Get our free newsletter
A new generation of rabble-rousers questions homeless activist Harold Moss’ housekeeping.
In the group house that serves as the headquarters for the Olive Branch community, an orange-toned oil painting overlooks the dining room. Vivid golds and reds augment the dusky blues of a cityscape horizon, brightening the dark room and making it appear warmer than it is. It’s November, and the heat hasn’t been turned on yet. The people padding by in flip-flops on their way to the kitchen wear several sweaters and socks.
But, say the chilly residents of Olive Branch, at 1006 M St. NW, life has improved a lot since last winter. There are no more rats in the house. The holes in the walls and the ceiling have been plastered over. There is less peeling paint. People are cleaner, generally. No one gets up at 5 a.m. and blasts loud music in the kitchen. No one makes death threats. No one has to keep a baseball bat by the bedroom door.
And Harold Moss is in a better mood. That’s because he’s leaving soon, going on sabbatical. “I’m not going to abandon the house or abandon the community,” he says. “I’m just leaving the leadership aspect of it.”
For the last eight years, Moss has run Olive Branch, a group house in Shaw that provides volunteers for the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen, run out of the basement of a nearby church. Moss’ policy has been to welcome anyone to Olive Branch who needs shelter, if there’s room, and to make the house a space “where the homeless could be themselves” without having to adhere to lots of rules and requirements.
More recently, Moss has opened the house to a new generation of housing activists and protesters, throwing Olive Branch into crisis. For years a home for homeless men and women unwilling or unable to live in shelters, would the group house continue to serve solely as a refuge, or would it become a center for political activism? Professionals at negotiation, the newcomers seem to have won.
Moss is one of the original members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), and one of the few remaining activists still proudly working within CCNV’s original ideological framework. Founded in 1970 as an anti-Vietnam War group, CCNV catapulted homelessness onto the national agenda in the mid-’80s through hunger strikes and theatrical protests. All the homeless needed, according to the group, was homes.
The group’s accomplishments piled up fast. A 51-day fast by CCNV leader Mitch Snyder got the Reagan administration to underwrite the 1,350-bed Federal City Shelter at 2nd and D Streets NW in 1984 (see “Helter Shelter,” 2/25). That same year, CCNV spurred passage of the D.C. Right to Overnight Shelter Act, which guaranteed emergency shelter to anyone in the District. And the group pushed Giant Food into creating a food-donation program distributing blemished and imperfect, but still fully edible, foodstuffs.
But by 1990, the group started to come apart at the seams. Snyder committed suicide that year, and Moss left his post as director of Federal City under a cloud, having been accused by other CCNV members of having ignored drug dealing at the shelter. D.C. residents voted in a referendum to repeal the Right to Overnight Shelter Act after the city proved incapable of fulfilling its provisions. Two of Moss’ successors also left in disgrace, and city shelters soon began replacing open-ended services with time limits, entry requirements, and expectations that residents participate in structured programs for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental illness counseling, or job training.
Asserting that food and shelter are not privileges, Moss calls the world of training curricula and rehabilitation efforts a mass “reprogramming” of homeless people. In an attempt to emulate St. Francis of Assisi, Moss lives solely on donations, draws no salary, and actively opposes the rule-heavy homeless programs of today.
“I’m against programming,” says Moss. “Some people need institutions, but everybody should be valued as a person with infinite possibilities regardless of who they are….They don’t fit in, and they don’t want to fit in. They are very confused. [Programming] is impoverishing them. It’s obvious that it’s not producing healthy people.”
Joe Brown, a D.C. housing activist for the last 20 years, moved into Olive Branch last winter. He soon concluded that Moss’ laissez-faire methods for dealing with the homeless weren’t working very well. “It was a hell house,” Brown says, alleging that there was no toilet paper, that rats and thieves had the run of the place, and that the front door’s window was continually broken. “Harold’s extreme theology is: ‘If it’s not donated, we don’t have it. We don’t get it. We don’t buy it.’ He had to fight the crackheads and prostitutes and heroin addicts and she-hes. He really ran a rough ship. Violence was a part of the house.”
