I heard Guy Terrill Gambil speak in 2007 at a forum in North Minneapolis on the Lurking Ordinance. He talked about being homeless, an ex-offender who had struggled with substance abuse. He testified that even at his lowest-low, White privilege happened. He argued that ordinances were used to criminalized the homeless and target People of Color and presented data showing that the Lurking Ordinance was inherently racist, used almost exclusively to lock up homeless Black men for taking up space.
I recognized in the tone of his feverish presentation the intensity of one who feel injustice like the touch of a lit stove. For ten years I have been sharing his insights with my students. I was glad when he agreed to be interviewed. We spoke on the phone on June 19, 2016. Guy was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was sitting on my mother’s porch in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
After my stint in the army I got a degree from the U of M and then landed a job as a bilingual case worker in Stearns County, while completing a Masters at St. Cloud State. Through a confluence of circumstances I became homeless after my job ended. It sucked. I had been working with homeless clients for 8 years, so I understood the system very well. Now I saw it from the other side.
I have always been critical of homeless surveys. Most of the people who do the Minnesota surveys live in Edina ,St Louis Park and Uptown. There are exceptions, but the majority… they go out one day a year and try to survey homeless people. If you are an undocumented resident and not an English speaker and someone approaches you with a clipboard and wants to ask you questions what do you think the response is going to be ? Or if you’re a homeless veteran with PTSD and you have a drug problem, are you going to sit there and take the survey? There’s no incentive. When I was homeless I was never contacted by anyone. My point is that the people who do the surveying don’t understand the problem from the experiential side. They don’t know where to look for people and when they do find them they don’t know how to talk to them, so I always thought their results were off.
When I moved back to Minneapolis in the mid 1990s, I joined others in putting together an informal group we called the Decriminalization of Homelessness Taskforce. From 1999-2007 we targeted six ordinances and a state statute — all tools used by law enforcement in Minneapolis to criminalize homelessness: public dancing, lurking, loitering, pan handling, disorderly conduct and the state vagrancy law.
In the late 1990s Minneapolis city council was concerned about people squatting in abandoned buildings. They were afraid someone would die and they’d liable. Decriminalization of homelessness was not their agenda. To get their attention we recruited third year law students to research the ordinances and build fail-safe cases against them.
First we redid the pan-handling statute so it was no longer illegal to put out a hat or stand on the side of the road with a sign.—Only aggressively approaching people to solicit was illegal.
Second, we got rid of the public dancing ordinance, passed in 1968 to break up hippy gatherings on the West Bank.
Our third campaign was to eliminate the state vagrancy law. We worked with Keith Ellison — then a state rep, and Jane Ranum, then a state senator. I did the research and discovered the law was used as a catch-all category for anyone the cops put away without charge – like a guy sleeping on a bench. Entries for vagrancy were written up at the end of the year or whenever it was time to do the accounting for the FBI ’s Uniform Crime Report. We got that repealed in 2004 I believe.
Then we went after the Lurking Ordinance. It took until last year to get rid of it. There was an article in the City Pages about our campaign. They interviewed me, the Chief of Police, and City councilwoman Barb Johnson who was quoted as saying: ‘I wouldn’t want to throw out a useful tool’. The Lurking Law read: ‘A person can not lie, hide, or stand in wait with the intent to commit a crime.’ …. I was like – ‘You can tell by looking at a person that they are about to commit a crime? Gee you guys are good…’
Through this work I had become an expert researcher on criminal justice issues. I became a lobbyist for the Council on Crime and Justice. We did a five year study on Racial disparities. Drive alongs with cops, how people fared when they were on probation and parol. Disparities in sentencing, arrests for different crimes.
Through the Council I advocated for homeless veterans. Because I was bilingual I would be contacted when Latinos needed assistance with housing issues. I started getting these calls from people who were losing there homes to sub prime lending. A couple of us sat down with 20-25 people in the same boat. We found out there were these bilingual realtors that were screwing them with interest rates way over 20% and big down payments. Then, because of the way the mortgage was written, after the first year the rates would go up and the families would lose their homes.
