Picture the Homeless was created by two homeless men in the Fall of 1999, Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins, Jr.
Both were homeless when Nicole Barrett was injured with a brick on the streets of New York. All homeless, African American men immediately became targets, and the impact was felt by all homeless people as the Giuliani administration used this tragedy as an excuse to harass and intimidate homeless people on the streets and in the shelters. The media contributed to an environment where an isolated criminal act became the pretext to stigmatize and harass people based on their lack of housing. Headlines demonizing homeless people appeared, even before the alleged perpetrator was apprehended and his housing status made public. One of the worst examples, from the Daily News, declared: “The Get Those Violent Crazies Off The Street!”
The mass arrests, pre dawn shelter raids and demonization of homeless people by the media were gross violations of our civil rights and had to be confronted. Millions of dollars were pouring into NYC each year to fuel a service industry but homeless was increasing. Picture the Homeless was founded on the principle that the voices and leadership of homeless people is critical to educate the public and mobilize the political will to target resources in the struggle to end homelessness.
The co-founders of Picture the Homeless began reaching out to allies for support, a place to meet and to figure out strategies to create an organization of homeless people that could carry out this work In January 2000, Picture the Homeless held its first organizing meeting at Charas/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center. Lynn Lewis, a grass roots activist was at that first meeting and joined with Anthony and Lewis to help build an organization led by homeless people. Key allies from our early months were Charas, Judson Memorial Church and WBAI. We held our first vigil protesting the forced displacement of homeless people to Camp LaGuardia in upstate New York on the steps of Judson Memorial Church, and we were welcomed by WBAI to tell our story on the radio.
We began participating in the NYC Continuum of Care Planning Process in April of 2000 after attending a public hearing to identify spending priorities for HUD Homeless Assistance funds. Anthony opened the door for other homeless people in NYC to participate in that process, learning about how funding for housing and services for homeless people is allocated and challenging the city and service providers in attendance. Other homeless people joined Picture the Homeless through street and shelter based outreach, the Continuum of Care planning process, and our early actions. An obstacle to organizing was the lack of office space to use as a base so that homeless people could find and join us.
The North Star Fund provided Picture the Homeless with our first grant with Judson serving as fiscal sponsor. Judson Memorial Church offered Picture the Homeless office space, which we moved into in March of 2001. We have been holding weekly organizing meetings, continuing outreach, gaining skills, developing leaders and building ally support on the local and national levels since that time to develop and build our organizational capacity to affect systemic change.
Today, we have an office in the Bronx and campaigns in the areas of Civil Rights and Housing and a membership of over 1,000. Since our founding we have achieved significant public policy wins and changed administrative processes that impact homeless New Yorkers because our agenda is developed and advanced by homeless people.