The July 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Oakland Youth Organize

Hate Crimes Against the Homeless

Food Bank Helps Ease Hunger

Food Bank Keeps Growing

San Diego's Economic Cleansing

Psychiatric Abuse and Repression

Transit Activists Win Victory

Technology for the Poor

Violent Arrest at City Hall

The Dream of People's Park

New Richmond Shelter to Open

Street Spirit Vendor Tony McNair

Bush's Tax Cuts for the Rich

Corporate Benedict Arnolds

Rain Lane's Photographs

"Say Something" A Short Story

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


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.

San Diego Police Resort to Economic Cleansing

by Rocky Neptun

San Diego police are part of the class-cleansing, gentrification movement by wealthy, downtown developers. Even when there are no complaints from the public, police harass and ticket homeless people because big business developers want the poor kept out of sight.

San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne has refused to acknowledge his department's human and civil rights abuses against homeless people. However, in a recent interview, he admitted that police are part of the class-cleansing, gentrification movement by wealthy, downtown developers, and ticket homeless people even in the absence of any first-hand complaints.

As someone who has lived on the streets, this writer knows only too well that most discarded people are kind of tough when it comes to the big stuff, like arrests or being beaten. It is the small cuts, one by one, day by day, that inch one ever closer to the edge. Every officer's harassment, every passerby's cruel stare, every hateful word spoken by those who live in terror of their own fall, slices away at the core: dehumanizing, animalizing, creating a shell of what was once a human being.

Then, we as a society, add the final wound by criminalizing their condition.

We cannot continue to persecute and prosecute people for involuntarily breaking the law. The three most basic needs of a human being are the need for food and water, the need to pass those nutrients and the need to sleep. How simple it is. Yet, we criminalize bodily functions over which people have no control. Why?

Because there are powerful economic interests in the City of San Diego who have a huge financial stake in the ambiance of the neighborhood. Their concern is profit, not those who are just too fragile to compete in their dog-eat-dog marketplace, folks who stumble. Developers and speculators want those homeless people who cannot be run out of town to be contained, warehoused and kept out of sight.

Using financial and political pressure, they have succeeded over the last few years in closing down the feeding encampment at 14th and Broadway, pressuring other food providers like the Salvation Army and God's Extending Hand to scale back their food lines, and killing the Rescue Mission's proposed feeding program.

However, more chilling than city officials closing meal sites and refusing to build downtown public restrooms, is the increasing persecution of homeless people by the police. During the l990s, illegal lodging tickets were issued to a few hundred a year. In 2003, 2,026 tickets were issued, and last year it was nearly 2500.

San Diego Police Chief Lansdowne, in a mid-May interview, told me that this increase in police activity against the homeless was because of increasing complaints. When I asked him if I could see the daily police logs listing those complaints, he stammered, then admitted that most activity is in response to general complaints (those no-fly, no-sleep zones created by developers). He also could not respond to my question about when the department changed policies that stipulated that officers "do not respond to complaints that are not first-hand."

I reminded Chief Lansdowne that in an interview with the Union-Tribune, he said that San Diego has the lowest number of officers per capita of all large cities in the United States and has three teams working "round the clock" to contain over 5,000 gang members in the city.
In a city where 83 percent of all homeless individuals who call the city's information hotline were turned away for the night with no legal place to stay, I questioned whether it was a prudent use of police resources to cite people for illegal lodging when each ticket costs the city $400 to process, punishes an individual for involuntary behavior, and puts the individual officer in the position of participating in human rights abuses.

Famed for heading out in a police car on duty Christmas Eve so another officer could have the night off, I asked the chief if he has ever ticketed a homeless person for sleeping on the night before we celebrate the birth of Christ, that other homeless person; he responded that he hadn't yet gotten a complaint on that evening.

In the interview, I suggested that the San Diego Police Department was violating not only the basic human rights of homeless persons by sleep deprivation, they were violating their Constitutional rights as well. I pointed out that while the courts are slow, they tend to be fair, and that the U.S. District Court for Southern Florida had held that the City of Miami's practice of arresting homeless persons for engaging in the basic activities of daily life -- including sleeping and eating -- constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment (Pottinger v. City of Miami).

I also mentioned the case of James Eichorn, a Vietnam veteran, convicted in 1994 of "unlawful camping" at the Santa Ana Civic Center. California's Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned the verdict, saying that the defendant was entitled to a "necessity defense" since sleeping avoided the "significant evil" of sleep deprivation. The judges based their decision on the facts that the shelters were full and Eichorn did not have enough money to afford a night's lodging; thus there was no alternative to sleeping in public spaces.

Deputy Police Chief Bill Maheu, also present at the interview, said that the police were being asked to solve a social problem and that if they lost in the courts, police officers "would be out of the business" of ticketing homeless folks.

I suggested to Maheu that ending ticketing was not enough, that the harassment had to end as well. I pointed out that sleep deprivation as a tool or weapon is outlawed by the Geneva Convention, and that he was putting his officers, as well as all citizens, at risk. Anyone who has been up all night with a sick child or waited in a hospital emergency room into the wee hours knows the effects of sleep deprivation. This stress, when continued on a regular basis, can only add to an unstable mental capacity, and can create personalities who are not in control.
Every human being has to be somewhere, to occupy some space. If they do not have the means to own (or rent) private spaces, they must exist in public spaces. To criminalize that condition, to persecute that person, reflects a social sickness that must be addressed.

While justice for the poorest of the poor works its way slowly through the courts, those of us who are housed must pressure the City Council to end this policy of issuing tickets for illegal lodging. If all the people in our community don't have basic civil and human rights, then none of us are secure in them.

Tonight, let each of us sleep well in our warm beds, our spiritual and ethical integrity intact, knowing our poorer human brothers and sisters are not being persecuted in our name.

Rocky Neptun is executive director of the San Diego Renters Union and a member of San Diego Friends (Quaker) Meeting.

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