Poverty Don't Know Color, Interview with Annie Chambers

Poverty Don't Know Color, Interview with Annie Chambers

Reverend Annie Chambers lives in Baltimore and is currently the regional president of the Welfare Rights Union, She is also president of the National Homeless Union, Big Momma’s House for youth and families in public housing, and Scattered Site Rehab Housing. How long have you been involved in the fight for welfare and housing rights? About 40 years—I started in Welfare Rights in 1969. How did you get involved in this struggle and where? Well actually, I came off of the civil rights movement, and I was involved in starting the first Welfare Rights with George Wiley and some more people . It was because I was a mother: when my children’s father left me, eighteen of my children were still at home. I am a mother of twenty-five. In the state of Maryland, no matter how many people you had, you couldn’t get but two hundred and fifty dollars. So we decided we would fight to change that. Now that was sort of a welfare movement when I got into it, because I was in the National Welfare Rights Union . Rudell Martin and some other people had started a Welfare Rights in Baltimore City, But it wasn’t really going anywhere. When we became involved, me and some other women, we pushed the envelope. We didn’t mind going to jail. We didn’t mind going up against elected officials. We took over county, state, and city offices all over the state. That’s how welfare rights got to be so big. When did you first take notice that there was a housing crisis in this country? I took notice of it about 20-something years ago. I had the privilege of seeing plans for public housing in Philadelphia, of all public housing throughout the United States. We were trying to alert people throughout the United States that this was happening now. They’re being demolished, torn down. I saw plans where there was no Murphy homes. Remember Murphy homes was a big development—Lexington Terrace—well we saw this coming and we tried to tell people in each city. They locked us up. Along with some more welfare rights people because we were telling people, “Look, you gotta fight now, to stop this from happening to you” . People were told we were lying. We started doing some research, and our research helped us to get the master plan. Five years from now we won’t have houses. They’ll be no public housing. They got a plan to tear it all down. Now, they’re going to make senior housing the last thing on the list. They tore down Murphy Homes; they only got four houses that public housing tenants live in now. Flag only has six. Where do these people go? What happened to them? What they do is play shift. They put you here a little while, while they get ready to tear it down; then they put you out of there. Then they put you here while they tear that down. All those houses that we had over there by Johns Hopkins are gone. So where do those people go? The Housing Authority had people in motels—families living in motels till they could scam ’em off in some of those old broken down private development apartments. You stay there a little while, constantly under scrutiny. They come up with all kinds of terrible things to get you outta there. If the police come in here, and any one of y’all got drugs, I get evicted. How is that fair to the tenant? I am fighting cases where young people were not in their home, but they get locked up on a drug offense. They put the whole family out. This is how we have so much homelessness. There’s not enough housing developed for people to live in, but they’re putting people out. They find any excuse to put you out of your home. These are the things that we must organize to fight against. I am one of those people that they know is gonna fight. They didn’t put me in here and when I leave it’s because I want to. I took this house. I broke the lock, and I moved in—38 years ago—called the telephone company up, got my phone hooked up, got my children transferred and sent them ’round the corner to the school. And I am going to be here until I get ready to leave here. They done sent the sheriff, the sheriff’s department, the police one time out to my house. You’d think I was one of the biggest criminals in the world, but I said if you come in, they bring you out head first feet first. I had a whole shotgun. If you’re black, you’ll be white, because I also had a bucket of lye. I meant that, because I felt that there was no way in America that there should be homeless people and I refuse to let me and my children be out on the streets. They used to send people all the time to harass me. They sent DSS after my children, but I had already had my children ready for the fight. And when they tried to go down to the school, my children would tell them, “you ain’t gonna take me nowhere.” They had a signal, and all of them would come together. All the children that was in high school, junior high, would come together and they wouldn’t let touch them. And so everybody would get home, and once we got in this house, my thing was, this is where you take all of us out at once, but we gonna take somebody with us. And that’s what I told ’em. In Philadelphia, we were able to do quite a bit of squatting and get some houses fixed up. That’s what we can do now. People can fix these houses. People have those skills; we have the knowledge. I may not be a carpenter or a plumber, but others are. There was a lot of organizing in the early ’90s with housing takeovers. What is happening now? Well you see that’s the thing, people got comfortable and then they put in Health Care for the Homeless. They put in little