote, agreed to provide $450,000 to help fund programs and housing for people currently experiencing homelessness. This victory for the people of Memphis is due to the hard work of HOPE, Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality. Unlike other organizations that advocate for the homeless, HOPE is made up of and led by people who are experiencing homelessness or who have experienced homelessness in the past.
On May 24, HOPE held a potluck at Manna House, a sanctuary established by Catholic Workers, to celebrate their victory.
John was at the potluck with his young son, August (Auggie) in part because no shelter in the Memphis area will take a single father with a child. John and Auggie lived in his car until it was impounded weeks ago. Since then they've been forced to live in vacant houses, where John worries about Auggie's safety. "You never know what he could step on in a place like that or who could come in," John said.
Thankfully for John and Auggie, $200,000 of the funds HOPE won this week will go to provide permanent supportive housing for families with disabilities and low-income families.
Between dances, Marian Bacon, an Independent Living Specialist at Memphis Center for Independent Living who once experienced homelessness herself, found time to talk.
"No shelter is free, which is discrimination in itself," Marian pointed out. Furthermore, there is "only one shelter for women in Memphis but four or five for men."
Marian went on to discuss how the local shelters discriminate in ways beyond demands for payment. "80 percent are faith-based and if you don't follow their rules, you're out." Equally distressing is the fact that at "Union Mission, if you have a visible physical disability they won't admit you."
If you have a cane, or a walker you are turned away, if you have a wheelchair you literally cannot even make it in the front door. Union Mission does not have a wheelchair ramp or any way for someone in a wheelchair to navigate their front steps. Sadly, many of these faith-based shelters require families to be broken up before they will offer assistance. According to Marian, "If you have a boy over 5-6 years old they'll not admit you unless you put your son in foster care."
Hopefully, some of the prejudice experienced by someone who is currently homeless and physically disabled will be alleviated by the allocation of $250,000 to provide 100 units of housing for "the most vulnerable people on the streets."
There are those who oppose these additions to the county budget. Wyatt Buckner is reported to have said, "Its not the government's job to give people a handout."
Mar'Quella Scott pointed out that he said this "to veterans, to pregnant women, to his constituents." In Mar'Quella's opinion, "the government office is the place for these people to go." As Steve Mullroy, Shelby County Commissioner, said, "It's a question of priorities, do we think it is important to help out the homeless."
Between putting out food, answering phone calls, and making sure people had places to stay, Brad Watkins, an Organizing Director at Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, spoke about HOPE's four core values: "Dignity, Mutual Emotional Support, Solidarity, and Self-Determination."
Since 2009, Brad, with the help of many other people, has been working to organize HOPE into what it is today - a highly effective advocacy and direct action organization made of and led by the community it represents.
As the evening's celebration came to a close, Terrance, a retired Marine who lost two of the fingers on his left hand due to an injury he suffered when his caravan was bombed in Iraq during his third tour, his tenth year at war, put it clearly. "We're good enough to fight for this country, but we're not good enough to get the services we need when we get home." Terrance says, "HOPE gives us hope for a better tomorrow, [it lets us] speak peace in a world of violence."
Photo: John and Auggie. James Raines/PW