This is a letter from a former Street Watch member who left the organization in 2021. It is shared with permission.
Abuse mention, no details.
Apologism of abusers.
As a majority white organization, working in solidarity with encampments of majority Black and Latine folks, it is important to center and define our role in a manner that is cognizant of our place in society, the privileges that come with it,
and what is most effective in pursuing liberation for ALL.
There are people currently living on the street who don’t have access to running water, clean toilets, shelter, and shoes. They are among the most criminalized, neglected and targeted people in the so-called "United States". If we are choosing to involve ourselves in others' lives, particularly those who are most vulnerable to the system, it should be done with care and humility. It can feel jarring when participating in the Street Watch organization at large, as often the meetings don’t feel relevant to on-the-ground realities, and in the worst cases, the structure and culture of Street Watch feels as though it actively inhibits the work that matters.
Oftentimes, it feels as though we are replicating systems of harm that exist under capitalism and white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy.
There is currently no place to air our concerns and issues — the burden is placed on those who have been harmed to speak out. There are undemocratic hierarchies, both informal and formal. We shy away from conflict, recreating whisper networks. Emphasis is placed on the written word, rather than human needs and feelings. Unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy mounts walls between those in power and those wanting to contribute.
And most importantly, the way we present, structure, and organize ourselves, often places us in a paternalistic position in relation to the communities we work with.
Who are we fighting for? And what does it mean to take on that fight?
If we are fighting to end homelessness in a way that is truly equitable and liberating, that means upending this system. And the system cannot be upended if we are maintaining its mechanisms in the process.
I wrote this document with the input and help of others when I was still planning on staying within the organization, which is why some of the wording is phrased to reflect that reality.
But I am speaking for myself when I say I don’t see Street Watch as a healthy place that I can mentally handle trying to change, so I am choosing to leave this group.
I have tried to express my concerns with older members of the group and have been met with an attitude of "if you have a problem, then it’s your responsibility to fix it," or conversations that have sapped so much from me emotionally, but led to no material support.
So at this point, I am writing and posting this mainly to alert others who may not be aware of these issues within Street Watch and may not call out problems, as one of the main obstacles I see in this organization is a culture lacking in transparency and open dialogue.
Without further ado, here are some grievances:
1. The role of DSA-LA within Street Watch
a. The maintenance of our relationship with DSA-LA creates a hierarchy, wherein those who are members of DSA-LA have more power than those in Street Watch who are not DSA members.
This is evident in many ways, but most recently, in the ability for only those who are DSA-LA members to sign a petition to override a steering decision about our budget. Despite non DSA-LA Street Watch members being unable to vote on the steering committee’s membership, this governing body has power over us in numerous ways.
All of us contribute to the raising of funds, either directly or indirectly, and we should all have an equal say. Whether or not it was intended to have non-DSA members in Street Watch or not, it is the reality now, and things should adjust accordingly.
Content warnings for the next section:
Abuse mention, no details.
Apologism of abusers.
b. DSA-LA has a problematic history with both issues of racism and white supremacy, and sexual abuse.
Specifically pertaining to our group, members of the steering committee, some of whom have held leadership positions within Street Watch (and continue to hold soft power), mishandled a domestic/sexual abuse claim in a very harmful manner — protecting the abuser, and punishing the survivor. It is clearly not a safe space for many groups of people.
DSA-LA can, and should, continue to work on these issues, but because members of Street Watch are not part of DSA-LA, potentially for the above mentioned reasons, we should not have to wait on DSA-LA to fix a toxic culture. We should be able to fully, autonomously create our own healthy space, particularly because we are inviting Unhoused people into it.
Hopefully, it can start by asking the question of how this situation was able to occur.
i. This issue with sexual assault is not limited to DSA-LA. This culture is also present in Street Watch itself.
In the communications Signal group chat, when members were notified someone on twitter tagged Street Watch’s account, alleging sexual assault by a member of one of our coalition partners’ members, the response from those in the chat was to litigate the claim and question the sanity of the victim.
This chat is made up of many members of Street Watch who have been in the group for a long time, are perceived as leaders, and are in DSA-LA — yet it was left to newer members to express discomfort and say it was inappropriate to talk this way. I was personally re-traumatized by this experience, and have felt unsafe in this group since then.
No efforts were made to recognize or rectify the situation.
If a sexual assault was to come to light in Street Watch, I have no confidence it would be handled in an appropriate way.
c. Currently, unless you have signed an agreement to abide by the DSA-LA bylaws, if you are not a member of DSA-LA, you are not a member of Street Watch.
This means that many of those of us who have not signed this agreement are not "members" of Street Watch, despite pouring countless hours of outreach and work into the group. Beyond this, the idea that we have to sign bylaws created by a different organization, including conflict resolution guidelines that have been proven to be harmful, is antithetical to democracy.
d. Members of Street Watch are, by default, putting their labor towards building DSA-LA, even though they may not agree with its politics.
