Lisa “Tiny” Gray-García, 46, the Co-founder of POOR Magazine, often speaks in poetic verses about the poverty and injustices that have come to define and shape her life. Incarcerated for the “crime of being poor” when she was 18 years old set her on an unexpected path as a “revolutionary” poet, writer, activist, and co-creator of “Homefulness” in the San Francisco Bay Area, a poor and indigenous people-led solution to homelessness.
The journey from founding POOR, a non-profit dedicated to empowering the poor through media training, art, education, and advocacy, in 1996 with her mother Dee, to launching Homefulness, took decades. It was born out of the realization that no one was going to save them – no government, politician, or nonprofit.
Earning a “Ph.D. in poverty” while living on the streets together, and struggling to avoid seemingly well-meaning institutions that would have separated a child from her mother, formed Gray-García’s belief system that she and other “poverty skolazs” needed to have a vision and find their voices. Otherwise, they would remain invisible and powerless.
Earning a ‘Ph.D. in Poverty Scholarship’
Gray-García’s own story began when her father abandoned them when she was four years old. Her mother had no family or safety net to help them recover. She had grown up in an orphanage and a series of abusive foster homes, Gray-García said.
Despite her mother’s own emotional struggles with severe anxiety and depression, during this time Dee went back to school to earn a degree in social work. But in 1983, Dee lost her job and soon after their apartment. This forced them to live in shelters, doorways, parks, and abandoned broken-down cars they called “hoopties.”
Gray-García was only 11 years old when she dropped out of sixth grade. Together, they tried to make ends meet and sold art on the streets of Los Angeles.
“Losing her job and then our apartment was too much of a blow for my mother,” Gray-García said. “She couldn’t mentally overcome the hardships and spiraled into a depression and had severe anxiety. The stress also made her physically ill.”
“I remember my mother telling me, ‘It’s just another little murder of the soul.’”
While living in one of their hoopties, they came up with the concept of POOR Magazine. Radicalized by living on the streets and seeing how the “system” failed the poor, they wondered, what if the poor came together to find their own solution to homelessness?
Since launching POOR in 1996, the organization has been able to purchase land and a multiuse building in Oakland, Calif.
“I personally got involved through the nonprofit Resource Generation,” said Toby Kramer, who donated $100,000 to POOR. “It helps young people like myself that care about social justice get involved. I was at a conference with POOR Magazine and some other nonprofits, and Tiny was talking about the concept of community reparations, a concept I wasn’t familiar with at the time. I knew that POOR securing land would make a big and lasting difference for the organization; and the work they do is so important.”
In addition to providing housing for several families, POOR launched an academy to provide free schooling for children living in poverty, focusing on giving students a revolutionary voice in media and the arts.
“We teach about the concept of community reparations and interdependence,” she said. “That means you can’t walk by someone sleeping on the street. Our survival depends on each other and solidarity. We need to teach models that can work and tell others this can happen.”
It also launched a program to teach the issues surrounding poverty to journalists, donors, and the community.
POOR’s radio show (PNN) and POOR Press feature “unheard voices struggling with poverty, racism, disability, incarceration,” and other social justice issues. Activist, journalist, and poet Leroy Moore Jr., as well as a founding member of POOR, said “Homefulness” is the answer to homelessness because it provides community and housing that can’t be taken away by the government or a landlord. Also the founder of Krip-Hop Nation and an outspoken critic of police brutality against Black people with disabilities, Moore added: “If you are poor you are criminalized.”
California’s Homeless Crisis
Since Gray-García and her mother became homeless in the 1980s, California’s homeless problem has grown into an unrelenting crisis. An investigative report by The New York Times depicts the homeless crisis in the state as among the “world’s most dire places.”
The pandemic has made the crisis worse, forcing the state to consider using more alternative housing like hotels. POOR, along with Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, and Moms4Housing Organizer, have been fighting for the use of more hotels during this pandemic.
But despite some of the “progressive” measures taken in cities such as Oakland and San Jose including the use of tiny homes, the Bay Area will “not be able to provide a bed to each of its homeless residents until 2037,” according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, which adds that these projections are optimistic.
How Gray-García Found Her Voice
Far less progressive is how homelessness is treated in this country. In her book, Criminal of Poverty – Growing Up Homeless in America, Gray-García details numerous injustices. These include nearly being taken away from her mother because she left school when she was 11 to being incarcerated for living on the streets when she was 18 years old. Incidentally, this is illegal and carries a punishable offense in many cities and communities across the country.
Since Gray-García and her mother became homeless in 1983, more communities have banned living on the streets. Fortunately, her mother was able to convince activist lawyer Osha Neuman to take on the case.
“He got me out in three months; saved my life,” Gray-García said. Neuman, 80, was recently profiled in The San Francisco Chronicle as the lawyer still defending the rights of homeless people.
“He helped me get my thousands of hours of community service transferred into a writing assignment. My life was filled with serious struggles and chaos that is inherent in a life of poverty. He asked me what I could change.”
Neuman had given her permission to tell her story. In the process, Gray-García felt seen and had her story published.
“It was life changing,” she said. Not that life would be without its constant struggles.
In 2006, she suffered a devastating blow in the loss of her mother. What kept her going was taking care of her son and building POOR with Moore and other “poverty skolazs.”
By 2011, POOR acquired a multi-use building from the funds provided by Kramer. The concept of Homefulness attracted the attention of architect and preeminent natural builder Bob Theis and Dunya Alwan, “revolutionary” artist, designer and architect. Together, they helped POOR redesign and renovate the building in multifamily units.
“In spite of these very tough odds, Homefulness is a successful model of grassroots, self-determined housing creation that is helping to address the shortage of affordable housing.”
Gray-García and POOR members have defied the very real odds of ever off the streets. Some might call it a miracle, but she bristles at the notion:
“I don’t believe in miracles, but I do believe in the power of poor people uniting for a common purpose.”
To hear some of Gray-García’s poetry, listen here. You can also follow her on Twitter.