makeshift things. Now, I have nothing against Health Care for the Homeless. I hope they come along with us. But they put in little makeshift organizations, like band-aids over this to keep us quiet. That’s what happened. Just like this Section 8 junk That’s money that Section 8 stole. That’s the money they claimed they lost. Those billions of dollars they lost. They need to find it, because these people need it to be housed. Our waiting lists for public housing have tripled. But they aren’t really housing anybody. They’ll give you a Section 8 certificate and tell you that you got 30 days to find a place. Now, if you don’t find a place in 30 days, you lose your certificate. Come on! You got the landlords in the city that won’t even rent it to you—won’t even take the certificate. They got the voucher program. They tell you that you got x amount of days to get somewhere to live and check your credit. You got to pay for your credit to be checked. You put out over $50 dollars every time you go to look at a house. Then the report comes back and says your credit ain’t right. I tell poor people, “why you give them your money? You know your credit ain’t right. Hell you poor!” Tell me one poor person’s got some good credit. I’ll be suspicious of that. I don’t know no poor person that got good credit cause we can’t afford to have no good credit. You can go to the hospital and get bad credit. The gas and electric company can give you bad credit. The water company can give you bad credit. Anything you get can give you bad credit. So how you gonna have any decent credit? Welfare Rights helped put together the rent control bill in Baltimore. We put that together, and we got sold out. The rent control bill said that rents would be controlled, and the City couldn’t go over, a certain amount in some areas. Houses in this area used to rent for three to four hundred dollars a month. Houses in this area now rent from seven to twelve hundred dollars a month. Under rent control, that would have never happened. Your landlord can raise your rent every six months, every three months, if he feel like it. He can rent you the house today and come back next month and say, “Oh well. I have decided that I want so and so for this house.” You have no protection. Under rent control that could not have happened. There was a cap set on rents in certain areas. There was also a cap on how the landlord could raise your rent period. We won it on the ballot. They carried us to court. We had no money for lawyers—poor people don’t have money for lawyers. That’s how they defeated us in court. The Supreme Court here in Maryland said it was unconstitutional—up against all those real estate companies and developers who had mega-money and we had nothing. So we lost. How can poor people have a voice in these decisions? They gonna have to organize. They gonna have to stand up and fight. If you’re homeless, what else you got to lose? I had the privilege many years ago of meeting Fidel Castro in 1962. I don’t care what nobody else says about him. I respect him. I admire him, and I think he is a great man. Because we had a good talk for that whole week that I was there, everyday in Cuba. When I asked him about the revolution and the plight of Black people in America, he said to me, “you know it’s got to get to a point where you boil. And when it busts, that’s when you can truly, truly have a revolution.” In America there has never been a point like that. We have gotten to the point of Rosa Parks, but how many people got killed, beat, cut, and stabbed. That’s why I couldn’t really follow Martin, because I couldn’t stand for somebody to spit at, cut, or beat me. I went to several demonstrations. I got scars on my back. When you seen them pushing people with guns. They had nails, razor blades, and everything else hidden in there. But Malcolm said, “Never go start a confrontation, but you can end one….” Welfare reform was one of the worst things that could have happened to poor people, but it’s going to help start the revolution. Not the worst thing for me, because I pray for the day that I see it happen. Now whether it be physical or people going in and taking power or working within the ballot box, I see all that happening. You talk about the difference between real change and band-aid solutions. What can people do to fight for systemic change? We are working to get a million people at least in Washington to overturn welfare reform first. Second, we DEMAND HOUSING—that there be no homeless people in America. That’s what we have to do—stick to that demand. I don’t want to negotiate. That’s when it may get physical, because we cannot negotiate this thing. We cannot negotiate poor people, homeless people in America. This is a non-negotiable matter. I am saying that people should be able to work. Those that can work should have a job. But until we take hold and make a change, nobody’s gonna do it for us. It’s only a handful of people that hold power in America, and there’s all of us, and yet we’re still suffering. There’s gotta be an end to it. There’s no homeless people in Cuba. Tell us about Cuba. And why aren’t there any homeless people? Because they have state housing, just like we are supposed to have public housing. But nobody in Cuba is homeless. Nobody in Cuba is hungry. If you can work, there is a job for you, and you will work. There’s no people that need clothing. But if you can work, you have a job, whether in the field, a contractor, a doctor, or whoever. You have a job. You get educated. You can support your family. You are able to get around, even if you don’t have your own transportation. You