SF Lives: A ‘poverty scholar’ gives visibility to homeless people

Houseless, landless and unhoused are the preferred terms of Gray-Garcia and the people she’s aligned with in the POOR Media Network.

The jumpsuit is county-issue orange but author, activist and self-described poverty scholar Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia is not a fugitive, nor is she trying to make a fashion statement.

“I purposely wear my soiled and torn jail suit as an intentional, un-invisibilizing of criminalized houseless people,” she said.

Houseless, landless and unhoused are the preferred terms of Gray-Garcia and the people she’s aligned with in the POOR Media Network. Through publications, performances, lectures and direct action, the organization emphasizes self-determination, finding community and creating it. The idea of breaking up families is anathema to the POOR family; rather, as a community of artists and advocates, they work to halt family separation in all its forms.

“Criminalizing, targeting homeless families is not the way,” explained Gray-Garcia as we walked on 24th Street. We were there to revisit “Mama House 3” on Florida Street, a rental property where Tiny sowed the first seeds of creating a permanent address where single parents and others could pool resources, do their work and raise children without constant threat of displacement. She described her years at Mama House as some of the best in her life. But an unrealistic rent increase of $700 a month drove her and the other single mothers out, scattering them to the wind in 2010.

The jumpsuit Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia wears is county-issue orange, but the author, activist and self-described poverty scholar is not a fugitive, nor is she trying to make a fashion statement. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The jumpsuit Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia wears is county-issue orange, but the author, activist and self-described poverty scholar is not a fugitive, nor is she trying to make a fashion statement. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“To be real, some of us never really repaired from that,” she said. As we arrived at her former residence, she remembered her friend and fellow poverty scholar Laure McElroy who passed away in 2018. Visibly moved, she recalled they shared the experience of growing up homeless with single mothers who were not well. Tiny survived that trauma, while McElroy did not.

“My mom was a mixed race, Afro-Boricua, Irish and Roma orphan. When we ended up on the street, we had no one to call,” she said of her mother, Dee Garcia. “We were in what I call isolation nation: it happens to single parents all the time. It’s very specific to the U.S. where we’re taught the cult of independence is normal.” They earned survival money selling handcrafted goods on the street.

“Sweeping us like we’re trash is not the way to solve the homeless problem,” she said. And yet, she finds the hardest job is making visible what most people prefer not to see.

“People practice what I call the violent act of looking away,” she said as we paused to take in the sight of the most recent teardown on Harrison and 24th streets.

Tiny, as she is known, was sent to jail two decades ago for living outdoors with her mother, just one of countless cases of someone with the wrong look, the wrong car, and too many past due parking fines getting pulled over on the wrong day at the wrong time by the wrong officer; it’s how she got her orange jumpsuit. She asserted her talent for writing when an attorney arranged for her to write her way through community service and out of an extended stay at Santa Rita. Since then, she’s dedicated herself to telling her story, and assisting others, particularly single parents, to put pen to paper and to become the center of their own stories.

Chronicling her life and times with “Mama Dee” in the book “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America” (City Lights Foundation, 2006), Tiny is telling her story again in a version for children. “When Mama and Me Lived Outside: One Family’s Journey Through Homelessness,” with illustrations by Asian Robles, is the second in a planned trilogy. The stories grew from Tiny’s experience of living in the Mission with her son, who has since grown into a well-adjusted teenager.

“I wrote the books because I needed to explain to my son our life so he didn’t walk with the shame I did when I was his age, the shame of poverty, the shame of homelessness, the shame of why he had to switch schools and wasn’t around his friends anymore,” she said. “I also needed to explain to the rest of the world, to other children, other parents and teachers how we can walk into a future that doesn’t criminalize poor and houseless people when our numbers are growing.”

Published by POOR Press, the media collective originally conceived by Dee and Tiny to help single mothers write their stories, it was Dee who thought to ask the pertinent question: “Wait: How are we going to help houseless mamas write without a house to write in?” Through every means necessary, from an artist’s grant to the kindness of a landlord who forgave a missed rent payment, the women made their way where there seemingly was none.

“You want to talk about what can people do to help? The first time a landlord saw me as a good daughter for taking care of my mother and didn’t evict me the first time we couldn’t pay the rent: That was an act of revolution,” said Tiny. “One thing like that can make a difference in a life. I teach that story to young people with race and class privilege all the time,” she said.

In her role as a poverty educator and lecturer, she underscores how one kindness gave her the ability to stay housed, which in turn “allowed me to think, work with other poverty scholars and guide all of this,” she said, pointing to POOR’s recent publications, including “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-Led Theory, Art, Words & Tears Across Mama Earth.” Gray-Garcia and other poverty scholars will be presenting a program of their work at the San Francisco Public Library on Feb. 20.

The findings of the poverty scholars are rooted in lived experience and they are undeniably making change. By combining resources with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and homeless outreach groups in San Francisco, “We’ve found some people lose their tents two or three times a week,” she said. Working together, the organizations find and distribute replacement tents. Advocating to keep seniors in their homes has also kept Tiny on the frontlines of fighting for economic justice in the Bay Area.

Though Dee passed away in 2006 from complications of living outdoors for so many years, Tiny has realized the dream of an intergenerational community living self-sufficiently.

“We don’t operate on the lie of rent,” said Gray-Garcia of Homefulness in Oakland, a community built from the ground up: Poverty scholars working together directly with housed and privileged people on reparations and wealth redistribution, resulted in the acquisition of the land that launched Homefulness “a homeless peoples solution to homelessness.”

“People pay a contribution to the taxes, insurance and utilities. But because we’re unselling mama earth spiritually and legally, we don’t charge anybody rent because we know as poor people it’s a paycheck or a gig or SSI check away from being outside,” said Tiny. “We don’t profit off of mama earth.”

In addition to housing units, there is a performance space and sliding scale cafe. There are educational programs that include teachings in elder care, healing and ancestry through the DeColonize Academy, also located at Homefulness.

Having checked the box on a safe place for her and her son to rest nightly, Tiny admits the road to navigating life as it comes is long and winding. Quoting from a hip hop classic she joked, “I’ve got 99 problems,” then added, “But housing ain’t one.”


UnTold & UnSold: Black, Brown, Red, Broke and Disabled Voices

POOR Press Book Reading

Where: Latino Room, Main Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F.

When. 6 p.m. Feb. 20

Admission: Free

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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