The 2016 national homeless count was about 550,000, and indicated that one out of five people experiencing homelessness resides in either New York or Los Angeles. California contains 28% of all the homeless people in America.
Five states account for half the homeless, and they are California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington. The statistics get confusing, because some cities are lumped in along with their entire counties, like Seattle/King County and Los Angeles City/County.
In quoting the 2016 count of King County’s homeless people (10,677), Ashley Archibald says the number “deceives in its apparent precision.” There is no intentional deception, and the challenge is the same pretty much everywhere.
More importantly, even counts of housed people produce fuzzy numbers. Archibald breaks it down for Real Change News:
Humans are pesky creatures, constantly moving, losing census forms or simply not bothering to fill them out at all. Statisticians rely on projections rather than hard counts to calculate the number and location of people. In the end it’s an extremely well-informed, highly mathematical guess.
Because the count is so important to federal funding, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has stepped up its efforts to locate people so they can be added to the tally. Nationwide, about 20 counties conduct a separate youth count, which applies to people under 25 years of age.
The great Northwest
Here is one description of Seattle/King County’s new system:
The Count Us In method will utilize different data collection methods for the full range of homelessness count activities. The count will include a street count of people living unsheltered, those living in sheltered or transitional housing, a qualitative survey of people experiencing homelessness and specialized approaches to count people living in vehicles…
The numbers to be released will be the findings on homeless youth, vehicle residents, chronic homelessness and other specialized populations.
For Seattle Weekly, Joe Bernstein describes the current year’s activities from a perspective that housed people don’t hear very often:
Early Friday morning, volunteers and paid staff across King County will try to count the street homeless like me.
He describes the complicated yet conscientious history of doing these counts in Seattle and environs, leading up to why and how the new approach of working with the nonprofit Applied Survey Research was adopted for this year:
ASR brags that HUD considers its method a “best practice,” and it has two features Seattle hasn’t seen before: covering whole counties […] and doing so with teams of two volunteers and a currently or recently homeless “guide,” paid for his or her time.
Bernstein goes on to explain why certain results will occur, like difficulty in comparing new information with past data, because, unlike before, the new method divides up reporting areas by census tract. An overall numerical increase is also likely, and not only because a larger area is being covered. The homeless “guides” presumably have insider knowledge about where people tuck themselves away out of sight.
As a person experiencing homelessness himself, Bernstein offers the following insights:
Street counts normally happen at night because many homeless people sleep then, and fewer housed people are around to confuse things. Still, counters are at huge disadvantages. Volunteers across the country often don’t try to count people in cars or tents accurately, don’t enter squats or shacks, don’t wake anyone up, may not even ask those awake “Are you homeless?”, and can hardly guess how many people are couch-surfing.
Perhaps the best way to think about the counts is as a floor, a minimum. Shelter counts are pretty reliable, and street counts reliably underestimate. (This is why the feds want January counts — they want the highest sheltered percentage they can get.)
This year’s number will probably be bigger, maybe much bigger, but there’s a silver lining: It’ll probably be less of an underestimate of the real, even scarier, number.
Hot Springs, Arkansas, receives less attention than a lot of other places. The United Way-recruited volunteers are not allowed to work at night. The only two categories are sheltered and unsheltered. Occupying a vehicle, or squatting in a house with no running water, counts as unsheltered.
In the past year, the unsheltered total has more than doubled, and the overall total rose by 40%. In Hot Springs, the very large majority of people experiencing homelessness are single males.
Sue Legal of Ouachita Children’s Center told a reporter that this year’s higher count doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the actual number of homeless people, but does reflect the benefits of pleasant weather and a bigger volunteer team. Even so, she believes that many people living in concealed rural camps were not counted.
Shoutout to Washington/District of Columbia, which is in fifth place. The capitol of the United States of America, the most powerful and morally superior nation on earth, has a homeless population of at least 8,350, smaller than only four other American cities.
Source: “The U.S. Cities With The Largest Homeless Populations [Infographic],” Forbes.com, 11/25/16
Source: “Counting in the dark,” RealChangeNews.ort, 01/25/17
Source: “Counting America’s hidden homeless,” AlJazeera.com, 01/31/17
Source: “New homeless counting system starting this year,” MapleValleyReporter.com, 02/03/17
Source: “Homeless count shows increase of unsheltered,” Hotsr.com, 02/10/17
Photo credit: Tony Brooks (yeahbouyee) via Visualhunt/CC BY
Last week, House the Homeless considered the activities of Pastor Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, who brings together givers and people who need things. By running for city council, he combines the faith-based approach with the political approach.
In some states of the union, earnest people have a better chance to thrive among progressive-minded neighbors. In other locales, a different social climate produces different results.
