The October 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Aristocracy and the Disaster

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Batters Homeless

A Perfect Storm of Racism

Katrina: Ongoing Human Disaster

FCNL Speaks Out on Katrina

Kerry's Kids: Health Care for Poor Children

Fresh Start Gives Kindness Awards

The Dying Gift of Sharon Ostman

A 500-Year-Old War on the Poor

37 Million Live in Poverty in US

Julia Vinograd: Poet Laureate of Berkeley Streets

Innovative Plans for Homeless Housing

Disabled Woman on a Long Road Back Home

Photographer's Eye for the Dignity of People

Poor Leonard On Prejudice

The Flower Lady

October Poetry of the Streets


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.

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Officials Batter the Homeless

Editorial by Terry Messman

In Oakland, protesters rallied to denounce Bush's inaction and cronyism in his administration's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina. David Bacon photo

For those who had eyes to see, an ominous warning sign of the long-term suffering still waiting in store for the poorest victims of Hurricane Katrina was foretold in the way a homeless encampment was cruelly demolished in Oakland only a few days after the storm struck New Orleans.

On September 7, even while the heartbreaking destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina was showing the entire nation the cruelty of poverty and homelessness, dozens of homeless people were evicted from a tent city under a freeway near Embarcadero and Fifth Avenue in Oakland.
Bulldozers demolished the homeless village even as members of the Oakland City Council made pious declarations of compassion and support for Katrina's homeless victims and invited them to live in Oakland and rebuild their lives.

With unbelievable hypocrisy, the same city officials who postured before the television cameras to offer refuge to the well-publicized hurricane evacuees, simultaneously presided over a bulldozer assault on their own homeless citizens.

It was a classic example of the two-faced duplicity of politicians. Their public face of sorrow and support for Katrina's highly televised victims was shown to be only a mask concealing a hidden face of hostility and intolerance toward their own homeless victims in Oakland. At a tragic moment in our nation, when countless thousands were reduced to living in a homeless shelter in the New Orleans Superdome, Oakland officials showed for all to see that the lessons of compassion and mercy have not been heard.

Look at the timeline. On Wednesday morning, September 7, 30 police officers evicted all the homeless residents and ordered in heavy construction machinery to demolish the encampment under an Oakland freeway. Only one day later, on Thursday, September 8, at a special meeting of the Oakland City Council, city officials publicly invited Katrina's homeless victims to live in Oakland and pledged to help them rebuild their lives.

Making this blatant hypocrisy even more unforgivable, the tent city was destroyed at the very moment when nearly every homeless service provider in the nation was publicly warning that when already-impoverished people are displaced by a hurricane or other disaster, many of them end up being forced into the ranks of the long-term homeless.

Wealthy and middle-class people may have the support systems -- insurance, savings, family support, job skills - to recover from their losses. Very poor people often lose everything in natural disasters. The foundations of their lives are washed away and they are entirely displaced. Then, after a few months of sporadic public assistance, they often are reduced to a life of long-term destitution and homelessness.

In a few months, Katrina's evacuees will discover at first hand that, over the past 20 years, their government has shred the safety net. The Bush Administration's failure to respond to the mass displacement caused by Katrina was a monumental disaster, but it was only a second-tier disaster that followed in the destructive wake of the primary disaster: the abandonment of poverty-stricken Americans by the heartless administrations of Ronald Reagan, Bush Senior and now, Bush Junior.

For 20 years, Republicans have decimated federal housing programs, slashed homeless assistance, and amputated every welfare program they could get their hands on. This wholesale attack on the safety net is in large part responsible for the widespread poverty so deplored by most commentators who seemed to need a hurricane of massive proportion to finally understand the staggering scope of misery and destitution among the millions of poor Americans who aren't part of Bush's much-hyped "base" of wealthy donors.

Republicans have become so opposed to the government doing anything for the common good that they even refused to fully fund the reconstruction of crucially needed levees and let the management of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) become a national joke.

A tragedy in three stages

The abandoment of government's role to "promote the general welfare," as the preamble to the Constitution puts it, led first to the dismantling of the nation's safety net, and second, to the terribly inadequate response to Katrina's victims.

