Nov 2009 KTA: Documenting the Need and Making New Relationships

In 2009, we see the narrative of the economic crisis playing out on TV and in the newspapers as something related to stocks, quarterly earnings of corporations, real estate prices. But then even as we are told that these numbers are improving or leveling out, in our own communities we see more of our neighbors and family members out of work, we see more hunger, more homelessness.

 As justice-minded people, we often wonder both about the big picture questions: how to restructure our economy, and where we should be headed as a country.  But on a human level we are also reminded about the day-to-day and we feel drawn to serve those in our community that have fallen upon hard times. In this moment in time, us organizers and activists can play an important role in putting the pieces back together and laying the foundations of a new type of economy and community. Right now, the best way to start by building relationships in our communities with those we will need to get through these times.
 
Let’s take this month to start making relationships with those who serve the poor, and who document the reality of the economic crisis. Let’s lend them a hand and by doing so, help to create the narrative of this moment in history.  This month’s Kitchen Table Activism is to make your group’s plan for participating in the January 2010 Homeless Count.  (Below this activity, you can read more from Mark Davis of the Yamhill Valley Peacemakers about why they participate in the Homeless Count.)
WHAT IS THE ACTIVITY?   
Each January, Community Action Agencies are responsible for counting the number of homeless people for a statewide report . They commonly do this by visiting area shelters, and checking to see how many folks are staying over, but we know that shelters house just a fraction of our community’s homeless population. Homeless people in our communities live in their cars, on friends’ couches, they set up camps or sleep on the streets. The agencies responsible for conducting the homeless count often do not have the resources to look into where the homeless are staying in their community, and only volunteers can step in to fill that gap. In past years, ROP leaders have found that some counties would not even have been doing the count if their human dignity group had not stepped in to offer support!

WHY THIS ACTIVITY?

What better way to take part in understanding the economic crisis and creating it’s grassroots narrative, while helping out our shorthanded neighbors who do good work in social services? The homeless count is also one of the factors used by Oregon Housing and Community Services to determine the amount of funding a county receives to provide services to homeless people. Let’s start in November to prepare for this one day activity in January to ensure we have a strong plan in our counties for the count and the volunteers needed to get it done.
 
Please Note: If working on the Homeless Count is not needed, the same lead agencies coordinate local food banks and other programs. Be creative, but get hands on!
 
STEPS TO COMPLETE THE ACTIVITY:
  1. Decide as a group why this matters to you. Once you can verbalize the political and social importance of helping with the homeless count, you’ll be ready to start talking to people about it. You can create your project “mission statement” by drawing on the “WHY” part of this activity, or you can make it up on your own.
  2. Contact your Community Action Agency to get full details on their plan for the Homelessness Count. Click here: http://www.caporegon.org/members.htm for a map of the CAAs and their contact information. They might have a developed plan with different roles that you can plug into, or you might be free to brainstorm with them the best way to reach the homeless.
  3. Develop a plan to recruit volunteers for this event: Send out an email. Divide up a list of potential volunteers & make personal calls to invite them. Think about people in your community that have been involved in other projects to address hunger and homelessness. What about community garden or foodbank volunteers? Remember this might be just the kind of event that will bring in folks beyond your usual suspects.
  4. Carry this one step further and write an op-ed before or after the homelessness count focusing on the connections between the economic crisis and homelessness.  Highlight the reasons why your group decided to participate, and start a community dialogue about economic solidarity.
The Story of One Community: Why the Yamhill Valley PeaceMakers participate in the Homelss Count
Written by Mark Davis
No matter whether you tend towards “change we can believe in” or something a bit more revolutionary, it seems clear that resolving the social problems that beset this country will not happen in the near future. Yes, we all want to create a new society in which no one goes hungry, everyone has a secure place to live, all can pursue an education, a job awaits anyone able to work and we can all live in an open society that respects all members of the community. In the meantime, how do progressives respond to the obvious failures to meet this ideal?
 
Should we devote all our time trying to ameliorate the symptoms of the frayed safety net or should we leave that to social service agencies and spend our time trying to change the political climate so that these problems are permanently resolved?
 
The Yamhill Valley Peacemakers are attempting to try to combine the two approaches to make connections in the community and give our perspectives more credibility. At many of our programs we set out barrels from the local food bank and collect donations as the cost of admission. As an organization we volunteered to cover a shift at the local soup kitchen for several years. This coming January will participate again in the Homeless Count that the local Community Action sponsors annually to quantify how many lack a safe place to live.
 
While such activities may take some time from political organizing, they do put us out in the community and in informal contact with potential allies. Because we are not afraid to vigil and march in public places, many in the community try to stereotype us as a fringe element out of touch with reality. By working alongside others in traditional community service work, we have a chance to break down such stereotypes and are taken more seriously when, for example, we talk about how spending on war makes this country less secure by failing to provide affordable housing or health care.
Background: Kitchen Table Activism (KTA) is a monthly project of the Rural Organizing Project. The theory is that basic steps can lead to powerful collective results as local groups gather to complete the same action throughout the state. ROP works to keep the tasks achievable so that groups with other projects or groups with limited immediate energy can still manage to complete the KTA each month. 
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