0

“Housing Not Handcuffs” Paints a Grim Picture

homeless-campWe recommend our own newsletter’s succinct description of the report on the criminalization of homelessness, recently released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Of this effort, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell says:

Advocates from around the country are uniting to expose and defeat the criminalization of homelessness that creates devastating barriers preventing people from getting living wage jobs and affordable housing that would enable them to escape homelessness.

The creators of this report, titled “Housing Not Handcuffs,” gathered information from 187 American cities and learned that nearly half of them prohibit sitting or lying down in public. In other words, the person experiencing homelessness is expected to stay on her or his feet at all times.

But that is not sufficient, because standing still is also forbidden, under the verbiage of loitering, loafing, or vagrancy. If one wants to stay legal, a mere upright stance is not enough. For a street person, the only acceptable option is to remain in motion at all times.

And even that is not a satisfactory concession to public demand, because walking can be done only in certain geographical areas. Now, you might think that someone who owns a car or van could escape this problem by spending as much time as possible sitting inside of it, out of everyone’s way. But living in a vehicle is forbidden in 39% of the cities that were surveyed.

Of course there are settlements all over these cities, and the “move along” philosophy applies to groups of people, as well as to individuals. The way that cities choose to deal with camps is to cause them to uproot and relocate with senseless frequency. Maybe the basic logic is fairness to the housed people — to give each neighborhood some relief, for a while, from the unsightly, disturbing, and scary specter of people who not only failed to grab the brass ring, but couldn’t even find the merry-go-round.

Commenting on recent developments in Berkeley, Ace Backwords tells House the Homeless:

The homeless scene is always in a state of flux. It changes day to day, month to month, year to year. But the basic game seems to stay the same. One week the cops will be crunching you for one thing. The next week its OK to do that but they’re crunching you for something else. One week is OK to hang out on one side of the sidewalk. The next week they kick us off that side and say we gotta hang out on the other side. And the next week they reverse it again. Round and round it goes.

The crime of “breathing while homeless” isn’t on the books in those exact words, but it might as well be. By deeming a large segment of the national population to be guilty of it, municipalities have virtually created a huge crime wave.

Here are just three of the many key findings from “Housing Not Handcuffs”:

    Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally or civilly punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive.
    Local governments are engaged in problematic enforcement of these laws.
    Local governments are banishing homeless people from public places through use of “move on” orders and trespass warnings.

At the end of this page is a list of five previous posts on the “breathing while homeless” concept. For NBC in Berkeley, Stephanie Chuang and Shawn Murphy had this to say about California’s particularly aggressive anti-homeless ordinances:

Such an approach ends up being costly, as police and incarceration resources are marshaled to deal with the citations. Simply offering services and housing, on the other hand, has been found to save far more money. The federal government has also taken steps recently that indicates it considers the approach of criminalizing homelessness to be unconstitutional and will withhold federal funding from those places that engage in it. 

It is the local city governments (at the behest of the local businesses) that have passed the criminalization laws. This puts our municipalities in direct conflict with the Federal government. Specifically, the Department of Justice has echoed Mr. Troxell and other homeless advocates starting with Michael Stoops, National Coalition for the Homeless, who decry these laws and tag them as barriers to ending homelessness. At the same time, the Federal government is simultaneously providing our cities millions of dollars to fight a seeming by never ending battle to end homelessness.

“Guilty of Breathing While Homeless”
“Breathing While Homeless — in the News Again”
“Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever”
“Breathing While Homeless Still a Crime”
“The Crime of Breathing While Homeless”

Source: “Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” NLCHP.org, November 2016
Source: “Berkeley City Council Approves Crackdown on Homeless, Prohibits Urination in Public,” NBCBayArea.com, 11/18/15
Image credit: Michael Coghlan (mikecogh) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

0

Berkeley as Microcosm

bikes-and-busBecause Berkeley, California, is such a quintessentially American city, things that happen there gain resonance. For background, see “A Berkeley Tale” which talks about last year, and “Activism in Berkeley,” which covers the more recent past.

Today’s post mentions several events briefly, so for hard information, please see the linked news sources. Their usefulness here is to highlight typical instances of things that go on wherever people experience homelessness, but particularly in a city that is known for dissent and social ferment.

Last year there was a lot of discussion about things that made housed people anxious, such as the growing number of tents in the camp, and what looked like a bicycle chop shop (where stolen bikes are dismantled for parts). This attitude assumes that anything done by a homeless person must be a criminal enterprise, because homelessness itself is fast becoming a crime.

