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Invisible No More: Homeless Rise Up

Leadership Team of the Nashville Homeless Power Project
Date Published: 
June 16, 2007

“Let our people go! Let OUR people go!” was the chant that echoed from the jailhouse to the courthouse. These were the united voices of more than 40 homeless people, friends, and family outside of the Nashville jail awaiting the release of our brothers and sisters from the streets and our allies on March 21, 2007.

Nearly 24 hours earlier, 16 of us, homeless people and allies, were arrested for exercising our First Amendment rights to instruct our public officials that housing is a human right and that Nashville’s Mayor Purcell must fulfill his commitment to build more housing before leaving office this September. Similarly to what happens to our people on a daily basis, we were arrested for being in a public park after hours. This time, the public park was in front of City Hall.

Yet, when our cases were heard, the judge threw out all the charges stating that there is no more a public place that should be safe for public demonstration than City Hall. Family members of inmates looked out from the jail waiting room with tired smiles, some giving a thumbs-up. Officers, perhaps for the first time, acted timid during the release, as if not wanting to interrupt a gathering of poor people displaying our unity and power by holding the largest homeless-led demonstration in Nashville history.

We are the Nashville Homeless Power Project. We are homeless and formerly homeless people. We organize ourselves to fight for our basic human and civil rights. Every day we are arrested for trying to survive, for sleeping under a bridge or on a park bench to make way for luxury condominiums and our government’s other urban development priorities. Our tax dollars are spent on incarcerating us instead of investing in needed social services and low-income housing for our community. Federal, state and city policies are killing us.

Another Homeless based group, Western Regional Advocacy Project, has helped us understand how this has happened. With $52 billion fewer dollars for low-income housing per year since 1979, it is clear homelessness isn’t a result of “bad choices” but a result of bad policy. We know that not only is housing a human right, but low-income housing costs us all less when we have our own homes and are not constantly in public institutions: the Emergency Room; the hospital room; and the jail cell. We deserve more.

Homeless Power Project leader, Tony Mazolli, is in his late 50s, and has worked all of his life, yet has to grimace in pain with every step as he waits for hip replacement surgery. Mazolli stays in the local shelter, surviving with this disability but receiving no income because he cannot work and Tennessee’s state government claims he is not disabled.

Tent city

On March 20, 2007, just three days before the Mayor’s Budget Address, we created a homeless tent city called “Without Housing” in front of the Mayor’s office. More than 100 homeless people, along with students, ministers and other friends, were to make the tent city our home until we got real homes. Within hours we were at a stand-off with the police. The Vice Mayor came to “Without Housing” to negotiate with us. We were told that if we went to another park we would not be bothered for this one night, but if we stayed here we would be arrested. 16 of us stayed and were arrested. For the next 3 days, all of us returned each day to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, do educational workshops and form affinity groups with daily visits to the Mayor’s Office. On the morning of the Mayor’s address, we filled the Council Chambers with our members. The Mayor only gave us one quarter of our demand. But we’re not finished yet.

The Nashville Homeless Power Project is run for and by homeless and formerly homeless people. We have an office in downtown Nashville, in proximity to the sit-ins of the African American Civil Rights Movement. Fifteen of us make decisions for the organization every week as part of the Leadership Team and we spend half our time on the street hanging out/talking with our hundreds of homeless members to determine our group’s priorities. We have a shelter accountability project, composed of a negotiating team of homeless people who negotiate with shelter staff when our members have a grievance. We have a police accountability project that monitors police activity and trains all new police cadets. Most of our work is focused at the local level, but we also understand that our reality is a result of corporate globalization that launches a war on the poor as middle class and wealthy people move into our neighborhoods. For this reason, we have joined the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. We are also doing workshops at the US Social Forum in June, and just celebrated the success the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ boycott on McDonalds.

We organize ourselves because we have learned through blood, sweat and tears what capitalism has done to our families. We are here to fight for our liberation and that of all people. We are here and will be invisible no more.

—Leadership Team of the Nashville Homeless Power Project

About the Authors
We are homeless and formerly homeless people confronting the root causes of poverty and oppression. We fight for the human rights of all poor people while striving for the civil rights of those who remain on the streets. We believe that housing, healthcare, food security, and use of public facilities are rights that we all deserve. We develop concrete solutions by building power through relationships with our brothers and sisters in the streets, allies, and decision makers. We can be reached at info(at) and for more information see