This post was written by Mar Kidvai Padilla, an MSSW Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.
People experiencing homelessness are daily faced with meeting immediate survival needs and coping with the impacts of trauma and illness, both physical and mental, that can escalate into a state of crisis. The social workers providing services to clients experiencing homelessness at Integral Care, where I am completing my first-year internship as an MSSW student at the University of Texas at Austin, show deep empathy and a clear sense that our clients face unnecessary barriers and injustices as they seek permanent housing.
As social workers, we often use a macro perspective to analyze the connections between individual hardships faced by clients and the implementation of local policy, such as Austin’s No Sit No Lie Ordinance that criminalizes resting or sleeping on sidewalks, benches, and in parks. Some of us correlate our specific work and policy advocacy to a larger abstract project of ending homelessness. However, very few of us can articulate our personal vision of housing justice, even as we may understand ourselves to be working shoulder to shoulder with other professionals trying to achieve it.
As an educator and organizer, I know that a shared vision of social justice cannot be taken for granted. Without vision, no accountability between client and social worker can exist, no tactics or strategy can be formulated, and no evaluation of our efforts is possible. As scholar and activist Gloria E. Anzaldúa asserts, “Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”
Thus, we must engage in critical conversations and ask each other:
- What does a world in which all people are housed look and feel like?
- What is the global history of housing justice and what markers of our success can we use to assess our progress here and now in late capitalism?
- What does it say about our society that some people, often disabled individuals and survivors of trauma, are denied housing?
- How can we eliminate (rather than bandage) the power dynamics that produce housing crises for Black and brown clients at the intersection of multiple oppressions?
To this end, I am planning a workshop for my Macro Field Project to be delivered at Integral Care’s annual Dynamic Development Day (DDD). The session, titled Housing as a Human Right: Exploring Our Visions of Justice, will offer service providers space and time to discuss our ideals, collectively analyze the history of housing rights, and compare housing data and social movements transnationally. Proposing and having the workshop accepted for DDD was exciting, but I recognize, of course, that no vision of housing justice is possible without the centering of people experiencing homelessness. Our theory of change must integrate the understandings and visions of the people most directly affected, so I decided to pilot some of my workshop in the women’s support group I co-facilitate at the Trinity Center, which provides services to people experiencing homelessness.
Introducing the 1970s feminist consciousness-raising groups as a model, I asked clients:
- Why do people become homeless?
- What does homelessness say about our society?
- What are the differences between “homeless people”, “people experiencing homelessness”, and “people denied housing”?
After a robust conversation, I led an art activity in which clients first painted what it would “look, sound, and feel like if everyone has been housed” and then what it would “look, sound, and feel like to work with other people without homes toward this goal”.
I noticed that initially many clients rejected the idea that they were themselves homeless (despite all sleeping on the streets or in shelters) and often blamed homelessness on irresponsibility, moral failures, and drug misuse. When I raised the issue that many people use substances because of unaddressed trauma or mental illness, and that disability keeps many people unemployed, the discussion shifted dramatically. Suddenly, the women began to claim the need for supportive housing for individuals and families, including drug treatment options, not just legal punishment. The group ended with members energized and voicing that they were considering issues from new perspectives, particularly impactful because of the collective nature of these sentiments.
Facilitating this group was illuminating and will help me prepare for my macro project and other future work. First, I will be able to assure DDD participants that these conversations are possible if we check our paternalism when voicing fears that these topics “hit too close to home” for our clients, while also cautioning us from assuming all homeless people’s experiences and feelings are the same. Second, it will help me suggest methods to push beyond stigma, promote cooperation between clients, and open channels for clients to teach providers. Beyond DDD, I would urge all social workers interested in housing justice to initiate these conversations and build shared understandings with each other, but especially with our clients. In this way, we will mutually set the course for our movements.
About the Author: Pictured left, Mar Kidvai Padilla (pronouns: they/them) is an MSSW Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. They obtained their MS Ed in 2012 at Hunter College in New York City. They have spent the past 15 years working for freedom in a variety of roles, including as a community organizer, domestic violence hotline operator, human trafficking researcher, elementary school teacher, HIV/HCV tester, harm reduction counselor, and sexual health training manager. They believe housing justice is only possible in a decolonized world that centers Black liberation.