The cops used to come by a few times a year, now it’s twice a night.
That is what Ray Lyall, resident of the Denver streets, said to LA Times reporter David Kelly. The police “come by” to roust people who live outside, tell them to move on to another location, and, often, throw away their belongings. Kelly also includes a quote from an official who asks, in a rhetorical sort of way, “Who could have foreseen the great recession?”
The question sounds disingenuous, until the reader understands that the speaker works for a city agency with an agenda. On the contrary, in the days since 2008, it has become clear that the crippling economic crisis could have been, and was, foreseen by the people who engineered it. But as long as they and their friends profited from the recession, at the cost of everyone else, they didn’t care. Bennie Milliner also said this:
The homeless problem was greatly exacerbated by the housing downturn and the bursting of the housing bubble.
… To which Kelly adds:
Now the opposite is true. The Denver-Aurora metro area has seen a 26% increase in home prices over the last two years, one of the highest in the country.
Consider that telling phrase, “Now the opposite is true.” In other words, both general prosperity and the lack of general prosperity are causes of homelessness. Any society in which both things are true is a society that has something basically wrong with it.
This point of view is not unique. Kelly notes that “critics believe the city is applying bandages when major surgery is needed.” The American Civil Liberties Union says that Denver, other Colorado cities, and municipalities all over the nation are criminalizing homelessness.
Scorched earth policy
A particular type of news story has become very common as it emanates from one city after another. There is a fire at a homeless encampment, and immediately the citizens cry for the camp to be abolished, and police and city workers do a “sweep” to push all the inhabitants out of the area. Makeshift shelters are torn down; tents, tarpaulins, and bedding are loaded into trucks and taken to the landfill. The fact that there was a fire (or some other incident) is used to justify making a gigantic leap to the idea that no settlements should exist.
There are much better reasons for society to decide that it is not good for people to experience homelessness in random encampments. The best reason for camps to be abolished would be if the inhabitants had some other place to go and live, but this is seldom the case. When something bad happens in a shantytown, housed people have a thoughtless, knee-jerk impulse to tear down the impromptu village.
But strangely, when there is a conflagration in an apartment building, nobody goes public with a demand to abolish all apartment buildings. When a private home catches fire, citizens don’t rise up and agitate for bulldozers to move in and level neighborhoods of single-family dwellings.
This comparison could be extended almost endlessly. When a school, grocery store, or church catches fire, no sane person proposes that schools, grocery stores, or churches should be banned. Kelly also quoted the manager of the Denver Rescue Mission, who confided that the encampments wiped out by authorities were “rife with gambling, drug dealing and prostitution.” Steve Walkup went on to say:
But they’ll probably rebuild their shantytowns. One will go up and another and another.
But pause and consider… A certain Nevada locale is rife with gambling, drugs, and prostitution, yet hardly anyone suggests nuking Las Vegas. When an outdated structure is demolished, very few people shake their heads and say, “But they’ll probably rebuild their hotels and casinos. One will go up and another and another.” Of course they will. Only a very naive or oblivious person is surprised by anything that happens in such a capital of commerce, because that is its nature.
And what happens in any city where thousands of people have nowhere to live should not be surprising either. Of course, camps form. Small communities are established, and in those rough-and-ready colonies are all kinds of humans, including people with a work ethic and moochers who just want to coast; and conscientious neighbors, and careless jerks who allow fires to start.
There are some virtually helpless people, and some who can cope with anything life throws at them. Some whose ideals and principles never waver, and some desperate enough to try anything. In short, people experiencing homelessness, who live in camps, are pretty much like people in rowhouses and highrises, except more exposed and vulnerable. Otherwise, the differences are superficial.
Anyone who cares to may have a look at the 80-page PDF file, The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.
Megan Elliott specializes in picking through reams of statistics to throw light on tendencies and trends. It is believed that around 565,000 people experience homelessness at any given time in America. Half of that entire population is concentrated in only five states — California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts.
California is a mess. There are more than 40,000 homeless people in the city and county of Los Angeles, and 70% of them are unsheltered. New York City is another disaster, with 14% of the entire country’s homeless people living there.
