No Place at the Table: Feeding the Poor Is a Crime

After closing the public feeding facility, San Diego officials quickly moved against the Salvation Army and got their meal program closed. Then, one by one, they began began picking off the smaller homeless providers who offered food and day shelter. Some churches have resisted.

by Rocky Neptun

“Mommy, I’m hungry,” the little girl cried as she stood shivering in the cold wind, waiting for food. The image has never left me… and now that I am semi-retired, I want to be part of an effort making sure no more children starve on San Diego city streets.

I want to help buy a catering truck. A fellow member of the San Diego Renters Union, who was once homeless, has received a modest settlement and has agreed to match whatever the Renters Union can raise toward buying a food truck to feed the homeless.

As someone who spent their teen years on the streets of New York City, I learned very early, as I camped under a hedge at New York University, that whatever didn’t fit in a backpack was useless. I had no possessions, so possessions did not possess me. But I did know hunger and, often, what crimes against society — and oneself — it took to obtain money for food.

In 2004, I defied San Diego police to feed hungry children. I took action together with Norma Rossi, the 70-year-old firebrand who ran the San Diego Inter-Faith Coalition for the Homeless, several Nazarene ministers, two fundamentalist preachers and about a dozen students. We cut the lock on the gate at 14th and Broadway and allowed volunteers onto a city-owned, empty lot to begin setting up tables to distribute warm food and clothes.

For almost 10 years, the lot had been a regular nightly venue for homeless persons, seniors, the disabled and others who had no money to buy food. No means test, no guilt trip, no judgments, and no question of worthiness; just people of faith, after 2000 years, still doing what the original Christian did — feeding the hungry.

But a wealthy condo developer, a member of the oligarchy who controls city government, bought the property opposite the feeding area and didn’t want his prospective $450,000 condo buyers to see the poor on the opposite corner.

In cahoots with the very corruptible downtown City Councilman Byron Wear and others bought off in the City Manager’s office and General Services of the Planning Department, a charade was created where the developer threatened to sue the city because the lot was not zoned for outdoor meals. The city quickly buckled and ordered the church groups to quit their nightly feedings.

It was done so quickly that homeless activists didn’t even have an opportunity to point out that no such zoning restriction existed, that the feeding program could have been “grandfathered” and that all the city had to do was declare a homeless emergency and they would have needed no justification or legal defense for the continuation of the feeding program.

The next day, after our defiance, city officials quickly signed a lease with the developer and when we arrived the next night, the entire area was filled with construction trucks, while police cars blocked the entrance and threatened to arrest anyone who entered with trespassing.

For several nights, those people of highly seasoned faith, including Mid-City Nazarene Church members and a few Quakers, continued to feed the poor on 14th Street adjacent to the lot, in spite of increasingly belligerent police officers who made threats of arrest.

Alas, imprisonment for justice is for saints and those with independent incomes. Most of us working stiffs, students and retirees couldn’t handle the fines, so we stopped our defiance of greed and inhumanity, just as the wonderful people at the Salvation Army just up the street on Broadway began a nightly feeding schedule.

It was then that I discovered that the whole incident at 14th and Broadway was not just about one man’s greed or one corporation’s political prowess, but was the “shot heard ‘round the city” which began San Diego’s War on the Homeless.

Powerful developers, hotel moguls, corporate CEOs and others who hold the leash on city officials, led by the corporate crook John Moores and his new taxpayer-financed ballpark, wanted the homeless gone. They concluded that San Diego’s shelter providers weren’t doing enough to warehouse them. Then, the fight over opening the only 24-hour public restroom downtown, led by a charismatic homeless man, Larry Milligan, terrified the San Diego oligarchy. An organized, militant homeless population demanding basic human rights would conflict with their inflated profit projections, anticipated property values and the artificial ambiance in America’s Phoniest City.

San Diego’s class cleansing of the last few years has used hunger as its main weapon. Daily hassles, sleep deprivation, arrests, beatings and even a few high-profile police assassinations are also weapons of choice in San Diego’s economic combat against a people who have nothing.

