The November 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

AFSC Honors War Resisters

David Harris: A Stirring Call to Conscience

Leonard McNeil: Resisting 'Rich Man's Wars'

Karen Meredith: A Mother's Plea for Peace

Not One More Death, Not One More Dollar

Massive Police Sweeps in Contra Costa County

Housing First for Poor Families

Landlords Sue to End Just Cause

Struggle to Save the Free Box

YEAH! Shelters Homeless Youth

Gentrification in Berkeley

New Home for East Bay Law Center for Poor

Wal-Mart Pushes Philanthrophy

Sutter Health's War Against Health Workers

Growing Gulf Between Rich and Poor

Inequality in America

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Forgiveness


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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.

Massive Police Sweeps of Homeless Encampments in Contra Costa County

by Susan Prather

"The Traveler." Art by Tammy Grubbs for the National Coalition for the Homeless

This unprecedented police sweep was the single most horrendous act against homeless people in Contra Costa County in all of my 25-plus years as an activist.

At 6:00 a.m. on October 27, more than 70 law enforcement officers from a wide variety of City, County, State and Special District police departments swarmed 24 homeless encampments along the Iron Horse Trail through Concord, Pleasant Hill, Pacheco, and unincorporated areas in Contra Costa County.

This unprecedented police sweep was the single most horrendous act against homeless people in Contra Costa County in all of my 25-plus years as an activist and advocate.

It is not surprising that so many police agencies joined together to roust the poorest of the poor, who are residents of Central Contra Costa County, and force them out of their longtime camps. What is surprising, shocking and downright unbelievable is that Cynthia Belon, Homeless Services Director for Contra Costa County, endorsed the sweep and actively participated in planning, organizing and implementing it, and then called it a "humanitarian approach."

As the Contra Costa Times reported on October 26: "This is a humanitarian approach," said Cynthia Belon, director of Contra Costa County's homeless program. "It's far more effective to give someone a place in a shelter and an appointment for them to get help." In the same article, incredibly, Belon went on to state: "There is little chance the county has room in shelters for everyone who may want it Thursday."

Reportedly, prior to the police sweep, the camps were visited by outreach workers who offered to get people into shelters, programs for alcohol and drug treatment, and mental health counseling.

Unfortunately, and no one knows this better than Belon, as director of homeless services, there is a waiting list for shelter beds in Contra Costa County of more than 650 to 700 people. There are approximately 100 beds available, and they are full. Hence, there is a waiting list.
There is a long wait, six months to one year or more, for drug and alcohol treatment programs in the county. Contra Costa County does not provide "treatment on demand."

The mental health system is overloaded, understaffed and cannot handle the numbers of people in Contra Costa County requiring help. It is difficult, if not impossible, to get anyone evaluated or admitted for treatment. Representatives from many police agencies have told me that they find it nearly impossible to "5150" a person considered to be a danger to themselves or others.

The facts pertaining to assistance contradicted statements made by both Belon, and East Bay Regional Parks Department Police Lt. Jon King. King told the Contra Costa Times, "Authorities want to break the cycle that keeps homeless people moving from one city to another as they are ordered out of one area." Moreover, he stated, "I'm not going to tell you this will solve the homeless problem, but if we can reach more people to let them know help, it's a step in the right direction."

One man, who said he would like to get into a shelter, was told by the police (who were there to "let people know about help") that they "would help him apply to a shelter but had no guarantees he could get into one." What kind of help is that?

Many of those rousted were referred to the Richmond Rescue Mission, a religious organization. Again, this contradicts statements made by the sweep organizer, Lt. Jon King of the East Bay Regional Parks Police. It is worth repeating King's statement in the Contra Costa Times. King said, "Authorities want to break the cycle that keeps homeless people moving from one city to another as they are ordered out of one area." If this is the case, referring people from the Central Contra Costa County area of Concord, Pleasant Hill and Pacheco to the Richmond Rescue Mission, located in West Contra Costa County, does not make a great deal of sense.

Sweeping encampments under the guise of a "humanitarian act" and pretending that services and shelter are available is despicable. The direct involvement of the Contra Costa County Director of Homeless Services in this charade is an outrage. Belon knows what is available, as well as the numbers of people on waiting lists for shelter and other services.

Many of the community policing officers for the departments involved in this effort know very well that no help is available. In fact, the day after the sweeps, I received calls from three high-ranking officers from two different departments who regretted their respective department's involvement in this action.

