House everyone: Jamaal (ACT UP Philly) on houselessness

ACT Up Philly
Image Source: Andrew Lee

For our last installment of this series, we spoke with Jamaal Henderson (they/them) of ACT UP Philly. ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is best known for confrontational direct actions that forced the government to address the AIDS epidemic. Jamaal explained why ACT UP Philly is now taking a leading role in organizing alongside and as unhoused people. They shared their analysis of the connections between organizing around HIV treatment and organizing against evictions, houselessness, and gentrification. 

TAKE ACTION

  • Donate to ACT UP Philly and sign this petition demanding that the City of Philadelphia provide immediate housing to those living on the streets.
  • Oppose local and state laws criminalizing houselessness or harming people living on the street. Support a local organization of unhoused or formerly unhoused people working for justice like ACT UP Philly, Right 2 Survive, or the Coalition on Homelessness.
  • Consider: What would you do if you faced eviction after an unexpected medical bill, job loss, or family emergency? How would your ability to recover be affected if you weren’t about to find stable housing? How are the rights of tenants and unhoused people connected?

Q: How did ACT UP Philly get involved in organizing against encampment evictions? 

When the pandemic first started in early April of last year, the CDC had released guidance saying that homeless encampments should not be broken down; those people shouldn’t be forced into a shelter because at this point in time, that space that they were in was probably safer. The city ignored that guidance and broke down an encampment around the convention center.

They put people into different shelters. As a result of that, there was a COVID outbreak at Our Brother’s Place that killed one of the shelter residents. This is when ACT UP got involved, because it was mirroring the beginning of the HIV epidemic: the people who had the least were bearing the brunt of the pandemic. 

Q: How is housing connected to HIV treatment? 

ACT UP had been organizing to get people better [HIV] medication. However, what we realized was, we can’t just tackle the medications. We have to tackle the social determinants, right? Because homeless people are more likely to contract HIV because they’re having to make choices that will put them at risk. You can’t fix anything else — not food insecurity, not medication adherence, the challenges of trying to cut down HIV infection rates — unless you’re addressing housing. 

Q: What is ACT UP Philly fighting for? 

Our target is Liz Hersh, the Director of the Office of Homeless Services. When it comes to policies that are in place — as far as non-congregate housing, as far as people being COVID tested while they’re in shelters, as far as how to shelter street people, ending evictions from shelters for opioid use and possession — all of that stuff is in her purview to control, and she chooses not to. But instead of getting rid of Liz Herst and replacing her with somebody else, we also have demands where they need to establish a paid oversight board made up of folks who are homeless. They can be trained and be an effective oversight to make sure that the city is actually doing what they claim, which is providing trauma-informed housing-first services. Because nothing they do right now is trauma-informed or housing first.

Who knows better what unhoused people need than unhoused people? You have people who are housed, who have never been unhoused, who are setting policies for what unhoused people have to do to qualify for housing. There’s a problem there.

Q: Is there a housing crisis in Philadelphia? What’s the connection between houselessness and gentrification? 

Truthfully, there isn’t a housing crisis. Philadelphia has enough vacant houses to house every homeless person next year and still have houses left over. But you need to create housing for people who make zero to $25,000 a year, which is the high side of what poor people make in this city.

Every place they have swept an encampment out of Kensington has been gentrified. If you go to where an encampment was, they’re building a bunch of high-rise condos. They convinced the residents of Kensington that they need to get rid of the homeless people to have higher property values, but I promise you: as soon as they clear all the homeless people off the streets of Kensington, what you’re going to see is a bunch of new developments being built at a price you can’t afford.

Q: What are some myths about unhoused people? 

The city says unhoused people are “shelter-resistant.”

But as housed individuals, we can get up when we want to, we can go to sleep when we want. Not everyone’s job is nine to five. If you work an overnight shift, or if you don’t get off until 11 PM, you won’t make curfew and they’ll give your shelter bed to someone else. If you’re someone who has a drug addiction and you don’t get them you’ll get physically ill, throw up, have diarrhea. Most people who are out here on opioids aren’t trying to get high anymore, they’re trying to keep themselves from being physically ill — they can’t go to a shelter.

You have millions of people across this country, right now, who are facing homelessness. But you hear people say, “Oh they choose to be homeless,” or “If they stopped doing drugs, they wouldn’t be homeless.” But nobody actually wants to be homeless, to live in a shelter, or have the problems they have. It’s our social and economic system that creates this problem. Philly says all the time, “We can’t afford to house people, the housing is too expensive,” but every time we turn around they increase funding to the police.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Unhoused people are dying of COVID in shelters after local governments break up unhoused encampments.
  • These sweeps, which violate CDC guidelines, help property developers gentrify neighborhoods at the expense of people living on the streets.
  • Housing policy that affects unhoused people needs to be led and overseen by people themselves in that situation.

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