Incredibly, Police Chief William Landsdowne has given his officers free reign to not only attack the homeless but their benefactors. Last May, 74-year-old John Ross was grabbed by the head, and his arm twisted by police. He was thrown to the ground for giving bottles of water to the homeless at the corner of K and 15th Street. Ross has filed a lawsuit against the city, along with two homeless men, Marvin Brittan and Myron Hill, who were also injured when the officer became violent over the water-giving gathering.

After closing the public feeding facility, San Diego officials quickly moved against the Salvation Army and got their meal program closed. Then, one by one, they began picking off the smaller homeless providers who offered food and day shelter. Some churches have resisted.

In Pacific Beach, the United Methodist Church sued the city after a code enforcement officer cited the church for its meager, once-a-week homeless feeding program on church grounds. In 2008, with the first honest, humane city attorney, Michael Aguirre, just elected, San Diego’s economic jihad faltered. He settled with the church, recognizing its First Amendment right of freely practicing religion

Feeding the hungry is an act of faith in many religions. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

Feeding the hungry is an act of faith in many religions. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

 

City Attorney Aguirre also settled a class-action lawsuit which was filed after city workers escorted by police seized and destroyed the possessions of homeless men and women, including their medicines, priceless photos, even toothbrushes. The San Diego ACLU and the Dreher Law Firm had asked the court for a permanent injunction stopping the city from massive sweeps and the wholesale destruction of people’s personal possessions.

Of course, like an honest sheriff in the Old West, no one who opposes the city’s bad guys lasts for long in San Diego. Aguirre’s re-election was doomed as the oligarchy settled on a former right-wing state legislator, Jan Goldsmith, and funneled millions of dollars and “volunteers” into defeating Aguirre.

The local Food Not Bombs group still feeds the poor in North Park each Sunday afternoon but it is small scale, almost like a family picnic, and in the last few years the police have left it alone.

“No Place at the Table,” a report issued in July 2010 by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, looks at the efforts of cities across the nation to not only criminalize the homeless, but make it a crime for those humanitarians and people of faith who are called to share food with those who have none. San Diego was among the 23 communities which were blasted in the study for developing types of laws and tactics which restricted or outlawed feeding the poor.

“No Place at the Table” stressed that access to food is both a human need and right. “As the recession and foreclosure crisis drive dramatic increases in poverty and homelessness, communities should be embracing solutions to homelessness, rather than punishing people for feeding those in need,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the Law Center, in releasing the study.

The report shows that in 2009 there was a 26 percent increase in demand for food assistance in all the cities surveyed and 25 percent of those demands went unmet. To starve people who are down on their luck, or too fragile to compete in our dog-eat-dog world, in the hopes that they will move on, shows the depths of depravity to which we have sunk as a society.

We must set aside attempts to define the worthiness of hungry and homeless human beings; and stop determining who has earned a place at the table. Those shadows passing us on the streets, lugging all they own in the world, many struggling for a moment of life in decency and relevance, clinging to their personhood in the face of hate and disgust, should not be further victimized by starvation. Even Charles Manson and Bernie Madoff get three meals a day in prison.

In San Diego, we’re responding by trying to buy a food truck for the homeless. If the city refuses to give us a health permit because we are giving the food away, we will sell it at 1 cent per meal. After all, there are no price controls in modern corporate-owned capitalism.

Help us purchase the food truck. Send your checks made out to Lyle Neptun Co. 2260 El Cajon Blvd. #907, San Diego, Ca. 92104 with donation-food truck in the memo section. The Lyle Neptun Co. will be apply for the permit to operate the feeding van to get around the city’s war on the homeless.

Rocky Neptun is director of the San Diego Renters Union and is acting manager of the Casa de los Olvidados, a refuge for street kids with HIV-Aids in Tijuana, Mexico. He is a member of the San Diego Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He can be reached at (619) 450-9804 or rockyneptun@gmail.com

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