Taking It to the Street : Organizer for Homeless Has Plans for L.A.

Times Staff Writer

He is no stranger to street life, having slept in abandoned buildings, lived on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches handed out at missions and soup kitchens, and known first-hand the anguish and frustration of being homeless.

Chris Sprowal has been out of work, out of ideas, and out on the street. He still spends his days on Skid Row--but with new purpose. The founder of the fledgling Union of the Homeless, he has been organizing that community in several cities, and now has brought his campaign to Los Angeles.

Sprowal, along with field workers Ron Darnaby and Carol Burrows, created the first chapter of the union last year in Philadelphia, and recently moved on to Boston and Chicago. Such unlikely organizations, they believe, can change the perception of the homeless--by society and by those living on the street.

"We want to kill the myth that the homeless are helpless, that they're drunks, derelicts, mentally ill people," Darnaby said. "Sometime in our lives we too were responsible citizens, fathers, brothers and loved ones. We were the work force of this country and now we are third-rate citizens."

A hot meal and a place to sleep do not provide the answers to homelessness, they insist. Instead, their campaign is based on the premise that the homeless are not merely the problem, but should play an important part in seeking solutions.

Sprowal says the first step is getting the homeless to speak out with a unified voice on the key issues that they confront on a daily basis.

"We want low-income housing, jobs, training programs, re-education. It is vitally important for us to take this message around the country to build a cohesive movement. It will be business as usual no more," said Sprowal, a natty dresser with an impassioned way of speaking. "We, as the homeless, have power."

After about a month in Los Angeles, walking the streets of downtown and the Westside, stopping at shelters and the dilapidated hotels where many receiving general relief must live, at parks and street corners where the homeless congregate, Sprowal says that he and 14 volunteers--four from Philadelphia and 10 new recruits from the streets of Los Angeles--have handed out membership cards to an estimated 5,000 men and women.

His work in Los Angeles will culminate with a daylong rally Saturday in Pershing Square, at which union officers will be elected and the union's constitution drafted. He is hoping for a turnout of 1,000 homeless people.

Longtime community organizers here are greeting the effort with a mixture of skepticism and support.

Alice Callahan, director of the Las Familias del Pueblo shelter downtown, points out that it is easy to get signatures from people on the street. More important, she says, is whether the union organizers will work with existing groups that have their own plans for helping the homeless. "It would be disastrous," she said, "if they didn't plug into the Homeless Organizing Committee and the legal aid workers."

Matt Lyons of the Inner City Law Center acknowledges that the union's tactics--demonstrating and closing down city offices, if need be--are far different from the path the Law Center has followed. The center's main focus now is to change the county policy of penalizing welfare recipients for missing work, and to raise the county's monthly housing allowance.

Lyons added, however: "It is easy to justify civil disobedience at this time. No government body or downtown business is not aware of the homeless issue. . . . What the union wants to do might be real effective."

In Philadelphia, Sprowal's group has already made some significant changes.

Sprowal's union began as a grass-roots advocacy group called the Committee for Dignity and Fairness, which he started in 1983. Its first meetings took place in an abandoned building, with Sprowal and two others in attendance.

The Philadelphia/Delaware Valley Union of the Homeless now is made up of formerly homeless men and women who write proposals for funding, organize demonstrations and instigate lawsuits against the City of Philadelphia and businesses that they deem unfair to the homeless population. They are aided by church and social workers and a volunteer attorney.

A Positive Impact

City officials say the group has had a positive impact, even if it can be ornery.

"The mayor feels, and we are taking his lead, that advocacy groups and people like Chris Sprowal are important people to help make things work better," said Marion Reitz, assistant managing director for Philadelphia. "As a bureaucracy, we move slowly and we need to be stretched and pulled.

"On a personal level, we don't always like to see their tactics, but I think it's an important element in the whole system."

The union is supported in part by dues: Working members pay $5 monthly and non-working members $1. Funds are also raised from government grants and donations from churches and others. The union now operates on a yearly budget of almost $250,000, according to Sprowal, who draws $50 a week.

Union Sponsors Shelter

The union sponsors and runs its own 30-bed shelter, which sleeps many more on wintry nights, and is building a second one for women and children. All jobs at the shelter are salaried and are filled by currently or formerly homeless people. Workers receive from $25 to $50 a week, but get free room and board until they can go out on their own. The union sued Pennsylvania for residents' right to use the shelters as a voting address. As a result, the state eased regulations so residents can receive Social Security and welfare checks at the shelter as well.

In addition, members picketed and forced the closure of an employment agency that the the union felt took advantage of the poor by charging exorbitant commissions on minimum-wage jobs.

The union is also working with Philadelphia officials to renovate abandoned buildings and homes--projects on which the homeless could be employed, and where they would eventually live.

His Life an Example

Sprowal's own story illustrates how a productive life can start to deteriorate. He had worked as a congressional aide to the late New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein, had helped organize a hospital workers' union, had worked as a counselor for a halfway house in New York's Times Square, and had run his own shrimp wholesale business in New Orleans. His life began to fall apart when he lost that business.

He ended up picking peaches in New Jersey. There, he met Ron Darnaby, who had lost his job in a garment factory when the factory relocated.

Darnaby and Sprowal say that they are typical of the thousands of skilled, educated men and women who are now living on street corners across the nation.

"The average American has a vision of the homeless as bag ladies, winos, drug addicts, persons incapable of helping themselves. But 60% of today's homeless have been on the street for only six months to two years," said David Silva, who is helping in the Los Angeles organizing drive. "We are finding more and more that the difference between the homeless and anyone else is simply a paycheck."

'Dehumanizing Process'

Sprowal remembers one job interview he had when he was down and out. The interviewer read over his application, looked at him and asked incredulously, "Are you really Chris Sprowal?" Sprowal took a good look at himself: His clothes were filthy and he needed a bath. He didn't get the job.

"Every day, the process of homelessness dehumanizes you more," Sprowal says today. He talks about physically fighting for a place in line to get one of the few shelter beds in Philadelphia. During the 11 months he spent on the streets in 1982, there was only one public shelter in the city with 50 straight-backed chairs for sleeping.

When Sprowal saw the administrators throw out a woman who wasn't able to sit still for the whole night, he was enraged. He remembers thinking that if he didn't need a roof over his head, he would speak up about such mistreatment. But he said nothing.

The next night, he finally exploded. He, too, was thrown out. "I felt liberated," he said, and he decided to channel his rage, put his skills to work and start organizing.

Hoping for Union Support

In the future, he is counting on attracting more support from organized labor. In Philadelphia, his group has received financial and moral support from Hospital Workers' Union 1199C. Similar help has not been forthcoming in Los Angeles.

"We've got to build solidarity between those not employed and union members," he said. "They don't understand that as our ranks grow, we will be used as the weapon to hammer down their wages and as a force to replace them."

In October, a meeting is planned in Philadelphia with the leaders of the newly formed unions in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans and New York.

"We don't want to be a flash in the pan," Sprowal said. "We are prepared to fight. We are the only segment of society that has nothing to lose. We lost it all when we became homeless."

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