There is a growing tendency to criminalize, or at least seriously impede, grassroots activism and individual efforts. It’s as if the government has a split personality, and wants to both ignore the root causes of homelessness, and at the same time own and control everything about homelessness.
The same mindset prompts humans to murder their domestic partners who want to leave. “If I can’t have you, nobody else can either.” The government seems to be saying, “I can’t or won’t do very much for you, but I’m going to make sure nobody else will, either.”
A great philosopher once said that what every person really wants is to make a difference. All over America, individuals are trying to do that in the area of homeless relief. At the same time, penalizing the helpers has become a thing.
One ongoing story happens in Madison, Wisconsin. Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center, used to let as many as six people sleep on the porch of the home she shares with Robert Bloch. The couple also fitted out the porch with a dozen locker-room-style storage units for their guests to use.
The city threatened to fine them $300 a day. Journalist Pat Schneider wrote of Konkel, who used to be a city council member:
She worked with members of Occupy Madison a couple of years ago as they tried without success to get city approval to erect a homeless encampment and was instrumental in the group’s success in getting zoning approval for a village of “tiny houses” now under construction on the city’s east side.
Robert Bloch told the reporter that there had only been one police visit to the porch-sleepers, when an ambulance had to be called for a medical emergency. He also said, “The system is not working.”
The homeowners were granted time extensions, but were warned again two months later to clear the porch. The absence of sleepers was not enough, the city wanted the lockers gone too. This was not the activist’s only battle over storage. Tony Galli wrote:
Konkel says the problem of finding places to store the valuables of people who are homeless was highlighted this week, when county facility staff members removed more two dozen large plastic bags of belongings from Madison city hall. Konkel and other advocates for the homeless returned the bags to city hall, and facility officials say they will allow them to remain stacked on the building’s porch, as long as they are not unattended.
Another Konkel effort is toward establishing a day center to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. A location has been proposed but, not surprisingly, someone challenged it in court.
A local blogger uses cruel labels and accuses Konkel of being anti-police.This is apparently because she contradicts the mayor’s claims that the city needs somewhere between 13 and 361 additional police officers. She used to sit on the Police Staffing committee, before the department banned anyone, including City Council members, from collaborating on those decisions. Brenda Konkel is still an activist, advocate, and writer about homelessness in Madison.
Source: “Brenda Konkel could be fined for allowing homeless to sleep on her porch,” Madison.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Advocate’s lockers for the homeless must go,” WKOW.com, 11/14/14
Source: “We need 13-361 New Police Officers?,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/05/17
Source: “Tonight! Evictions & Homelessnes,” ForwardLookout.com, 01/10/17
Photo credit: John Benson (ibm4381) via Visualhunt/ CC BY
One school of thought believes that funneling all help, and all the helped, through official channels should be the only permissible route. In some places, that philosophy goes even further, to a conviction that anyone who says, “No, thank you” to a solution the government insists on, becomes totally undeserving of help from any source.
Some, like Kelly Boyd of Eugene, Oregon, want to see the giving spirit flourish at the most grassroots, person-to-person level. Soon after moving to town, he filled the bed of his pickup truck with clothes and blankets, and attached to the tailgate a sign that said, “Get One, Give One.”
It wasn’t long before the Ordinance Enforcement Office left a business card and a warning. Anthony Kustura reported:
The note said Boyd must stop putting things in the back of the truck because he is in violation of city code.
The City says Boyd is creating a “liveability impact” and that neighbors complained about finding trash in the street.
Four months later, Boyd was running (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) for a City Council seat. He told local TV station KMTR that aside from the “Get One, Give One” truck, other individual efforts were being squelched. His number-one issue is homelessness, of which he says city officials take an “archaic view.”
Boyd advocates a more organic approach, encouraging citizens to individually help each other. He is sensitive to the fact that many people experiencing homelessness do not want to call on official resources — for what they consider good and sufficient reasons — and their opinions about the matter ought to be respected.
Also, he wants the city to keep a more careful eye on things like cost overruns for public projects, but is not against taxing or spending:
Instead of having boutique taxes to take care of various needs, go ahead and build a groundswell of increased jobs, increased pay, so that there is a greater tax base in our area so that there is a constant resource and income for our city budget.
This facet of Boyd’s platform is interesting because it resonates with the success story of Oklahoma City, whose mayor convinced it to pass an across-the-board sales tax, and a strong case can be made that this move actually blossomed into citywide revitalization. As always, things are relative and situational. For instance, while a groundswell of increased jobs might sound attractive, many cities have found to their regret that letting a prison or a pollution-producing industry move in can have its drawbacks.
