Even in a space for community leaders, in a city facing an affordability and eviction crisis, housing insecurity is a sensitive topic
Let me be clear, I’m not an activist of any kind. I’m a writer—hold for the punchline, there is none. I’m also at least 90% human, give or take 10%.
Accordingly, around the beginning of the pandemic, I was looking for something to qualify my hours spent watching Netflix in disrepair and not really caring enough about the world, community, or neighborhood I lived in. I’m not a bad person, I’m just severely millennial which I think kind of speaks for itself. I needed a change though, and fast—there was something about knowing that outside of my door people were suffering and I was spending all my time trying not to worry about it. I found GenUnity somewhere around that time, and was glad I did.
Not many people will know what GenUnity is. It’s not an app, though it kinda sounds like one now that I’m reading this back. It’s like a book club for up-and-coming leaders in the field of social change and community. It’s all on Zoom, where it’s easier to access the housing equity module and notes on the last cohort. The “program journey” (taken from their website) basically unfolds as an “abridged life map to changing the face of civil injustice”: over three-and-a-half months and two to three hours per week, you join a cohort of peers and engage with local community leaders to “unpack an issue you are passionate about, connect people’s lived experiences to the system and power structures in your community and build your capacity to affect change.” (You can learn more about them on their website.)
It started out like a great way to meet people with similar interests and find out how and in what ways I might contribute to the struggle around housing equity in the city and just beyond—that was the focus of the module I took part in: “housing equity reform.” The modular units offer informative sessions with community leadership hotshots from Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia to nonprofit leader and MassHousing Director Of Community Services Thaddeus Miles, who (again, thanks to Zoom) are sitting across from you wherever you’re taking the meeting, smiling and waving and calling you by your first name.
The process is mind blowing on a very real and local level, so at the end of every cohort I do my best to remind the facilitator that I am still feeling very, very lucky to be there. For the sake of the community I lived in, there probably should’ve been some sort of support group or informational section somewhere close by. In the topsy turvy world we live in, there should be “an action plan for positive impact in every community”… and there simply isn’t.
It also seemed very second or third-person perspective until I myself became a victim of housing insecurity. Then it was all, Okay what am I supposed to do now? You take it for granted: room, comfort, and warmth, and I found myself more and more frequently surprised with what I thought myself capable of in order to secure even the most temporary alleviant. The days became a series of games I played with myself—figuring out where I’d be for the night, what I’d do with my bag, what I’d tell my co-workers when they asked why I was wearing the same clothes as the day before. Funny enough, it was a game I never won, on offense or defense. C’est la vie.
It’s all still very new, too, I think—to me and to most: living on the precipice of such a severe topic and being encouraged to take a stand on a subject that is crippling millions of people is something that simultaneously seems contrary and overcomplicated. I don’t think we’re entirely certain as to why people live as they do and what we can do to help, but progress and growth seem only to happen per experience, so I’m always sure to share mine.
When you’re in this position, with your back against the wall in so many ways, it begins to feel as though you’re undeserving of a safer space. Then, other times, somehow, the logic in solving the problem is as backwards as the issue itself. I hate to say that the circumstances never get fully resolved either, which is so very much like the world we live in today: people say the struggle is real and it’s true. Things are always so up and down, unpromised and destabilized to the point that the things you seem to prioritize become about 10 times harder, and no one seems to know how to help because no one knows what’s wrong.
Currently, I’m putting together the final pieces of a reading for one of my more poignant productions written for the stage, titled 210 19th Street. I started writing the play in 2009, which feels like forever ago—sometime before the subtle irony dawned on me that having an address and a place to go weren’t always going to be as interchangeable as a pair of worn down sneakers.
In real life, 210 19th Street was the first place I lived when I left home. I found myself surrounded by people who understood the things that I was thinking, and could finish my sentences before the words left my mouth. People who held me in the palm of their hands and told me everything was going to be okay when the going got tough. Men and women that I found myself fighting for and fighting with. Now, as I think back on it, I miss the days when things were as simple as they were back then.
We don’t all get to have a home, but we at least get a real chance at living. I think we take this for granted sometimes. We blame our situation and things only get worse for us. In the play, we meet a handful of artists who are trying to get from one day to the next, amidst the news that the world is ending. It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t fun, but for the sake of selling tickets I hope it’s at least appealing. For me, it’s about opening a door to the past and closing it, and I think many of us can relate to this perspective.
I finished the play towards the start of the pandemic, and I’m happy to have gotten it out of my system. We all need an avenue for change and growth – something that will help to keep our eyes somewhere other than just on a sky that might fall on our heads – keep them on the folks you came here with, you know? And on the home we all provide for each other.
You can support and learn more about 210 19th Street at gofundme.com/f/lapides-cabaret-210-19th-Street. Thanks for reading, be safe out there.
Jesse is a Boston-based creative, he’s honored to be featured by Dig Boston. Special thanks to Chris Faraone and the team at Dig Boston, along with Lau Lapides and Antonio Ocampo-Guzman of the Northeastern Theater Department.