It is entirely possible that someone with an aptitude for bike repair could have a totally legitimate talent for fixing bikes, and do it in a totally legitimate way. Housed people will throw away a punctured inner tube, but a thrifty and enterprising homeless person will recover it and patch it.

Enough bikes are abandoned or trashed that a supply of parts is available without any need to steal them. Bike repair is a skill that can be traded for money or other commodities, like food. If somebody is doing useful work, voluntarily, why disparage that? (Shown on this page is the legendary Bike Bus of RomTom, aka Thomas Holme, which used to roam the Pacific Northwest, California, and other parts of the country.)

Thanks in part to such stereotypical thinking, it was decided last summer that a big settlement on Gilman Street in West Berkeley would be cleared. It wouldn’t be the first “sweep,” nor the last. The number-one tactic for dealing with people experiencing homelessness is to cause them to move from one location to another.

In this particular case, the target area was an underpass, where Caltrans “needed to access an underground vault in the area to help set up a camera that will be used for its East Bay corridor freeway messaging system,” wrote Emilie Raguso for Berkeleyside.com. And another camera, no doubt, to give early warning if the area starts to become recolonized.

So, city crews and volunteers do a massive cleanup and have their pictures taken wearing biohazard suits and sifting through piles of detritus. Headlines announce the dollar cost of removing the trash. As always, there are snide remarks about “squalid conditions” and the amount of human waste that was found. The whole area is cleaned up, sanitized, and, if possible, defoliated, and the carnival moves on.

What if, instead, a recycling station were set up, with receptacles for cardboard, glass, etc.? What if somebody who lived there took care of that, and got to keep any profit from selling the stuff? What if there were dumpsters, and regular trash removal? What if there were industrial-strength portable toilets and, at the very least, a water source for hand-washing? What if the people just stayed in one place and cleaned up as they went along? But back to reality.

The authorities come in numbers and they bring muscle. According to Raguso:

Jim Hynes, with the Berkeley city manager’s office, said homeless outreach, city maintenance crews, mental health workers and environmental health staff were all on the scene to help out… The city always sends out workers to try to help connect homeless individuals to services that could improve their circumstances…

Oakland-area California Highway Patrol spokesman Officer Sean Wilkenfeld confirmed that officers were on the scene Thursday morning to help monitor the clean-up operation. Berkeley Police officers were also part of the effort.

Raguso also wrote:

Before Caltrans took over the area […] workers from Pacific Steel Casting used to park below the freeway. Hynes said a return to that historic use could help keep the area clear of camps in the future.

In other words, the priority here is to have a place for cars to park, and never mind the people who need a place to live. Hynes also told the reporter “the city plans to look deeper at ways it might keep the area safe and clean in the future.” That statement presupposes that homeless people do not deserve to be in a safe and clean place, because they are the threat and the dirt.

Reactions?

Source: “Authorities clear out Gilman homeless camp in Berkeley,” Berkeleyside.com, 06/16/16
Image by RomTom

0

A Berkeley Tale

house-in-berkeleyBerkeley, California, is one of the most progressive, ornery, and distinctive cities in the USA. This time last year, City Councilwoman Linda Maio faced some conflict over Ohlone Park, a three-block-long urban oasis that she helped create 42 years before.

In recent times, however, Ohlone had become a temporary haven for people experiencing homelessness. Maio followed the lead of her constituency and promoted the introduction of new, stricter city ordinances against camping in parks, and against placing personal property on public sidewalks.

Also included was the old favorite, “urinating and defecating in the parks.” When will municipal officials figure it out? Their refusal to provide restrooms does not discourage homelessness, but only punishes individuals. What that refusal does, however, is threaten public health in very real and scary ways.

To Maio’s credit, she did encourage the city to deploy mobile showers, and devote some storage facilities to people’s stuff. Still, she found herself accused by a fellow council member (and a portion of the public) of criminalizing poverty and homelessness.

Rachel Swan wrote this for SFGate.com:

“We want people to get a little more connected with social mores,” Maio said, emphasizing that the laws are small, and so are the city responses for breaking them: an initial warning followed by a citation…

Nonetheless, the new laws prompted strong opposition in Berkeley, where housing activists camped out in front of City Hall the night before the council meeting…

The new laws will take effect Jan. 1 but will not be enforced until after Berkeley installs public storage bins, and there are no plans set for that yet.

Councilman Kriss Worthington objected to prosecuting, fining or jailing people who have no money anyway, for minor offenses. But the new ordinances were approved. Swan wrote of a local sympathy protester:

One woman who camped outside City Hall told the council that she woke up with a stark realization of what it means to be homeless. “There is no restroom,” she said at the meeting.

