The Picture the Homeless Oral History Project: Don’t Talk About Us, Talk With Us


Today on the blog, former Executive Director of Picture the Homeless Lynn Lewis speaks with Molly Rosner about her experience conducting oral history interviews as both an organizer and an oral historian. Quotes from interviewees in the project have been interspersed throughout the text.

How and why did this project begin?

The Picture the Homeless Oral History Project was launched for several reasons. It emerges from the desire of homeless New Yorkers to tell the story of their organization, Picture the Homeless. There are only a handful of groups in the U.S. that organize homeless folks to build political power and PTH is the second oldest of these organizations in the country — the first being the San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness.

The founding, history and development of Picture the Homeless (PTH) is a unique story and we needed to document and analyze our own history and impact. We have a robust archive covering the first seventeen years of PTH’s existence, yet many of the accomplishments of PTH were unknown even to PTH’s current membership and staff that were hired after the early years. The nuanced details about early decision-making and the work that went into those accomplishments, as well as our missteps, were at risk of being lost over time. As the longest running person at PTH at the time, I felt a responsibility to engage in this work. I knew and worked with both of the co-founders and one of the most compelling findings of this oral history project is both the impact of the origin story on homeless leaders of the organization as well as the many ways in which PTH’s homeless co-founders sowed the seeds of PTH’s organizing approach. PTH has a role to play as a leader in the growing movement led by homeless people throughout the country and this oral history project contains countless lessons that can serve these efforts.

Homelessness is rooted in systemic inequality; the perception that homelessness is the result of individual dysfunction feeds the stereotypes that justify punitive policing and service delivery policies. Homeless people, working within grassroots organizations such as PTH, compel us to understand how homelessness relates directly to extreme poverty, race, and gender. PTH’s solutions-based organizing campaigns have shifted mainstream discourse about homelessness and the crisis of affordable housing. Homelessness is part of a spectrum of hardship produced by the housing crisis. Solutions to homelessness benefit the city as a whole, and in this way, PTH has situated homeless New Yorkers as leaders in the social justice movement. Marcus Moore, a PTH leader and board member, in his first interview for the oral history project, sums up both the housing crisis and the disrespect for homeless New Yorkers’ civil rights in this reflection: Where do you want me to go? You’re not building nothing for me, but I can’t be nowhere.”

I worked at PTH for 17 years and left the organization in order to study oral history at Columbia. I wanted to gain the skills to do justice to the work of PTH. Many grassroots groups lose their history, or it is told by others and is easily distorted. PTH is now 19 years old and is the only grassroots group that organizes homeless folks in New York City. PTH’s work contains invaluable lessons about community organizing and building social movements, and alternative solutions to current community development practices. These lessons are embedded in the experience and the stories of the homeless membership of the organization, as well as the staff, board members, and allies who support PTH.

Who is involved?

The Picture the Homeless Oral History Project has an advisory board comprised of members of the initial cohort of narrators. The advisory board includes PTH leaders and staff who have been engaged for ten years or more with the organization, as well as the surviving PTH co-founder, Anthony Williams. As a former PTH staffer, I am privileged to have a unique relationship with the narrators. Structuring this as a participatory project presents many of the same challenges as community organizing does and it’s exciting to be doing this work with long time leaders of PTH. Several of the members of the initial cohort were enthusiastic about being interviewed for this project and many reached out to me several times asking me, “When are we going to write our book!” We are in the process of exploring ways to incorporate community organizing and participatory action research methods into the Picture the Homeless Oral History Project.

What has the PTH Oral History Project produced?

So far, we have completed 27 long form audio interviews resulting in over 400 transcribed pages, and about 40 hours of audio. Our goal is to conduct 50 interviews with homeless members and leaders of PTH, current and former staff and political allies. One of the most exciting things about this initial digital presence is that the narrators are listening to one another’s interviews. Complemented by the extensive PTH archive, we will disseminate this work and these lessons online, and we intend to educate, inspire and build the capacity for collective homeless resistance through community organizing.

