Creative Loafing: Your style of activism hasnât earned you many friends in the political establishment. How do you accomplish your goals?
Bruce Wright: Well, it puts the issue in peopleâs face and it give people the chance to think about another aspect of the issue they havenât thought about before. I think itâs put me in a position where voices that sometimes arenât 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, âif only [you] played ball more,â but if people remember the history of it, we [Wrightâs 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, weâve stood by our principles. Weâre not perfect, but I think if you donât have your principles, you donât have anything. Sometimes you have to take a stance that isnât 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, Iâve been at the forefront, among others, of bringing light to the problem in a big way so people canât avoid it and they have to take a stand.
But everything I study about history, whether itâs the Jim Crow laws in the South, the apartheid of South Africa or the Nuremberg Laws of Germany, tells me if we donât stand up for the rights of the oppressed, itâs not going to end there.
Those same people would say that youâre 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?
Iâm not exploiting the homeless, because theyâre making their own choices. The homeless community chose to set up on City Hall, for instance. Iâve 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. â¦ There is no exploitation involved. No one has been forced or coerced. The assumption is these are not human beings and they canât think for themselves.
Iâve never said that Pinellas Hope shouldnât exist, I merely said nobody should be forced to go there and it shouldâve 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?
Itâs 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, itâs governed by political expediency and money. And because itâs 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 Iâm 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 weâre 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 weâre struggling every month. Weâre a month-to-month, week-to-week operation.
What is the biggest misconception people have about you?
That Iâm 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. Iâm in debt because I probably given more than I shouldâve to help people. You know, thatâs the one fault I have.
â¦ Iâm not getting anything out this, man. I lose sleep. Iâm worn out. Iâm doing this because I love God, I love people. And I know how much God has given me. I donât hold myself up as the ultimate role model.
I guess the other misconception is that Iâm trying to make a name for myself [laughs]. I guess I am, but itâs not a name thatâs making me live any better.