And yet, there is always a tradeoff. The City of Eugene said that people in the neighborhood complained about the trash left behind after the freebie truck’s visits. This is speculation, but it seems as if a person who provides such a service would, could, and should tidy up the area, and especially, would be able to recruit a helper or two in this task.
Boyd and his wife do their volunteer work inspired by their “greater calling, that the needs of all should be met.” In other words, it is a faith-based effort, and people with church-going backgrounds are well accustomed to the idea of helping out with the setup and the cleanup at communal activities.
Making it official
Presumably, this type of logistical methodology is what a City Council with a Boyd-like mindset could approve. They could make ordinances saying, “Go ahead and have your event, and take video with your cell phone of the cleanup process, and of the pristine area when you’re done. Then, shoot some footage of the volunteer crew dropping off the trash at the City’s designated spot.”
Looked at from another angle, in most cities, neighborhoods have things like block parties and coordinated garage sales. Parades, mob shopping days, sports events, and a lot of other happenings tend to leave behind debris. In some college towns, entire neighborhoods successfully impersonate slums. Depending on who causes it, a certain amount of urban mess is accepted. Somehow, everyone lives to party another day.
Also, it seems like a certain amount of selective reinforcement goes on, regarding outdoor group activities, which is all part of the criminalization of homelessness. For the authorities to suppress and even outlaw grassroots activism is counterproductive on many levels.
Source: “City tells man to stop placing items in truck for homeless to take,” NBC16.com, 01/28/16
Source: “Meet the candidate: Kelly Boyd runs for Eugene City Council Ward 1,” NBC16.com, 04/02/16
Source: “A City Refurbished for Health,” Childhood Obesity News, 01/20/17
Photo credit: eddiecoyote via Visualhunt/ CC BY
Every now and then a story crosses the screen that is really different. “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited to University of Washington” — see what we mean? Seattle is that West Coast city where rain falls 150 days a year. On any given rainy night, about 4,500 people are sleeping outside, and not to roast marshmallows and swap ghost stories. (Close to 3,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 3,000 in shelters.)
A bunch of people live in Tent City 3, a community that resettles every three months in a different area (including two previous college campuses). This is not an ideal solution for anyone, but when frequent uprooting is done in an orderly way, it can take a lot of stress off both the housed and the unhoused. One way or another, Tent City 3 has survived as an entity for 15 years.
As described by the reporters, the residents seem hyper-aware of the need to be role models and proud representatives of the homeless population. Shamar Waters and Jon Schuppe wrote:
A large portion of the residents are older and disabled, but many others have regular jobs and help keep the camp running. The camps feature communal areas, including kitchens and showers, depending on the availability of electricity and running water.
The 10,000-square-foot encampment will spend one-fourth of the year in a campus parking lot because the kids asked for it. Students in eight different academic disciplines will be able to claim credit for participating in studies and activities involving people experiencing homelessness. About 100 students pitched in with the move-in chores.
The story doesn’t say whether any students objected, based on the parking space scarcity. But even that would be a learning experience, wouldn’t it? Imagine having to park the car (your parents probably bought) a bit farther from class. Compared to having nowhere to live, that is a negligible inconvenience, and a lot of kids would never admit being bothered by it. Imagine having to walk for a considerable distance, out in the weather, to get where you need to go. That’s the everyday reality for people experiencing homelessness.
In addition to the officially recognized educational benefits of interacting with tent-dwelling nomads, there are bound to be unofficial ones. Like when kids realize that if they don’t actively work toward some kind of reform to the college loan system, they could easily end up living in tents too.
The state of Texas is often perceived as hostile to any number of diverse populations, but Brownwood disproves the stereotype. Just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth, the city of about 20,000 is the county seat, and the features in and around it include Howard Payne University, a branch of the Texas State Technical College, a state park, a state juvenile correctional complex, a regional airport, and a U.S. Army training camp.
Actor Bob Denver came from Brownwood, and so did legendary burlesque queen Candy Barr, and an impressive list of other people who have made a mark on the world. Perhaps the biggest celebrity is New Beginnings Church, which for 10 years has functioned as the city’s only shelter.
Pastor Kelly Crenshaw says:
Sometimes people just need a day or two or a week or two to get on their feet. Sometimes they just need a little bit of time, once they get lost, to figure out what their next step is…
There are also long-term guests. From the larger community, food bank donations are received, along with blankets, scarves, and other items, which is generous in a place where the median household income is maybe $33,000.
