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Period Packs For The Unhoused

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Period Packs For The Unhoused

Build: Introduce yourself – How long have you been in DSA San Francisco?
Tiffany C: My name is Tiffany, and I’ve been a member of DSA SF since November 2017. I’m the current Vice Chair of the Homelessness Working Group, which is committed to fighting systemic violence against the most marginalized members of our community. Over the last couple years, we’ve worked directly with unhoused folks and advocacy organizations to raise awareness of the struggles of homelessness, and alleviate those struggles where possible.

B: What is the homeless situation like in SF?
TC: It’s one of the worst, if not THE worst, crises facing our city. The last point-in-time count in 2017 reported around 7,500 homeless people in San Francisco. That likely underestimates the real figure because the way we determine that number is volunteers going out on foot or by car on one night every two years and counting every person they see that “looks” unhoused. It’s not exactly a scientific method. The waiting list for a shelter bed is over 1,400 people long as of today.

“Dire” is an understatement. Not only are folks exposed to the elements and the physical dangers of being unsheltered, police constantly harass them to “move along” in what we call sweeps. The city frequently confiscates their personal belongings and bare means of shelter (e.g. tents, sleeping bags). Homelessness takes an enormous physical and mental toll on those experiencing it.

B: What’s in the period packs that you distribute?
TC: Pads, tampons, wet wipes, tissue packs, hand sanitizer, ibuprofen, nail clippers, socks, lotion, water and snacks, and a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet created by the Coalition on Homelessness containing information on what to do if belongings are confiscated by SF Police or the Department of Public Works. I wanted to help return a bit of normalcy and dignity to people on the street who can’t just walk into a store and grab some tampons, or lay in bed with a heat pack like I do when I’m on my period. Everything routine for a housed person is infinitely more of an uphill battle for a unhoused person; this is just one example out of so, so many.

B: How did you start the project?
TC
: We’d done service events in the past like providing food. Actually, one of the first activities I participated in as a DSA member was helping cook a big pot of chili and distributing cups of it in the Mission neighborhood right before New Years 2018. During one working group meeting, someone floated the idea of collaborating with the Socialist Feminist Working Group to hand out menstrual supplies, and it took off from there. This was our first Period Packs event in March of 2018. SocFem put together a list of items to include in the packs, based on input from incarcerated students.

We set up a GoFundMe page and put the word out on social media. Within a day we hit our initial goal of $500, which blew me away! We ended up surpassing that and ordering around $800 worth of supplies online from bulk warehouse stores (not Amazon!). Around 20 volunteers consisting of DSA members and “DSA curious” got together on March 3rd, 2018 to assemble and distribute the packs. It was a great, lowbarrier way to get folks plugged into our chapter and our work. We went out in small groups to distribute the packs in neighborhoods known to have more unhoused folks: the Tenderloin, Bayview-Hunters Point, and SoMa.

We also contacted the Coalition on Homelessness for pointers on finding encampments, as folks are often “swept” by SFPD and forced to move constantly, which makes it harder for us to reach them.

B: What has the unhoused community’s reaction been like? The community generally? Local government?
TC: The reception from the unhoused community has been very positive. For Period Packs in particular, there wasn’t a lot of publicizing outside the chapter, so we didn’t hear feedback from the wider community or the local government. We got decent press coverage for our Survival Gear Distribution event of tents, tarps, ponchos, and sleeping bags during the bad rainstorms in early January/February, and for our smoke mask distribution during the wildfires. We actually ended up distributing more masks than the city itself.

The intent behind these service events is to make up, in whatever small way we can, the city’s shortcomings. It’s bittersweet. I feel such a rush of inspiration and affection for my comrades when they organize to distribute masks or tents within a manner of hours, but I’m incredibly disappointed by the utter lack of urgency toward the crisis from those who have the most power and resources. All of our events are powered purely by volunteer effort and individual donations. How much more could be accomplished with the Mayor and Board of Supervisors on board?