At the same time in West Berkeley, a lot of people were living in campers and RVs parked along city streets. Again, human waste was a problem. But rather than handle this in a mature, adult way, cities all over America continue their attempts to criminalize natural functions. It always comes back to the essentials.

Meanwhile tension buillt in other areas, because the Super Bowl tourist influx into San Francisco was on the horizon, and the mayor promised the corporate suits that the Embarcadero district would be purged of unsightly beggars. Some of the displaced people could reasonably be expected to relocate across the Bay.

House the Homeless asked longtime Berkeley resident Ace Backwords how the past year has been. Here’s what he said:

The homeless scene is always in a state of flux. It changes day to day, month to month, year to year. But the basic game seems to stay the same. One week the cops will be crunching you for one thing. The next week its OK to do that but they’re crunching you for something else. One week is OK to hang out on one side of the sidewalk. The next week they kick us off that side and say we gotta hang out on the other side. And the next week they reverse it again. Round and round it goes.

Getting back to Ohlone Park, and a last quotation from Swan:

One resident, Lynn Barrow, wrote that her dog had gotten sick after walking through one of the Ohlone Park encampments and had to be taken to the emergency room. “They tested his urine, and it contained marijuana and meth,” Barrow’s letter said.

Ms. Barrow does not appear to have divulged why her dog was running, loose and out of control, through the public park where homeless people were settled. It would be unfair to speculate on the reason, but fair enough to hope that no local person would do something like that for the purpose of intimidation, to alarm and threaten the people in the tents.

Reactions?

Source: “Berkeley’s homeless feel squeezed as neighbors seek clampdown,” SFGate.com, 11/21/15

2

Activism in Berkeley

berkeley-street-signsBack in the 1960s, Berkeley, California, was the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement, and of vehement objection to the Vietnam war, as well as a mecca for women’s rights activism. The city’s radicals were always marching against things and occupying places, not to mention educating the public at every turn. Causes like People’s Park kept the atmosphere electric for decades.

Recently, Berkeley is having a resurgence of political ferment. (For interested observers in other parts of the country, local participants report on the ongoing hour-by-hour drama of the Berkeley street scene via a Facebook group called “First they came for the homeless.”)

As in so many other American cities, the cost of housing is simply out of reach for a large segment of the population. Homeless activist Mike Lee is running for mayor, on the platform of mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.

Many people experiencing homelessness also want to experience the democratic process, by voting, but they are often unable to. The fact that this is an election year adds greatly to the overall stress, and much energy has been put into voter registration efforts.

For Truthout, David Bacon has written a massive report covering these and other Berkeley issues. He recounts how, in October, a homeless community that had been camping on a grassy medium in the middle of a road were forcibly relocated, and not for the first time. The way the authorities habitually accomplish this is to roll up at 5:00 AM with a contingent of city vehicles, flanked by several police cars. Customarily, they fill their trucks with seized tents, bedrolls and other belongings.

On this particular occasion, some residents had the opportunity to send text messages to allies. The journalist quotes Mike Zint, one of the group’s leaders:

We went into delaying tactics while we got community support mobilized. That doesn’t stop them, but every time this happens we get more support. So they sat there in their trucks for the next six hours — a dozen city workers and a code compliance officer, all on overtime. They took seven cops off patrol. And in the end, after all the arguments, we only moved about 200 feet, across the street. And how much did that cost?

The politically motivated group demonstrates outside Impact HUB, where homeless services are centralized. Their intention is to force public debate and defend rights. One bone of contention is the shabby treatment doled out to the most vulnerable members of the community. From Dan McMullan, of the Disabled People Outside Project, the reporter learned how a wheelchair-bound woman was repeatedly denied help because she “didn’t fit the intake criteria.” How much worse off than homeless in a wheelchair does a person have to be?

This bunch is made up not of random rough sleepers, but of politically savvy people who have formed an intentional community. Bacon quotes Zint’s description of what has come to be known as the Poor Tour:

It’s a mobile occupation that can pop up anywhere. We’re exposing the fact that there is no solution — nothing but exposure for the homeless. And exposure is killing a lot of people.