There are numerous reasons as to why one may not agree with DSA-LA, but despite being a "big tent" organization, it is still very focused on electoralism, and working within the U.S. Democratic party. Those of us who do not believe in reformism, or working within a capitalist party, should have the autonomy to not put their labor towards building an organization they fundamentally disagree with.
We can work out our political differences within Street Watch, but no one should be forced, by association, to contribute to politics that they don’t have influence over.
e. We are already fracturing and losing people due to DSA-LA.
An understandable fear in re-evaluating our connection with DSA-LA is that it would cause too much conflict within the group. But we have already silently lost comrades who became disillusioned with our work, partially due to its connection to DSA-LA.
We are also missing out on those who may want to join but are hesitant to, due to DSA-LA. This thought is based on real experiences some of us have had in our locals, and when trying to recruit.
The fracturing is already happening. It’s just happening in silence.
f. The moments we’ve intersected with DSA-LA’s power structure have been detrimental.
The two most recent incidents are with the budget, and the conflict from this summer . Both times, when the steering committee was asked to step in and help us in our mission, it not only failed, but caused more harm.
g. The question remains: What does remaining a part of DSA-LA do for Unhoused people?
a. Unhoused people are a diverse group of people, made up of many backgrounds and ideologies. No group, especially marginalized groups, is a monolith.
So when we, as Street Watch, form opinions and state those to the "public" or the "state", we need to be extremely careful, particularly when you recognize that we are a majority white, non-Unhoused organization.
If not, we can fall into patterns of white saviorism and paternalism, wherein we are speaking for Unhoused people, rather than using our privilege to elevate their voices.
b. It should be questioned that we are frequently making decisions without the voices of Unhoused people in the room. Is our current method for organizing truly building power?
c. If you aren’t doing outreach, you shouldn’t be speaking for Street Watch externally or internally.
In the words of Paul Boden:
“You’re talking homeless people, you better be out in the streets, in the parks, in the community, talking to the people that you’re talking about.
You’re a fucking 'homeless group'.
If you ain’t living that community, then you got no right to be saying anything about anything.”
Street Watch has a history of those who are not doing outreach taking up a lot of space in meetings, dominating decision-making, and speaking on panels, and/or externally for the group. This, quite frankly, is inappropriate, and smells of white savorism.
It is not about excluding people — since it is the COVID-19 pandemic, not everybody may be able to do outreach.
It is about recognizing who is actually best equipped to communicate the needs of the Unhoused people we work with.
d. Multiple instances have occurred that seem to create a designation between who is a member of Street Watch and who is not, that specifically excludes our Unhoused comrades, most recently in internal communications around the vaccine.
How does this happen?
Why aren’t we making it more clear that we are all members of Street Watch?
e. When an Unhoused person posted comments criticizing Street Watch on Instagram, members of the communications team hid the comment so it could not be seen by the public.
This feels inappropriate, and complaints should be treated as valid.
Should we be modifying the voices of the Unhoused in order to maintain our reputation, or should we take criticisms head on?
f. The idea of creating "dependencies" has been brought up numerous times lately, in the context of saying that us providing tents, food, hygiene, etc, is creating a power dynamic wherein Unhoused people are "dependent" on us.
Are human beings dependent on food?
Are human beings dependent on water?
In meeting those basic human needs, are we creating "dependency"?
It seems as though we are just providing for basic needs. It speaks to a sense of paternalism that the reaction to feeling as though we have created power dynamics through trying to remedy human rights violations is saying we should cut that off, rather than make sure to include our Unhoused comrades more in decision-making, facilitate a more direct redistribution of wealth to them so that they have autonomy over how resources are used, and ensure that our goals are actually attacking the cause of homelessness (capitalism).
If you are non-Unhoused, trying to work with an Unhoused person, there will be a power dynamic, because you can go back to a home after outreach.
Sweep blockades have the same power dynamic.
The fact that rather than reckoning with our power dynamics and trying to fix them through our conversations and outreach, people want to take away shelter and other survival tools, is concerning. It feels very disconnected from the reality that people can die without the supplies we give them.
We shouldn’t test out our philosophical ideas on such a vulnerable population.
g. The fight to end homelessness has to be led by Unhoused folks.
For those of us who are non-Unhoused, particularly those of us who are white, our role should be to provide a supportive role that allows for autonomy and self-determination.
3. Undemocratic Hierarchies
a. The Housing and Homelessness chairs of DSA-LA have been given a small portion of power through the bylaws, wherein they are responsible for scheduling meetings, making information available to Street Watch members, and enforcing the bylaws.
As many members of Street Watch cannot vote on these leaders, it is undemocratic that they hold designated positions within Street Watch.
b. Beyond the designated roles of the Housing and Homelessness chairs, in the past, the chairs have maintained a large amount of soft power as well, acting as de facto leadership within Street Watch, despite not being elected by the group.
They are often the loudest voices in meetings, the ones who create agendas and proposals, and the ones who hold much of the knowledge needed for the day-to-day running of the structure of the organization. This prevents the rotation of roles between many different people, and the ability to spread out responsibilities and power.