go to the hospital. You get treated freely. Free healthcare. Those are things that I seen with my eyes in Cuba. I seen the young people have more respect for the elders, because the elders were able to be elders and not try to compete. I seen the young people in Cuba able to get a decent education, even children with disabilities. ADHD—I know that it’s a lie. I tried it with my own grandchildren after I seen what they were doing in Cuba with children who have ADHD. You focus the child. You give that child attention. You make sure that that child understands this is what you must do. The drug companies done took over America. Let’s face it. It’s a capitalist country that is overrun with greedy folks. And we allow it. What are some myths about public housing and welfare? They think the people who live there are lazy—don’t want anything. I’ve had people tell me about people in public housing: “Well, they get a check.” Not everybody in public housing gets a check. I worked. “They ain’t paying nothing, and I’m paying for them.” Those are myths, once you get to know what the real truth is. That’s how the rich keep the middle class and the poor fighting. Because they tax them and they think, “Well, I’m paying for them.” Well, the rich is the ones that you paying for. I am a person who has fought to be a taxpayer. I’m poor, but I pay into the system. I pay taxes. I work. Jobs in Baltimore People don’t place any value on raising children. …mothers raising their children to be productive citizens.—that’s a job—when your mother gets up and has to make sure you have everything you need to survive and then go to work. But then some mothers stay home and make sure the house running and everything. That’s a job, and it has never been respected. We have got to make America produce. Look at all the cars, all the plants that they closed down, the shipyards. All these things were jobs. People in Baltimore all came from the South to get jobs. They worked in Sparrows Point. They worked in the shipyard. They worked in the canning factories. The whites went out to the counties and left the city. The city was always able to pay for their water and sewage. That’s paid for by working-class black folks now. Welfare Rights and the Klan Welfare Rights was in Las Vegas, because the governor had cut off all checks in the state. Welfare Rights people from all over the country emerged in Las Vegas. They was talking about what we was going to do, how we was going to do it. Who was going to sit down at this, who was going to block this. Over there was some more folks, and they were all white. They were over there in some other church. We had a few little white people with us, and I said, “why don’t you go over there and asks them people?” And they looked at me like I was crazy, “THAT’S THE KU KLUX KLAN!!” But they weren’t getting no checks either. Everybody’s checks were off. I said, “Well, why don’t we go over there and asks them,” and everybody looks at me and says, “you crazy!! What the hell’s wrong with you Annie!?” That’s what they said to me—just like that. I went over there to that church, and I opened the door and when I walked in them people looked at me like I was a ghost. “WHAT YOU WANT, NIGGER!!?” That’s what they said. I said, “I want to come and talk to you, white man.” And he, the Grand Dragon said, “WHAT YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT NIGGER!? GET OUT OF HERE!!” I said, “No, I want to talk about you getting a check, just like me.” And he listened to me, and I told him, “Let me tell you something. I don’t want to marry you, and I know you don’t want to marry me. I don’t want my son to marry your daughter, and you don’t want your son to marry my daughter, but what we do want is this check. We may have to kill each other later, but right now we need to fight the governor about this check.” And he said, “What y’all talking about?” And I told him what we’d planned. We got out on the strip, went all in the clubs, casinos, all the hotels. We ordered up food. Had our children running all around the casino—just let children go wild. People hit the slots. They grabbed the money and ran. We ordered food—the best steak, everything they had in the place—and then we’d tell them, “Charge it to the governor.” We went into stores and got shopping carts full of food. We went and got clothes. You see they couldn’t stop everybody. Some of us they locked up. They locked me up about five times. They’d lock us up, the jail would get full, and then they’d put us out and let the new people in. We carried on so bad that the gangsters told the governor, “Give these people what they want. Give them the damn’ checks. It ain’t worth it. They’d done closed down the casino.” We had a picket line. People wouldn’t cross it. You had black and white and the Ku Klux Klan standing out there with their hoods on. They did, they had their hoods on, and me and the Grand Dragon was standing up there together. Once them checks got released, he looked at me, and he said, “You know what, you alright to be a nigger.” I said, “You know what you alright to be a honky. I see you later.” But we got them checks. You see Malcolm taught us that sometimes you go get in bed with the enemy to win. We weren’t really enemies in that battle, because they was in the same boat. Hispanics, blacks, whites, poor people got to come together. Any race of poor people in America—we have got to come together, cause nobody is gonna get no more than the other. If you poor, you catch hell in America. There ain’t no color line for poverty. Poverty don’t know nobody’s color. Just like being rich don’t know nobody’s color.