A good starting point for solidarity is that it’s not all about us! ha ha. But we also want to be transparent about who we are and how we work, as without transparency there’s no real accountability.
HOW We STARTED
We started off as a network of people who came together in mid-March to address the crisis of COVID-19 and the street community. Some of us had been part of the street community, some of us have loved ones in the street community, and most of us had worked with the street community. We came together from a common solidarity / justice orientation that recognizes that while COVID-19 is new, the harms that are happening are not. What we saw happening in how our loved ones in the street community were being treated at the start of COVID — unchanged now 8+ months later — was an intensified manifestation of the ongoing violences of capitalism, colonialism, ableism, white supremacy, etc.
We knew from our past experiences with local tent cities and the overdose crisis that government would not mobilize quickly or effectively to work with people sheltering outside. We’d seen many time before that government is not only the cause of many of the injustices the street community experiences, but in a crisis they are typically more harm than help. At best government moves too slowly, more typically they actively get in the way (e.g., removing some of the the DIY handwashing stations IHRT built and put in places where people are sheltering) and impose top-down “solutions” that are all about surveillance, control, & containment, making people’s lives even harder.
We also knew that the health and social service agencies that work with the street community would be limited in what they could do, for lots of reasons — chronic underfunding / cumulative burnout, the loss of flexibility that happens when you get sucked into the non-profit industrial complex (and all the power games that happen there), longstanding problems like institutional racism, staff shortages from people who are sick or looking after loved ones, etc. And we knew too that even though these agencies have workers on the ground who are very aware of what is happening, they’d be limited in what they could openly say because they are funded by the same governments that are causing much of the harm.
OUR initial APPROACH
This crisis is one that requires we all pull together to do what needs to be done. When COVID started, none of the organizations on the ground doing harm reduction work had the time or resources to coordinate community volunteer efforts. Rather than wait for someone else to figure out how to do this, we tried to create infrastructure to match community volunteers with needed tasks, in conditions where things were changing rapidly/unpredictably and priorities for work needed to abruptly shift.
Not knowing what would happen with the pandemic’s spread, our structure intentionally provided ways for people to still contribute if their capacity changed, including:
- people who are sick with something potentially contagious, but well enough to do things from home
- people who aren’t sick, but need to do tasks from home (e.g., looking after kids, immunocompromised, etc.)
- people who can, with appropriate health protocols, be out in the world
OUR CURRENT APPROACH
Poverty Kills has gone through many changes between March 2020, when we started; and now (early December 2020). We’re currently in a process of winding down the public work PK has been doing, as there are many more grassroots ways for people to get involved now — which is great and we’d rather connect new people with those efforts, while continuing behind-the-scenes support of groups that we’re in relationship with.
When we started, the societal lockdown had just happened and there weren’t a lot of ways for people to get involved; nobody knew much about COVID and housed people were mostly holed up. As we write now in December 2020 that has shifted, with many people initiating autonomous projects and also some of the outreach groups expanding or opening up to volunteers. A lot more is now known about COVID and what can be done to reduce risks. Neighbourhood-based groups and other teams are actively engaging (although the politics of those efforts are mixed).
We’re not needed in the same way as before, and we don’t have the same capacity as when we started either. Unlike the initial surge of COVID when there was a broad shutdown, now many people are back into modified work or school. And many people are also exhausted from having to hustle even harder than usual since March to make ends meet, and generally feeling the strain of these times. We’ve also made a lot of mistakes since we started, tried a lot of things that failed (as well as some that succeeded), and some of those failures discouraged people who were originally excited about getting involved. And, we are tired. The idea of “tireless activists” is rubbish, everyone needs to rest. A long-term commitment is impossible in a constant, relentless pace.
So how do we pivot from our original idea of a large community network to something that is still useful but also workable for where we’re at right now? This is still an open question. In this we’re guided, as we have been from the start, by a few overarching principles.
how we do is as important as what we do
We’ve been inspired by the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team‘s saying “how we do is as important as what we do”. Our basis of unity isn’t only that this is an injustice that needs emergency action, but that how we do that action needs to be grounded in certain principles.
A fundamental principle is that this is solidarity, not charity. Solidarity means understanding that poverty is about systemic injustice, and both taking action to personally redistribute things more fairly and also work to address the structural roots of that injustice. It’s also about asking people what they want and need, rather than thinking we know what is best. We pay attention to what is happening and come up with our ideas (not just putting that work on IHRT and other groups) but we also ask what is needed and listen and believe people when they respond. We know that this work is messy and we’re not going to get it “perfect”, so we work on building the kind of trusting relationships where we can have hard conversations and be accountable for our mistakes.
We also want to approach this relationally. A relational approach includes community care, mutual aid, wellness planning, and burnout prevention. We know from our own experience that it feels crappy when you’re prioritized only if you are “producing” in particular ways, and that even though this is capitalist bullshit it’s often replicated in how activists treat each other. On principle we want everyone involved to feel cared about and recognized as a human being.
We wrote back at the start “this is not a crisis that is going to be over in a couple weeks, and we need to take care of each other including supporting people who are going through illness, loss, and grief”. We didn’t know it would go the way it did, and our support capacity has been strained. But we still hold this as a value. This is part of the shift we need to make now as we head into month nine of PK’s existence, so we can better care for our existing relationships and commitments, while also supporting new folks to find outlets for their awesome energy, creativity, and passion.
it’s really not about us
Some people have asked that we name individuals involved in the network. We haven’t done that, because we felt (and still feel) that to name names is more about ego and social capital than transparency and accountability. However we are continuing to talk about how as a network we can be transparent about what we are doing and how we do it, and accountable for the impacts of our decisions and the mistakes we (like all humans) make along the way.
We all have different reasons why we got involved in this work and what we bring to it. Our credibility comes not from who we are as individuals, but the quality of what we do and how we do it. In our writing we identify sources so people know what we’re basing information on.
We’re aware that not naming who we are has created some speculation. All we can say is…it’s really not about us, and there’s no point in spending energy on drama. We know that people sometimes have had bad experiences in activism, and encouraged anyone wary about not knowing who’s involved to talk with us to suss out if we are people who you feel safe enough to try working with.
We hope that people who want to boost our work but aren’t directly involved will be honest about that and not take credit for work that other people are doing.
We’re not in competition with anyone else
We are happy to work with anyone whose values align and see the need for everyone to pull together and work collaboratively rather than competitively. We are individuals who share political values, not representatives of organizations or agencies. We work with people and groups that want to work with us, most closely with the Indigenous Harm Reduction Team as their values align with ours. We are not a health or social service provider (although some of us have been or currently are frontline workers) but we’re happy to work with funded agencies and we have been collaborating with AVI, Doctors of the World, Peers, Pivot, SOLID, and TAPS on specific projects, as well as being in communication with a broad range of individuals and networks to explain what we’re doing and invite cooperation.
We applaud anyone who wants to work autonomously outside of what we are doing, it’s great that people are taking their own initiative and there are many things that need to be done. We don’t have all the answers and know that other people will find other brilliant ways to work. We are happy to, where we can, try to connect people with other networks and groups.
Other ways to plug into COVID-19 response (not street-community-specific, and not necessarily oriented to principled solidarity):