Despite Massachusetts being in the top five, it is interesting that the city of Boston has the lowest rate of unsheltered homeless people, and the lowest rate of those categorized as “chronically homeless.” Washington, D.C., is the opposite, with a very high percentage of the people who were counted being categorized as “chronically homeless” — 42% versus 23%, so almost twice as high as the national average. The nation’s capital also has a lot of homeless veterans.
In San Diego, whose entire economy is dictated by military spending, veterans account for disproportionate segment of the homeless demographic. In California as a whole, 62% of homeless vets were found to be unsheltered.
San Francisco and Las Vegas are the youth magnets, with the highest proportions of unaccompanied children and teens. These kids are on their own. Sure, a few had bad attitudes and ran away for stupid reasons. Some were simply let go, perhaps because their parents divorced and neither one wanted to take the responsibility.
When separated parents form other attachments, the new partners might perceive the kids as embarrassing mistakes, or rivals for scare emotional currency, or even as actual threats. Kids who suffer from cruelty at home would often rather take their chances out in the world.
In both Seattle and Chicago, families with children make up around one-third of the entire homeless population. This news from New York City is hot off the press:
The already strained shelter system — which is so crowded that the city has resorted to using hotels to accommodate people — has also seen a spike in the number of single adults and adult families without kids.
The number of singles averaged 12,232 a night last month, the highest since the city started separating singles from families in 2009, according to the latest stats from the Department of Homeless Services.
And the number of adult families — typically married couples — also peaked with an average of 2,221 families a night in February, which is also the highest total in that category since 2009.
Meanwhile, the number of families with children — which began climbing in August — is at near record levels, with 12,232 families on an average night, according to DHS.
That’s a lot of kids going through a real hard time in the van or garage where they hole up, maybe with bathroom privileges from a kind neighbor. Imagine being a third-grader whose single mother is overwhelmed by terror or hopelessness. How do you tell her, “It’s all right, you don’t have to go back with Daddy and get yelled at or hit.”
At school, everything is stacked against these kids. They show up in yesterday’s clothes, with less-than-optimal grooming, and get free lunches or none at all, and can’t afford the outfit to either join a sports team or cheer for the athletes. It’s widely believed that in America, the years of what used to be called junior high school are the worst. Imagine being in middle school and homeless, with nothing and no one to depend on.
Nationwide, the best estimate is something like 130,000 children who are growing up with food insecurity, and in situations where permanent, stable housing — i.e. a home — is a foolish dream. Where will these kids be in 10 years? What will they be doing? It’s worth giving this a good, hard think.
Source: “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” hudexchange.info, November 2015
Source: “Poverty: 10 Cities With the Most Homeless People,” CheatSheet.com, 04/25/16
Source: “EXCLUSIVE: NYC homeless shelters have near-record number of families with children,” NYDailyNews.com, 03/07/16
Photo credit: USDAgov via Visualhunt/CC BY
An essay that Dan Arel wrote for Counterpunch about the current goings-on in San Diego is vital because it concerns two topics that have been extensively covered by House the Homeless: the Housing First concept and “sweeps.”
Arel speaks of the violent El Nino weather patterns that afflicted Southern California early last month, just when “community frustration” about the large number of people experiencing homelessness was rising. The only answer the mayor’s office could come up with was to order a “cleanup,” as if poverty-stricken, unhoused people are dirt that needs to be swept away.
Many police officers took part in the tearing down of shelters and the relegation of people’s possessions to garbage trucks. Arel writes:
To make matters worse, the officers timed their action when many of the homeless in the area had gone inside to access restrooms at the Neil Good Day Center. When the homeless citizens went inside, police deemed their property abandoned and collected it all.
Aside from everything else, the reporter was told by activist Michael McConnell that the response rate of the police department to actual crimes is far from admirable, and to have police personnel throwing away blankets and tents is a terrible waste of public funds. Caltrans also keeps its workers busy with “a crew out almost every day cleaning out downtown area camps.” Supposedly, the homeless are given three-days notice to move elsewhere, which is a cruel joke when there is no other place to go.
