Welcome to The Picture the Homeless Oral History Project!
Background: My name is Lynn Lewis, and I have had the absolute honor to work with the co-founders of Picture the Homeless, Lewis Haggins and Anthony Williams, after meeting them at the first Picture the Homeless public meeting at CHARAS/El Bohio on January 20th, 2000.
I stayed on for 17 years.
You can hear Anthony Williams’ telling of the Picture the Homeless origin story in his interview from January 3, 2018, in the oral history section of this website.
Lewis (Lou) Haggins passed away in December, 2003. You can hear that story and the history of the subsequent Potters Field campaign in William Burnett’s interview from November, 2017 and January, 2018.
If you want to know more about Picture the Homeless and can’t wait until this website is completed, or for additional history, facts, and overall fabulousness, go to their website, www.picturethehomeless.org.
When I say that it was my honor to work at Picture the Homeless for 17 years, I mean it. In our early years, there weren’t many of us, nor was there funding, salaries, computers, or even office space at first. But there was need, and there was the faith that we could organize homeless folks, even when experienced organizers said that it couldn’t be done. The privilege of working with folks who were sleeping on the streets, on trains or in shelters and who would roll up their sleeves and work to make NYC a better place was incredible. I am thankful each and every day for having had the opportunity to build community with, and to learn from, some of the best teachers in the world.
This Oral History project is a labor of love and of resistance, just like Picture the Homeless. It covers the period between our founding in November of 1999 until January, 2017 when I left the organization as Executive Director. I enrolled in the Oral History Masters Program at Columbia University in order to build the skills necessary to do this project justice. While I have a long way to go, I am learning and am grateful for your generous patience.
Grass roots organizations and social movements rarely have the capacity to save, organize and archive our work. With this in mind, we thankfully had the foresight to save and digitize thousands of items: from photos to press clippings, to flyers, letters, member testimonies, videos, staff notes, and much more.
Our goal is to ensure that Picture the Homeless members, staff and board knows it’s own history. We also want to make this content available for other folks – in particular other homeless organizing efforts. The housing crisis in this country, indeed globally, will only be remedied with homeless folks in leadership. Given the central role that land and housing play in capitalism, I would even say that homelessness is a symptom of the harm caused by capitalism and homeless folks will be part of the liberation army that brings it down.
Picture the Homeless didn’t figure out all the answers by a long shot, but embedded in this oral history project are many lessons. If it weren’t for folks like Paul Boden at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, sharing their homeless organizing expertise with us, we surely would have had way more missteps than we actually did.
Methodology: I began with a cohort of six Picture the Homeless leaders (Arvernetta Henry, Jean Rice, DeBoRah Dickerson, William Burnett, Marcus Moore, and Rogers), two staff (Nikita Price and Sam J Miller) and our co-founder (Anthony Williams). I was subsequently convinced by these narrators that I needed to also be interviewed as I was also part of the Picture the Homeless story, so there are ten narrators initially, and a total of seventeen interviews as of this writing, March 31st, 2018. Anthony Williams interviewed me. Each of these narrators had talked, some for years, about writing “our” book. Each of them were incredibly encouraging as I explained that I was going back to school to learn this craft. Some of them were involved in our initial book project attempt back in 2005. Those notes are included in the archive.
These initial group of narrators (interviewees) were selected because they each had been with Picture the Homeless for at least ten years – and were still active with the organization. They are leaders, staff and board members. Some of the these initial narrators wear more than one hat. For example, Jean Rice is a founding board member, dating back to the formation of the Board in 2003. Jean is also a veteran civil rights leader, and founder of the canning and Potters Field campaigns. Nikita Price was a leader and then was hired as a staff organizer.
I conducted the majority of the interviews in my apartment in El Barrio. All of these narrators have been to my apartment many times. The Picture the Homeless office is very loud, as one would expect, and want it to be. Many of the narrators are still homeless, living in shelters, some are in supportive housing and one is a homesteader. None of them are street homeless at this time, although some of them were when they first became involved with Picture the Homeless or had been at other times in their lives.
Many of the narrators have cell phones, and at least sporadic access to the internet. We texted, or spoke by phone, or communicated via Facebook, to set up the interviews.
Each of the narrators reviewed and approved their transcripts, and some made significant revisions.
I did my best to transcribe every word, pause, smile, and some tears. I did “clean up” quite a few um’s, ah’s, sort of, and like in the narrators responses as well as my own questions. After about fourteen interviews, I received support in with the initial draft transcription.
I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the leaders, staff, board members and allies who took the time and allowed me to interview them for this project. I am grateful to the Picture the Homeless Board of Directors for authorizing me to utilize all of the Picture the Homeless archival materials from the period covered by this oral history project. Your faith in me is humbling.
The initial cohort of narrators were selected from some of the most stalwart social warriors that I know. They also double as my advisory board.
Brett Dion synced the audio and transcripts for some of the first interviews using OHMS (Oral History Metadata Systems). Marina Ortiz provided invaluable assistance making this website functional and lovely. I am grateful for her technical skills and her friendship.
Lynn Roberts, Rachel Falcone and Michael Premo, James Tracy and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz provided me with crucial support as I was applying to the Oral History Masters Program. That early support helped to give me the confidence to return to school after many, many years. My Communities united for Police Reform family took up a collection when I left Picture the Homeless to pursue this dream and trust me, it did help to pay the light bills. My daughter Rocio Rayo and her girlfriend Shy Richardson, have been paying my phone bill for several months, and some other incidentals, as I finish my classes and spend down my savings. Among my personal crew, I need to thank Donald Anthonyson for the encouragement and delicious meals that help keep me going.
The Oral History Masters’ program staff and instructors at Columbia have been exceptional in their encouragement for me personally and for this project. OHMA Co-Directors Mary Marshall Clark, Amy Starcheski in particular have been wonderful. Not only are they extremely skilled oral historians in their own right with a vast, international network of amazing oral historians and artists and practitioners that they have introduced us to, they are amazing teachers and have each mentored me in their own ways. Michael Falco, of the Columbia University INCITE office has been consistent and generous in his support as well.
My daughter Rocio Rayo nudged me to create a Go Fund Me account. I was concerned that publishing that request on social media would detract from donations to Picture the Homeless, so I sent it to a select group of friends. Your support for Picture the Homeless all these years, and of me personally and politically has meant the world to me. That initial round of supporters includes Brenda Stokely, Teresa Basillo, James Tracy, Dave Powell, Rocio Rayo, Brooke Lehman, Ed (Tito) Delgado, Jenny Akchin, Robert Martin, Sue Lob, Helena Wong, Erin Markman, Sam J Miller, Sam Stein, Betty Yu, Ben Shephard, and some folks named anonymous.
If it takes a village, then this was mine.