Stopping by the house of a relative, Sprowal and his partner found someone at the table mixing, cutting and bagging a pound of cocaine. It was a situation they ran into a lot as traveling organizers in the 1980s. Sprowal--fighting an addiction to cocaine that he was still trying to hide--didn’t partake that night. But the mountain of white powder burned an image in his mind that quickly became an obsession.
By the time they reached Chicago, he couldn’t control himself. He “went berserk,” in his words, accusing his partner of stealing his stash. Then he sped off in his car, wearing pajamas, to find more cocaine. The next day, his partner cut the tour short and took him back to his native Philadelphia for rehab. “I was completely wiped out,” he says now.
Before addiction overtook him in his fifties, Sprowal ranked with Mitch Snyder and Robert Hayes as one of the nation’s leading organizers of the homeless. A longtime activist and veteran political campaigner, Sprowal had been homeless in New York City in the early 1980s. Outraged at the conditions he saw in the shelter system, he rallied fellow homeless people and other activists and established the Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless in 1983.
Gaining speed, they opened the Dignity Shelter in Philadelphia in 1984. The first ever in the United States founded and run by homeless people, the shelter offered training and education as well as a place to stay. “Dignity was not just housing,” says Sprowal, “it was a way of life.”
In 1985, Sprowal helped found the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley Union for the Homeless. They got homeless people 24-hour intake in city shelters, the right to vote, and, by staging bath-ins at public fountains, public showers. The union went national, spreading to 13 cities by the time City Limits profiled Sprowal in 1986.
To the tight-knit handful of activists who screamed, protested and got arrested along with Sprowal, he embodied the ideal activist: charisma, skills and a talent for bringing what they called “street heat” to bear. “To them,” he says, “I was like an iron man with no flaws.”
But it wouldn’t last. “I couldn’t stop using drugs, couldn’t stop moving on, couldn’t stop the organizing, couldn’t stop keeping my hands on the pulse of the organization, couldn’t stop looking for new issues,” says Sprowal. “I couldn’t stop, and I knew I was falling apart.”
After the aborted 1989 tour, Sprowal went public with his drug problem. Exiting rehab, he got a letter axing him from Dignity’s board. Sprowal still feels betrayed by his former colleagues: Being ousted from the organizations he helped create, he says, “broke my heart.” Homeless again, he lived on the street for a while, in part so that no one might find him. “I didn’t want people to know how I had disintegrated,” he says.
Without Sprowal, the National Union of the Homeless fragmented. The Dignity Shelter eventually closed. And the network of activists frayed. But Dignity Housing remains. Half the board members are homeless or formerly homeless; executive director Alicia Christian was once homeless herself.
Residents of Dignity Housing still remember Sprowal and his friends lying down in the streets and getting arrested for homeless rights. And groups like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the Blueprint to End Homelessness in Philadelphia and the Affordable Housing Coalition were all inspired by his vision. “Most social service organizations still don’t believe that poor people can do anything but learn to be poor better,” says Christian. “The difference in Chris’ vision was that he believed in people. He believed they could be colleagues.”
Sprowal, 69 this November, is clean and healthy now. Looking for housing in the early 1990s, he wandered into John Heuss House, a drop-in center near Wall Street. A woman there who remembered him from his organizing days offered him a job helping people who lived in the hallways and doorways of the financial district. It was exactly what he needed to get clean.
He retired four years ago and moved to Jersey City. “Tired of doing nothing,” he went to work part-time for the state’s Labor Department, dispatching clients to counseling or to receive food stamps. Now Sprowal spends more time with his family--five children, 10 grandchildren and his brother--than he ever could in his organizing days. “I think about the joy my children bring me,” he says. “After a while, you just get tired of being tired.”
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