B: Do you have any anecdotes from handing out the period packs?
TC
: One common theme we heard over and over when we went out was about police harassment and being swept. One person I talked with mentioned having their HIV medication confiscated.

B: How many packs have you provided to people?
TC
: In March we handed out around 80 big ziploc bag packs, and in August we did around 120 in nicer fabric tote bags.

B: Do you plan on continuing the project?
TC
: Yes! I’m aiming to do another Period Packs event by this summer. We’ve also discussed not just putting essentials in packs, but fun things too, like nail polish, makeup, and face masks. Just a little something, again, to restore some normalcy in people’s lives.

B: If you could request one “ask” from the city or state government, what would you ask for?
TC: My ask would be permanent housing, first and foremost. My biggest wish, however weird it may sound, is that we never have to organize another service event again because every person has their basic needs met. The dichotomy of housed and unhoused people, the haves and have-nots, should not exist. I often wrestle with the question of Period Packs being charity or mutual aid, but no matter what the answer is, I know that we are building solidarity with our unhoused neighbors and comrades.


To contact the Homelessness Working Group in DSA SF, email them at: homelessness@dsasf.org

Coalitions in the Cold: Salt Lake City

Coalitions in the Cold:

Salt Lake City DSA

In December 2018, Alex Morales and Carlos Martinez, two dual-carding members of the Rose Park Brown Berets and Salt Lake DSA Mutual Aid Committee, and Gabe Cienfuegos, a local socialist organizer, saw an opportunity to fortify efforts in their community’s struggle with homelessness. Having collaborated before, they understood the lost potential when various socialist groups in Salt Lake City conducted isolated, yet similar, mutual aid work with the homeless population.

Putting collective action into practice, Morales, Martinez, and Cienfuegos engaged a network of allied organizations and activist circles. Their efforts brought together seven Salt Lake socialist organizations for one large event on December 29th: the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, Utah Against Police Brutality, Union for Street Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Salt Lake DSA, and Rose Park Brown Berets. Amidst the holiday cheer and shared commitments, this diverse coalition held the Winter Clothing Drive, the largest unified mutual aid drive in the Wasatch Valley’s recent memory. Socialists of all stripes changed the material conditions of those most in need, while spreading knowledge about campaigns and initiatives happening in the surrounding area.

Unlike previous clothing drives which Cienfuegos had organized near Rio Grande Station, at Martinez and Morales’ suggestion, this Drive was located in Rose Park, the neighborhood where many Brown Berets members live. The decision to move the Winter Clothing Drive to this location served a dual purpose: to emphasize the Brown Berets’ critiques of Salt Lake’s segregated composition, while also committing to the Mutual Aid Committee’s work of building a socialist society in the community, with the community. Like many U.S. cities Salt Lake City (SLC) is structurally divided, both ethnically and economically, along East-West boundaries. The population of Rose Park, situated on SLC’s West Side, is significantly more Hispanic than Utah overall. This makes the community vulnerable to oppression through gentrification and decreased school funding, both of which the Rose Park Brown Berets are committed to combating.

The location change was also a strategic response to Operation Rio Grande, the ongoing citywide crackdown on homeless people. Officially named after the train station, historic district, and homeless gathering site where Cienfuegos organizes, community members have renamed the operation “the assault on the block” to explicitly illustrate its violent nature. Although officials sold the operation as a means to get homeless and low-income people off the streets and into treatment programs, in practice, police arrested and jailed thousands, with thirteen people arrested for every new person placed into treatment programs. After their release, the judicial system burdened many of these people with warrants, fines, and criminal records. Effectively, the operation’s purpose was to criminalize the homeless for existing.

Since institutional forces have forcefully evicted the homeless from their traditional community gathering sites, they have moved away from downtown SLC, towards western neighborhoods like Rose Park. Acknowledging the changing challenges and needs of their community, Morales and Martinez met the people where they were. Located next to a major mass transit stop and a new police station in Rose Park, the Winter Clothing Drive positively impacted a greater amount of people, while providing a serious political critique.

