Poverty Outlaws

The World’s Poor Gather in New York City

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union, headquartered in the badlands of north Philadelphia, is ground zero in this country for organizing against poverty. In KWRU's blighted neighborhood, like many throughout the world where the poor are forgotten and virtually erased, except as statistics, the "disappeared" are reappearing with a vengeance. The group seized the national spotlight in August, during the Republican Convention, when its 2000-strong (illegal) homeless people's march challenged the pageant of political inclusiveness the Republicans put on stage. Last week at Riverside Church in New York City, KWRU hosted a four-day conference, the first-ever Poor People's World Summit to End Poverty.

While global finance leaders have gathered this past calendar year in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Prague to chatter about their long-term goal of cutting poverty rates in half, KWRU refuses to wait. "We're burying people," says Cheri Honkala, a formerly homeless mother who is now director of KWRU. She and other activists prefer to build their own "worldwide movement to end poverty led by the poor."

Relying on individual donations, maxed-out credit cards, and other "creative" financing, some 400 participants—all poor people—came to New York from 50 American states and 37 countries.

Inside Riverside Church's Gothic sanctuary, where the daily opening plenary sessions were held, they gathered: injured workers, mothers with their children, working poor who'd come on hard times, radical poverty fighters from Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil.

KWRU fed its participants bag lunches and spaghetti dinners, housed them at the International Hostel on 103rd Street (for which the group had scrounged up a rumored $50,000), and even offered freebie cultural events, courtesy of its own in-house hip-hoppers. But even getting people to New York proved complicated. The U.S. immigration office denied visas to most African invitees. And there were daily scrambles to make airport pickups for those who made it through the red tape, but couldn't afford the fares into the city.

Many of the poor who attended live in "takeovers" (abandoned houses), in tent cities, or on reclaimed land (usually owned by government and left to waste). Speaking from his wheelchair, alternating between Spanish and English, Miquel Amaro talked of being unable to support his family after being wounded in the Gulf War. He moved back to Puerto Rico, where he had heard about Las Acerolas—poor people who, in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, had been claiming abandoned government land and rebuilding their lives. His parents helped him clear a lot in back of an agriculture school in Toa Alta, in the north of P.R. Homesteaders cleared roads with picks and shovels, broke into the main water line, and rigged their own electricity. Three hundred and fifteen residents live in Amaro's community, but Las Acerolas has helped more than 8000 families take over land. After a protracted struggle with the government, Amaro says, they have finally won. In October, the authorities promised that the land would be deeded to the homesteaders.

Las Acerolas takes some of its inspiration from Movimento Sem Terra (MST), Brazil's landless workers' movement. Since 1979, says Soriaria Soriano, an educator with MST, the organization has seized arable (but unfarmed) land for 200,000 families and created 80 agricultural cooperatives. In 1995, two-thirds of the very poor lived in rural areas, where the richest 1 percent of the landowners own 44 percent of the arable land. This inequality is at the root of the takeovers. Farmers move from their roadside encampments onto empty farms, breaking the padlocks to enter and praying they're not greeted with bullets. "Our dream is to organize free territories," says Soriano, "where people are free to lead themselves."

As participants talked, they chipped away at their sense of isolation and exhaustion. "For me and people like me," says Honkala, "this is fuel." Curious about what poverty is like in New York City, some took a "reality tour," a two-hour bus trip through parts of Harlem and the South Bronx. As the bus passed the CCNY campus at 138th street, Maureen Lane, an organizer with the Hunter College-based Welfare Rights Initiative, stood up and explained that 21,000 students had been forced to leave school since 1995, when changes in welfare policy forced recipients to work full time in menial jobs for meager benefits.

At St. Nicholas Park and 135th Street, participants heard from Tyletha Samuels of Community Voices Heard (CVH), an organization of low-income people based in New York. The park, she said, is beautiful because of labor by poor people in the Work Experience Program (WEP), New York's version of workfare, who are "treated like dogs while doing the work of displaced union workers for a lot less money."

Fifteen minutes later, the bus stopped in the South Bronx at a waste-transfer station. Here, Julie Carlson of the Urban Justice Center explained how environmental racism works in New York City: six of eight air-polluting municipal bus depots are in Harlem, 25 official waste-transfer stations and an estimated 40 unlicensed ones are in the Bronx; the medical-waste incinerator next to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital had more than 500 violations and was finally torn down last year. From the back of the bus, a few whistles of disbelief.

Back in Harlem, cruising down 126th Street, someone interrupted a woman speaking about tenant organizing. "Wait! wait! There's a tent city, stop the bus." The bus pulled over to a jumbled lot, fenced-in and ringed with hand-painted posters about the revitalization of Harlem. Tarps flap, dogs bark. It's the promise, perhaps, of the familiar, the desire to make a connection, that makes the guests imagine that a tent city in Mexico might be matched by one in Harlem. As it turns out, it's just a junkyard. Two men, recovering addicts from Florida, wonder where skid row is: "They should've taken us to see the real deal." A man from the Pratt Area Community Council reminds them that although the brownstones they've been seeing look nice outside, "inside you see the third world. Holes in the walls, huge rats."

That appearances may be deceiving is only mildly surprising to this group, who are used to being stereotyped as lazy, or looked upon with disgust or pity ("that benign form of hatred," one participant said). Efforts to climb out from beneath a crushing system are often disregarded in countries like the U.S., where tax breaks favor the rich, the media crow about an economic boom without asking, "For whom?" and society ignores the yawning gulf between rich and poor. What's important to recognize is that the poor people's summit, while it has traditional trappings—workshops, stump speeches, networking, communal luncheons—stands apart from other global gatherings about poverty because it is poor people working on behalf of poor people.

KWRU and other grassroots poor people's groups plan to build on this first summit by organizing three days of global action in 2001 (visit kwru.org for updates and details), including a worldwide march for economic human rights. Poverty, the advocates insist, is a violation of human rights. And somebody has to do more than just talk about it.

"We thought it important that we bring together people that are actually living in poverty," says Honkala, "not because we think it's a nice thing to do, but because we think there's a strategic importance." History, she says, has shown that change comes for people when they take an active role in a movement themselves.

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