People in the street community are incredible — resilient, creative, and highly skilled at surviving and adapting. As Raven Drake put it in an interview done in early March at the start of the COVID crisis, “We’re not helpless out here…There’s a lot of us who are willing to do the job of keeping track of others and helping keep everyone safe and healthy. We’re just lacking the support and resources right now.” (Raven lives on Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, and Molalla territory, aka ‘portland’)
The street community doesn’t need to be “saved”, managed, controlled, or contained. (Ew, ew, ew, and ew.) But people do need to have redistribution of inequitably distributed resources, including access to money, supplies, information, and people who have time/skills to do some of what needs to be done right now. Ensuring access to all of these is a form of community care and economic-racial-gender justice. Below are some ways you can do that.
do tasks – contribute to labour
People in the street community have incredible skills and are already doing tons of work on their own survival, but don’t have access to resources like cars, computers, etc. needed for some kinds of tasks. Whether you’re able to leave the house or housebound, there are lots of ways you can pitch in. None of us can do All The Things, but everything constructive makes a positive difference! Some of the people who are organizers in our network have significant chronic illness and are organizing from bed — we get it that there are lots of different capacities and we will work with you respectfully to figure out what works for you.
In collaboration with the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team (IHRT) we brainstormed a list of specific tasks that reflect a wide range of capacity, skills, talents, and interests. We also invited other organizations doing harm reduction outreach (Peers, SOLID, and AVI) to identify tasks they want to add to this list.
Some of the tasks can be done completely autonomously and don’t require any checking in with us. Other tasks require coordination – as of December 2020 we are no longer doing matching to specific tasks IHRT (and any other organizations that want volunteer support) have identified as needed, you’ll need to contact organizations directly to find out what they need.
If you aren’t sure what you want to do, please review the list of tasks and then contact us to discuss what you feel would be a good match for your situation. We aren’t directly coordinating volunteers at this point, but we’re happy to try to connect you with other people / teams / groups that might be a fit.
As IHRT says, “how we do is as important as what we do”. These are intense and urgent times but we know from previous health emergencies like HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and the overdose crisis that we need to work in good ways, care for each other, and pace for the long haul. As of December 2020 PK is taking a break from task coordination. We had originally hoped that everyone doing a task through our network would have support from a volunteer coordinator and be part of a network infrastructure to promote community care and avoid burnout, but we tried a bunch of things towards that and it didn’t work. Even though we couldn’t figure it out, we’re glad to have tried rather than doing nothing!
GET MONEY directly to PEOPLE in the street community
COVID-19 prevention measures have hit the street community hard in many ways including reduced income. For a while there was no way to bin, with bottle depots closed; there have been very reduced options for panhandling or street sales (of art, bus tickets, sex, etc). People who don’t have a documented income, bank account, or address to get tax forms don’t qualify for many government benefits. Some benefits require a phone/computer to apply, but drop-in spaces that used to provide that access are mostly closed. At the same time expenses are up, especially with decreased options for free food and water, fewer scavenging options (e.g., cigarette butts), and an even scarcer-than-usual drug supply (so increased prices).
Getting money directly to people respects their autonomy to decide for themselves what is the most urgent need, and maximum flexibility to go to a store that is close and otherwise accessible. You can do this by e-transferring funds to firstname.lastname@example.org, or donating gift cards that IHRT can include in its wellness kits.
Support local sex workers by contributing to a relief fund initiated by Peers Victoria. All donations will be matched 1:1, and 100% of the proceeds will be tailored to individual need — e.g., rent, food, hygiene and prevention supplies, etc. Current and former sex workers can apply. Donations to this fund are tax-deductible.
Increase peer worker opportunities by donating to peer-based groups that can put your donation specifically into paying peer workers. IHRT is all-Indigenous, 6 / 7 team members are part of the street community, and everyone getting paid is low income. E-transfer to email@example.com. As formal agencies AVI, Peers, and SOLID operate differently but all have peer workers and it’s worth getting in touch with them to ask if you can direct a donation to support increased paid peer work. Peer workers can get tokenized and exploited pretty intensely, so as part of deciding which organizations to direct funds to you may want to ask how peers are involved in organizational decision-making, how many people who get paid are peers, whether peers make the same wage as non-peers, etc. so you can support organizations that most align with your values.
help get survival supplies out to community
Normally we would be all about getting people direct cash, both on principle and as that’s what’s usually most needed. But with everything going on around COVID, it can take a lot of phoning and driving to be able to source things as so many stores have bare shelves. Also people need to rest and protect themselves from COVID exposure, as people in the street community are high risk for COVID complications.
Everyone’s situation is different but there are also some basics that people need. You can donate cash online to help outreach organizations give maximum flexibility to buy street community survival supplies, or some are able to take donated supplies (we took donated supplies for a while, but with minimal storage space and a lot of people dropping off junk, this was not sustainable).