Beyond changing locations, the other factor in the Drive’s success was the ability of Morales, Martinez, and Cienfuegos to build the coalition. The greatest asset of Salt Lake DSA and the Rose Park Brown Berets is their multi-tendency, big tent structures. While the Brown Berets nationally arose from the Chicanx liberation groups of the 1960s, the local Rose Park Brown Berets are an autonomous chapter which maintains a foundation free of rigid or narrow ideological constraints. The chapter emphasizes the participation of youth members (aged 9-17) who make up a majority of their membership. This membership actively voted on joining the drive, reinforcing the Rose Park Brown Berets’ mission to build an informed and active youth movement on Salt Lake’s West Side.

With shared beliefs in the collective struggle of non-sectarian socialists, these two local chapters worked with five fellow socialist organizations. Rather than stressing the already strained capacity of Salt Lake City socialists, the coalition focused on their shared critiques of capitalism and more than doubled the resources regularly available at Cienfuegos’ clothing drives in Rio Grande. This large volume of volunteers and aid enabled an event which could only be achieved through solidarity.

With their strategic change in venue and a growing coalition, Morales, Martinez, and Cienfuegos realized that what was initially conceived of as a simple clothing drive was becoming much more. Through their collective efforts, the coalition gathered not only warm clothes, hats, and gloves, but also a variety of other essentials such as blankets, clean syringes, harm reduction kits, vitamins, sanitary wipes, condoms, and, of course, ample food and coffee.

The event, however, was no longer limited to distributing physical resources. Organizers increasingly focused on actively engaging politically with the homeless and workingclass residents of Rose Park, speaking with them about initiatives and campaigns relevant to the community. For instance, the Rose Park Brown Berets and Utah Against Police Brutality (UAPB) handed out “Know Your Rights” pamphlets, as well as flyers for an upcoming community council meeting. The community council meeting was particularly important to the Brown Berets and UAPB, as they organized a pack-in to confront the community council and demand answers regarding the Salt Lake City Police Department’s recent murder of Cody Belgard. Engaging Salt Lake’s entire community of socialist organizers, the Winter Clothing Drive became a space of solidarity, compassion, and learning for the local neighborhood and the organizers themselves.

Evaluating this event, the Mutual Aid Committee has analyzed what did and did not work, emphasizing how our future organizing can move this success forward. In Rose Park we saw firsthand the need to reach out to our base and begin the long march to relevancy. Bringing together a socialist coalition to collectivize resources is not the end but the beginning. The ultimate goal is getting the remainder of the community onboard. Seeing DSA, FRSO and PSL work together may seem like an exceptional accomplishment, but if we are not also involving the public in that process, it is all for naught.

While the Winter Clothing Drive provided a host of essentials, the percentage of Rose Park residents actively participating in organizing was relatively minimal. We must expand these efforts with community support, while growing the number of disadvantaged people who are directly aided. To us a successful day is knowing we have no resources left to provide, knowing that the people we assisted and community members who assisted us better understand their own ability to self-organize and fight for change, and knowing they are in a materially better position to do so. We must politically engage the public in new, constructive ways, and show the dedication necessary to become an organization seen as a part of the community, not one carpet-bagging through town.

In order to do this we will continue our work with the Rose Park Brown Berets and other socialists, striving towards solidarity while addressing the issues that affect our most oppressed and vulnerable. To this end, the Rose Park Brown Berets are already planning the next coalition drive for February, which the Salt Lake DSA plans to take part in wholeheartedly. With excellent examples of leadership in Morales and Martinez, the Salt Lake DSA Mutual Aid Committee will continue to organize with local socialists fighting to bring real change to the working class of our community. We must build socialism from the ground up, and to us that does not mean governing people, it means teaching ourselves and our communities how to organize themselves.


To learn more about the Salt Lake DSA Mutual Aid Committee’s mutual aid work, contact the committee at: saltlakedsa.mutualaid@gmail.com

To learn more about the SLC Brown Berets’ work, contact them at: roseparkbrownberets@gmail.com

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