Friday, July 10, 2009

Springfield without Kevin Noonan

Kevin Noonan, Executive Director of Open Pantry Community Services in Springfield, Massachussetts for the last twenty years, has announced he's leaving the agency. I've known for a couple of weeks but promised to keep it under my hat until he went public.

I have to admit I was not excessively gracious when Kevin told me he was leaving OPCS, although I did try. I just kept thinking of what a loss it was going to be for Arise, for homeless people and for the entire city.

Kevin became OPCS's director when Arise for Social Justice was about five years old. He definitely got my attention in 1997 when he began a six day hunger fast to get then-Mayor Albano to restore funding for the Open Door, an OPCS social work program for homeless people and the poorest of the poor. Albano caved in but of course he never forgot; one characteristic I've noticed in every Springfield mayor is how personally they take any challenge to their policies, and how it brings out the worst in them. Then they pass their prejudices on to the mayor next in line.

In those days there were still a few radicals left within traditional agencies. Some of those folks formed the Affordable Housing Alliance with Arise. We tried to stop the conversion of the Hotel Charles into condominiums by getting an injunction to prohibit the city's planned displacement. We organized affordable housing conferences. We pushed the city to find a better place for homeless people than the old Armory St. shelter, a true hellhole where women were raped and men beaten. We bought the old Rainville Hotel and converted it to affordable housing. Pat Quinn from the Springfield Action Commission, Gary Richards and Faye Rachlin from Western Mass Legal Services, Peter Friedland and Bernie Cohen from HAP, and, of course, Kevin and some others were our active allies. Arise, an organization of welfare mothers and poor people, was so grateful to have some people on our side. Those people really believed in Arise's mission-- that poor people have a right to speak for ourselves about the issues that affect us.

Most of those allies had faded away, burned out or been forced out in 2004, when lack of funding forced the closing of OPCS's Warming Place shelter and Arise took on the task of organizing and assisting displaced homeless people into forming Sanctuary City. Our tent city started out on the lawn of St. Michael's Cathedral and moved to OPCS's parking lot when pressure from the Diocese got too intense. Kevin was on vacation during the move, a perfect opportunity for him to look the other way as we moved in. We lasted six months until the Warming Place was able to reopen, and was, I believe, the catalyst for the city of Springfield to finally develop a plan to deal with homelessness.

Of course there was a price to be paid politically for being in allegiance with poor people, and the Open Pantry paid it. All the "good" agencies, the ones who think of poor people as "clients," were folded in to the city's new efforts to coordinate homeless services, and it was clear pretty quickly that if you played by a different set of rules, there was no place for you at the table. The next year, the state couldn't find the funding for the Warming Place and the city was no help at all, being more than happy to see all homeless people funneled to the city-controlled Friends of the Homeless Worthington St. Shelter. Open Pantry's attempt to seek an injunction to prohibit the shelter's closing was denied. Last year, in another one of the state's "reorganization" plans, Open Pantry lost funding for its family shelter on Jefferson Ave. I can guarantee you that no one from the mayor's office or from the "Homes Within Reach" coalition picked up the phone to plead with the state to save the family shelter. Yet the state is still packing them in at motels around the region-- more than 750 homeless families today.

I think that for Kevin, that was the beginning of the end. He didn't want to be a political liability for Open Pantry. At his instigation, his agency merged with South Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC) earlier this year, and I knew that the announcement he was leaving the directorship could not be far behind.

I am happy for Kevin and his wife, Legal Services attorney Marion Hohn (they fell in love at tent city!) but terribly sad for homeless people and, I admit it, sad for Arise. Life-- and organizing-- will go on, but where we will ever find another ally like Kevin Noonan, I just don't know.

Just a few hours before Kevin made his departure public, I was reading an essay from Common Dreams by Derrick Jensen on the difference between personal action and political action. He ends his essay with words that immediately made me think of Kevin, because he has lived them so well.

We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.

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