From political protest to bureaucratic service: The transformation of homeless advocacy in the nation's capital and the eclipse of political discourse
This research project is an ethnohistorical account of the development and retrenchment of advocacy and social service efforts around homelessness in Washington, D.C. between 1970 and 2006. These historical struggles are comprehended through the perspectives of homeless men and women, their advocates, professional providers, volunteers, congregations, clergy, public employees, and political leaders. Not surprisingly, the movement and its many campaigns bring into relief the persistent struggle around strategy, representation, and authority over homeless issues. In the span of almost four decades, radical civil disobedience expanded and contracted dramatically as a result of government outsourcing, official retaliation, industry professionalization, and the retirement of many of the movement's dynamic leaders. Nonprofit contracting has not only obscured the ways that well meaning communities have subsidized poverty, but has also deflected the political energy of activists and compromised broad based grassroots political activism. Consequently, collective interest organizing and expansive coalition building have been undermined by special interest politics both within the homeless community and between other classes of poor. Broad based advocacy has been replaced by strategic, individualized and programmatic advocacy that has made building alliances that much more difficult. Homeless relief has shifted from emergency, volunteer, ad hoc efforts, to formalized nonprofit programs managed by professionals and organized by funding priorities. After being such a critical part of homeless relief, political involvement has become less of a priority, to be substituted by a clearer delineation of advocacy and social service roles. Even volunteers, once the core of resistance efforts and ad hoc emergency assistance, have been largely corralled into direct service roles. Commitments to prevent and eliminate homelessness have given way to managing the problem. Advocates' petitions have shifted from demanding homeless resources to improving existing service networks while neglecting systemic issues that could make a lasting difference for poor and homeless folks. This paper concludes that homelessness will only be resolved through major structural change, made possible through a strong, broad based social justice network that incorporates a range of strategies and popular support, offering creative solutions and given by leadership that offers both compromise and pressure when appropriate.