Brown says that three members of the house were actively involved in stealing food from the soup kitchen to sell. When confronted, he says, they threatened to destroy the community’s car. And following a fight shortly after Brown arrived, a household member broke the bathroom light bulb, purposefully leaving shards of glass on the floor for his opponents to walk on when they stumbled inside in the middle of the night. At that time, says Brown, Moss kept a baseball bat by his bedroom door for protection.
These might not have been the idyllic conditions Moss envisioned, but the alternative, he says, was allowing homeless people to freeze to death outside. “These aren’t just people without a home,” Moss says of the people he lives with. “[Homelessness is] not romantic. It’s not pretty.”
Moss was determined to find a way to empower the homeless on their own terms. “We don’t know what to do with people who don’t fit into the system,” he says. “There are some people you can program, but there are a lot of people for whom programming doesn’t work. People are trying to fit poor people into certain roles. They figure that if a person is homeless, they should give them a job, but often this puts them in the same position that made them homeless in the first place.”
The troubles at the house notwithstanding, Moss has managed to keep two or three household members heading off to volunteer at Zacchaeus Community Kitchen four days each week, get food picked up and distributed from Fresh Fields and Giant, organize protests against D.C.’s control board, throw an Olive Branch Christmas fundraiser every year, write letters and push for laws to support homeless families, and picket the White House now and then.
In other words, Moss has continued to lead his followers to demand food and shelter as their right, not something they should have to work for.
Last spring, D.C. saw more peace signs and safety-pin-patched backpacks than it had in years. Sandal-clad protesters flooded sidewalks and doorways to scream at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moss opened up Olive Branch to them. “I’m hoping that with this new energy of radicals, the movement will be revived,” he says. “Most people are not willing to fight the bureaucracy that’s there. People have come to really blame the homeless.”
After the protests were over, much of the energy (and new muscle) stayed, as Moss had hoped. Olive Branch took in five new residents. But Moss quickly found himself at loggerheads with the very people he had hoped would be his ideological heirs.
“He needs to go away for a while,” says Chas Sippel, an activist who moved into Olive Branch last April and has since become one of Moss’ most vocal critics. “He is so tensehe’s completely wired, sick of it all, tired of it all.” Sippel has threatened to picket the soup kitchen in an effort to get Moss to set some rules for the household.
“There are no rules. There’s Harold’s rules,” says Jaimie Loughner, a scruffy-headed self-proclaimed anarchist who has a mattress on the third floor. “I’m not scared of the police, I’m not scared of being beaten, and yet I’m concerned for my safety in this house.”
Across the hall, Laura Pearce, a 21-year-old from rural Virginia, came to D.C. “to be an activist.” An ardent member of the group Homes Not Jails, she came to Olive Branch as an IMF protester. Now, though, she’s preoccupied with fighting injustices a bit closer to home. “He’s a control freak,” she complains of Moss. “He storms out of meetings. He was yelling at me, sick of me. [He said] I was a child, he had no respect for me, and things like that. I was talking about his authoritarianism, and he started screaming at me.”
Brown alleges that Moss has used force against several members of the house, including him. “He threw all my stuff outside, which is completely illegal….He broke a few of my things. I cooled down by leaving. When I came back, it was as if it never happened,” says Brown, who says that since the incident Moss and he have made amends.
When asked about these accusations, Moss shakes his head. “They’re still living here, aren’t they?” he says. “If they were that upset, they could just leave.” But they don’t. Because of the living arrangements at Olive Branch, the activists are free to go about their business without worrying about how to pay the bills. And, according to Moss, “most of their materials, the paint supplies [for Homes Not Jails] still come from this community….They can use this space. A lot of the members live here.”
Just the same, Moss has decided to leave for a while and reflect on what’s happened. “I’m a little offended, but I’m excited by their spirit,” he says. “I’ve got more experience living in a community, and living in a community is not an easy thing. They think I’ve been dictatorial, and it’s trueI’ve been that way.”
More important, in Homes Not Jails, headed by 22-year-old Virginian Jennifer Kirby, Moss sees the housing movement coming full circle. Moss was first mentioned in news accounts in 1978, for taking over an abandoned house in Columbia Heightsjust as Kirby and her cohorts did last summer in the same neighborhood. “I’m old,” Moss says. “This is nothing new for the city, but I’m excited about their energy, and I think it’s good….They are seeing horrible things, and they want to confront the system and the evil that they see.” CP