We worked with the Resource Center of the Americas on Lake Street, doing forums on how to protect against unscrupulous mortgage companies and to push for a systemic solution. We invited City Council people and tried to pass an ordinance against predatory lending. I was working with Acorn who had successfully passed such legislation in other cities. Natalie Johnson Lee (Democrat endorsed by the Green Party — City councilwoman from North Minneapolis) was an advocate. But Wells Fargo stepped in and said if you back this we are going to back your opponent. That collapsed the campaign. I talked to Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Rybak, others on the City council, my boss at the council on Crime and Justice — none of them wanted to take it on.
And then the bubble burst.
I learned from these experiences that whatever the social justice agenda, they are contained by funders. These financial strings keep organizations from being aggressive and flexible enough to go after systemic problems as they emerge.
Follow the money. People say that like it is trite. But it is direct. The legislators put their donations online so you can look. If a Homeless organization is getting money from a bank it won’t deal with sub prime lending.
People would say to me, ‘Guy think about all the people who have shelter because the Bank is paying for it’ and I would say ‘so fucking what, do you guys not know how to organize?’ The advocacy organizations are about alleviating the pressure just enough so that people don’t rebel. At some point you have to ask yourself is that being affective? My answer is No.
It is the same with veterans issues, and any other social agenda. Look at North Minneapolis – The Empowerment Zone. What was that, 23.7 million dollars? What really happened there? A few people made money, moved out to the suburbs…
Every year HUD moves it goal post around. One year it’s supportive housing, or fixing rental properties. They allocate money to the states and the Coalition for the Homeless gets an allocation and then the fight becomes – what are we going to do with that money? Things like predatory lending, criminal justice, or racial disparities, are ignored.
Homeless advocates making 60,000 a year, are not shifting the ball. Homelessness remains. In 10 years they reduced the number by 700. You could have bought everyone a house on the lake for the amount they are spending to do almost nothing. We have been fixing homelessness since 1968 with the creation of modern HUD under LBJ. At some point we need to ask what are we doing wrong?’
Every year they do Homeless Day on the Hill. It’s always the same. No one who will say anything controversial. It’s all about backing the legislative agenda for the year.
Me and a couple others organized Second Chance Day on the Hill. No budget. We just said hey, lets do this. We brought 900 ex-offenders to the rotunda. Most of them had never been in the capital. Some of those guys thought you had to have a pass to go into it. They couldn’t believe the building was open to them. It was amazing. And then they institutionalized the fucking thing. The next year they organized a Second Chance Coalition. They hired people for $100,000 a year to promote a legislative agenda. They wrecked it.
I know how it happens. I did it. I was one of those people. They don’t have evil intent. But the money handcuffs them.
If you start something, they will not fire you. They partner with you and then they take your agenda over. Until you complain.
In the Council for Crime and Justice* we had a legislative meeting every year with the Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyers association, Minnesota Bar Association , County Attorneys – 8 or 9 mostly wealthy white guys sitting in a back room talking about the next legislation session, talking about racial disparities. I made myself persona non grata when I said — ‘We are going to have an event on racial disparities at Metro State with an all-White panel of men who have been running the state, who are largely responsible for the policies we are trying to fix — and we are gong to ask the community to come in and listen?’
So then they brought in Justice Alan Page, former Minnesota Viking. Now, 50 years ago he lived with injustice, but now he lives in a couple million dollar house in Edina – a little bit removed from the racial disparities people are facing.
Since then they have changed it up, brought in people who’ve lived it, which is really good. But it was a struggle.
You can’t organize a grassroots movement run by people who live in the suburbs. They know how to write reports. What they don’t know how to generate excitement. They don’t talk to people.
There is part of me that will alway consider Minneapolis home. I miss the woods, the lakes, my friends. but I will never go back there. Too much history. Today I live in Albuquerque with my wife and kids. I host a blog on veterans issues, homelessness, mass Institutionalization, and First Nations and make websites for grassroots groups. I go to the annual George Soros’ Open Society Conference. I was a Soros Fellow from 2010-12. This year I am doing a presentation with a young indigenous woman, an Iraq veteran looking at structural racism, incarceration and Pacific Islanders.
Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] was a Soros Fellow. She gave a presentation that stuck with me. ‘One strategy for us’, she said ‘is to just clog the system. Everyone who comes into district court charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent crime should plead innocent. Clog the courts so the system can’t function anymore…’
I thought — we could do the same thing with homelessness. Refuse that tainted shelter money. Suddenly there would be 5,000 homeless people on the streets. Clog the system. Force a change.
*The Council For Crime and Justice shut down suddenly in May, after 60 years of operation.