Picture the Homeless History
Seventeen Years of Changing the Conversation and Winning Victories.
Picture the Homeless was founded in the fall of 1999 by two homeless men residing in Bellevue Men’s Shelter, Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins, Jr. Anthony and Lewis had already connected over paternalistic shelter policies and the cost of shelter, which was being widely reported in the mainstream media at the time.
When Nicole Barrett was injured with a brick on the streets of New York in November of 1999, the Giuliani administration used this tragedy as an excuse to increase the harassment and intimidation of homeless people on the streets and in the shelters. Homeless and African American men immediately became targets, and the impact was felt by all homeless people. There were street sweeps and midnight shelter raids. 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: “Get The Violent Crazies Off The Street!”
Our Mission Statement
Picture the Homeless was founded on the principle that homeless people have civil and human rights regardless of our race, creed, color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or economic, disability, or migration status. Picture the Homeless was founded and is led by homeless people. We refuse to accept being neglected and we demand that our voices and experience are heard at all levels of decision-making that impact us.
We oppose the quality of life laws that criminalize homeless people in any form by the city, state and national governments. We work to change these laws and policies as well as to challenge the root causes of homelessness. Our strategies include grassroots organizing, direct action, and educating homeless people about their rights, public education, changing media stereotypes, and building relationships with allies.
Anthony and Lewis knew that nothing would change until homeless people were able to shift the narrative about why folks are homeless. The name Picture the Homeless itself is a reflection of our co-founders analysis about how important the ways in which people “picture” homelessness results in negative public policies that actually harm homeless people. One of the first things that they did was walk from Bellevue Men’s Shelter to WBAI early in the morning to get on the popular program ‘Wake Up Call’ by 6:30am.
The co-founders of Picture the Homeless also began reaching out to allies for support, a place to meet, and to figure out the work of ending media stereotypes, building respect for homeless folks and ending criminalization. To Anthony and Lewis homelessness had become a business in NYC, with a massive shelter system draining resources away from investment in housing. Further, they were alarmed at the racialized aspect of homelessness and the overwhelming number of Black folks in the shelter system.
In January 2000, Picture the Homeless held its first organizing meeting at CHARAS/El Bohio Cultural and Community Center. Lynn Lewis, a community member with roots in both organizing and ending the criminalization of homeless folks, was at that first meeting and joined with Anthony and Lewis to help build Picture the Homeless as an organization led by homeless people. We held our first direct action shortly after – a vigil on the steps of Judson Memorial Church, protesting the forced displacement of homeless people to Camp LaGuardia in upstate New York.
We held meetings in Tompkins Square Park, CHARAS, the International Bar on the Lower East Side (where Anthony’s friend was a bartender), in Lynn’s apartment, and countless other places. Friends helped make flyers and took phone messages. We began holding meetings at CHARAS to break down to homeless folks about funding for homeless services and ensure that folks could engage in those decisions about how money would be spent in their name based on what their needs actually are.
Why Community Organizing?
Anthony and Lewis worked hard to encourage other homeless folks to stand up for their rights. At the January 20th meeting at CHARAS, when another Bellevue Shelter resident was complaining about abusive treatment by a caseworker and asking for help, Lewis patiently advised him “My brother, I feel for you but we aren’t here to help with individual cases and I’m happy to talk with you after this meeting, but we are here to figure out how to change the system.” The only way to do this is through community organizing. ‘Organizing for Justice and Respect’ became our tagline.
We were also inspired by struggles for housing and civil rights, and in our very early days, participated in protests over the murder of Amadou Diallo.
Creating a Methodology for Organizing Homeless Folks
Organizing homeless folks is at once the same as organizing anyone, and very different. You can’t door knock folks who don’t have a door, or phone bank when folks don’t have a phone. Folks can be transferred from one shelter to another, from the Bronx to Queens with 24 hours notice, so it was essential for us to secure an office space to use as a base so that homeless people could find and join us. In March of 2001 Judson Memorial Church welcomed us into their community, and we moved into our first office space there. We didn’t know what to expect for our first organizing meeting, but four homeless folks came… and of all the issues facing them, they wanted Picture the Homeless to focus on ending police harassment. So that’s where we began.
We invest in skills sharing and leadership development and continuously conduct outreach to build our base. We believe in direct action but also documentation and research to back up our demands. Media work has been central to our work from our founding, and expanded early on to include creating our own media and ensuring that homeless folks are spokespeople for the organization. Coalition building has been instrumental in amplifying our work, but also because homelessness doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but intersects many other communities experiencing other forms of oppression.
Since our founding, many more homeless folks have access to phones, and the internet, including social media so we’ve integrated this into our organizing toolbox.
Although the problems we’re fighting are huge, we’ve achieved over a hundred concrete policy and legislative changes that make life better for every homeless New Yorker. We’ve taken the NYPD to court – and won. We’ve passed the first bill in the country that establishes homeless people as a class protected from unconstitutional police profiling. We’ve influenced changes in state laws that took away tax incentives for landlords to keep buildings empty while people need homes, and we’ve proved that there’s enough vacant land in New York City to house the entire homeless population. Our members have given hundreds of interviews, helped change the media conversation about homelessness, and educated hundreds of thousands of people about the realities of homelessness… and what they can do to change it!