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Rachel Brumfield, member of our Board of Directors.

We’re a unique organization. There aren’t too many groups out there that were founded and are led by homeless people, and are working to change laws and policies that impact people without homes. Here are our members’ answers to some of the most frequently-asked questions we get.

 What’s your main purpose? 

Our main purpose is to provide a space for homeless people to come together and solve the problems they face, whether it’s police profiling, the lack of housing, or negative stereotypes and distortions about homelessness. No one is going to fix these things for the homeless—they can only be fixed by the homeless.

What’s a day in the life of Picture the Homeless like? 

It depends on the day, and the type of work that our choose to be involved in at PTH, but at the office there are meetings on most days, and HOA classes going on almost every day as well. As an active member, you might also be out doing outreach, participating in actions, or attending meetings out of the office as well. Most of all you get to interact with the fun, diverse, and passionate people that make up our organization.

How long have you been around?

Picture the Homeless has been around since 1999. We were founded by two homeless men living in Bellevue Men’s Shelter, in response to the NYPD’s rampant violations of homeless people’s rights, as well as mainstream media demonization of homeless people.

What are your accomplishments?

We’ve achieved a ton of things! Some of the highlights: beating the NYPD in court and forcing them to issue a “non-selective-enforcement” policy and ordering officers to get remedial training in enforcing the law against homeless people; forcing the Department of Corrections to reverse its policy prohibiting friends and family from visiting Potters Field to pay their respects to homeless people who pass away; conducting a citywide count of vacant buildings and lots that proved that there’s enough vacant space in 1/3 of the city to house 199,000 people; getting the Democratic Party to include vacant property in their national policy platform; fighting for and winning passage of the “Better Bottle Bill,” which dramatically expanded the kinds of recyclable containers that can be redeemed, and more strictly enforced the obligation of vendors to accept recycled containers, putting lots more money in the pockets of canners throughout New York State… and lots more! Contact Sam for a 15-page document outlining all the great stuff we’ve won (sam@picturethehomeless.org)

I’m angry about the police messing with me. How long til you get me my rights?

As soon as you walk in the door, we can provide trainings and materials about how to fight tickets, how to respond to bogus charges, how to deal with the police, and how to protect yourself while engaging in constitutionally-protected activities like panhandling. But the bigger fight to make the NYPD respect the rights of homeless people, and protect low-income people from police abuse and misconduct, is a long and difficult one. We’ve already won many victories, but it’s a huge fight and we need all the help we can get. The more you help, the sooner we’ll win.

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Member Rob Robinson at a 2009 rally.

What do you mean by homeless led? 

Homeless-led means that homeless people make the decisions that shape our work. It means that we come together in our weekly campaign meetings to decide what to do and how to do it. It means that homeless people are the voice of the organization, speaking on our behalf in media interviews and public forums—not professional staff who studied these issues in books. It means our board of directors is over 75% currently- or formerly-homeless. It means our executive director and many of our other staffers have personal experience of homelessness. It does not mean that every homeless person who walks in the door can say “you guys should fight for this bill,” or “you guys should go after this shelter” and we’ll drop everything to start doing it. Our organizers work hard to create a space in which many different homeless voices combine into a coherent campaign that can actually win things, some of which are incredibly complex and go on for years and are built on work done by people who are no longer with us.

I’m not homeless – how can you help me? 

We are helping you! We believe that the interests of homeless people are intimately connected to those of everyone else. When the police violate the rights of homeless people, all New Yorkers become less free. When we fight to bring down the costs of housing, it has a positive effect on everyone who pays rent in this super-expensive city.

Where do you get your funding?

Our funding comes primarily from foundations that fund work like ours—but none of our work is dictated by funders! We tell funders what we want to do, and they fund us if they think it’s a good thing. We also get a lot of donations from friends and allies, and we try to do a lot of grassroots fundraising, like holding a dance party and charging people $10 at the door. Members also pay annual dues of $10.

Can you help me with [legal/shelter/housing/shower/haircut/clothing/food]?

While we don’t have lawyers or social workers on staff to help with individual cases, we are well-connected to lots of other groups that can help out in most situations. More importantly, every one of our members is surviving or has survived the homeless system, and our people can give you a lot of help in terms of what to do, who to talk to, etc. Either way—come by our office and get to know us!

Who are your allies?

We have lots of different allies on different issues. These include other grassroots groups that do organizing, like Community Voices Heard and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities; legal advocacy groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights; community boards, university professors, faith leaders, progressive labor unions—and lots more!

Why do you waste your time with this work?

Although we are fighting a huge fight, and it is often frustrating, we believe that real change is not only possible, it’s necessary. The problems of police misconduct and the high cost of housing and institutionalized racism will not go away until people who are homeless become an organized, unified community with the skills and commitment to create real social change.

