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The Art of Survival: Why Poor People Have the Best Anti-Poverty Ideas

Tiny is excited by the energy of the Occupy movement, but she is sure that for real change to happen, “the poorest of the poor” need to be heard.

“Welfare queeeeens, super baby mamas!” a diverse group of women, holding hands, shouted in unison in front of an Oakland, California, welfare office, their voices overlapping as they weaved around each other on the sidewalk. The welfareQUEENS, a performance-poetry group composed of mothers who have survived and cared for their children through extreme poverty, were part of a series of actions staged by POOR, a 16-year-old arts-and-action nonprofit, on a sunny day last November, when POOR invited Occupy Oakland protesters to march out of their City Hall encampment to sites that “occupy” poor people throughout the Bay Area.
“Our lands and resources have been occupied for many years,” says Lisa Gray-Garcia, better known as Tiny, the wiry 38-year-old cofounder of POOR. “More people are now feeling the pain. For us it was not like, ‘Omigod, let’s occupy!’ It was like, ‘More people are waking up to the torture and the tragedy that has hit poor and indigenous people forever—so how do we harness the power of this movement to support the work that’s been going on for hundreds of years?”
The November day of action was one answer. POOR took occupiers to the housing authority to protest how Section 8 waiting lists have ballooned because of budget cuts. They also demonstrated in front of the San Francisco Immigration and Customs Enforcement office because, as Tiny explains, “If you don’t have money for an attorney, you get picked up on a misdemeanor and suddenly you’re in Mexico or Guatemala, even if you haven’t been there since you were 1 year old.” At the welfare office protest, the welfareQUEENS talked about imminent cuts to California’s food-stamp program—“the last crumbs we had.” And in front of an Oakland police station, speakers called prisons “the last form of public housing.”
Tiny is excited by the energy of the Occupy movement, but she is sure that for real change to happen, “the poorest of the poor” need to be heard. “Survival itself through extreme poverty and crisis,” she says, provides the best ideas for how to create a world where no one has to suffer lack of food, education, or safe shelter. Poor people “have the knowledge this movement needs.”
Tiny—who’s constantly running from one activity to the next, usually in tight jeans, hoop earrings, and a cap that says POBRE—likes to say she’s got a Ph.D. from the School of Hard Knocks. When she was 11, her mother, Dee, lost her job. Dee was sick and overwhelmed by what Tiny describes as “a complex web of phobia, conflict, and poverty.” Struggling with post-traumatic stress from a lifetime of abuse, Dee couldn’t work and often couldn’t leave the small apartment she and Tiny shared in Hollywood, which in the 1980s was more rough than glamorous. “People told me to put her in a home, go off to college, that I was a smart girl and I could do anything,” Tiny says. “I was told from very early on that staying with my mom was the least positive thing I could do.”
Instead, Tiny dropped out of sixth grade and started figuring out how to help their small family survive. If she’d told a social worker or teacher what was going on, she’d have been swiftly placed in foster care. But in Tiny’s view, families struggling with poverty need to stick together. Over the next few decades, Dee and Tiny would manage not only to survive together through bouts of homelessness and incarceration, but also to create POOR Magazine, which is much more than a publication. Right now, POOR is publishing books; running PeopleSkooL, which allows people struggling in poverty to teach each other media skills; and creating a project called Homefulness, where formerly houseless people will be able to create their own permanent housing rather than hope for beds in a shelter or project designed and run by people who have no clue what it’s like to be homeless.
* * *

At 12, Tiny created an alter ego named “Rent-starter,” an ideal tenant no landlord could refuse even though she had no cash or credit. Rent-starter embodied what Tiny describes as an odd mix of “sincerity, strength, and extreme sycophantism.” The performance worked many times: Landlords who might have turned away Dee, seeing a dark-skinned single mother (Dee was black and indigenous Puerto Rican, Irish, and Roma) as a bad tenant, believed that a white-looking 12-year-old Tiny (her dad, from whom she’s estranged, is white) was “a 25-year-old making $65,000 a year.” If Tiny couldn’t come up with enough money to pay rent on an apartment or motel room, she and her mom lived in their car. When they were cited for the illegal act of sleeping in a vehicle, penalties they couldn’t possibly pay piled up and turned into arrest warrants, which turned into stints in jail. Dee and Tiny learned that, when you’re poor in the United States, many of the things you have to do to survive are illegal.