As always, the city cites sanitation and hygiene concerns. As always, decent people wonder why there can’t be public restrooms and even places for washing up and doing laundry. The society we live in has ambitions to build colonies on other planets, yet can’t figure out how to provide sanitation and hygiene in a modern, advance city here on Earth.
In addition to “sweep” and “cleanup,” civic authorities also use the term “purge” which has even worse connotations. A purge is the abrupt or violent removal of people from an organization or place. The word has many synonyms, including expulsion, ejection, exclusion, eviction, and eradication. Purges were and are engaged in by conscienceless tyrants in banana republics, Iron Curtain countries, and places ruled by medieval-minded warlords.
Somewhere around 9,000 homeless people live in San Diego, and a lot of them lost vital medications, personal papers and documents, irreplaceable belongings, sleeping bags, spare clothes, and more in this effort to clean up the city. The local activists, when they show up at protests and meetings, wear trash bags to convey the message, “Stop treating human beings like garbage.”
The reporter says:
Roughly one-third of the unsheltered homeless have a physical disability, and one-fifth suffer from severe mental illness. These men and women need more help than is available and what they receive instead is harassment by law enforcement and the city government… Throwing away possessions and destroying homeless camps does not solve the crisis facing the city… With mentally ill and elderly people lining our streets, San Diego must do better.
Allegedly, “tens of millions of dollars” are available to help people pay rent under the Section 8 program, but as in so many other places, landlords refuse to take Section 8 tenants. Obviously some other solution is needed, and needed now.
One of the most disturbing paragraphs in this deeply disturbing story concerns the reporter’s assessment of the Housing First paradigm as a failure — at least in San Diego:
The solution, which looks fantastic on paper, gives these men, women, and families a stable living situation and allows them to rebuild their lives and even reenter the workforce. However, this plan has never been successful and instead of rethinking the strategy, it seems that city officials have just thrown their arms up in frustration… Using landlords as a scapegoat for inaction accomplishes nothing…
Who should be the scapegoats? The municipal administrators who allegedly are smart enough to run things, but who can’t figure this stuff out — not just in San Diego, but everywhere in America.
It’s funny how, whenever a city wants to build a dog park or a racetrack or a sports arena, funding is available and obstacles magically melt away. But when it comes to creating places for people to live under roofs with electricity and running water, it’s like this enormous puzzle that none of these college-educated, highly-paid bureaucrats can wrap their heads around.
Housing? For humans? The clever, suit-wearing winners are at a complete loss. Imagining how to get people in out of the weather is an insurmountable challenge.
In previous House the Homeless posts, we have outlined the basic facts that are just beginning to appear clearly, about certain relationships between various groups of people. The report on this year’s HtH Survey described how a concussion occurs.
Sometimes, the brain is concussed even when the person has not received a direct blow to the head. As with “shaken baby syndrome,” any violent activity that causes the brain to strike the inside of the skull can potentially do serious damage.
The 2010 HtH Health Survey had already established that about half of the people experiencing homelessness are too disabled to work. This year, the 248 people who filled out survey forms provided a frightening picture of how much of that disability stems from traumatic brain injury.
Eighty percent of the respondents had been struck in the head hard enough to describe the result as seeing stars or getting their bell rung. Nearly half of all the respondents had at some point in their lives been knocked unconscious.
Not surprisingly, many of Austin’s homeless residents have sustained multiple head injuries. Almost half have been in car accidents, and the number of street attacks on people experiencing homelessness is astonishing. Of course, domestic violence plays a role. Many women flee hellish situations with no safe place to land.
Undoubtedly, police actions account for some head injuries among the homeless, but also consider this — nearly three-fourth of the survey respondents had fallen from a height. A fall from a roof, scaffold, or tree is almost always a work-related injury.
Of the 248 survey respondents, 26 individuals, mostly veterans, said they had been in an explosion. Here is a weird coincidence: 26 symptoms characterize traumatic brain injury. The signs are present among a huge number of veterans, and a gigantic number of people experiencing homelessness, and also among a very large number of former contact sports players.
Many people fit in all three categories, and here is the incredibly ironic thing. Two of these groups of Americans — soldiers and athletes — are praised and rewarded as long as they are in good working order. But if they should happen to become members of that third group, the homeless, their reputation suffers a sudden and dramatic change. Interest in their well-being evaporates, and concern for their fate drops to zero.
