John Joyce, RI’s Pioneering Homeless Advocate

Interview by Patricia Raub

John Joyce (1962-2013) became an advocate for others after being homeless for a while. One of his accomplishments was to make Rhode Island the first state to enact a Homeless Bill of Rights. This interview took place last fall, when he was busily working while ill with cancer.

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Q: During the past session, the General Assembly passed a Homeless Bill of Rights into law. Could you explain what a “Homeless Bill of Rights” is, exactly?
It’s not special rights, it’s just equal rights. It was our feeling when we were going up there that legislators would think the bill was going to be special rights for a certain class.  But that wasn’t  the case. What we were hearing from people without homes in Rhode Island was some of the discriminatory tactics that people were using against them. The rights were always in place. The Homeless Bill of Rights would just put it on equal boundaries. These aren’t special rights that people already had, but it’s more specific to people without homes.

Q: It’s reinforcing rights that were already there? They didn’t really pass anything new then?
No, it just put housing status in there, the same as sexual orientation, race, religion. So we wanted to have that housing status in there. That’s law now.

Q: Was it hard to get it through the legislature?
Yes.  Very much so. You would think that, being a progressive state, something like this would go through, but  people had in their minds that stigma or stereotype that people without homes were what they see in Hollywood [movies]— the drunk, the hobo, the guy in the corner— and that’s not true.  With foreclosures, people losing their jobs, these were people who never expected to be without a home and when they were thrown into the system and carried their life on their back, they were discriminated against. There was a basic hatred towards them and that was something that I personally experienced when I was without a home.

Q: How did you come up with the bill in the first place? Were homeless people involved in this?
That was the first thing. When we were hearing about everything that was going on out in the streets, we did a little research. We found out Illinois had tried to pass a bill similar to what we were hearing on the streets so we took their model and we made it into Rhode Islandese because this is not Illinois. We came up with a basic concept based on what Illinois did but we made it what people were telling us.  We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing, so we asked the community. We were asking people on the streets, in the shelters, in the soup kitchens, would this be a good idea? And the majority said yes, because that is happening. So we wouldn’t proceed with something like this without community input. Their voice is more important than anybody’s in the whole process, so we made sure that was included in the bill.

Q: Who was involved in spearheading this?
RI Homeless Advocacy Project (RIHAP). It’s a grassroots organization for people that are homeless and formerly homeless, so they get it. We do a lot of outreach out on the streets. It has open meetings— anybody can go. We would discuss the Bill of Rights and how we wanted to frame it and what people felt. And that was pretty cool. It was really cool seeing the community get together and actually participate in something that was very meaningful to them.

Q: Who are the homeless in Rhode Island?
There’s always been the stereotype that people without homes are from the inner city. That’s not true. People without homes are from throughout the whole state. Especially with the way 2008 hit the state. Unemployment at almost 13%. Foreclosures were off the charts. Fair market rent in the state, you have to work 2 ½ minimum-wage jobs.  Everything crashed at once, and we’re still not out of it.
John Q. Public thinks it’s a middle-aged man that just doesn’t want to do anything. That’s not the case. There’s families out there. It’s a diversity.  Single mothers. Youth aging out of foster homes.  Senior citizens— that’s an issue, also. People over 62 just can’t find subsidized housing, affordable housing.

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Q: So would you say that one of the biggest problems is that there’s just not enough affordable housing?
Of course! Homelessness is a solvable problem. It’s called affordable housing. If you’ve got to pay over $1000 a month and you’re on Social Security and your Social Security is only $700 and change, how do you expect to have housing? And feed yourself?

Q: What do you see as the next step, after having gotten the Homeless Bill of Rights passed in the last legislative session?
The next step is advocating for more housing. A lot of people say I’m a homeless advocate. I’m more of a housing advocate. I don’t want to see people living in shelters. I don’t want people losing their homes. I wish there was enough housing so everyone can have that stability. It’s one of life’s basic necessities: food and shelter.