One such casualty of the War on the Homeless was Roberto Benitas, who in late September was found dead in the doorway where he slept. McMullan, who writes for the newspaper Street Spirit, recruited a city council candidate to help organize a memorial. For additional commentary about that sad event, House the Homeless contacted Dan McMullan, who said:

I was touched the way the community came together to remember this man who went unnoticed amongst us for so long. Even in death it took a while for anyone to notice. A year ago there wouldn’t have been such a cross section of the community. Housing is on everyone’s mind and the wolf is heard in all quarters. Not one but two Native Americans showed up independently to play the flute. The spirit was strong and we all were together… [M]oved together… I went out and put together a protest… My own years of homelessness haunted my every thought and I had to placate the many ghosts that cry out in the bad weather. Do something… [A]nything.

Reactions?

Source: “‘We’re Homeless and We Vote’: Homeless People Want a Voice in This Election,” Truth-out.org, 10/28/16
Photo credit: Mic V. via Visualhunt/CC BY

0

Ultimate Sacrifices

weaponsEvery now and then, House the Homeless explores the difficulties encountered by people who help the unhoused. “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” related the story of how David Henderson, editor of Poverty Insights, bought a Greyhound bus ticket for someone else and encountered what he calls the Samaritan Tax, an $18 “gift ticket fee,” which can only be waived under very annoying and inconvenient circumstances.

Last summer we considered some “People Who Feed People” and their struggles with police, neighborhood organizations, zoning laws, and local health departments. Food trucks may be towed and fines may be levied. Municipal administrations have numerous ways to make the lives of givers miserable.

Last week, we looked at some of the pushback against tiny houses and the people who generously build and donate them.

All across America, volunteers give a whole lot of time and energy, and money they could be spending on themselves. Sometimes they work obsessively to keep old vehicles moving, so breakfasts can be delivered. They deprive themselves of sleep or even food, and go out in all kinds of weather.

Over the years, this kind of dedication takes its toll. But we’re not talking about gradual attrition of health. We’re talking about helpers of people experiencing homelessness, who have been deliberately killed.

Shoeless in Georgia, Clueless in New York

In April of 2014 Donnie Reed, the 40-year-old father of three children, was stabbed to death in Rancho Cucamonga parking lot. The California man was with some friends at a sports bar, and when it closed they ran into where some strangers were harassing a homeless man.

After Reed suggested that the antagonists knock it off, one of them stabbed him in the chest and stabbed Reed’s friend in the neck. (The friend survived.) Apparently the murder remains unsolved. Reed’s wife told journalist Melissa MacBride:

He’s not a fighter. He was trying to help somebody, and this is what happened to him for doing something he would have done for anybody.

Last fall in Atlanta, a 24-year-old National Guard sergeant who had served three tours of duty in Afghanistan was was shot to death near a homeless shelter where he had gone on a Sunday morning to donate shoes — something that he had done without incident on other occasions.

Attig Eminue, whose family relocated to the United States from Nigeria 15 years ago, was killed for no apparent reason. Crime Stoppers offered a reward, which was increased in the following month. The police believed that the shooter was a 21-year-old named Harold Dodson, who had already accumulated five felony convictions, but didn’t know where he was. Toward the end of October, Dodson was arrested, charged, and denied bail.

In June of this year, only a block from his home in the Bronx, a high school senior was stabbed in the chest several times. Carl Ducasse, who planned to become an attorney, will not be joining any profession, because someone begrudged the teenager’s donation of $2 to a shelter resident.

As the 17-year-old bled to death, the killer stole his phone and fled the scene. Eventually, another 17-year-old was arrested and held without bail while 500 people attended funeral masses for Ducasse.

Only two months ago, in another part of New York, the driver of a van belonging to an organization that helps homeless women and children was shot to death while a client (en route to fill out a housing application) was also in the vehicle. The tragedy caused the nonprofit Women in Need, Inc. (WIN) to keep its vehicles off the road for a while.

For reasons undisclosed to the public, police characterized the driver’s murder as the denouement of a “personal feud.” But since WIN provides, among other things, shelter for women who are fleeing domestic violence, the killing could certainly have been an act of revenge against a system that dares to steal a man’s chosen victim.

Reactions?

Source: “Good Samaritan dies trying to help homeless man in Rancho Cucamonga,” ABC7.com, 04/13/14
Source: “Police arrest Harold Dodson in murder of Army sergeant who was helping homeless shelter,” GeorgiaNewsday.com, 10/27/15
Source: “Teen Stabbed To Death After Someone Saw ‘Gift’ They Gave Homeless Man,” MadWorldNews.com, 06/20/16
Source: “Borough Park shooting: Driver of homeless service van killed, NYPD says,” amNY.com, 08/30/16
Photo credit: Hakon Siguroarson via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA