Power to the People! Yeah!
I attended my first ever town meeting on January 18th. We nearly filled an 800-seat hall in the elegantly outfitted Victoria Conservatory of Music building. An incongruous venue for le sujet de l’heure: homelessness. The Reverend Al Tysick was there, as well as the gospel-style piano playing Louise Rose who conducts the “Open Door Choir at Our Place” — a melding of homeless and volunteers. They opened the evening with three numbers, including Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think. A boisterous start.
The forum turned out to be a presentation of a proposal for prefabricated housing “pods” (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers) that could be built on various school properties currently up for sale. The vacant school buildings would serve as community hubs, offering 24/7 nursing care, social and athletic facilities, health and literacy education and job placement programs. The proposal, by a nine-person team of Victoria-area professionals and activists, won first place in a local magazine contest. In the November issue of Focus, readers were invited to submit proposals for housing 2,000 low income earners. They were given a tight deadline. When I realized that what we were seeing was the result of only three weeks’ work, I wondered why all the hoopla. Why draw a crowd to review the results of what amounted to a brainstorming exercise? Why give the evening the grand title of Forum on Homelessness? I felt misled and disappointed. That was before the ruckus began.
The winning team gave a twenty-minute slide presentation. A moderator then invited those in the audience with questions to line up at two microphones on the main floor. “Confine your comments to two minutes, please,” he said. Two queues of ten or so, each, formed quickly. A man in the balcony shouted out, “How much is this gonna cost?” He was asked to come down and take his place in line with the others. “Why? You can hear me. How much is it gonna cost?” He was ignored as the moderator called on a woman at the microphone on the left.
“I don’t believe that site is suitable,” she said. “It’s in a place full of children.” (For purposes of illustration, a particular school property had been suggested for the prototype.) She received some supportive applause. Her emotions got the best of her, however, and she began to rant about “we the working people.” I got that squirmy feeling I often do when I fear someone is about to spontaneously combust. As she got louder and more incoherent, voices shouted, “Two minutes! Two minutes!” She said, “I’m not done making my point. If I have to go the newspaper with this, I will,” and voices shouted, “So go!” The moderator said, “We have to move on to the next question.” She would not be deterred. Neither would the audience. Even I shouted, “Go! Go!” until she did.
A woman at the other microphone was next. “I got a problem with this,” she said. “My people are dying out there. Why don’t we fill up those empty schools with bodies? I applaud your idealism, but we need action now.”
And so it went. The panel of prize winners did their best to respond, but they were representing only weeks of collaboration on a problem that’s been around for years and continues to worsen. It was open season on them. I was sympathetic but also caught up in the passion of the people at the microphones. They ignored the moderator’s plea to confine their questions to the proposal details. And why not? They had come for a Forum on Homelessness and they were going to have it. They spoke about inadequate treatment for addiction and mental disabilities, the lack of a needle exchange program, the escalating cost of housing, the need to support those on the verge of homelessness as well as those who were already there.
“How about if our federal government didn’t send our money to
Some of the speakers were articulate; others were not. I loved hearing them all. I loved that ‘we the people’ were frustrated enough to take over the meeting. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so open to hearing such diverse views. Ever felt such a hunger to connect with the community soul. To the organizers’ credit, everyone who had lined up got to speak. The audience thinned out as the evening wore on and the last speakers were heard by relatively few. It was left to Louise Rose to wind things up. She got us to crowd together on the main floor while the choir filed back onto the stage.
“This night reminds me of the Fifties and Sixties and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she said. “Back then, there was a song we sang when we didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know what to do right now, so why don’t we sing that song? And then you can go.” We stood and joined hands and swayed as we sang We Shall Overcome. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all — I think Louise was the only black person in the room — but the truth was I was moved. Let’s get fist-in-the-air mad enough to get something done, yeah! Power to the People! Yeah!
Photo by Sandy Henderson: Louise Rose beneath the Heritage Rose Window in the