LoriAnne Tennison

Surviving the Village: An Organizer’s Tale

Hi, my name is LoriAnne Tennison. Very few of you readers know me, although a few of you may have heard or read about me. But I think that it is possible in the not-too-distant future that many of you will at least have become acquainted with me.

I want to tell you the story of how I came to live in Village Two in Fresno. But first, I must let you know that I am worried about being barred from the Poverello House. I call it being blacklisted. I worry that I may be cut off from life-sustaining water and the only nearby indoor bathroom.

I do not wish or seek this. It is just that it is a reality and an injustice, but service providers, particularly homeless service providers, often disregard and do not follow the letter of the law or the spirit of law in regard to federal public accommodation acts. And, according to the American with Disabilities Act, homeless shelters are one of the places that must follow public accommodation laws.

It is the way of poverty pimps everywhere. Let me define poverty pimp. It is someone (or a group of someones) who makes a profit off of the existence of poor people. Usually, the profit is tremendous, and the yield to actually helping poor people is meager at best.

I know their ways well. I was employed by the Kalamazoo Homeless Action Network (KHAN) in Kalamazoo, Mich., as a human rights organizer. This was a homeless human rights organization that I founded in the fall of 2003. Me and other people who were homeless (amid this organizing, I helped raise funds and became a paid organizer and recovered housing again) won the first Affordable Housing Trust Fund in the country fought for by homeless people, and aimed at ending homelessness in Kalamazoo County.

I have been on unemployment for a while now, with my partner and my dog Thor, looking for work living in the wilderness of the Alpine Mountains in Washington and the Cascade Mountains from Washington all the way down to Northern California. You have no idea how hard it is to become re-employed after having such a controversial job as a human rights organizer. Most people believe I’ll unionize their establishment or fight for a fair wage or a little justice issue like that, and they are probably right. I believe in the right to dissent and assemble.

I have many photos of history and of my trip across the country, two weeks at a time. I also guess that I’m an undiscovered artist, trying to become discovered.

We arrived in Fresno early on the sunny afternoon of December 31. I had a gap in unemployment, and we had no money to go forward in search of employment. The sun was invitingly warm after two months of rain, snow and sleet in the Pacific Northwest. You know it’s funny, but I felt safer in the wilderness than I do on the streets of Fresno.

On holidays and weekends, the Poverello House is only open half a day. It took several days to find out about “the village.” The Village is a shed that is smaller and colder than my tent. I wanted to be in Village Two because of my dog, and I knew that dogs weren’t allowed in Village One. I ended up finally going to a meeting of Village One; in Village One, you can be voted in and out (like a place to live is a game). Rules were read for Village One.

One rule was that if you go in as couple, you leave as a couple. What if you broke up? Imagine if your spouse or partner broke the law and you were also charged and prosecuted with the crime; it is no different. We were also told that in Village One people could not associate with the people on the “crack wall,” which is anyone who is in a tent. Staff ride around, even on days off, looking for homeless people who break this rule and trying to find them talking with “those people on Clara Street and F Street who are bad people and all addicts.”

After this meeting, we were told by Letty Martinez of the Poverello House that we would have to go into Village Two and that to do that we had to go to an interview with her at 3 p.m. She also said we should be in line by noon in order to ensure a spot. That is a three-hour wait, standing in the January cold. So we waited, and at 3 p.m. we went to an interview where we filled out paperwork that we weren’t offered copies of. No mention of the rules was made except that we had to be in by 11 p.m., and we couldn’t go into anyone else’s shed.

What was said about the rules is that unlike Village One they didn’t care if you came back drunk or anything, but that you must go to bed if you are. So basically I thought Village Two rules were different from Village One. That was wrong; they are the same—arbitrary and meant to take away whatever personal power that a person may possess, to destroy the ability of self-determination.

Five days after our arrival in Fresno, we finally had shelter, a place where we could be safe off the streets. Not a home by any means, but at least safe. We moved into a shed with two cots. The sheds are in no way insulated for protection against the cold or heat. My tent has a larger floor area than this shed.

I just didn’t want to put my tent on a sidewalk; a tent is for camping, which is fun, not for living on a sidewalk in public with hundreds of other people, which is not fun and is sometimes terrifying.

