Members of H.O.P.E. and their allies breathed a slight sigh of relief as TheBeers Van Gogh Peer Center of Excellence has finally terminated Peer Counselor, Hervelle Williams for sexual harassment. The Beers Van Gogh Peer Center is a part of the Tennessee Mental Health Consumers Association and is supposed to provide housing, support and Medicaid services for individuals with mental illnesses in a peer to peer model. Over the past year H.O.P.E. has received numerous complaints from people experiencing homelessness and former Peer Center employees about instances of lewd and homophobic language and repeated unwanted sexual propositions from Williams.
H.O.P.E-Homeless Organizing For Power and Equality, is an “Asphalt Roots” organization sponsored by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. This group is made up exclusively of people who are currently or formerly experiencing homelessness.
Work on this issue began last summer when two members of H.O.P.E. shared their experiences of harassment by Williams with the group a weekly H.O.P.E. meeting.
“As I heard our members share their experiences I was stunned” says H.O.P.E. member Toni Whitfield, ” This situation with this staff person is out of control including offering one of our members $20 to show him her breasts and telling her and others about the size of his penis and asking a woman if she wanted to be in a “three way” with him and his girlfriend.“
Members of H.O.P.E. took immediate action by conducting street outreach to people experiencing homelessness to find other potential victims of harassment and sexual assault and launched a series of weekly protests outside of the Peer Center located at 669 Madison Ave. H.O.P.E. also partnered with the Memphis Public Interest Law Center to ensure that the rights of those stepping forward were protected.
“It did not take long before we learned that this was far from an isolated incident–in fact we think that this is part of a much larger systemic issue in our homeless services network. Folks on the streets call it “play to stay”, ” says H.O.P.E. Organizer Paul Garner.
“Play to Stay,” is a slang term coined by H.O.P.E. members and refers to the rumored practice of staff at some local homeless service providers allegedly coercing sexual favors from female clients in exchange to gain access to services.
“Whenever there are allegations like this one, the community must take it seriously! 92% of women experiencing homelessness have suffered severe physical and/or sexual assault in their lifetimes. Most people think that once you get off the streets and get housing or services, that you are out of the woods and finally safe but the sad fact is that there are predators in the system as well. For some of us out there, it’s only the beginning. This incidents with Hervelle is just the tip of the iceberg. This is much bigger than just one employee at one service provider.” Says H.O.P.E. members and former Peer Center employee Marian Bacon
As the weekly protest and calls to action continued, the group was contacted by several additional former clients and staff members of the Peer Center, each one had similar experiences of harassment. In addition to the charges of sexual harassment the group also raised concerns about allegations of physical assault and other issues at the Beers Van Gogh. Members of H.O.P.E. spoke with the leadership of TMHCA in the pursuit of justice for the membership, but did not stop there. The group met with and filed official complaints with all appropriate regulatory agencies.This led to investigations being launched by Memphis Housing and Community Development, Tennessee Department of Mental Health, and HUD-TN and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Now that Williams has been terminated amid new allegations of continued sexual harassment,the group wants to continue to push for greater oversight and transparency within our homeless services safety net. Every year H.O.P.E lobbies our local city and county governments for improved funding of homelessness services and was involved in drafting the TEN YEAR PLAN TO END HOMELESSNESS, but they say that they are also going to be acting as a watchdog and work in concert with local agencies that are funded by taxpayer dollars to ensure that they are acting in a proper manner.
“We still live in a society where allegations of sexual harassment and assault are often swept under the rug and even women of means and wealth are not immune to this, so imagine how hard it must be for people who have no support system in place for the protection of their rights. That is what H.O.P.E. is for. The women and men who stepped forward and spoke out are truly courageous and we were proud to stand behind them, because it’s not easy.” Says H.O.P.E. member Kay Baker.
H.O.P.E. has also started a Women’s Caucus within its organization. This is a place where women who are experiencing homelessness can discuss issues, plan actions and campaigns around issues distinctive to women. One of the upcoming projects centers around a self defense class for the members combined with plans for peer to peer counseling. This project is co-sponsored by the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis, Women’s Caucus meets regularly for “Dinner and Discussion,” out of which a core group of organizers has emerged to focus on the unique challenges faced by women experiencing homelessness.
If you are the victim of sexual harassment or assault at a local homelessness service provider please contact Paul Garner Organizing Coordinator for H.O.P.E. at firstname.lastname@example.org by email at