When Tiny was a teenager in the ’80s, she and Dee made and sold clothes on the Venice Boardwalk and Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. Their 2-by-1-foot Venice retail outlet doubled as a venue for conceptual-art installations and performances commenting on the economy that was crushing them. In an interactive piece, The Depressed Box, black-clad Tiny and Dee stood next to a giant donation box with a sign that said, “Give us a dollar and we’ll tell you why we’re depressed.” They were written up in the L.A. Weekly and placed their clothing line, Street Clothes, in a few pricey boutiques. Later, while living and working in an Oakland storefront the landlord had insisted was not for living in, they led “Art of Homelessness” tours, guiding viewers through their lives.
Their situation was always precarious. When a month of rain interfered with street vending or a broken foot immobilized Dee, they were unable to pay rent and ended up homeless again. Or rather, “houseless.” Tiny thinks “the homeless” is a dehumanizing phrase that takes all people who don’t rent or own the place where they sleep and lumps them into a single group that is easy to pity, dismiss, or brutalize. She prefers “houseless,” which describes a concrete situation and doesn’t carry the cultural weight of decades of philanthropic and government conversations about, but not with, “the homeless.”
Just after she turned 18, Tiny landed in jail for failure to pay a heap of sleeping-in-a-vehicle citations. There she met other women in similar situations. Tiny started to see her poverty, her mother’s poverty, her grandmother’s poverty as “an unending chain of isolated poor women with no resources, no family, no support, and no luck”— and part of a broader story. “From a Western psychotherapeutic perspective, my mom was severely phobic and I was her support system. But from the perspective of almost every non-Western culture, nobody is ever left alone the way they are in the United States,” Tiny says. She and Dee were dependent on each other in a society that valorizes individual success. “Perhaps my mother’s worst problem was that she had no extended family.”
Tiny’s next stint in jail—for failing to complete the thousands of community-service hours she’d been assigned last time, something she couldn’t have done while keeping up sufficient street-vending hours—led to a surprise break. Osha Neumann, a Berkeley civil-rights attorney responsible for supervising her community service, asked Tiny “an odd question,” she says. “He asked me what I could do.” She tentatively answered that she wanted to write.
Neumann designed a community-service assignment that she could actually accomplish. Tiny was to write an article about poverty every week; Neumann would meet with her regularly to give feedback. She wrote in 30-minute spurts amid long days of street vending. Soon she was being published in Bay Area alternative papers. She wrote one piece about standing in line for nine hours with hundreds of others whose utilities had been turned off for lack of payment; another was a first step toward the memoir she’d write a decade later about her “crimes of poverty.”
But Tiny wasn’t interested in making a career for herself as a journalist. “When I’m inspired, I think, how can I inspire other people like me?” Dee and Tiny talked about starting a savings circle for poor people in the Bay Area. Tiny latched on to the idea of poor people’s media, which would allow people who were struggling in poverty to tell their own stories via journalism, poetry, and visual art.
In 1996, Tiny and Dee published the first issue of POOR Magazine, a beautiful glossy. Its theme was Homefulness, and its content came from writing workshops Tiny and Dee improvised while waiting in lines at welfare offices and eating free meals at shelters. “It’s not something nonprofit organizers could do,” Tiny says. “These were workshops for poor people, led by poor people, fit into the lives of poor people, in the communities in which we were dwelling, selling, and working. We were them, they were us. We weren’t saviors, we were other folks working together within our current realities to make our voices heard.”
“POOR could not have happened without the understanding and collaboration of a few folks with privilege,” Tiny says. “Me and my mama had a dream, but we were poor people with nothing.” Bay Area artist Evri Kwong donated art for the cover of the first issue and allowed the original to be auctioned off to cover printing costs. He and others supported Dee and Tiny’s dream with “understanding, consciousness, and empathy” in place of “charity.” Kwong, Tiny says, “had no requirements about what we did with his art; he trusted us and supported the leadership of poor people.”

When Dee and Tiny got a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to print a second issue of POOR, they put part of the grant money back into their community. They launched MamaHouse, a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood where they and other single-mother-headed families could live together, sharing both burdens and resources. “Organizational and personal lives are naturally enmeshed [in] poor-people led organizations like ours,” Tiny writes in her memoir, Criminal of Poverty.
A few years later, while on welfare herself, Tiny won a competitive grant to teach journalism skills to people coming off welfare. That led to the creation of POOR’s community newsroom, where participants decide together what stories need to be told, who should tell them, and how; a POOR radio show; PeopleSkooL, with stipends, child care, and meals for participants; and the Race, Poverty, and Media Justice Institute, which trains people with race, class, or educational privilege how to support poor people equitably.

