Interview with homeless advocate Rev. Bruce Wright

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Creative Loafing: Your style of activism hasn’t earned you many friends in the political establishment. How do you accomplish your goals?

Bruce Wright: Well, it puts the issue in people’s face and it give people the chance to think about another aspect of the issue they haven’t thought about before. I think it’s put me in a position where voices that sometimes aren’t heard have the opportunity to get heard. The [Pinellas County] Homeless Coalition and the [Homeless] Leadership Network have made more effort to hear the homeless voice and their issues.

This year the St. Pete City Council has passed more ordinances targeting the homeless than ever before. Is that a reflection on your activism? Have you failed?

No. But some would say so. Some would say, “if only [you] played ball more,” but if people remember the history of it, we [Wright’s coalition of homeless individuals and advocates] did play ball. We negotiated moves of tent cities, and then they slashed them. We shook hands with the mayor on some proposals and they cut us out. So if nothing else, for the most part, we’ve stood by our principles. We’re not perfect, but I think if you don’t have your principles, you don’t have anything. Sometimes you have to take a stance that isn’t popular.

Some people blame you for exasperating exacerbating the homeless problem. Are you?

You can blame the economy for that. You can blame militarism and the war for that. You can blame greed and power for that. You can blame gentrification for that. Yeah, I’ve been at the forefront, among others, of bringing light to the problem in a big way so people can’t avoid it and they have to take a stand.

But everything I study about history, whether it’s the Jim Crow laws in the South, the apartheid of South Africa or the Nuremberg Laws of Germany, tells me if we don’t stand up for the rights of the oppressed, it’s not going to end there.

Those same people would say that you’re exploiting the homeless for your own political ends by criticizing efforts like Pinellas Hope and convincing the homeless to sleep on the steps of City Hall. How do you respond?

I’m not exploiting the homeless, because they’re making their own choices. The homeless community chose to set up on City Hall, for instance. I’ve always involved the homeless in decision-making and, in fact, I look to them as the ones who have informed me, taught me, led me. … There is no exploitation involved. No one has been forced or coerced. The assumption is these are not human beings and they can’t think for themselves.

I’ve never said that Pinellas Hope shouldn’t exist, I merely said nobody should be forced to go there and it should’ve started in St. Petersburg where the greatest need was. And then mid-county and then north county.

How has St. Pete's attitudes toward social issues changed since you began the Refuge in the early 90s?

It’s become more polarized. We definitely have a line drawn in the sand more.

This city has turned into a city of big money, big developers and far-right politics. More than anything, it’s governed by political expediency and money. And because it’s become even more of a metropolitan area, the people who wield the most power in this city are the people with the most money and the most influence.

Every month, the Refuge issues a call for money. Where does this money go?

I get a salary of about $2400-$2600 a month, depending on what comes in. Other than the recovery houses [i.e. Lionheart Residential Recovery], which pay for themselves, the operating budget of the refuge is somewhere between $4,000-$6,000 a month. The majority of the money goes to helping people in need, minimal administrative things like keeping my cell phone, which the office phone; pay for gas for the vehicle I may have at the time, which is used most often to transport people I’m serving to meetings, support services or help; and supporting the minimal opportunity we have to pay their electric bill or water bill that month. But we’re a much smaller operation than people might think.

And truth be told, the stands we take have not made us financially prosperous, which is why we’re struggling every month. We’re a month-to-month, week-to-week operation.

What is the biggest misconception people have about you?

That I’m making money off this. I am, in fact, in debt. Most ministries are, truthfully. Some are in debt because of building projects and selfish ventures. I’m in debt because I probably given more than I should’ve to help people. You know, that’s the one fault I have.

… I’m not getting anything out this, man. I lose sleep. I’m worn out. I’m doing this because I love God, I love people. And I know how much God has given me. I don’t hold myself up as the ultimate role model.

I guess the other misconception is that I’m trying to make a name for myself [laughs]. I guess I am, but it’s not a name that’s making me live any better.

In light of the recent ordinances targeting the homeless, and the waning influence of homeless advocates, I recently interviewed Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries. We talked about his 15 years of activism related to homelessness and the present situation in St. Pete.

Wright, 46, could be called the Michael Moore of St. Pete: supporters praise his uncompromising fight for the city’s poor and critics deride him for his leftist rhetoric and “in-your-face“ political stunts. Though Wright still holds a lot of influence in the progressive community, city leaders have been increasingly hostile toward him.

Read the interview after the jump and then check out this week’s Urban Explorer, which examines the push for a homeless-free downtown.

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