Q: What’s coming up in this legislative session?
We have solutions on how to create money like the voucher system to get people right from the streets into housing. It’s called the Housing First model. It’s a program where we take chronically homeless individuals right off the streets and put them into housing. What a “radical” thing that is! There’s research studies on it from Professor [Eric] Hirsch, on the Housing First model. We can save the state money. We can put people into housing and save the state $8000 and we’re 90% successful that people maintain their housing. The old way, we take someone and they’ve got to follow all these rules but if they don’t they’ll be kicked out to the curb again. That was 40% successful. And it cost more money.

Q: Where are you getting the money for this program?
There’s different ideas to try to create that money. We want to try to get a dedicated funding stream for these vouchers. There’s a lot of talk on how to get that. We can get it right out of the budget. It think this year we might be asking for $4 or $5 million to try to get people off the streets. Get them stable. Get people to where they gotta be. Get them into independent life. With the Housing First model, it’s intensive case management, make sure they maintain their housing, vocational training, if they have a disability we can get them on SSI, SSDI. It’s a system that works. It’s a harm-reduction model, also. If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol and you pick up, you’re not going to get kicked out to the curb. Your case manager is already following through with what the next plan is. It’s more people-orientated than it is organizationally orientated.

Q: You are a homeless advocate.  What do you do, and where?
I’m everywhere. I work for Providence Center with their home-based program. I do outreach for them. It’s the hardest-to-serve population. I’ve done a lot of research on how we get people into housing and connect them with services. The old way was that person had to walk through your door. But I’m seeing people who’ve been out on the streets 5, 10, 15 years. They don’t “walk through the door.” So what I do, I bring the office to them, where they’re at, where they’re comfortable. That’s how we get people. I used to work for Riverwood Housing First doing the same thing. It’s called the “Where You’re At” model. Sometimes people will engage with me and get to where they want to be. Sometimes it takes a month, sometimes six months, sometimes a year. My job is to engage, engage, engage. I’m out there every day.

Q: Where is “out there”?
Basically, in the downtown area. Most of the people without homes who are in shelters or sleeping outside end up downtown in the morning because that’s where the transportation is. So I just make sure I’m on the streets. I’m known on the streets so people will refer me to people that need help and sometimes my case load can go up to 200, 300 people. But I connect them with all the services. If it’s not through the Providence Center it’s different agencies. I work for the Providence Center and that’s a community mental health organization, but they’re even going into the realm of trying to get into people without homes. There was always a disconnect between homeless service providers and mental health organizations but that is changing.

Q: What got you into becoming a homeless advocate?
Being homeless myself. Some of the service providers that I went to, I felt like I was second-class. I felt like no one cared. I’ve seen atrocities in shelters, people being belittled, degraded and it basically pissed me off. What can I do to change that attitude? So I started going to meetings. I heard about state meetings and then the Coalition for the Homeless, I’d go there and I’d bring my backpack with my life on my back and I’d go to these meetings and it gave me a chance to vent. But what I was saying was what I was experiencing and then at the end of the meeting they would say, “O.K. Now, shoo, shoo, be a nice boy and go back to whatever dumpster you came from,” and that’s the attitude I got from people. But I didn’t let that deter me, either. Because I’d show up at the next meeting and I’m still going to the meetings. A lot of people out there, they think they don’t have a voice. I’m just a messenger sometimes. I’ll ask people, “What you just told me— are you willing to come to a meeting and say that?” and they’ll say, “Oh, no!  I can’t do that because I’m afraid that I’ll get retaliated against.” So I just carry that message.

Q: What did you do before you were homeless?
I was a union construction worker. I was making good money. I never thought I’d be out on the streets. I got laid off. My health went to shit. And then the crash of 2008 happened. My unemployment ran out. I was in a bad relationship. I just packed a bag and said, “I gotta get out of here before something happens.” I was one of them prideful individuals. I set up a tent out in Cranston. I was still trying to hustle work. Sometimes I’d get some work and I was living in a tent. No one knew it. I learned something out of it: never put a tent near a river that floods. I lost everything. With all the money I saved, I went to a hotel room: where do I go now? I ended up out on the streets. I’d go to the mall. I’d go around the circle of the food court and take all the chicken samples and that’s how I ate. I was too prideful to go to a soup kitchen.

