In high school, I was voted most likely to become a bag lady. I’m sure that given my thrift-store punk-rock ways, this was more a statement on my fashion sense than my future earning potential, but in my mind it also speaks to my lack of interest in earning money.…I am simply not a good capitalist.
I am far more motivated by time – which is almost a criminal admission in 2015 America. But to do what I do, and make the work that I make, that’s what I need. Not a lot of my work is super-profitable, as is true for many artists: I can make art, or I can make money, but doing both at the same time is difficult when pursuing conceptual work.
And so homelessness has always been a real concern – not that I don’t work my butt off trying to earn, mind you, but when you cobble together teaching jobs and freelance gigs, your income tends to be of the more roller-coaster variety. Which wasn’t a problem for the twenty-five years I lived with a partner who had a stable income, but in an unlucky twist, Denver’s insanely skyrocketing cost of living has neatly coincided with my needing to figure out something more consistent and reliable at the same time. But it seems that every artist I know in Denver is struggling at the moment, which makes the concept of the tiny house an even more important potential solution.
It’s a solution being pursued by Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), whose members have been building tiny houses for the homeless and are working to push Denver City Council to allow the creation of Little Denver, a tiny home village proposed for city-owned land. Similar projects exist around the country — from Emerald Village in Eugene, Oregon, to Foundations of Tomorrow in Huntsville, Alabama — and they provide places to house people with dignity for a fraction of what it costs to bus them to other parts of the city or throw them in jail.
While my goals for my tiny house are somewhat different, they were spurred by exactly the same needs as the ones being addressed by DHOL, which is why I was thrilled to be invited to participate in "The Struggle For Space: Homelessness and the Politics of Dys-Appearance in American Cities," part of the Biennial of the Americas. The event was held at the home of one of my favorite organizations, PlatteForum, and included a round-up of various tiny homes parked in front of the Temple in Curtis Park, amazing music from MasterMind Laura Goldhamer, delicious food from SAME Café, and artwork from the artists in Reach Studios at RedLine, in addition to some rousing speakers and guests from Portland’s Dignity Village. The organizers even built a Conestoga Wagon in a day, in Eddie Maestas Park, a spot where the homeless formerly could gather awaiting nearby services that has been cruelly fenced off.
With the recent growth in Denver, new homeless people are created every day. Professor Chad Kautzer has adopted the term “Dys-Appearance” (borrowed from the disability rights movement) to speak to the way we see the homeless: as abnormal, as dysfunctional, as wrong. But the "Struggle for Space” affects us all: I know few people who are more than one or two paychecks away from experiencing homelessness, and with rents quadrupling overnight and unscrupulous landlords, as renters our grasp on our homes in a state with no rent control grows more precarious all the time. And the infrastructure to provide beds for all of these people is severely lacking, with an estimated one bed for every fourteen people on the streets every night.
There is even a problem in how we think of this problem: People are not “homeless”; they are “houseless”. The earth is our home. We all belong to it, and it to us. We all have a right to exist on it, regardless of property laws. No one should lack shelter, but what’s more, no one should lack the right to build shelter, to inhabit the land that belongs to us all. The idea that land can be owned is only one narrative, just like the idea that air can be owned or water can be owned is seen as patently ridiculous in many cultures, including the ones that occupied this land previously. The only reason that these concepts hold any power over us, any sway, is that we all collectively agree that ownership is a viable option. But why? Who decided they could own the water or the air? Who decided they could own the airwaves? These are things that belong to all of us. And yet: These are concepts we rarely challenge, just as a fish no longer notices the water it swims in.
What is the alternative? We, as humans, occupy space. When someone lacks shelter, lacks a home, they have no choice but to occupy public space. Privacy is a privilege, one that the majority of people take for granted. Increasingly, that public space is hostile, only meant for the privileged; employing “anti-homeless technology” prevents people from the simple right of having a place to rest or to sleep. Still, the criminalization of public sleeping, as brought to Denver by Albus Brooks with the anti-camping ordinance, is spreading throughout municipalities like a cruel poison.
All that is not to say, in a Cliven Bundy way, that we have a right to take what we want. But should we not have the right to give it? If land is collectively owned, is it not okay for all citizens to use it or benefit from it? It is only selfishness and petty concerns that births policy to drive people out of a public park, off of land that is sitting empty at night, and not allow them to sleep. We call these people – our brothers and sisters – a “public nuisance,” but often we have left them few options, especially if they have been prisoners. If we have taken the jobs, raised the rents, bankrupted people through medical bills, stolen their savings and futures – do we really have a right to deny people the right to exist, too?
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The word “homeless” is an erasure. It is a signal to someone that they do not belong here. That they are not a person, and are due no rights, no place, no square of land to rest in. It’s an absurd posture towards fellow humans. We jail the victims of the economy while its butchers run free and grow fat on all our sacrifices. Just remember: there but for the grace of God go any one of us.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.