POOR is complicated like that. Media education and magazine production have always been a part of it, but poor has never simply been a media project. It has also been about direct actions, such as gentrification tours that disrupt restaurants and museums throughout San Francisco. MamaHouse was just the beginning—or, as Tiny puts it, the “small, rented version”—of Homefulness, the dream described in the first issue of POOR: a cohousing project by and for poor people.
POOR enjoyed a few years of government and founda- tion support in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they rented an office and became an official nonprofit. “We were feeling happy for the first time,” Tiny says. But they were also honest in their critiques of the system. The bulk of their funding was public, the result of Clinton administration welfare-reform programs. Tiny recalls, “We were on welfare while training people to write about the welfare system and how messed up it is,” and then publishing that work. Before long, the funding dried up.
In 2002, Dee was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which often leads to heart failure, and her health deteriorated. Then Tiny got pregnant; and, Tiny says, “We basically fell apart.” MamaHouse and POOR were both evicted. Tiny found herself once again with no money, and now she was caring for her ailing mother and a newborn. She was often houseless, writing for low pay for independent-media outlets, stealing food to feed her son, and keeping POOR alive. She and Dee were fighting: “fighting each other, fighting to survive, and fighting campaigns”—including one for child care for working-poor parents, something Tiny herself was painfully lacking.
Tiny joined with other struggling single mothers, borrowed $850 from a friend, and started a second MamaHouse, this time in a three-bedroom apartment in the fast-gentrifying Mission District. The place was only affordable because they shared it with rats and pigeons. “It wasn’t all utopic; we had problems,” Tiny acknowledges, “but that’s what interdependence looks like. MamaHouse was a lifesaver.” The welfarequeens started there, and sharing child care with the other moms allowed Tiny to get a job at an education-policy nonprofit. When a fire destroyed MamaHouse number two, Tiny and her growing community later started a third.
One night in March 2006, Dee finished a segment for POOR’s radio show, went home, and died while napping on the couch. She was 61.
Tiny, 32 at the time, had lived her entire life in partner- ship with her mother. At POOR, which once again had an office, she created an altar featuring photos, flowers, doughnuts, candles, and a large urn that contains Dee’s ashes. It’s dedicated to her and “all victims of police terror, racism, and poverty in America.”
* * *
"Fill this out." "You're not done yet?" "You forgot this box." "No, this form!"
Members of the welfareQUEENS bustled around the POOR office, shoving paperwork into the hands of young adults who had graduated from some of the best colleges in the United States but were suddenly feeling clueless, unable to complete the forms fast enough.
In the summer of 2009 Tiny and some collaborators created a weekend-long program for people with money, education, or other resources who wanted to help create a world without poverty. I was among them.
Instead of just writing checks or volunteering whatever help we deemed they needed most, we were schooled by POOR's members. The welfareQUEENS performed poems about raising kids with no health insurance and living with the constant threat of separation. Members of POOR ran us through crushing exercises that mimicked the experience of dealing with social-service bureaucracies, shouting at us to cram our life stories into forms. They also told inspiring stories about communities that take care of each other. Tiny, as usual, was both warm and painfully honest, calling out our role in gentrification while addressing each of us as “hon.”
At the end of the weekend, a few of us formed POOR's Solidarity Family. We talk to each other, and others in the POOR family, about things that are both practical and emotional, like how our families relate to money and how to share resources and build real relationships despite class differences. We're one part of a multifaceted funding strategy: Instead of relying on government and foundation grants with all sorts of strings attached, POOR is supported primarily by individual donations from people who are part of its extended family.
In summer 2011, with the help of the Solidarity Family, POOR bought land for Homefulness. The site, located on busy MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland, is a rectangle of weeds, dead grass, broken concrete, and a small house rendered uninhabitable by weather and neglect. Behind the house a large tree leans precariously. There are a couple of liquor stores in walking distance, and cheap motels where Tiny and Dee occasionally slept, decades ago. On this land POOR will build housing for up to eight houseless or formerly houseless families. There will be a community garden, offices for poor, classrooms, and a café and performance space. poor doesn’t have the money or the exact plan mapped out to make this happen. POOR, after all, is still poor—but as creative and resourceful as ever. Tiny is sure: Homefulness is happening.
POOR held an Interdependence Day celebration on the Homefulness land last Fourth of July. POOR’s existing family and their soon-to-be neighbors ate grilled chicken and veggie burgers, and broke into a spontaneous afternoon dance party. But first, two elders blessed the land, and Tiny, in one of her signature fashion-art pieces—tight white jeans, tall boots, and a trim white blazer with “Take Back the Land!” painted on the back—performed a poetic tribute to Dee (“without whom there would be no me”) that had half the people circled around her in tears.
When anyone praises Tiny for her resilience, she’s quick to resist. “It’s not about my determination. And it’s not about working hard,” she insists. Dee’s mother worked multiple domestic jobs simultaneously and still struggled. “We worked hard our whole lives and had nothing. The thing I have, maybe, is vision—but not vision for myself. I don’t believe as humans that we are separate from each other. Anything that promotes disconnect causes pain. The vision is always togetherness, by any means necessary.”

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