LINK: Grassroots Organizing for the Houseless

An interview with LINK organizers Julia and Sean by Benji Ramirez Gomez

In this interview, Julia and Sean of LINK tell us about the work they’ve done since the uprising following Geoge Floyd’s murder.

BRG: Tell me about LINK and the work you do.

J: The thing about us is we’re a group of friends. We don’t see ourselves as this concrete set-in-stone organization. It was kinda just like, ok how do we want to contribute to what’s happening right now, especially here in Madison? We decided to do something that can help people that are houseless. Some of the people who formed LINK had experienced homelessness previously, so there was that special connection to that direct experience of what that feels like.

We had the idea to pull up to the capitol with some speakers and a microphone and to see what would happen cause we felt like we literally needed some type of  amplification to express anger about what was happening at the time. We had this vision of this happening at the capitol and we pulled all our resources together and found speakers, found a table, and we found a microphone.

S: There were already a lot of people who were already up there at the Capitol within that community. That’s what really pushed us into helping out with that. We started to explore what we can do with the resources we have at our disposal for these folks.

“We felt like that’s really important, and the connecting piece in organizing and movements. Having a place where you can feel safe.”

J : Then it kind of evolved to like the mission being a focus on community. Community building, mainly with the Kickbacks, but most importantly creating a space for Black people and POC to access that downtown area. That was the main thing, building that community, or hoped to build that community. We felt like that’s really important, and the connecting piece in organizing and movements. Having a place where you can feel safe.

S:  And now a lot of those people we started seeing regularly at every protest, every single event, so of course you start to build community with folks and then learn a little bit more about people’s stories. That’s kinda how we started fund raising for those folks, getting hotel rooms and things like that.

BRG: What kind of services were you able to provide to the houseless?

J: Obviously housing people is really hard. You can’t just house people like that, it’s not that easy.

S: It’s harder than just raising $5,000 for somebody and thinking that it’ll be enough to at least work something out with the hotel or work something out with a sublet.

J: Getting hotels for people is possible, but there’s more limitations to that. A lot of these hotels really discriminate against these people and they have these ban lists that really don’t make sense. They put people on ban lists for really minor things, like smelling like cigarettes. They know these people are homeless.

S: Yeah there’s a lot of discriminatory policies in the hotels. They all talk to each other too. If you have a bad experience at one hotel and try to drive down the street to a different one, they’re gonna know about it already because that manager called them up and said, “Hey, they’re gonna head down to your place.” It’s nuts.  It was literally hotel shopping in the middle of the night after a kickback. We’d be driving hotel to hotel, cause one has this person on the list, or one requires ID. Everybody needs an ID, even the person paying.

J: That was another too, the payments method. They make it so hard to pay with a card. The person on the card needs to show up and they need to have their ID. Otherwise this room isn’t going to get booked.

S:  Then this person has nowhere left to go. There aren’t that many shelters in town. None that have rooms available, that’s for sure. With the Salvation Army, if you’re not there in time, good luck. They only have what, twenty beds in there? If you don’t even have a cell phone, then that’s it. That’s really what LINK got into. There’s all these barriers, what can we do to make it a bit easier.

J: We were able to provide them cell phones which we think were really important especially now in 2020. If you don’t have a phone, you’re disconnected from the world even more and it just makes things harder. A lot of folks got phones, which is really awesome, that’s how we would connect with them, and then they would call us or text us, “hey I really need this within the next couple days, are you able?” And we would respond yes or no. Things like food, we would try and do that consistently, like “hey I’m hungry.” ok cool, we’ll send some delivery to you, or ‘oh we’re in the area, we can drop off some cash.” We got other people gear that allows them to carry their things if they’re sleeping outside. Sleeping bags, clothes, bus passes.

S: I mean for a few months we were putting two or three different people up every night in a hotel room every single night. And it would just be two of us driving them.

BRG: That’s super impressive that you were able to do all this. What were some of the most difficult parts of the work?

J: We’re always learning what that need is. We’re not professionals. We’re not case managers, we’re not counselors. I’m a student. I worked on farms for fun, that kind of stuff.  It’s just really sad and frustrating knowing that there’s this stigma and judgements towards people part of the subculture of houseless people. How they’re treated and dehumanized by everyday people.

Oftentimes people don’t realize the impacts of literally not having something comfortable to sleep on at night. You don’t sleep well, then you don’t think right. You’re probably going to be cranky, probably going to be more emotional. I can’t even imagine the impacts of being on the streets for four years, seven years, ten years.

S: Twenty even!

J: There’s really deep things that happen to people without houses. Understanding that and exercising that if there’s a conflict, like “this isn’t a terrible person, they’re just experiencing something really traumatic.” I expect them not to always be in this chipper, happy attitude. Life’s not going well for you, I would be mad, too.

S: A lot of this is just respect. Common respect. Respect for people, and also respect for space where they are living. I think that’s one thing a lot of organizers, protesters, people in general across Madison don’t realize. This space you are walking in and the street you’re walking down.