HtH President Richard R. Troxell says this:
What if what we are seeing is that many of the nation’s homeless population has suffered some kind of head injury not necessarily because they are homeless, but rather, causing them to fall into homelessness and even preventing them from escaping it? […] Perhaps, ultimately, we can take preventative measures to counter these life-altering events that are so costly to the individual and to our nation…
Concussed people very often fall through the holes of the societal safety net. What we are zeroing in on here is the relationship between head injuries, ongoing disability, veterans, and homelessness. This is where Dr. Mark L. Gordon and his Millennium Health Group colleagues enter the scene.
As we have mentioned, Dr. Gordon is an endocrinologist who has specialized in Traumatic Brain Injury for many years. His work is based on the fact that brain injury damages the nearby pituitary gland, which is in charge of all the the body’s neurosteroids (hormones.)
Unfortunately, popular imagination associates hormones only with the reproductive aspect of human life. In actuality, neurosteroids rule every physical process and mental condition, and their absence causes deficiencies that Dr. Gordon lists as including:
… depression, anger outbursts, anxiety, mood swings, memory loss, inability to concentrate, learning disabilities, sleep deprivation increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes… and a number of other medically documented conditions.
Restoring neurosteroid homeostasis can return a person to a state of health and productivity that is not only addiction-free, but medication-free. On April 12, House the Homeless issued a press release announcing a new effort to combine the resources of our organization with those of National Health Care for the Homeless, directed by John Lozier, and with Dr. Gordon’s hormone replacement therapy protocol.
The precedent for this type of united initiative has been set by Dr. Gordon’s work with the Warrior Angels Foundation, resulting in the successful treatment of more than a hundred veterans afflicted by traumatic brain injury. We want to see this healing work continue for veterans, for homeless people, and most particularly, for homeless veterans.
Yes, the title of this post is a sarcastic joke, because the increasing propensity of cities to criminalize homelessness is anything but fine. If it were not so deadly serious, the insanity of trying to wipe out poverty by punishing it with monetary penalties would be hilarious.
Just last month, in the Italian the town of Bordighera, the mayor demonstrated his understanding of how foolish it is to fine the homeless. Instead, he announced that anyone caught giving money to a beggar would be fined.
House the Homeless mentioned the fellow in the Canadian city of Montreal who owes the equivalent of $18,000 in homeless fees. The London borough of Hackney announced its intention to fine the homeless between (the British equivalent of) $142 and $1,420 for such offenses as sleeping outside and panhandling. More than 65,000 signed a petition objecting to the idea, and the Hackney Council backed off.
There are plenty of similarly grotesque examples in America, where the following incidents have happened in recent history.
In San Antonio, Texas, chef Joan Cheever, who owns a commercially licensed food truck, was warned that she could no longer deliver food to the homeless in her personal truck, which apparently is necessary because it is not practical to park the larger food truck in some locations. The bureaucracy decided that she could only hand out industrially packaged food from the smaller truck, rather than the nourishing gourmet meals that she cooked.
After receiving the first ticket that fined her $2,000, she continued to serve food in the accustomed way and told reporter Stefanie Tuder:
I’m not going to settle and I’m not going to pay the fine and I’m not going to stop. They can come out every Tuesday and write me up a ticket and we’ll just start collecting them.
By the way, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell has called defiant chef Joan Cheever his hero.
In a Florida town where a 90-year-old veteran and two ministers were feeding people experiencing homelessness, a new law was passed that would fine them up to $500 and possibly send them to jail, and the veteran was arrested twice in one week.
In Kansas City, Missouri, charitable organizations can run afoul of the law by providing food or other services within 500 feet of a park or within 1,000 feet of a school.
Aside from food providers, people determined to help in other ways are penalized. In Portland, Oregon, a property owner was fined for allowing an impromptu community called “Right 2 Dream Too” to exist on his empty lot.
In Temecula, California, the only full-time homeless shelter was told it had to close within a month, and Jeff Horseman reported that Project TOUCH already been fined more than $2,000 and faced further penalties of $1,000 a day.