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Rally at City Hall against bogus Bloomberg-era rental subsidies, with future mayor Bill de Blasio (at the time chair of the General Welfare Committee of the City Council).

How do you become a member?

Membership is open to anyone who is currently or formerly homeless. Members have to fill out a membership form (see any staffer for a copy) and pay an annual dues of $10, but we’re flexible about how you pay it—if you get food stamps and want to donate $10 of snacks to a meeting, bring the snacks and a receipt and we’ll take it that way!

How can we get to your office?

Take the 4/5/6 train to 125th Street in Manhattan.

How often do you meet?

Our Civil Rights Meeting is every Tuesday at 2PM. Our Housing Meeting is every Thursday at 6PM. Our General Membership Meeting is every first Friday of the month, at 5PM. Our Homeless Organizing Academy has classes on Tuesdays at 5PM—call our office at 646-314-6423 for the schedule, or check out picturethehomeless.org, or just come on by!

What days are you open? What’s the schedule? When and why do you give out metrocards and snacks?

We’re open Monday thru Friday, 10AM to 7PM, except when there’s an evening meeting or class, in which case we may be open later. When in doubt, call 646-314-6423 for clarification. We provide Metrocards and snacks at all meetings, because we know it’s expensive to get around, and because we know our members often miss out on meals at soup kitchens and pantries to participate in our work.

How do you organize people without homes?

It’s a challenge, but it’s also required us to develop an organizational strength and creativity that is the secret of our success. We go to soup kitchens and shelters and parks and transit hubs to meet homeless people and bring them into our work. We offer showers for folks who live on the street, and Metrocards to make sure people can make it to our meetings. We try hard to be a safe and welcoming space for all homeless people, regardless of background and circumstances, which is part of why we put so much energy into making the office a casual, open, loving, celebratory place.

Is this going to make a positive difference?

It will only make a positive difference if we, ourselves are positive.  We must also work as a unit. Homeless people are impacted by some of the most incredible challenges imaginable, and only positive change can follow if they come together to fight to make things better.

Members of the East Harlem/El Barrio Community Land Trust with a message to the city and to speculators…

How can we correct stereotypes?

The best way to change a stereotype is not to be a stereotype! We believe that confronting the myths with the reality of our smart, passionate, powerful members will go a long way to dispelling negative preconceptions. In addition, we can speak to journalists and faith communities and classrooms and others, in an effort to show the world who we are and what homelessness really is.

Who are your targets?

Our targets are anyone who has the power to make the changes we want to see. That’s primarily politicians, both elected and appointed officials. We identify our targets through a collective process in our campaign meetings, and then we plan a course of action to move them to do the right thing.

Where do you hope to be in 5/10/20 years?

We want to see the situation improved, when it comes to housing and policing. We want to fundamentally change power relations in this country, so that low-income people have true power to change things.

Will I get arrested if I hang out with y’all?

While it’s true that many members and staff of Picture the Homeless have been arrested during acts of civil disobedience, no one has ever been arrested without explicitly choosing to put themselves in that situation. Sometimes we decide that the best way to achieve our goals is to put ourselves on the line, and in those cases we always go into it with legal support in place, bail money lined up, etc. If you’re not comfortable with that, for whatever reason, there’s no shame—there is a lot of other work to be done!

Do you have email/Facebook/Twitter?

Yes! Picture the Homeless has all of that, and more: Blog: www.picturethehomeless.org/blog; YouTube: www.youtube.com/picturethehomeless; Facebook http://tiny.cc/pthonfacebook Flickr: http://tiny.cc/pthonflickr Twitter: http://twitter.com/pthny

What is Banking on Vacancy? How can I get a copy? 

Banking on Vacancy is a report that we compiled in conjunction with Hunter college that shows the findings of our vacant property count which reveals that there are 3 times more vacant properties then homeless people in NYC! You can access the report from our website: picturethehomeless.org

What is community organizing? 

It’s when people with common interests come together to work on creating solutions to problems that they face. It’s also what we do here! So come on up and learn more about it.

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DeBoRah Dickerson at a vacant property takeover in 2009.

How can community boards get involved?

By contacting our Housing or Civil Rights Organizers at 646-314-6423 to talk about what’s most useful to our campaigns right now!

What happened to your founders?

Lewis Haggins passed away in 2004, sparking our successful Potters Field campaign that transformed the way the city treats the indigent dead. Anthony Williams remains part of the PTH extended family, currently residing with his wife in Pennsylvania.

What’s the difference between advocacy, activism, and organizing?

Advocacy is when you speak for someone, generally in the service of changing a specific law or practice. Activism is individual actions undertaken around specific issues. Organizing is collective action that seeks to fundamentally change power relations. We have a whole training about this—come to our Homeless Organizing Academy, or email Sam (sam@picturethehomeless.org) for a copy!