Re-Envisioning the Housing Conference Beyond Free Bagels and Lengthy PowerPoints

Today’s blog post is written by a friend and collaborator, Chelsea Gleason!  Chelsea is a case manager at the Coalition for the Homeless, a non-profit organization that provides social services and advocacy for homeless individuals and families across NYC. She has worked in the past as a tenant organizer with the SRO Law Project, and attended Barnard College and studied Urban Studies and Sociology. She enjoys writing, drawing, painting, running, biking, exploring, activism, and volunteers at Bluestockings, a feminist bookstore on the Lower East Side.

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On May 23rd, I attended a “Housing Conference for Social Service Providers.”  As a case manager who sometimes feels nostalgic about my time as a tenant organizer, I was excited to attend what I thought might be a conference directed at bridging individualized counseling and social service provision with housing-based community mobilizations.

So what bugs me about this Housing Conference, so squarely focused on housing laws, is that throwing a bunch of social service providers in a room together added nothing to the conference itself. Frankly, I would have learned just as much by reading the PowerPoint from my cubicle as I did from the conference (which, since it was emailed out prior, I regret not doing in retrospect.)

The larger problem here is that all of the things a sizable group of social service providers COULD have benefited from being a room together to talk about were not mentioned. Such as, but not limited to: ways to connect tenant organizing with case management, ways to re-envision the housing system in NYC, ways to better assist, educate, and mobilize clients and tenants, ways to work together as providers, organizers, lawyers and organizations for collaborative change, ways to analyze and reflect on our own roles and positions of power amongst this all and in relation to the people we work with, etc.

But when I looked around at the people around me in that over air-conditioned, unflatteringly beige colored conference room, I had my doubts about our potential. Call me judgmental, and maybe it was the setting and the precedent of the conference, but what I saw was a group of very comfortable people employed by comfortable-enough non-profits. I did not see people ready to discuss, let alone challenge the very systems that employ them nor those systems they engage with everyday.

When we say “Housing is a Human Right,” we feel good and comfortable with our social service, legal, or organizing work. But if we take the idea to its logical endpoint, what do we have? I argue we have a housing system that is 100% free, because, how else can we guarantee housing as a human right if it remains embedded in a market that is by definition racist and classist? I argue we get there by processes that bring us towards free housing, such as squatting, mutual aid, and community empowerment. I argue we start biting the hand that feeds us, and stop patting ourselves on the back so much. Because legal knowledge and policy change only get us so far – and no further. And not nearly far enough.

I know I am very critical. But when I meet with people everyday whose lives are full of struggle, crisis, and trauma, but also enduring resilience and resistance, I’ve got to ask for a lot – or, rather, what might be seen as “a lot,” but in reality is not very much at all: a safe place to live and a dignified life. I look forward to a day when I can participate in a Housing Conference that is actually about dialogue and building and working together, and where people might actually squirm in their seats.

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