Additionally, because homelessness intersects with race, gender, class and other marginalized identities, the analysis of PTH leaders generates knowledge and understanding of all types of related issues, such as Broken Windows policing, among so many others. For example, Jean Rice is a civil rights leader and founding Board member of Picture the Homeless. His knowledge of history and the U.S. Constitution shaped PTH’s civil rights campaign. I had the honor of working with Jean as the civil rights organizer for eight years, and he shared, “If you appear to be homeless, I mean if you have a shopping cart with personal belongings in it, you appear to be homeless. You’re targeted in public space. The same way that police agents during the era of the Fugitive Slave Act targeted people of color who had a stick over their shoulder with their meager belongings tied to the stick, well that stick has now become a shopping cart.”

I’m in the initial stages of utilizing the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) to sync the audio and the transcripts which will make the interviews searchable and of use to others interested in organizing homeless folks. In consultation with the advisory board I have also begun making short audio pieces about the history of PTH, such as how PTH got its name. Additionally, we are creating popular education materials — both audio and text based — that will be downloadable from the website based on themes emerging from the interviews. Having the audio and the transcript synced will allow us to listen and read carefully and really reflect on their meaning or to search the content for themes.

Why did you feel Oral History was the right tool for your goals?

Oral History is the perfect medium to document the work of PTH because it reveals what PTH meant and continues to mean to its homeless leaders. Oral History and community organizing as practiced at PTH share several common elements. Deep listening, for example, signals respect for the knowledge of community members which allow us to identify the themes that are important to community members as well as themes that are common across multiple interviews. In community organizing this process is called issue identification and in oral history, we listen for themes. The concept of shared authority is common to oral history and community organizing — it requires us to be intentional about power and privilege and is very much the philosophical center of this project. The Picture the Homeless Oral History Project incorporates community organizing, participatory action research and oral history research into an approach that I’m calling Participatory Oral History Research (POHR).

One difference between oral history and community organizing is that when people are speaking their truths in organizing spaces the environment is very charged, and the atmosphere is hectic; you’re in a meeting, the phones are ringing, someone may be in distress, someone may have fallen asleep, there is a lot that may be going on.

How will the interviews be used?

Because PTH is solutions focused, I hope that homeless led groups, community organizers, researchers, public policy workers and other stakeholders concerned with the housing crisis, gentrification, access to public space, representation, racism, anti-poor bias, etc., will utilize the interviews. Some practices that we are refining include ways to collectively analyze transcripts. I held a series of Oral History Open House sessions in my apartment with members of the advisory board. Transcripts were printed and folks picked one that they wanted to read and to comment on. We read together and informally discussed them, which generated a lot of conversation and insight. We’ve also had listening sessions where we listened to segments of the interviews together and discussed what they meant, and what types of segments advisory board members want me to create. Advisory board members also access the transcripts via google docs so that each of us can see one another’s comments. The audio has been uploaded to SoundCloud and advisory board members have listened to the interviews as well. In 2019 we began creating campaign timelines using archival materials as well as short zines using text directly from the transcripts and archival materials.

I’ve been conducting training for community organizers and want to incorporate audio into trainings. One exciting example of this project’s potential involved integrating the audio in a training with a homeless organizing group, Housing Our Neighbors in Baltimore. We used audio from the PTH oral history project to illustrate training materials on tasks such as outreach, base building, and issue identification while incorporating themes such as being welcoming and understanding how interpersonal relationships were key to PTH members committing to the organization. These themes reveal why PTH members stayed with the organization and can inform how we approach organizing.

This approach to oral history research may also be useful to other oral historians and community members interested in questions of power, privilege, and authority as we make history. I am hoping that the interviews will be used by homeless folks who wish to engage in, or who are already engaged in, collective action with other homeless folks.

What have you learned while doing this project?

I’m just beginning to learn the practice of oral history. Through this project, I am also learning some community organizing lessons, which has been fascinating. Base building, member retention, and supporting individual and collective leadership are the essential elements of community organizing. They are key to building political power. The meaning of PTH is revealed in the themes which have emerged across the initial interviews. They include: being welcoming, representation, leadership, race, education, justice, the significance of interpersonal relationships among members and staff, as well as individual and collective resistance. Nikita Price, a former PTH leader and now full time civil rights organizer reflected on why it is essential for homeless folks to publicly represent PTH, “You’ve identified the problem, you’ve offered solutions, and you push back against the myth that homeless people are pretty much worthless.”