Recommended: “The Year in Review,” from House the Homeless
Also recommended: House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell is interviewed by KXAN television journalist Kevin Schwaller in “Advocacy group to examine ‘criminalization of homelessness’”
Source: “Why a Seattle Homeless Camp was Invited To University of Washington,” NBCNews.com, 12/21/16
Source: “Church Acts as Homeless Shelter in Brownwood,” BigCountryHomepage.com, 12/30/16
Photo credit: Joe Wolf (JoeInSouthernCA) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND
This spring in St. Louis, Missouri, an alderman proposed a bill that would effectively criminalize the unlicensed giving of anything to homeless people. Such items as blankets and bottled water could only be distributed if the giver had a vending license.
Reverend Larry Rice, of the city’s New Life Evangelical Center (NLEC), called this the Anti-Good Samaritan Bill, saying:
It’s wrong. It’s a fraud the way they’re going at this. People are hurting and they should not penalize, nor criminalize, either the homeless or those who want to help the homeless.
NLEC was founded in 1972, its first home the trailer where Rev. and Mrs. Rice lived. Later, it occupied a Victorian fixer-upper, and featured a coffeehouse, guitar music, and puppet shows. It also nurtured the people Rice called “the hurting and the homeless.” When the couple’s first child was due to be born any day, they learned about adversity firsthand:
When Penny went to the clinic to see about her rash and her swollen legs, they wouldn’t accept her because I didn’t make a regular income.
Before long, the NLEC offered not only emergency housing, but help hotlines, free clothing stores, counseling services, a youth center, classes, a leadership training program, and two publications, and did outreach work with penal institutions, hospitals, and the like. They were able to buy the old YWCA on Locust Street, the five-story building in which the Center still resides (pictured on this page.)
In the ensuing 40 years, increasing downtown gentrification has made the NLEC’s presence undesirable. Apparently a bar called Blood & Sand is particularly resentful. Developers, investors, and speculators see the Mission as standing between them and their own mission of gaining greater wealth. But ironically, for many of the neighbors it would be silly to say “Not in my backyard” because technically the area has been the NLEC’s backyard since 1976.
Generally, 50 or so people would actually live at the center, which presented a problem because the occupancy permit was for only 32 beds. Authorities claim that as many as 300 street people sleep there at night, and Rice admits to around 200. The city tried to close the NLEC in the spring of 2015, with the mission’s attorneys arguing that the city must not be allowed to repress the carrying out of religious duties.
Last month, another effort was made to displace the NLEC. The city’s Department of Human Services spokesperson Eddie Roth explained to reporter Elliott Davis that the institution is close to the public library, a children’s park, and a school attended by least 500 teenagers. Even though police conduct surveillance of the area from parked cars for 16 hours a day, the Mission’s presence is seen as posing unacceptable dangers.
Roth said all the city’s other “dozens of facilities” conduct their affairs in a way that is respectful to their neighbors. What he characterizes as a lack of respect is the way NLEC donors hold up traffic while dropping off loads of clothes and food, especially on Saturday mornings.
Meanwhile, an online petition objecting to Bill 66, the “Anti- Good Samaritan Law,” garnered 1,500 supporters. The measure was supposed to have been voted on in September, but the official government web page mentions no activity beyond the first reading in May.
The attempted November shutdown of NLEC did not happen. Plans were made for the Thanksgiving dinner that feeds around 400 people each year, prepared and served by 100 or so volunteers, who also give out free clothes. The police were ordered to prevent donations from being dropped off for the Thanksgiving dinner and clothing distribution.
City spokesperson Roth also charged that the NLEC acts as a magnet to draw homeless people from the entire region into central St. Louis where they are given shelter for a month and then turned loose on the streets, increasing the burden on the city’s other homeless services.
We close with a few cogent points made by Bill McClellan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Officials have asked members of the St. Louis Homeless Services Network if they could pick up the slack if the city were to close Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center. The answer has been, no, we could not pick up the slack.
Rice […] provides an indispensable service, and he does so without public money.
If you’re a homeless man and you call the city’s Homeless Hotline […] you will likely be directed to New Life. Yes, the city regularly refers people to the shelter it has voted to close.
Source: “Proposed bill would require a permit before giving to homeless,” KMOV.com, 07/06/16
Source: “Chapter 4 — Building the New Community,” NewLifeEvangelisticCenter.org, undated
Source: “Police stop donations in front of St. Louis homeless shelter on Thanksgiving,” Fox2now.com, 11/28/16
Source: “McClellan: City’s Vote to Close Shelter Was a Gift for Rice,” Questia.com, 12/28/14
Image by NLEC
Because 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.
Source: “Authorities clear out Gilman homeless camp in Berkeley,” Berkeleyside.com, 06/16/16
Image by RomTom
Berkeley, 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.
Source: “Berkeley’s homeless feel squeezed as neighbors seek clampdown,” SFGate.com, 11/21/15
Back 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.