In Madison, Wisconsin, a couple set up lockers on their front porch so people experiencing homelessness could store their belongings. Sometimes, people even slept on the porch.
The neighbors complained, and the generous couple were threatened with daily $300 fines. Scott Keyes reported:
People being threatened or assessed with fines for helping the homeless is becoming a trend recently. Earlier this year, a Florida couple was fined $746 for feeding homeless people, while a Birmingham pastor was prevented from doing so because he didn’t have a $500 permit. Even church groups based in St. Louis and Raleigh have been blocked and threatened with arrest for handing out meals to their homeless neighbors.
In McMinnville, Oregon, a church that started by serving coffee and snacks began letting people camp outside at night, and was threatened with fines for the violation of zoning ordinances. In this case, a compromise was reached: Tents would no longer be allowed, but people could stay overnight on the property in sleeping bags.
Source: “This town will fine you for giving money to homeless people,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/18/16
Source: “Hackney confirms it will not be fining homeless people,” localgov,co.uk, 06/08/15
Source: “San Antonio, Texas, Chef Fights City Fine to Feed the Homeless,” Yahoo.com, 04/22/15
Source: “90-Year-Old WW2 Veteran and Two Clergymen Face 60 Days in Jail for Feeding the Homeless in Florida,” LibertyBlitzkrieg.com, 11/05/14
Source: “How helping the homeless could get you in trouble in Missouri,” fox4kc.com, 12/19/14
Source: “Portland homeless camp faces closure,” DailyTidings.com, 02/01/12
Source: “Temecula homeless shelter has 30 days to close, avoid fines,” PE.com, 05/14/11
Source: “Church Could Face Fine for Allowing Homeless Congregation to Stay on Property,” texomashomepage.com, 03/17/15
Source: “Couple Who Let Homeless People Sleep On Their Porch Threatened With Daily Fine,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/19/14
Photo credit: thelesleyshow via Visualhunt/CC BY
For those who live on the streets, it is a common experience to be blamed, scorned, scolded, fined, or even jailed for the de facto crime of Breathing While Homeless.
Our northern neighbor Canada does not always set a good example. Toronto has been a very tough place for some time.
In 2012, things were so bad they were holding Homeless Memorials not just yearly, but every month. One of those remembered was Louis Quinn, who died owing the city as much as $30,000 because of the almost daily tickets he was issued for panhandling and encumbering a sidewalk.
Of course he wasn’t the only one. Research showed the insane but unsurprising fact that handing out such tickets used up a million dollars worth of police labor time each year. There were millions of dollars worth of unpaid fines, and the city recouped some spare change by selling the debt to collection agencies, who were then highly incentivized to cause even more grief in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
John Bonnar wrote:
If they don’t pay up it goes against their credit rating. Then if they do manage to make it back on their feet, their negative credit rating rating could prevent them from obtaining a credit card, renting an apartment, leasing a car or even acquiring a cell phone contract.
Apparently, matters on the Canadian front have not improved. This enlightening paragraph was written earlier this month by Patrick Lejtenyi for Vice.com:
It’s no secret that Montreal cops have monthly ticket quotas to meet. The police admitted as much two years ago… Those quotas are being met in large part by handing them out to the homeless, even with the knowledge that the fines will likely never be paid.
Isabelle Raffestin, coordinator of the Droit Devant legal clinic, told the reporter about a typical case, in which a middle-aged man, ill in both body and mind, owed the government the equivalent of $18,000 USD in fines that stemmed from his homeless condition. Another source mentioned knowing several young people who had made some progress toward getting their lives on track, but who had been dragged back into penury, and even imprisoned, because of the fines levied on them for doing things that housed people have no need or reason to do, or at least tend to get away with.
The good news is that Montreal has a municipal court program where the possibility exists of convincing the public prosecutor to extend amnesty and tear up the tickets. But is that the best solution? Lejtenyi writes:
Those who have lived on the streets and gone through the legal system say the homeless in Montreal are caught in a weird echo-chamber of the city’s making. They are well-served when they want to access social services, programs, and legal aid — but they wouldn’t need them if they weren’t made such easy targets for police in the first place.