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that folks commit to, or deepen their commitment to, PTH when two factors were present. The first, is when there was external pressure such as police sweeps, bad shelter conditions, etc., and someone within PTH invited them to “step up” by telling them that they were needed. As Rogers, an advisory member to the project put it, “when there’s pain and there’s love, we gravitate towards love.” PTH has been the love that folks have gravitated to in the face of the abuse inflicted by what folks call The System, which includes the police, the shelter system, welfare, poverty and white supremacy. The second, is representation. All of the narrators cited the importance of homeless folks seeing other homeless folks engaged in justice work as an essential element of why PTH matters to them. William Burnett is a PTH leader and Board member. He described the importance of direct action in building relationships at PTH, “In the military they say you’re strongest friends are the ones that you’re in the foxhole with. I think that happened at Picture The Homeless too.”

What hurdles has the project faced? What has been successful?

Constructing any type of research project that is truly participatory has to acknowledge the power dynamics present, because we can’t simply wish them away. We have an advisory board for this oral history project that is comprised of narrators/interviewees. One of the challenges is to make this truly collaborative and address the power dynamics that already exist. This is a challenge in community organizing. I’ve been through the OHMA program and gained skills there, but the narrators/interviewees have skills and experience that I don’t have. One metaphor that I use in organizing is that we are a soup. Some of us are carrots, some onions or tomatoes and so forth, but we each play a role. Additionally, our skills and roles aren’t stagnant, reflecting PTH’s organizing practice and advisory board members are attending oral history training sessions to deepen their skills which will further enrich this project. There are many skills and relationships that advisory board members bring to this project and the possibilities are endless.

Communication with “narrators/interviewees” isn’t always linear. Not everyone has a cell phone, or consistent internet access, but this speaks to the benefit of researchers being “in community” with those who would otherwise be considered subjects of research. It’s an honor for me to witness the depth of interest and commitment of the PTH leaders who I’ve interviewed for this project. Some of the narrators/interviewees have begun conducting outreach to other past PTH leaders for whom I don’t have contact information. As in community organizing, what has been successful is relying on the expertise and commitment of the narrators/interviewees to this project.

Funding is also a challenge because this work takes time. Additionally, there are skills and expertise that we don’t have in our toolkit, such as expanding the website, effectively employing OHMS, and cataloguing the archive.

What does this tell us about New York City in particular?

Throughout New York City there are people and organizations who are civic-minded, who dedicate their heart and soul to making the city a better place. PTH members are no different, except that they’re homeless. An example of this civic mindedness which really does define many PTH leaders, is evident in DeBoRah Dickerson’s interview for this project. DeBoRah, PTH housing campaign leader, was instrumental in shaping PTH’s housing campaign work to count vacant buildings and lots. As she observed, “We counted all these vacant buildings in all five boroughs and they said we couldn’t do it. That has really been my passion.”

In stark counterpoint to the policies of successive NYC mayoral administrations, homeless leaders at Picture the Homeless analyze the root causes of homelessness and identify common sense solutions that benefit New York City as a whole. Yet homelessness in New York City continues to increase as evidenced by both the number of people experiencing homelessness and by the amount of city spending on a homeless service system. Despite the de Blasio Administration’s more than $1 billion annual expenditure on homeless services, the trauma inflicted upon our displaced neighbors continues. Three reports from late 2018 make it evident that this administration has failed to respect the civil and human rights of homeless New Yorkers by implementing certain policies: from evicting 110 homeless families with children from an apartment building in Flatbush where the slumlord has profited from inflated payments; to the cluster site program at 60 Clarkson Ave.; to the “eviction”of a homeless man by “an army of police officers” from a Brooklyn sidewalk in December; to the reports of record high numbers (114,659) of homeless children attending NYC public schools; it remains clear that this administration continues to replicate the failed policies of Bloomberg and Giuliani. As for what can be done, we need to ask why the City has sold 202 city-owned lots to developers for $1 each since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office on January 1, 2014 instead of utilizing proven models of affordable housing development (such as large scale housing cooperatives and community land trusts with funding from the shelter system) to create housing for extremely low income households to actually solve the housing crisis.

I began the interviews with a small cohort of long-term leaders of PTH, homeless folks or formerly homeless folks, who have been with the organization a minimum of ten years. They are social justice warriors whose efforts — in the face of some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable — show up and work to ensure that homeless folks are treated with dignity and respect and that the neighborhoods that they care about are preserved, and that housing is truly a human right. Homeless New Yorkers are a resource, and can help lead us out of the housing crisis.

Lynn Lewis is a community organizer, oral historian and social justice worker.