For over thirty years, Joe Wilson has been fighting for San Francisco’s homeless population in the Tenderloin. After years working to organize childcare workers he is now in his second stint with Hospitality House. District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim and the Board of Supervisors will honor Wilson’s tireless work and commitment to community service on February 25 as part of Black History Month. It is recognition well deserved and a long time coming.
As one of the original founders of the Coalition on Homelessness, Wilson has been a constant leader in the movement for social justice in the Tenderloin and in the San Francisco at large. Because of his work, Hospitality House continues to be one of the leading organizations working with homeless in the city.
Wilson began his tenure at Hospitality House around thirty years ago when he was sleeping in their shelter. He started volunteering and was soon hired to be part-time, then full-time staff. He eventually became the director of the shelter and the drop-in center program from 1986-1990. Currently, he is the Community Building Program Manager.
Hospitality House was founded in 1967 and worked primarily with youth until the mid 1980s. Wilson’s first stint with the organization was during its transition to its focus on programs for adults.
I met with Wilson in a small office at Hospitality House, the door left open. Over the course of his long career, Wilson has followed this mentality, which has allowed him to gain a deep perspective of politics and social change in San Francisco. He has been open to countless people that have passed through the doors of Hospitality House.
Wilson recalled the early efforts to deal with the city’s homelessness crisis, and the struggle to adjust with the fissures created by Reagan’s public policy as well as the increased prevalence of the military industrial complex. New policy supported more community based programs, sacrificing state supported initiatives. This cut back of the state would allow for more community involvement and leadership, but the resources never followed. For the last thirty years, organizations like Hospitality House have been playing catch up.
But still, Wilson believes that Hospitality House’s rootedness to the Tenderloin community is a benefit to working for change.
“Hospitality House was started by community volunteers and is based in the community in which it serves,” Wilson said. “It’s a very active and important voice for social justice, equity resources, humane, responsible treatment of homeless people.”
The Coalition on Homelessness was formed in 1987 amidst this backdrop of the city’s homeless crisis. Wilson credited the work of Paul Boden and others like Randy Shaw with creating a vision for addressing this problem. The Coalition, Wilson said, “ensured that homeless people themselves had a right to self-determination and that their story counts.”
Wilson’s work with Hospital House has largely been on the civic engagement front. He said, “There has been a philosophical struggle over time, with how city structure deals with and how it defines what the distinctions between the war on poverty versus the war on poor people. It’s clear that there is a war on poor people.”
“Hospitality House needs to be addressing causes not consequences,” Wilson said. “If we lecture people about making better choices for themselves, we need to be providing better options.” Wilson believes that Hospitality House has been in the middle of and at the forefront in fighting for alternatives to homelessness.
A lot has changed since Wilson began working in the Tenderloin thirty years ago. “The absence of viable and vital community institutions is extremely difficult in the midst of communities that feel or are under siege,” he said. “There is a constant struggle for community to maintain a sense of itself and to maintain its own vibrant, distinctly, unique neighborhood character.”
Wilson pointed to the decade long campaign to establish an elementary school in the Tenderloin and the Glide Memorial Church as institutions that have embraced the unique character of the community.
“My experience working in the neighborhood and Hospitality House has taught me that miracles happen everyday,” he said.
Wilson reflected on the current moment and the continued needs for the Tenderloin community. With the persistent erosion of safety nets like the recent federal cuts to food stamps, Wilson believes community institutions must think both about larger structural dynamics while remaining focused to community.
“In order to actively engage with other people in this struggle,” Wilson said, “we have to have community institutions that see their jobs as more than handing bus tokens and shelter beds. We have to all be aware of the need for civic engagement and fundamental restructuring of our society in some way, and that happens on a day to day basis.”
And with that, Wilson returned back to his work with the Hospitality House, showing that the struggle is indeed every day.
The Board of Supervisors will honor Wilson on Tuesday, February 25 at 3:30pm at City Hall. Public testimony is permitted, and Wilson’s many admirers will share their experiences working with him over the past three decades.