Staying Woke: Juneteenth and Homelessness

This month, members of HerStory Ensemble participated in Wilmington, Delaware’s Juneteenth observation.  We joined with other community members and city leadership as we walked behind our banner, and to the beat of drums in declaration that we were “Empowered to end homelessness.”  However, with every step we took, there was reflection on our ancestors, the meaning of Juneteenth, and the lessons it provided for those working for homeless and housing policy change today. Juneteenth, although celebratory for people of African descent, is also a painful reminder of how policies, and the implementation (or lack thereof) impacts lives.  In 1865 enslaved Texans were the last to know that slavery had ended, and that lack of knowledge had allowed the economic enterprise of chattel slavery to continue its oppression and dehumanization of human beings in Texas, while building the wealth of the State, and a nation for two additional years on uncompensated labor.

In 2019, homelessness and its emerging issues continue to bring focus to the people who experience it, those at risk of homelessness, and the need for policies and practices to protect rights, dignity, and humanity. It was this connection to Juneteenth that called HerStory Ensemble to participate and bring a visible witness to the struggle of people surviving on the streets of Delaware’s cities, navigating Delaware’s shelters, temporary housing, social services, court systems, and seeking to secure low-income, affordable, permanent housing.  Asked, “Why are you here?” our response was “How could we not be?”  We recognize that the struggle for the humanity of our African ancestors is a continuing narrative today not only for descendants, but for everyone who has been dehumanized, perceived as less than, an outcast of society, and whose basic human rights have been infringed. People identified as homeless meet such criteria.

A lesson from Juneteenth is knowing the importance of “Staying Woke.” This means having an awareness and understanding that Juneteenth did not end the attitudes, behaviors, or succession of oppressive policies directed at the formerly enslaved.  We who do advocacy work connected to homelessness cannot afford to forget the urgency of the matter as it presents itself today. Reflection on historical and current policies supportive of housing segregation, discriminatory housing loan practices, illegal evictions, and gentrification provide much to ponder regarding housing across the country. We must not become weary in the dismantling of policies that create homelessness, criminalize homelessness, or prolong homelessness.  HerStory Ensemble will continue to show up and keep the reality of protecting the humanity, dignity, and rights of Delaware’s homeless in the forefront.       

DeBorah Gilbert White