by Lydia Gans and Terry Messman
The numbers are alarming. In recent years, some 400,000 Section 8 units have been lost and another 300,000 units of public housing have been turned into for-profit developments and are no longer available to low-income people. In addition two-and-one-half million foreclosures have taken place, further increasing the need for affordable housing.
These are big numbers, and they are not just real estate numbers — they are people. They represent men and women, mothers with children, people in ill health who have been made homeless. It is important that we look at how our society is treating our fellow citizens who are in trouble due to poverty, housing shortages, unemployment, hunger and foreclosures.
More and more, instead of trying to help those in need, cities are passing “sit-lie bans” or “public commons for everyone” laws which make it illegal to sit or lie or “loiter” on the street.
That these simple acts are defined to be a crime for which a person is subjected to police harassment and, ultimately, to arrest, is an egregious violation of civil rights supposedly guaranteed in our democracy. Yet it happens to homeless people all the time.
The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) found in a survey of 716 homeless people in 13 different communities that 78 percent reported being harassed, cited or arrested for sleeping; 75 percent were harassed, cited or arrested for sitting or lying on the sidewalk; 76 percent were harassed, cited or arrested for loitering or hanging out; and only 25 percent said they knew of a safe place to sleep at night.
This nationwide pattern has escaped civil rights protections because these ordinances are drafted very carefully to appear as if they apply equally to all people, but enforcement is very much impacted by a person’s skin color and housing status, economic class, and mental health state.
In fact, these laws were skillfully developed to withstand the scrutiny of the court system while they criminalize poor and homeless people and attack them as undesirables. By carefully writing the laws as though they apply to both the poor and the wealthy, and then by selectively enforcing them only against the poor, these anti-homeless ordinances erode constitutional rights while maintaining the pretence of equal enforcement.
As French novelist Anatole France said, “The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”
Paul Boden, director of WRAP, explained the motivation behind these draconian laws. In cities all over the country, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are being formed. What this really means is that the business owners are seeking “to create safe and friendly shopping environments by making sure there’s nobody there who is not shopping,” said Boden.
The members of the BID tax themselves and hire their own security people, making them look helpful and friendly by providing them with special uniforms and calling them “ambassadors.” In reality, their function really is to act as cops. In effect they’re “privatizing large segments of our community and they’re removing the people that they feel are not business-friendly and tourist-friendly,” Boden said.
“It’s absolutely frightening,” he warned. “The business community is running major sections of our cities.”
Janny Castillo works as Community Builder with BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-sufficiency) in the East Bay. “We are constantly engaged in the struggle to have more people, homeless people be recognized,” she said. “That the plight of the homeless, those that are living on the streets, are recognized — the challenges that they go through, the way the police and the city comes up with these laws that actually are designed to move them off the street, it’s illegal basically, even if there’s a law for it. It’s just inhumane.”
Castillo said, the situation is even worse than denying their civil rights. “It’s all about the right to exist,” she said. “It takes away the little bit they have left, which is their dignity, their respect.”
To bring home to the public an awareness and sympathy for the plight of the homeless people among us. WRAP and a number of activist organizations called for a Day of Action on Sunday, April 1, in cities across the United States and Canada. It was also a day of nonviolent resistance to the efforts of the business owners to create a private security force to harass and persecute poor and homeless people and enable corporations to gain control over our communities.
In San Francisco, WRAP joined with Occupy SF, St. Mary’s Center, Food Not Bombs and other groups to hold an event in Union Square where the message was conveyed in an afternoon of music and dance, creative displays and actions. There were speeches and music to get the crowd dancing and a final act by the Dancing Ambassadors and the dynamic Brass Liberation Orchestra.
They staged a hilarious, satirical skit, dressing in BID “ambassadors” uniforms and proceeding to act as hired cops. They rounded up and arrested people who looked homeless and put them in jail. Then the homeless people staged a jailbreak and walked out triumphantly, cheered by all.
Hopefully, this bit of street theater will encourage more vigilance over the kinds of laws our city’s lawmakers try to pass and help to bring about more compassion for the people who are without homes.
In the days leading up to the event, WRAP organizers issued a press release saying that they chose April 1 as the day of action because poor people were playing “an April Fool’s prank on Union Square.” Union Square is in the midst of an area where several of the largest, richest, corporate-controlled businesses have create a Business Improvement District and hired private security forces to drive away the “visibly poor.”
Boden told the rally prior to the march that poor people are being made criminals simply for sitting down, for sleeping, for lying down at night, for asking for help. Above all, he said, they are targeted as being bad for business. In modern America, that is an unforgivable offence.
At 5 p.m., several hundred housing activists were joined by a busload of people from Occupy Oakland on a mile-long march to take over a vacant building at 888 Turk Street and set up a homeless community.
The two-story building is owned by the Archdiocese of San Francisco and has been unoccupied for a long time. About 100 housing activists entered the building to occupy it and reclaim it so it could serve as housing and a center of services for unhoused people.
Emma Gerould, a member of Occupy SF, said that the Catholic Archdiocese should be sensitive to the extent of poverty in the community and allow the building to be used to save lives.
She said, “There is no reason why any building should be vacant when people have no housing.”
WRAP, an activist organization founded by six West Coast anti-poverty organizations, called the housing occupation a “House Keys” action, and many of the marchers carried signs demanding “House Keys Not Handcuffs.”
From the top of the building, activists hung a huge banner evidently asking church officials to heed the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses.”
On Sunday night, more than 100 people camped out all night in the empty building on Turk Street. Shortly after noon on Monday, police in riot gear ripped down the barricades set up by the demonstrators, entered the building and began evicting and arresting people.
George Wesolek, speaking for the Catholic Archdiocese, admitted the building has been vacant for the past 18 months. Prior to that, it was used to hold music classes. Archdiocesan officials signed an order calling for demonstrators to be arrested for trespassing.