Another way to support getting survival supplies out to people is to find ways to get supplies at a discounted price (or free) — that way supply funding can stretch farther. Maybe your workplace has been shut down so already-purchased water jugs or cleaning supplies are no longer needed — if so try calling one of the groups that is on the ground, to get them out into community where they can better be used. And if you have connections with businesses that want to donate, please contact us and we’re happy to try to connect them to grassroots groups & organizations that might be able to use them. We are especially interested in connections with home-brewers to support a new community-based alcohol program, as alcohol withdrawal can result in seizures and death, and it is unsustainable to pay retail prices.
shift perception about what can be done
Many people who have contacted us asking how they can help. It’s obvious that people are aching to do something that feels meaningful. Part of the work right now is helping people think more clearly about what can be done at this time, and to engage in ways that are sustainable and useful. In addition to doing the kinds of things set out earlier, there’s also a need to talk with people to help shift perception and regain perspective.
Even within mutual aid-oriented COVID groups there is often encouragement to focus on supporting the people in your immediate circle: family, close friends, etc. Because we live in a society where there is intense stratification and segregation along lines of power and privilege, “support who you love” means many people who have access to resources are using those resources primarily to benefit other people who also have resources. Those of us with families and friends in the street community see the need for normie people with time and money to support not only those who they know and love, but to reach out, from a place of principled solidarity, to share resources more broadly.
The mainstream media is far from helpful. Every day we see ridiculous stories applauding housed people for coming up with wasteful activities, puff pieces on how police are boosting morale, and other misdirected use of energy. The few stories about the street community are often opportunistic and patronizing, promoting harmful stereotypes, portraying service providers as heroes saving the helpless, or pumping donations to large organizations that have no transparency or accountability about where supplies and money are going. Meanwhile there’s no acknowledgment of what people in the street community are doing to creatively keep each other alive, or the amazing work principled groups like IHRT are doing to go outside bureaucratic bullshit and get things done. Something really useful that can be done at this time is to talk with people who want to help, but might be confused about how to do that well. We are all learning all the time about what principled solidarity actually means and it’s OK that people don’t have that figured out yet. But in these times we need to help each other figure it out, try things even if they aren’t “perfect”, and be focused and useful.
challenge unhelpful crap, promote constructive action
These are weird times for political mobilizing, but they’re far from hopeless. Indigenous people, people with chronic illness and disabilities, jailhouse activists, undocumented people, and many others know how to survive isolation and get shit done with no money even while severely constrained by societal barriers restricting movement.
We’re interested in your creative ideas and examples about how to push back on the harmful systemic, structural bullshit that is so intensified right now and ways to build a collective ethic of love, justice, and solidarity.
Here are a few ideas we’ve been thinking about. We can’t directly organize these things but are sharing them in case it helps people think about what to do in their own networks.
- How do we find ways to talk with people about what is happening, in ways that are calm, focused on the possibilities for creative action, and don’t send people further into overwhelm, panic, or shutdown? A lot of people are coping with information overload by withdrawing — limiting use of social media, etc. What works for collective communication in these times so we can encourage people to stay connected with what’s happening, rather than zoning out?
- The current media coverage sucks! And while we don’t have any illusions that mainstream media is suddenly going to improve, we have seen in past campaigns against poor-bashing that it is important to provide an alternative perspective. If you have media connections, would you be into talking with reporters encouraging them to contact organizations that are on the ground and actually know what’s going on, rather than just parroting government’s ridiculous propaganda or relying on health and social service agencies that aren’t doing mobile outreach? Would you be up for writing letters to local papers? (Homes Not Hate has materials to support letter-writing and can help create a letter-writing crew if this is your jam; if you want help with a sample letter or op-ed, feel free to contact us.)
- Social media can be a total time suck but for some people that’s where it feels good to do political work. It’s great if you can challenge poor-bashing on social media, including saying it’s not OK to promote dehumanizing stereotypes of people in the street community as disease vectors, inherently dirty/unclean, dangerous, or in need of health/social service provider control and management.
- We’re concerned that the expanded powers to health authorities could bolster policing and social control measures that will most impact people who are already highly marginalized and criminalized — especially Indigenous and Black people, people who use drugs, sex workers, trans women and transfeminine people, and people with mental illness or brain injury (who are stereotyped as “dangerous”). Already we are seeing political pressure to increase the VicPD budget, always a bad idea but especially hideous at this time as jails and prisons are hothouses for COVID, and there’s even more need than ever for budgets to prioritize people’s survival.
- We’d love to see more sharing of tools for building resilience and self-care/community care that are social-justice oriented (like Tea Time with Sandra), rather than those that frame COVID as a meditation retreat, spa day, or vacation from the capitalist grind. A lot of pieces that circulated early on in COVID promoted apathy and the idea that the best thing people can do is nothing. That’s not the case and is an irresponsible collapse into privilege rather than considering what can be done more constructively to respond to the crisis. We can both take care of our wellness and also work together to address the vast injustices in how COVID is being addressed.
- We’re inspired by direct actions unhoused and precariously housed people have taken to turn unused buildings into survival spaces. Locally there was an ingenious temporary squat in an empty former box store, on the mainland the Hothouse Squatters seized the vacant North Surrey Recreation Centre, and in ‘los angeles’ homeless Latinx families have reclaimed vacant houses owned by the state. We hope more of this happens.
We’d love to hear your ideas for political work! Contact us if you have ideas you want to share.