But if Bush's callous negligence towards Katrina's victims was the second act in this drama of abandonment and betrayal, the third act is still waiting in the wings to claim its displaced victims. Here is an outline of the three stages of this slow-motion storm that will continue to cause casualties for years to come.

1. First, the Bush Administration decimated the safety net; slashed federal housing for the poor, disabled and elderly; and cut homeless programs -- thus creating a chasm between the haves and have-nots.

2. In keeping with the right wing's inflexible contempt for all parts of government that promote the common good, Bush essentially abandoned even the responsibility to competently manage FEMA and fund levee reconstruction. Bush and his top officials compounded that disaster by their agonizingly slow response and callousness towards Katrina's poorest victims -- staying on vacation (Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld) or shopping for luxury shoes (Condoleeza Rice) while the misery of thousands of homeless evacuees stranded in the Superdome rose to intolerable levels.

3. The third betrayal will occur when the hurricane evacuees enter the world of long-term homelessness. In a few months, they will encounter the same plight faced by every other homeless person in the nation -- a safety net slashed to ribbons, criminalization of every aspect of their lives, constant police sweeps, and assaults on their encampments, as happened in Oakland.

The lessons of the Loma Prieta earthquake

The inhumanity of Oakland officials in ordering the destruction of a homeless village on September 7 is especially inexcusable because the same city officials had held front-row seats to view the long-term legacy of homelessness and displacement caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake.

When that earthquake struck the Bay Area on October 18, 1989, hundreds of already poor residents of Oakland were reduced to homelessness. The earthquake destroyed more than 800 SRO hotel units in downtown Oakland, wiping out most of the low-income housing stock that had been the housing of last resort for the poor and near-homeless.

The lion's share of publicity went to the destruction caused to Bay Area freeways, the more affluent neighborhoods of San Francisco, and tourist-oriented businesses in downtown Santa Cruz. The poor people made homeless in Oakland by the earthquake -- nearly all of them African Americans -- were nearly forgotten by government officials and leading charities.

Does this begin to sound familiar? FEMA and the Red Cross tried to skate out of Oakland without dealing with the crisis of homelessness that the earthquake had caused to poor, black residents of downtown Oakland. At the time, Dorothy King, Angela Waldron, Andrew Jackson and I, along with other members of the Oakland Union of the Homeless, held protests to denounce the unwillingness of the federal government and the Red Cross to rebuild housing for poor residents displaced by the earthquake.

We were arrested after we chained ourselves inside Red Cross offices to protest its refusal to use the tens of millions of dollars it had collected for earthquake relief. We also protested the City of Oakland's unconscionable neglect of its homeless citizens by taking over a vacant, city-owned building in downtown Oakland. We were hauled down off that building's rooftop by Oakland police who deployed a fire truck and scaled its ladder to arrest us.

Those protests resulted in the Red Cross, FEMA and the City of Oakland joining forces to buy the earthquake-damaged Touraine Hotel and rebuild it as the Henry Robinson Multi-Service Center, a large transitional housing facility.

But government officials had to be forced by months of protest to focus on the plight of poor African-Americans in Oakland. Homeless activist Dorothy King charged that the poorest earthquake victims were being neglected due to racism and classism -- just as activists today have condemned these prejudices for causing the slow response to Katrina's victims.

Far too many of Oakland's earthquake victims joined the ranks of the long-term homeless. When a poor person's life is ripped apart, it may never be fully restored. So, to understand the long-term fate of poor people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, look to Oakland's experiences.

Think for a moment of the faces of the hurricane victims that moved us so deeply when we saw their plight on television. Now picture those faces slowly melting into the anonymous multitudes of the long-term homeless in our nation. Imagine them joining the long, grim lines of privation waiting in line at soup kitchens, and sleeping in the dark alleys of our cities, constantly exposed to the danger of assault, disease and hunger.

The victims of Hurricane Katrina who join the ranks of the permanently homeless will undergo the same police raids, anti-homeless laws and public antipathy endured by those now living on the streets.

We saw how bad it was for the victims of Katrina crowded into insufferable conditions in the New Orleans Superdome. Now we must look at the destruction of a homeless village by Oakland officials on September 7 for a prophetic forecast of the storm warnings looming on the horizon for all homeless citizens of America.

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Editor : Terry Messman

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