Just before Memorial Day weekend, a few months shy of its 20th anniversary, Picture the Homeless ceased regular hours of operation. The nonprofit’s storefront grate on East 126th Street was rolled down, cutting off homeless people in the neighborhood from the free internet, bathroom, and mailboxes the headquarters had provided. “We didn't know what was happening,” recalls Andres Perez, who is formerly homeless and a longtime member of the organization.

Now, three months later, Perez and a core group of roughly a dozen members are attempting to secure the future of an organization that for decades has striven to ask—not tell—homeless people what they need. They’re also demanding transparency from the board of an organization founded by two homeless men whose mantra has always been: “Don’t talk about us, talk with us.”

“Our mission is this: Picture the Homeless is led by homeless people,” says former staffer Nikita Price, one of the members working to revive the group. “And if there's no transparency there, then we're not adhering to our mission … and that includes the board. You're all going to have to do a better job of communicating with members.”

All six Picture the Homeless staff were laid off in February—for financial reasons, according to board director Brodie Enoch—including executive director Monique George, who replaced longtime executive director Lynn Lewis in 2017. George’s suggestion to the board was to keep the office open temporarily with the help of volunteers and bring back staff once more funding was secured, according to Enoch.

But that day never came. After nearly four months of relying on volunteers, the board learned the organization’s liability insurance for the office had lapsed. Enoch says this was resolved in June, and that the office has been open since then, albeit without a set schedule. But the lapse in insurance prompted Enoch and his fellow board members to scrutinize the books, he says.

They are now crowdfunding in an attempt to survive: A GoFundMe page established in July has raised $31,508 of its $100,000 goal as of this writing. According to Enoch, meeting this goal would only “get us in a position to do more fundraising.”

The Picture the Homeless board declined to provide specifics on the organization’s finances, but a review of 990 forms from as recently as 2017 show a worsening situation. At the end of that year, the nonprofit’s net assets were nearly $17,000 in the negative, down from a surplus of roughly $85,000 the previous year and $114,000 in 2015.

Board member Candis Tolliver alludes to the challenges of fundraising for an organization that serves the homeless without traditional benchmarks such as job creation. “A lot of monies that go to homeless folks are [for] people running a soup kitchen or job training program,” Tolliver says. “But we fight for the rights of the homeless to exist.”

Board members have not been forthcoming about why they didn’t act sooner, admitting only that they should have. “I'm not going to blame the latest administration,” Enoch says. “I don't think at this point in time that we're focusing on how we got into the situation we're in, or were in. We're focused on getting out of it.”

As for the accusations of poor communication with members, Enoch replies that he has made himself accessible to answer questions, though he adds, “I don't know everything and I'm one of the ones dealing with all of this stuff.” (At one point Enoch told Gothamist that the organization was “a little bit behind in paying staff,” though he declined to provide how much, or for how long.)

George, the most recent executive director, declined a request for an interview, saying in a written statement, “PTH has some of the most amazing dedicated members ever, and it was a wonderful experience working with them.”

Lewis, her predecessor, says that she regrets not hiring someone during her tenure to cultivate individual donors, lessening the organization’s reliance on grants. She also cites slippage between the organization’s external mission and internal functionality, suggesting that in the future more board positions should go to people who are homeless or formerly homeless.

Even since Picture the Homeless staff were laid off in February, rank-and-file members have kept up with actions and advocacy, such as this March "visioning session" at a Bronx vacant lot.

Courtesy Picture the Homeless

Members have played a central role in Picture the Homeless’s victories over the years, according to former staff. Ryan Hickey, a housing organizer with Picture the Homeless from 2013 to 2017, speaks proudly of the organization’s “unruly” reputation. “We didn't really tone down our demands or try to be respectable,” he says in an email. “Homeless people had to sleep on the street or in shelters every night, so to tell them to ‘calm down’ or ‘slow down’ was not even a rational option.”

This strategy worked. For example, in 2016 Picture the Homeless launched a campaign urging Mayor de Blasio to use eminent domain to create low-income housing. Hickey says other nonprofits balked at signing on to the plan, which they deemed too extreme. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he’d consider eminent domain.

Yet Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society who has worked with Picture the Homeless since its founding, says he watched the organization go through some growing pains.

"It's always a struggle for an organization that's founded on egalitarianism and representing people who are excluded, making an adjustment to being a player at the table,” he says. “And I think that's been a struggle for Picture the Homeless as its influence grew and people started to take them more seriously. Then they had to deal with how to adjust to a world where they had opportunities to work together with the sort of people that they'd been fighting against."

The organization also declined to be cautious around funders, according to Hickey.

“When I arrived I immediately got the feeling that members didn't care as much about what funders wanted to hear (which is how I assumed nonprofits worked),” he wrote in an email. “They were going to dictate what campaigns we worked on and what they looked like, and it was up to all of us...to make those campaigns successful so we could get funding.”

Members remain optimistic. “We talk constantly,” says DeBoRah Dickerson, a Picture the Homeless member since 2005. “We're on the phone talking. Yes, we are in a financial crisis but … we almost got 20 years. Twenty years! I can't see it just going down the toilet, you understand?”

One ongoing campaign launched last spring, called #FreetoPee, calls on the city to distribute fifteen warehoused public toilets. In July, members hosted a fundraiser at the office with dancing and ten-dollar dinner plates.

Members have also continued to meet about StreetShield, a nascent project to distribute wallet-sized cards to homeless New Yorkers with a call-in number to anonymously report abuse by police or shelter staff.

“Member-led is sacrosanct for us,” says Matilda Wysocki, who lives in a Manhattan shelter, and joined the organization in 2017. “We're going to take matters into our own hands beyond any external, nonprofit-y support we can get.”

But the strain is clear. Price is the only former staffer still volunteering every week. A single father with two daughters, Price says that he is on unemployment and in rent arrears since being laid off. Formerly homeless himself, he’s now a rank-and-file member of the organization.

“I'm trying to keep a roof over my head and not return into the shelter, and continue to make this space available to other members,” Price says, adding that his commitment to the mission of the organization has kept him coming back. Now that his daughters are back in school, he can come to the office every day to maintain, without compensation, the most regular hours Picture the Homeless has seen in months.

On Monday, Price says, he met with three visitors to the office: a street homeless man dealing with immigration issues, a homeless mother of two currently living in a shelter and struggling to find an apartment with her rental voucher, and a formerly homeless man dealing with a difficult landlord.

“On the surface, it's business as usual,” he says. “As long as the board can keep the doors open and the lights on, we're going to do what it is that we've always done.”