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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009 12:59 am

The homeless taking care of business

With clear goals, H.U.C. goes to work

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At this business meeting of homeless people, some of the speeches are long and rambling, but that’s no different from many of the church and professional meetings I sit through regularly. What is different from many meetings I attend is that the business is important and the focus is clear. Advocacy for the homeless by the homeless, and the move toward self-governance represented by Homeless United for Change, is a development more meaningful than any help social service agencies can provide.

At the group’s regular weekly meeting at First Presbyterian Church, members stuffed envelopes for a fundraising campaign to send members of their group to a March leadership training event in Washington, D.C., as they moved through their agenda. The first issue on the floor was the need for homeless people to know their legal rights as a protection against harassment. A member had been told that police had issued tickets to some homeless people who were doing nothing but walking on the sidewalk. Details of the incident were sketchy, but meeting leaders decided to go around the room and ask each of the 15 people at the meeting whether they thought a lawyer should be invited in to speak to the members about their rights.

James Lewis, one of the older members there, thought it would be fine to invite a lawyer in; he and his nephew had been harassed and discriminated against just recently. But some of the homeless themselves are giving all homeless people a bad name, he said. “I see too much disrespect going on in the library. I see homeless people coming in and talking loud and walking all over the place. We’re asked not to sleep at the library, but some were drunk and falling asleep. People get to the point they don’t want to help you when you act like this.”

Then a member rose to complain that he hadn’t been treated right when he sought medical attention one night for pain that turned out to be a pancreatic problem. He said he was turned out into the cold that night, then later referred to a doctor in Chatham. But he has no way to get to Chatham.

Barb Olson, organizer of H.U.C. and one of the few non-homeless participants in the meeting, offered a strong defense of Springfield’s hospitals for the free treatment they provide to the city’s poor. “Still it’s true that homeless people are overlooked by almost every service provider in the city,” she said. To the man with the medical problem, she said she longs for the time when Springfield has a proper day center for the homeless. “I hope that a doctor will come once a week, someone who knows you and will work for you. He can make calls for you and say, ‘What’s up with sending this man all the way to Chatham?’”

Springfield’s patchwork system of homeless shelters and services seems to be working fairly well this winter, so far. But the proposed day center – so important it has been assigned to a planning subcommittee – is the ultimate goal. Dreams for such a center include computers with Internet access, telephones to search for jobs and housing, showers and storage for belongings. While volunteering at S.O.S. recently, I asked one of the H.U.C. leaders the question that has been on my mind. If we make people too comfortable, won’t they lose their incentive to become self-sufficient?

If people are stressed out from the struggle to survive, he explained to me patiently in the course of a long conversation, they can’t do anything else. It’s only when they’re comfortable that they can do the work needed to improve their situations.

After an hour and a half, the business agenda was completed and it was time for members to head for the shelters. With assignments made for work to be done before next week, the meeting was adjourned.

Contributions to help send HUC members to the National People’s Action Conference in Washington, D.C., March 21-23, may be mailed to Barb Olson, HUC organizer, 2123 Warwick Drive, Springfield, 62704. HUC meetings, open to the public, are 5 p.m. Mondays at First Presbyterian Church.

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