This pattern is continued when the chairs are always the first to jump into these responsibilities, rather than stepping back and allowing others to fill in. If a role falls through one meeting, but then in the next meeting is picked up by someone else, that is better than continuing to have one or two people continuously maintaining this soft power.
This dynamic is alienating, tiring and prevents people from becoming meaningfully involved in the group.
c. The Housing and Homelessness chairs are changing now, but the structure that enabled this remains in place.
In order to keep building healthy cultures we should address what led to this situation and consider the roles that Housing and Homelessness chairs play — is it ultimately helpful or harmful? What effect does it have on those who speak up the least? How does it benefit Unhoused people, and our outreach?
4. Fear of Conflict
a. We are working in situations rife with conflict and violence. That requires constantly checking ourselves and checking in with others.
Particularly because we are a majority white org, we should always be evaluating ourselves and our role.
We shouldn’t shy away from calling out the things that bother us, and asking for others to give us critiques — yet this often seems to be the case.
b. Differing opinions are often framed as personal attacks.
This creates an environment where people are afraid to say what they really feel, or express thoughts that differ from what the "dominant" voices say.
We should always assume good faith when somebody is critiquing us, and with that good faith, know that they are coming from the place of "Does this best serve the work we are trying to do?"
c. If we are truly trying to end homelessness, that means going against very powerful forces.
If we are afraid of leaning into conflict, we can be easily infiltrated, isolated, defeated.
A group that can take on the task of evaluating where they failed is one that is ultimately better equipped to deal with fighting the system.
d. Something that we sorely need to have is our own conflict resolution or transformative justice team.
Sending conflicts to DSA-LA has not worked in the past, and we need our own methods of tackling these problems.
5. Who are we? What is the work?
a. There have been numerous instances where there is a concern to make sure that what we are doing is "legitimate."
Most recently, there was a large focus on reinforcing the fact that we are "legitimate" outreach workers who deserve the vaccine.
This is tied to a fixation on the written word, where we often spend time debating what is in the “bylaws”, rather than what we actually want to do in the moment.
People within Street Watch say that we are anti-capitalist, and trying to overturn this system.
Within that framework, why would you want to be legitimized by it?
If the system recognizes and acknowledges you as "official", you have failed.
These fixations also put people into binaries, rather than recognizing that we all are multifaceted, and that life has no concrete lines.
When we continue to buy into these patterns of capitalism, we are allowing ourselves to be softened, and lose our militancy.
b. The work should be centered around what matters most. The core of our work seems like it should always be outreach.
That is where Unhoused people are.
That is where we are building solidarity and learning from each other.
That is the foundation of our work.
Most things should be centered around outreach and on-the-ground work.
So many people who do the most outreach do not go on Slack and do not attend the general meetings. So why aren’t we either changing general meetings, or changing our structure so that we have different decision-making models?
Our structure should reflect the natural way we are forming, rather than embodying the ideas, of a few people, about what we should look like.
6. Bureaucracy and Red Tape
a. It can be exhausting to try to get something done in Street Watch. There are rules set up in the bylaws that seem to hint towards a distrust for comrades.
Rather than just being able to create a team to work on something, one has to follow convoluted steps for made-up rules. What is the purpose of this?
Micromanaging everyone to the point of concentrating control in the hands of those who are most knowledgeable, equipped, or willing to attend unpleasant meetings?
Nothing about it feels democratic.
It feels prohibitive.
b. A middle layer of managers and bureaucrats is continuously placed between all Street Watch-wide efforts.
The result is that many of these things are not attended to, don’t seem to matter, and feel disconnected.
The most radical work is being done on-the-ground, where there is less structure. What is this achieving?
c. There is a lack of rotating roles, as mentioned before, and older members get to dictate the way the organization moves forward.
The community agreement “respect the work” often seems to be used as a way to prevent newer members from changing the organization or having any sort of buy-in into what it is.
7. The Bylaws
a. The bylaws were created this past year in the midst of a conflict. Rather than dealing with the conflict, the solution seemed to be to put more rules down upon the group.
But we are human beings, and human beings don’t easily fit within lines — things are blurry, we are constantly changing.
Rules will not solve conflicts, but talking about conflicts will.
b. The process of creating the bylaws did not seem as though it was particularly democratic.
It happened quickly, and looking back at the notes, it seems to have been dominated by those who normally already dominate decision-making.
They also don’t seem to reflect the reality of the work we are doing, especially on the ground.
How many of us know what are in the bylaws?
How many of us know our mission statement?
How many of us know what Rusty’s Rules are?
The ultimate question is, if so many of us are continuing along in our work completely ignoring, purposefully or not, what is in the bylaws, what purpose do they serve, and should they exist as they currently are?
As someone who joined Street Watch LA about 7 months ago, I have found my time in this organization to be alienating, harmful and toxic.
I have witnessed some beautiful work, but mostly that has been on the ground and could have been done through any "org", as it’s the people that make a group, not the title.
I am currently planning on leaving, but for the sake of newer members, I hope that people within this organization seriously take a look at what they are contributing to.