I attempted to find out how the massive police sweeps began. On October 26, I called the East Bay Regional Parks Department Police Chief, Timmy Anderson, and left a message. Lt. Jon King, the sweep organizer for the EBRPD Police, returned my call.

I told him that I would like to know why the EBRPD police were involved in this effort. Lt. King stated that he made it happen and organized the effort, proudly telling me that, "Nothing like this had ever happened in Contra Costa County."

I told him that I was aware of that and that many of us were very proud of the fact that those kinds of police sweeps did not occur in Contra Costa.

At that point, Lt. King realized I had not called to praise him and his department. He then reached back more than two years to tell me that a murder had occurred along the Iron Horse Trail and that the perpetrator was "probably someone who lived in an encampment." It goes without saying, more than two years is a long time to wait to respond to a murder.

The first suspect in the aforementioned murder, by the way, was a schizophrenic man who was loved by, and had the support of his family throughout his life. He became a suspect because his family had asked for help from the local police department at one time, and this family happened to live near the trail where the murder took place. This troubled young man eventually committed suicide because he was wrongly accused. I believe that at this writing, the actual perpetrator of that crime is in jail and has already been tried and convicted. What King was doing was pushing a hot button that painted all people who are homeless as murderers.

The East Bay Regional Park District is a special district police department, which knows nothing about homelessness and the available services, especially in reference to Contra Costa County. I know this to be true because Lt. Jon King has been quoted in the Contra Costa Times, and on KTVU news and other media outlets, describing services that are not available and do not exist. King told the media that Contra Costa is "about to open winter shelters." However, in fact, these shelters are for families and women with children. Those in the encampments are single adults and adult couples.

He also claimed, "Contra Costa County received one million dollars in HUD funding for housing for the people affected by the sweeps." Contra Costa did receive the HUD funding. However, is the housing available? No, and if it was, would it be available to those involved in the sweeps? I doubt it, when the shelters are full of people who need housing, and the usual procedure is to house people out of the shelters.

Lt. King's campaign of misinformation might, in his own mind, justify and mitigate his responsibility and involvement in this horrible action. However, did it help anyone? No, it did not. Did his actions and constant talk to the media about services that are not available hurt people who are in the greatest need? Yes, it did.

The East Bay Regional Parks District Police organized an effort that included not only local police agencies and Homeless Services Director Cynthia Belon, but also included the California Highway Patrol, Department of Fish and Game, Cal-Trans, and Contra Costa County Flood Control, among others.

Belon's involvement signaled a promise of services and shelter that in reality are not available. Did the agencies involved know that? It is difficult to say. I do know for a fact that two of these agencies did. One of those chose not to arrest people who could not get the help they needed; other departments did make arrests.

I was told that 10 people were handcuffed and arrested because they "would not go to a shelter." The reality is that no shelter was available, unless you count referrals to the Richmond Rescue Mission. A referral to Richmond contradicts the purpose and intent of these sweeps. One more time, as cited earlier in this article, Lt. King said: "Authorities want to break the cycle that keeps homeless people moving from one city to another as they are ordered out of one area."

During my phone conversation with a high-ranking officer from another department, I was told that only six shelter beds were made available in Contra Costa County. Belon, in her position as director of homeless services, chose to be involved in this heinous action, which she described as "humanitarian." In any case, she should have made sure that a building with services and shelter beds was in place. In participating in this horrible act, Belon betrayed the people she is paid to serve and claims to care about.

In addition, the credibility of the police organizations and others involved is at stake. Were they misled by Belon? Did they really believe that the people in the encampments were going to receive help? In any case, why the spectacle at dawn of a team of 70 cops, wearing big gloves with nightsticks drawn, raiding encampments?

This is not the kind of effort that allows or encourages people to seek help, even if real help, shelter beds, and supportive services are available. No, the well-organized police sweep was an effort that was planned, designed and implemented to make people run from an area and never return.

By her involvement in the sweep, Belon only exacerbated the tragedy of citizens without shelter. This tragedy has been further exacerbated by the reckless abandon of certain police officials -- a reckless abandon fueled by a dangerous unfamiliarity with the issues of homelessness.

Hurricane Katrina exposed the depth of the poverty in New Orleans. By participating in this outrageous action, this so-called "humanitarian effort," Cynthia Belon, with the assistance of many police and special district agencies, exposed the unavailability of necessary care and services in her department. These sweeps, described as a "humanitarian effort," unmasked the Halloween-ish illusion of shelter and supportive services supposedly available in Contra Costa County.


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