J: Like State street.

S: Or the Capitol Square, that’s somebody’s actual home. So when you’re spilling your drink all over the street, or making garbage and stuff, some of these folks take offense to that. That’s something that you have to remember, wherever you’re walking, that’s not your land, that’s not your space. Be conscious and respectful of that.

BRG: What’s something else you wish Madison knew?

S: Madison has this liberal identity but we’re in the most segregated county in the most segregated, most racist state in the entire country and that’s evident by the hypocrisy of the city government, the hypocrisy of the state government, and how they treat your average citizen and any citizen that’s experiencing poverty or homelessness. Even though Madison is small and really is a bubble, its own microcosm, it almost feels like a testing ground for all the terrible racist policies that are enacted everywhere in this country. I’m from out of state, I’m not from Wisconsin originally, so in my eyes that’s what it feels like.

J: I really wish the entire city of Madison understood all these barriers and really nuanced things that make housing people really hard here. The resources here in Madison to help people with houselessness are underfunded. It’s so crazy to me. For example, section 8 housing, the waitlist for that doesn’t open. Ever. It doesn’t move. So why aren’t we concerned about these things? People are more concerned about a homeless person in “their” neighborhood park sleeping in a tent, than housing that person! Why aren’t people more concerned about why there are 100, 300, 400, 500 hundred people sleeping on the streets in your city, then somebody popping up a tent to survive?

“Even though Madison is small and really is a bubble, its own microcosm, it almost feels like a testing ground for all the terrible racist policies that are enacted everywhere in this country. I’m from out of state, I’m not from Wisconsin originally, so in my eyes that’s what it feels like.”

S: The average citizen just wants to push it somewhere else. They just don’t want to see it. McPike park here in Madison, you’re around all these happening streets, Willy St. and everything. It’s just hidden, perfectly hidden from all these people, it’s why nobody gives a shit it feels like. It gets me pissed off having to go by that everyday when the city claims that housing is a human right and they don’t follow that up with anything. That’s one of our biggest frustrations and why we do what we do.

BRG: How has the city worked against you?

J: We didn’t need a generator at first.

S: I think it was around kickback #20 when they shut off the power up at the Capitol. It wasn’t that far in, that was probably around July. Literally the day-of was when we pulled up with the generator, we happened to have the generator, cause we were thinking one of these days it’s going to happen, and we were like perfect, we have it in the truck

BRG: Can you tell me what the role of grassroots organizing has played in your work?

J: The grassroots group is a really awesome resource that we have. They  are people that we personally know and trust. Not just with reliability, but with physical safety. We trust them with words and action.

S: These are people we’ve worked with all summer. They’ve been out there everyplace.

J: Usually it’s just us pulling up and a bunch of people being like “What can I help with?”  It’s already taken care of. It’s that community thing, and it’s so cool to see that. That’s something that will keep growing, it’s not something that’s going away just because everything is dying down. I would say that is definitely something to be proud of, not just for us, but for everybody that has been out there.

S: The only org we normally co-sponsor or show up with is Black Umbrella and Reparations Thrift. They’re the ones who were always at the kickbacks. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours kinda vibes.

BRG: What’s next for LINK ?

J: Now we’re just thinking harder of how we can sustainably exist and do the kind of work that we think would really help individuals. We’re not trying to do this super large-scale thing because we know it’s not in our capacity due to being just a few individuals, but what we can do that is impactful, but still within the means of what we’re able to provide people. Not just services, but literally our time.

S: Some of our work is evolving, it’s starting to look at how we can put more pressure on the people that need to have pressure on them in the city government in order to make these changes, and actually stand by their word of housing people.

J: Organizing is probably the most important tool in order to do something about the things we want to see changed, and obviously protesting, being the streets is one of those, but also we need to organize, we all need to organize especially in this kind of place like Madison, Wisconsin.

BRG: How can people rally to support your work?

J: Supporting LINK is supporting the people we try to connect with support. The Go Fund Me’s we have? Those are real people that really need help, that’s why they’ve asked us to fundraise from the community. They don’t have it. They have no other way. If we can be that outlet for potential support that’s easy work. “Hey everybody this person needs help.” Blast this, donate if you can share this at least. That’s definitely the preferred way to help LINK.

S: If you have the money, donate to the Go Fund Me’s, get it directly to these people. We don’t pay ourselves, we don’t get any money or any reimbursement for the things we do. All the funds from the Go Fund Me’s go directly  to that person. If you got it, give it. Whether it’s time, money or even material resources like when we do call outs for the Art shows and things like that.

J: Otherwise supporting in the winter would be keeping up with our socials. Share things we share, get the word out. We like to share other peoples’ events. We like to share people’s things in the Madison area. Show up. Reparations.

S: DM us on Instagram.

You can follow LINK on Instagram. Check here for other ways to contribute to LINK’s work, including directly supporting community members who need assistance.

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