Q: Why did you become involved in the Occupy movement?
Somebody called me up after the first Occupy organizational meeting in Roger Williams National Park— and I work with a lot of different organizations on, some would say, the radical side— and they said “you have to go to this next meeting. It’s going to be in Burnside Park. This is this Occupy thing.” So I said, “O.K.” And what I want in my own advocacy they were speaking the same things I was seeing. The economic downturn. Where’s all the money going? People being put in situations they never thought of. Here was a chance where good community organizers were coming together for the same things we’d all been complaining about and that was very, very much in my interest.

Q: What did you think of the relationship between the Occupiers in the park and the people who were homeless who had been congregating down there for a long time and felt it was their space?  Was it a successful relationship?
It was more than successful. It was phenomenal. The Occupy movement didn’t think that they were going to become part of the system but I depended upon Occupy for the outreach in my work. When people without homes were asking to go down there and set up a tent, one of the first questions they would ask them was “Why do you want to come down here?” “Well, I have no other place to go.”  And they would call me up. So, without Occupy even knowing it, they were a big part of trying to connect people with services in the mainstream. They became part of the outreach part of our system. And that wasn’t unique just in Providence because [it happened at] other Occupies throughout the country. Providence, I think, was more unique because they became part of the outreach of my work, which was very cool. They helped more people than they realized.
What was really cool, the Occupiers didn’t want to just hand it over to me. They wanted to learn the system so they could actually independently know that knowledge— where the soup kitchens were— [They said,]“I want to know where to send people.” They saw the people who were really getting slammed by the 1%, the bottom of the ladder. They weren’t just protesting, they were actually reaching out and helping. That was great.

Q: What did you think of the agreement between Occupy and the City regarding the winter day shelter for the homeless?
You could see the end coming. Numbers were dwindling. The weather was warm, but it was still miserable. Other Occupations, they didn’t get anything out but bad publicity. There would be an argument: we could have gotten more or we could have asked for more but the Occupation itself in Burnside Park was just part of the picture, in my view. If people were depending on the park for the Occupy movement, my feeling as an organizer is, the message is more important than the park.  There was a lot of debate going on. I love debate but it was getting really crass.

Q: Did the agreement to open a winter day shelter carry over into this winter?
It was a one-shot deal. There’s no money for the mayor of Providence to be giving money when it’s a state problem. It’s not a city problem, it just happens to be in the city. It’s a state issue but the state just doesn’t want that.

Q: Where do you think the Occupy Movement is going from here?
I think people needed a break. Doing this type of work for social justice— it can get very, very tiring. It always seems you are climbing mountains every day, then all you get is that one victory and then the next day you’re always climbing again. So I think a lot of people got burned out. I wish some of the core organizers that are still doing their own work would unify again. Throughout the state. I think if we can get all the mainstream organizations and some of the grassroots radical organizations, just organizations who care, back to the table we can just say, “What’s the next step for the 99%?” It was a perfect storm last October. It just happened quick. The timing— everything fell into place.  Within two weeks we occupied a park and had almost 1500 people march to the State House. Some people say, “How’d you do that?” but if you were part of that core group— I think I was at the second or the third meeting—  more and more community organizers who have done actions and things like that got together. It surprised us, the seasoned organizers, what was happening that day. Because people were still coming. I remember when we started the march, I jumped up on the statue with a bullhorn in front of the federal courthouse ready to say something and I had to sit there for like 10 minutes because more and more people were gathering and then we gave our speech at the courthouse and we were heading towards the financial district and we started marching down Westminster and I could not see where this march ended. It was beyond all expectations –it was a perfect storm.

John Joyce passed away on February 14, 2013.

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