It begins to sound as if homelessness is just a gigantic job-creation program for civil servants. In America, House the Homeless has mentioned the ever-increasing number of “sweeps” that take place in cities where enormous resources are used to move people experiencing homelessness from one place to another, invariably losing stability, and possessions, along the way.
One sorry example is Denver, Colorado, where police have become increasingly aggressive and brutal. Meanwhile, over the past three years the city’s police department has spent upward of $1.3 million on its media relations department.
A statement from their boss said their duties include:
[…] handling phone calls and interview requests from the media 24/7, organizing press conferences, writing press releases, producing podcasts, internal communication, safety campaigns, projects with other city agencies, promoting department events, plus many other tasks.
Including, no doubt, plenty of spin and lots of damage control. Apparently it has not occurred to the city that better police training and more humane policies might obviate the need for costly public relations efforts. Meanwhile, even worse stories are out there. In Orlando, Florida, last year, a public defender made news:
Robert Wesley wants to put an end to low value arrests with high court fines, which he said hurts the homeless and is a burden on taxpayers because of the cost incurred during the cases that the defendants ultimately can’t pay.
Wesley told journalist Stewart Moore about a particular case where a man dying in a hospice had to be guarded by police at all times, at ridiculous cost to the taxpayers. Technically, he was under arrest for not paying homeless fines.
Source: “Homeless people racking up thousands in fines under Safe Streets Act,” Rabble.ca, 09/13/12
Source: “Why Did Canada Fine This Homeless Man $80,000?,” Vice.com, 03/01/16
Source: “Denver Police defend spending more than $1.3 million over three years on public relations,” TheDenverChannel.com, 02/16/16
Source: “Local public defender calls for stop to homeless arrests, fines,” WESH.com, 08/11/15
Photo credit: wantmorepuppies via Visualhunt/CC BY
Last week we mentioned a fellow whose dentures were stolen by the authorities in their quest to “clean up” San Francisco for a gigantic sports event. Oscar McKinney has other problems too, like a couple of dozen citations for loitering, sleeping, and just generally Breathing While Homeless.
In that legendary city, law enforcement is relentless against homeless people who are “engaged in necessary, life-sustaining activities.” According to ThinkProgress.org:
There are 23 city codes criminalizing things like standing or resting in public, sleeping in public places and cars, and panhandling… Police issued nearly 23,000 citations for violations of these codes between 2006 and 2014.
This game has many variations. For a Change.org page that has not been archived, “Slumjack Homeless” once described being ticketed for sleeping on a sidewalk:
Now I’ll have to go to court (more costly and wastefully time consuming than you can imagine, requiring going all the way to another city to do so) where they typically then impose fines (far more “expensive” in this predicament than you might realize) which can also be “paid” via “community service” […] which means working, unpaid, for perhaps 30 hours or so. Free slave labor, really, and from people that STILL can’t sleep or live anywhere.
In nearby Marin County in 2011, Legal Aid attorney Maura Prendiville took a look at the stats, which at the time reported approximately 5,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness or extremely precarious living situations. Even though there was no shelter space, people were ticketed for sleeping outdoors, and for numerous petty infractions.
Activists created a pilot program with the goal of helping people avoid, rather than accrue, criminal records. The community court would have the option of referring defendants to substance abuse programs and other mental health services. Here too, people could “work off” their fines with the judge’s permission.
CBS news quoted Rick Buquia, who described they cycle of court appearances, volunteer work, and jail that had become his life. The reporter wrote:
He has been homeless for three years and is facing a $1,000 ticket he simply cannot afford to pay.
In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell narrates the beginnings of the battle for sanity in Austin that later, after years of work, resulted in some relatively humane rules. Under a proposed ordinance, sleeping rough would be a criminal offense with a fine of up to $500. People would get tickets they couldn’t pay for, and then be locked up and emerge with criminal records.
