As Heathens we are tied to our communities. Not just our Heathen communities, but our physical communities as well. Some work with established institutions to raise money for those with physical illness and mental health issues or work with children or support others in any number of ways to directly benefit the community. But what about those in our communities who have no home? What about those who, for one reason or another, need a hand out to get a hand up? Having been a homeless person before, and knowing how difficult it is to get out of such a situation, I was pleased to know that there are Heathens who are offering a helping hand to those more often that not, considered to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy in a community.
The homeless in the US are one of the most exploited groups of people. On any given night in the States there are approximately 636,000 homeless individuals. 4 in 10 of those people are sleeping unsheltered (on the street, in cars, abandoned buildings, or under bridges). About 69% of homeless persons live inside urban areas. My old hometown of Tampa has the highest rate of homelessness in the US! (stats c/o The State of Homelessness in America 2012) While some claim that more shelters are needed, a brief visit to any one of these places (typically run by large Christian Churches) will convince you that its no wonder why homeless people avoid them. You might be more likely to get scabies, violently attacked, or have your personal possessions stolen than to get a hot meal and safe place to sleep.
Typically, in the past, places like the Salvation Army (a Protestant Christan charity group with a military approach) have led the way in the struggle to defeat homelessness and hunger. However groups like the Starvation Army (as they have come to be known) do little but profit from donations, give top dollar pay to management (or Generals as they style themselves) of the ‘charity’, and only provide brief relief (typically a bed for a maximum of 3-nights) to the homeless. Also they have a history of disrupting labor rallies and discriminating against employees who are homosexuals. With NIBMY (Not In My Back Yard) being used in popular discourse on hunger and homelessness, there is a dualistic nature to the approach the public takes when dealing with these issues. On the one hand ‘we should help those who are hungry and homeless’ while on the other hand those same people do not want to share public space with the very people who they say need help. Creating an antagonism between those with homes and food, and those without. Also it creates a problematic image of who the homeless and hungry are. They are typified as mentally ill, violent men with the reality being quite the opposite, as most homeless people are single mothers with children with no mental illness.
In the 1980s a new style of relief for the homeless and hungry arose: Food Not Bombs. A loose knit group of collectives from around the world that have sprung up to combat hunger which is viewed as a result of corporate and governmental priorities putting people last. Taking surplus food from grocery stores, bakeries and markets (even dumpster diving for perfectly good food which has been tossed out as ‘unsellable’) and directly giving it to the hungry and homeless while promoting a vegan or cruelty free diet and a dedication to non-violence. While benign in its approach it has been violently suppressed by police and security forces all over the world and even being banned recently in various cities in Florida for the heinous crime of feeding people free, healthy food.
The homeless and hungry have started to ban together, much as they did in the 1930s, to create new communities in urban and rural areas. Here in Portland, Oregon, one such camp has sprung up called Right To Dream Too (or as its known locally: R2D2). Simply put its people coming together to feed and protect one another on the streets by creating needed spaces like communal kitchens, safe spaces to sleep, and directly confronting those that oppress and keep people hungry and homeless.
There is one Heathen in the Oakland area who has started a new project inspired by the Food Not Bombs approach. Oakland Heathen Doorways is run by Charlie Verrette, a member of Hrafnar Kindred and the Troth. Oakland Heathen Doorways is dedicated to providing meals and other supplies for the homeless of Oakland, California where he lives. I recently interviewed Charlie and asked a few questions about his project.
Urban Asatruar: So how did Oakland Heathen Doorways get started?
Charlie Verrette: I started it last November after meeting an ex-Marine who had a Thor’s hammer in his pocket. He didn’t know what it was, but he said it was his protective amulet. He mentioned that there was a community of people living under the freeway next to the Salvation Army. He said that he helped people out by grabbing stuff from the dropoff box so people could have something to sleep on. I haven’t seen that guy since but I felt like Thor was calling me to do something. I started with bringing Cup-A-Soups and such, dog food, toilet paper, etc. Now I do a weekly hot food program for approximately 20 people every Tuesday in the morning.
UA: How long have you been involved in activist work and what kind of groups have you worked with in the past?
CV: I am 50 and have been involved with various leftist causes since the bombing of Cambodia. I was the youngest person on the march and was on local tv. I worked on grape boycotts, CISPES, and anti-nuke stuff. However I should stress that I am somewhat iconoclastic and have had a hard time with the strictly materialistic leftist view that if only economics are sussed out all is well. More recently I have been involved in squatting and Reclaim the Streets.
UA: Why do you focus on homeless people and food? Is this like a heathen ‘food not bombs’?
CV: I focus on homeless people because I have been homeless and more importantly because they are treated like dirt. I am also fighting fascism thusly. Yes we do aspire to be a Heathen Food Not Bombs.
UA: What kind of people have you met while doing OHD? Is it mostly practicing Heathens or is it a real mix of the population? Any stories?
CV: There are no previously Heathen folks in the people I serve. 3 of my people are starting to practice, mainly by invoking gods for protection in their daily lives. The stories I hear are of sadness, abuse, and violence. Lots of drug stories.
CV: My experience has been varied: elation, excitement, deflation, reignition. I have been very inspired by the passion and courage of the OO folks, many of whom are homeless street people. To see them making a stand is great. The sad part of OO is that few people in Oakland see it the way I do. My neighbors, working class Hispanic, African American, Asian, and Yemeni do not participate and do not appreciate any of the more violent tactics. That being said they don’t like the police either. But the most important part of my experience of Occupy is that it is it that led me to start OHD. I then started going down to the (homeless) camps after I would go to Occupy.
UA: Ok, heres the question of our time: Why do you Occupy?
CV: Why do I occupy? It is the current mode of opposition to the horrible, nightmare machine of capitalism. I hate greed and stingy people. My folk are the people who got through the long winters by sharing and cooperating, it is this spirit that is in my heart when I occupy.
UA: What did you do for May Day? Did you spend it with your Fellow Kinsfolk or did you march with Occupy?
CV: May Day? I started the day off by doing rune protection for the Black Bloc. I don’t always agree with BB, but I felt like they were doing the right thing that day by going after corporate targets and not small businesses. These were not police saboteurs, they had their masks off and were skinny punk dudes. I did certain runes over their bodies and shields. Later I was listening to KPFA and they said one of the shields I had blessed was deflecting police baton blows, I was happy to hear that. I could only stay out for half the day as I was very sick and I was also delivering food to my camps who do not participate in OO much because of their health issues.
UA: How can Heathens participate in Oakland Heathen Doorways? Can they start a group in their own town/area if so, how?
CV: How can Heathens help? I have a donation page at OHD Outreach on wepay.com. Right now I buy food at the store. However I am working on a plan to get Wild Boar and other hunted food. So I am putting out the call for hunters. I am also looking to get produce from local community gardens. I also need volunteers, and I’m starting to get some which is great. And yes start a chapter in your town, under a different name or whatever. This is the cutting edge of Heathenry and I want competition! Out do me!