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ix Preface On December 16, 2003, activists from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) stage a protest outside the mayor’s office in Philadelphia ’s City Hall to demand “Homes for the Holidays.” People gather at 4 p.m. and stay for several hours. Singing Christmas carols, the activists share food one of them has made and brought for dinner—they scoop the bean stew into small plastic bowls and pass them throughout the crowd, making sure the many children present eat first. Someone passes out bread. A leader calls on people individually to tell their stories. Each one of them says she is a homeless member of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. The leader tells them never to be ashamed of their homelessness . The group sings more Christmas carols, and then someone brings out a cake; it is one of the children’s birthdays. Another leader begins to sing a song: I went down to the rich man’s house, I took back what he stole from me. . . . I took my humanity, took back my dignity . . . The children and activists join in and the group begins to sing the verse again, with a slight variation: I went down to the mayor’s house, I took back what he stole from me. . . . I took my humanity, took back my dignity . . . Soon administrators agree to meet with the homeless individuals, one at a time, and ask them questions. One member tells me they ask her things like, “How long have you been homeless?” “Where are you staying now?” “How many kids do you have? “Why are you homeless?” Eventually administrators offer to put people, for that night, into shelters , but KWRU leaders say that is unacceptable, that their numbers include some domestic violence victims who can’t be safe in shelters, and x | Preface that these shelters themselves say that they are not set up to deal with victims of domestic violence. As KWRU activists argue and administrators stand their ground, a Civil Affairs officer announces to the crowd, “It’s 7:08 p.m. This is your first warning. The building is closed, so you’ll need to exit. You will get another warning—in five minutes I will say ‘it’s 7:13. It’s time to go.’ And five minutes after that anyone who’s still here will be arrested.” The crowd begins to disperse, with many of the adults herding all the children downstairs and outside. A few minutes after everyone regroups outside, a police van drives off with five KWRU activists inside, five women who decide they are willing to be arrested to prove their point. A news camera follows the ones who remain, and one woman shouts, “How can you arrest people for being homeless?!” The city hall officials begin to walk back through the city hall gate, and close it behind them. A few weeks after the protest, I learn KWRU has secured five housing vouchers for members, many believe as a result of their protest. As Walter says of the group, “Our strength is in our unity, is in our coming together.” It was that way that night. I conducted the research for this book from 2003 through 2006, with some follow-up in 2014–2016. I attended this protest and a number of others, and spent a good deal of time at KWRU’s office. This book is based in part on observations from these field experiences, but mostly on semi-structured interviews with twenty-five KWRU members and twenty-five people unaffiliated with KWRU who are also extremely poor Philadelphians. Many of the participants have lived their entire lives in poverty, often in the same or nearby neighborhoods they live in when I meet them. A few participants had slightly more economically secure childhoods on the lowest rungs of the middle class ladder, but have lost their footholds because of a disruption such as a parent’s drug addiction or death. The majority of participants in this study have experienced homelessness , and some were homeless at the time of the interviews. This book addresses social support, social capital, and isolation—emotional subjects with significant economic effects for these desperately poor people. As KWRU member Walter tells me, to describe why members need the community KWRU provides, “you show me a poor person, or a homeless person, I’ll show you somebody that’s isolated.” The weakening of Preface | xi the public safety net accompanying widening inequality in the United States has...


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