The city had only a few hundred shelter beds and a homeless population of several thousand, so how was this supposed to work? Richard wrote:
To some, the idea was ludicrous, for if the homeless had $500.00 surely they would opt to sleep somewhere other than under a bridge. For others, the homeless were merely being asked to pay their “debt to society” for their crime of sleeping in public… These people would then be returned to the streets, still without jobs, or still without jobs paying living wages. They would still have no access to affordable housing, and the only continuity in their lives was that they were assured of being arrested again… and again.
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “San Francisco Clears Out Homeless Ahead Of The Super Bowl,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/03/16
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 05/13/11
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Photo credit: kenteegardin via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA
Readers will remember the Open Letter to the City of Austin, written by the President and CEO of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell. (Scroll down the page past more recent events such as Amplify Austin, the Traumatic Brain Injury Survey Report, Kids 4 Kids Sake, the Thermal Underwear Party, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service, the Veterans’ Day Parade, and Bridge the Economic Gap Day. Look for the Department of Justice seal, and you’re there.)
The letter was widely circulated and published, not only to the officials and bureaucrats of Austin, Texas, but to like-minded organizations and to the press. This was in August of last year, more than six months ago, and the problems outlined in the text have only become worse since then.
All over America, even people with jobs can’t afford to pay for roofs over their heads. All over America, laws are in place that criminalize the most basic and necessary human activities, and “Quality of Life” ordinances take into consideration only the quality of housed people’s lives.
Everywhere, “sweeps” and “cleanups” take from people experiencing homeless even the precarious communities they form in vacant lots and under highways. The constant message is, “Move on, get out of here, go somewhere else.” But where?
Less than a week ago, this news came from Colorado:
Today, March 8th, the City Officials of Denver under Mayor Hancock used an “order of removal” ordinance to enable Public Works to decide what is an “encumbrance.” They used this “law” to force everyone out of the area and take away people’s tarps, blankets, and other belongings… Roughly 75 people were displaced from the places they have called home — many of whom for many months or even years. There is no legal option for almost anyone for where to go to.
As far back as last August Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, California, told the press that the homeless would have to leave before Super Bowl time came around. By November, people experiencing homelessness were being pushed out of downtown.
In a city with an estimated 7,000 homeless residents, it is not easy to get them all out of sight so that tourists won’t be bummed out by their presence. City workers “herded” as many people as possible to a new place under a freeway. Typical was a fellow named Oscar McKinney, whose situation was described by journalist Evelyn Nieves:
City workers had removed his possessions right in front of him, he said, including all his identification papers. “They even got my teeth,” he said, displaying a wry, hollow smile. If they come around again, he said, he has no idea where he’ll go.
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl organizers were making sure that no homeless people would get fancy ideas about benefiting from the upcoming city-wide party. No free events would be accessible to them, because no one carrying a tent or a sleeping bag would be allowed to enter.
Sam Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar, offered a typically callous statement to The Wall Street Journal reporter Stu Woo:
He said the homeless could likely retrieve confiscated belongings at city storage.
In “The Criminalization of Ownership,” House the Homeless has examined that particular fairytale. Another instance of unintentional humor arose after the football festival was over, as expressed in this headline from The Guardian: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl.”
People who had previously existed in the areas most needed for the celebrations had been moved, in some cases, to shelters, but many were forcibly guided to the underside of a highway overpass. Three weeks after the big game, the public health department wanted them out of there within 72 hours of when the eviction order was issued, largely because of accumulated human waste and general trash.
Did the city not provide portable toilets or dumpsters? Apparently not. A statement from the director of health, Barbara Garcia, said:
Conditions where multiple tents are congregated have become unsafe. People are living without access to running water, bathrooms, trash disposal or safe heating or cooking facilities.
The solution that seemed good to the city authorities was make the people go find some other location without running water, bathrooms, trash disposal, or safe heating or cooking facilities.
Source: “City Sweeps People Without Homes from All the Blocks by Lawrence/Broadway/Park Ave,” wraaphome.org, 03/09/16
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “The Vanishing Homeless of Super Bowl 50,” WSJ.com, 02/02/16
Source: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl,” TheGuardian.com, 02/25/16
Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.
According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:
Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.
Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:
I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’
Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.
Somewhere in Middle America
For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.
Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.
The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,
Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.
That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.
A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.
Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,
It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?
Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
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