I have a Mr. Buddy heater that I could not use in the shed. When we first moved in, there were two sleeping bags in the shed; when we brought in a couple of our own blankets, the monitors entered our shed and took away the sleeping bags, without warning. And the mat radiates cold and heat, making sleep difficult and painful. Almost every night, because we slept together and they needed to make sure that the right people were in the shed, they would open up the door to our shed. After a couple weeks of this I told Charles, head of the Village Security, that I have post-traumatic stress disorder and opening the door scares me and that I am not responsible in the first few seconds of waking up (which is true) and I have a German shepherd dog that doesn’t like it when I am afraid.

I asked if they would knock instead. But they would not do that.

After about another week and a half of sleep deprivation due to the cold and discomfort, and fear, I had finally fallen back to sleep after the night door opening terror tactic. It was a very cold night, down in the 20s I think (at least in the shed) and as I slipped off into a deeper sleep I began to have this repeating nightmare of being shoved by the shoulders in front of a train. I woke up, covered in sweat to the sound of an early morning train wailing past and the shed shaking like what I imagine a small earthquake might feel like.

A few days later, on January 26, three weeks after we had moved into the village, there came a loud knocking at our shed door, I jumped up scared to death, because the nightly check had already been done. And nobody was there, so I lay back down, convinced I had finally lost my mind. That was at 4:30 a.m. I did vaguely hear people milling around, but it was dark and I fell back asleep, missing a mandatory village meeting for the purpose of a point in time.

Later that afternoon, when I came back to the village after being out all day, we were told that we were no longer on the list and had to remove our belongings. It is illegal, I believe, to make point-in-time counts mandatory, as this is what the federal law says. Money comes to the Continuum of Care through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and goes to agencies through their system. As an organizer, I have never seen the money go to house homeless people, which is the only way I know to end homelessness. I do not participate in point-in-time counts unless I am counting homeless people myself.

One day while I was still a resident in Village Two, I was talking with a man sitting on a wall on Santa Clara Street and one of the security team from the village told me that if Letty saw me talking with anyone over there that I would be asked to leave the village, violating my First Amendment rights to free speech and association (assembly). Violating my rights as an American citizen and greatly hindering my job as a community organizer.

I felt insulted and belittled to be treated as scum everywhere that I went in Fresno. Then on the day I was thrown out of the village I had a meeting with Mike Rhodes [publisher of the Community Alliance] and was finally treated as a human being and a professional, something I had not experienced from people who had any money or perceived power. Thanks, Mike.

I am now one of those “bad people” who live on the street and sleep in a tent. If I didn’t have a good sense of self-worth and know that homelessness is created deliberately because poverty, after all, is nationally a multi-billion dollar business including much more than the homeless people themselves. It includes the middle class (so they thought) who are currently losing homes, jobs, possessions and dignity. If I, being a professional, could be on unemployment, become homeless, and have all my rights raped and pillaged by people in power, then so can you.

Greed is the biggest weapon of mass destruction; if you don’t believe me, just drive down G Street in Fresno and see the world change from the American Dream to the American Nightmare.

Never in my life have I felt so derogated and degraded as in Fresno. No one should ever feel that way, and I won’t stay that way. I know how to build power for social justice. I know how to fight “mean” city policies and ordinances. I believe in solidarity; what hurts other homeless people hurts me, and what hurts me will hurt other people.

I am in the process of talking with other homeless people (and others as well) about solutions and choices that many of them didn’t even know they had. I know how to train people for direction organizing. I will be honest enough to say that the stories of Pamela Kincaid and others in this fair city give me pause because I am not a martyr. But also in these stories I gain hope because it shows me that there are people here who aren’t afraid of the good fight.

I have a large organizing list with which I intend to share this article. In the interest of solidarity, many other organizers and I share our information. It was through this networking that I came to work with the National Coalition for Homelessness. The executive director, Michael Stoops, took KHAN’s reports, news articles and court papers and ranked Kalamazoo sixth on the list of the National Coalition’s list of the meanest cities. I have to wonder where Fresno will rank in the next couple of reports.

I sell the Street Spirit paper and will be selling the Community Alliance before too long. If you see me around, keep this in mind: First, I am not panhandling, I’m hawking papers. Second, every donation you give me better enables me to have time to organize homeless people. And that as “one of those hard to organize” homeless people and a trained professional organizer and consultant, I am actually the most qualified in this community.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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