The January 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Religious Witness with Homeless People

Memorial for Homeless Deaths in East Bay

Remember Rosa Parks: Justice in Public Transit

Justice is Pushed to Back of Bus

Big Brother Watches the Poor

Homeless Woman Works to Survive

Let Justice Roll: Raise the Miserly Minimum Wage

Richmond Courts Unfair to Poor

War Profiteer Parties Hearty

Poets Against the War Machine

Poems for the Poorman

Poems in Spirit of St. Francis

Songs of Our Shared Humanity

Psychotic Breaks

How to Deal with Pain and Fear


November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005





Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Religious Leaders Protest S.F. Mayor's Persecution of Homeless People

by Casey Mills

Members of Religious Witness with Homeless People defend the human rights of homeless people in San Francisco.

"We cannot ethically or practically accept this contradiction: highly publicized care for a thousand people and the quiet persecution of thousands of others. In a civilized community it is not, and cannot, be a crime to be poor." -- Rev. Schuyler Rhodes

Since entering office, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has received little but praise from the city's media, presenting the public with a portrait of a compassionate friend of the poor. Yet last month, a group of some of San Francisco's most respected religious leaders gathered to highlight the contradictory aspects of Newsom's homeless policy, including a dramatic spike in the number of citations issued under his administration for sleeping outdoors.

While these religious leaders lauded some of Newsom's achievements, they renewed their request for a meeting with the mayor to discuss how he could create a truly compassionate plan for solving homelessness. Newsom refused their request -- the fourth time he's done so -- leaving many homeless advocates questioning his image as a caring leader.

His refusal also forced the city's religious leaders, led by Religious Witness with Homeless People's Sister Bernie Galvin, to begin drafting a resolution that would call for an end to his current practice of aggressively enforcing "quality of life" ordinances against thousands of homeless people. The resolution, along with the unified voice of religious leaders decrying the mayor's practices, are now threatening to severely tarnish Newsom's compassionate image.

The facts no one wants to hear

It's easy to find information on Newsom's record of providing housing for formerly homeless people. Despite criticism that it has been achieved on the backs of the poor due to cuts of monthly Care Not Cash checks, the Mayor's Office did permanently house over 1,025 formerly homeless people, a fact the mainstream media consistently notes.

But it is the flipside of Newsom's homeless policy that the public never sees -- namely, his administration's practices when it comes to punishing homeless people for simply existing on the street.

At a December 1 press conference at S.F. City Hall, Religious Witness with Homeless People revealed that the number of citations issued for "camping," or sleeping in a public place, have nearly tripled under Newsom in comparison to former Mayor Willie Brown. In the past 22 months, Newsom issued 1,860 citations. In his last 22 months, Brown issued only 718.

This fact outraged many of the city's religious leaders, and a broad spectrum of clergy attended the press conference to express their anger over the trend.

"We cannot ethically or practically accept this contradiction: highly publicized care for a thousand people and the quiet persecution of thousands of others," said Revered Schuyler Rhodes. "In a civilized community it is not, and cannot, be a crime to be poor."

The press conference revealed even more troubling information. Since Newsom took office, police have issued more than 11,000 citations for "quality of life" ordinances. Homeless advocates have estimated, based on the city's 1994 cost analysis of the issuance of citations, that these citations have cost the city at least $300,000. That's money that, if the current administration truly practiced compassion, could be spent giving people homes rather than making their lives more difficult.

"While we acknowledge the positive aspects of the city's housing initiatives," said Rabbi Alan Lew, "we are at the same time deeply troubled by aspects of our city's homeless policy that violate the Biblical mandate to be open-hearted to those in need -- that threaten to turn us into a hard-hearted, closed-fisted city, lacking in compassion."

Time for action

Since 1993, Religious Witness with Homeless People has worked tirelessly to organize the religious community around solving homelessness. Led by Sister Galvin, the organization organized more than 100 events over the years, including rallies, public prayer services, and sleep-outs, the most recent of which occurred just last month. Members include some of the most respected religious leaders in the city, including Rabbi Alan Lew, Rev. Norman Fong, and Rev. Keenan Kelsey.

In its entire history, no mayor has ever said no to meeting with Religious Witness, including even the notoriously conservative Frank Jordan. Yet Newsom bucked that trend, steadfastly refusing to sit down with the organization to discuss his homeless policies. The refusal led Galvin and her organization to go public with their concerns, aired at December's press conference.

"We consider it very unfortunate that Mayor Gavin Newsom has refused to even acknowledge our four formal requests for a meeting with him since his election as mayor," said Reverend Norman Fong at last month's event. "In light of Mayor Newsom's refusal to meet, we feel obligated to bring our concerns directly to the public's attention through this press conference."

But now, it appears the conference will represent just the beginning of religious leaders' plan to make the mayor treat homeless people more compassionately. Religious Witness recently drafted a resolution calling for the suspension of the enforcement of "quality of life" ordinances, a resolution that could soon become a major issue down at City Hall.

Along with the increased citations, homeless people have endured high amounts of harassment by the administration. The harassment can be, in large part, traced to San Francisco's current homeless policy, which allows the city's police to deal with homeless people in a variety of ways that could be considered anything but compassionate. Some include:
* Awakening homeless people between 4 and 6 in the morning as they sleep on sidewalks, and making them move on;
* Awakening people at 4 a.m. as they sleep in their vehicles, and making them get up and come outside to receive a citation;
* Placing hundreds of heavy metal barriers on sidewalks in poorer neighborhoods to prevent homeless people from sleeping there;
* Indiscriminately confiscating the property of homeless people.

Religious Witness' resolution will likely head to the Board of Supervisors this month. Homeless advocates are already viewing it as a chance to both raise awareness about the mayor's contradictory homeless policies, as well as provide a referendum on Newsom's handling of homeless people citywide.

Morality and the mayor

It now remains up to Mayor Newsom to address the contradictions in his homeless policy. It appears difficult for him to ignore the facts outlined by Religious Witness, and the moral weight of the city's religious leaders and their concern over his practices should make it even harder. Addressing the issue, however, would require him to honestly admit mistakes -- something homeless advocates are still waiting for from the mayor.

"Changes in the negative aspects of the city's policy on homelessness are possible only when honestly recognized and admitted by our elected officials," said Galvin.

"Deep in our hearts, all members of this community want a policy on homelessness which is comprehensively compassionate and just, one which honors the dignity and basic human rights of our thousands of neighbors who have no homes."

Given the long-standing and steadfast devotion of Galvin and the members of Religious Witness to ensuring that homeless people are treated morally, it's a safe bet Newsom will be held accountable for his actions until he faces their criticisms, despite his identity in the media as being nothing but caring and compassionate.

However, until he takes serious steps towards creating a homeless policy that is truly moral in every aspect, it may only get harder for the city's homeless to live on the streets of San Francisco.

And there's nothing caring or compassionate about that.

Casey Mills is a community organizer and the managing editor of

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Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

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