Interview>> Pan Handling Street Unions
When panhandlers in Ottawa came under attack from a the city’s new police chief they were left with little option but to begin organizing for mutual defense. Here David Brons interviews Andrew Nellis about his work with the Ottawa Panhandlers’ Union.
LINCHPIN>> What is the Ottawa Panhandlers Union and how was it started?
Andrew Nellis>> The Ottawa Panhandlers Union is a shop of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It's a real union. What we do is run by the panhandlers themselves. The idea is to empower people on the street to fight for themselves…
In practice we find that our most valuable members are those who have just come off the street or are in the process of getting off the streets. Their lives are somewhat less chaotic than people who are actually on the street although we do have some [key] people who are hardcore street.
LINCHPIN>> Could you give some examples of some of the problems that are faced by panhandlers and homeless people in Ottawa that the Panhandlers Union was formed to help resist.
Andrew Nellis>> I can tell you that although things were bad before the new police chief [Vern White], they've become infinitely worse since. The new police chief has the "broken windows" philosophy. He believes that you can stop big crimes by stopping little crimes. He's ordered his police officers to stop issuing tickets and begin arresting panhandlers. It costs $185 a day to keep someone in jail and they're more than willing to pay that to keep panhandlers off the street. Providing supported housing is infinitely cheaper but they [instead] prefer using enforcement for something it was never designed to do.
We were forced to start a Copwatch program because the police are openly and blatantly breaking the law…Its been reported to us that the police have stolen the panhandlers' money, roughed them up, and told them not to come back or they'd be beaten. One night I had to start guard under the bridge by the Rideau Centre because the street kids there had been informed by a police officer that if they were there when he came back he was going to - and I quote - "boot-fuck" them. So I went there with a recorder and I warned the police that I'd be there all night with my recorder…
We do a lot of advocacy work. We have one member who is schizophrenic and he was picked up in an ambulance and he was [held] involuntarily at the Montfort Hospital in their psychiatric wing. And he requested our assistance in getting his doctors to agree to let him go to school since he has a law degree from Russia and he's in the process of updating his credentials here in Canada. His doctors were concerned about letting him go by himself to his classes so we went there to tell them that we'd have a person willing to go with him to the classes if necessary to assure them that he wouldn't be a danger to himself or others…
LINCHPIN>> How is the Panhandlers Union structured internally?
Andrew Nellis>> The IWW is not an anarchist organization. Our constitution actually forbids us as members from promoting and political or anti-political party. The organization itself runs in an anarchist manner. We have no hierarchy. At meetings everybody takes turns, everybody is expected to be either the chair or recording secretary and at every meeting it changes so that everybody gets to see and develop the skills necessary for running a meeting…It’s very gratifying to see someone who started out at the beginning of a meeting very nervous and unsure of themselves actually telling someone like me to shut up and let other people talk.
LINCHPIN>> Do you think that the Panhandlers Union in Ottawa is a model that could be applied to other cities? Has there been interest in trying to develop Panhandlers Unions in other cities?
Andrew Nellis>> Yes. In fact I’ve been in a number of presentations on street organizing. It’s a very different milieu from what most organizers are used to. The street has its own rules. It’s stylized and ritualized not all that different than lets say a medieval Chinese court. It’s a very different place.
When you’re dealing with people as oppressed as people on the street are, it’s extremely important not to come across as an authority figure. Often the temptation is there to present yourself as leader and this must be resisted at all costs because the street will try to turn a person into a personality and it will become a cult of personality in which the personality is more important than the movement. While there can be short-term results, eventually the organization falls apart when the person leaves…
The reason to have an organizer when one is organizing on the street is to make sure that there is a structure. The entire reason [many] people are on the street is that they cannot live in a highly structured scenario. There is nothing wrong with this but it is very difficult to keep an organization going when there is no structure to it. In order to ensure that it survives it’s necessary to create a tradition. And this takes many, many years. There is no short way to do this. And the way you do this is by giving people successes, by showing them that what you’re doing works.
A longer version of this interview can be found at http://linchpin.ca/content/left/Interview-IWW-Ottawa-Panhandlers-Union