Raids, Harassment at Occupy Tent Cities Start Broader Conversation About Criminalizing Homelessness
Sarah Page, Truthout | News Analysis
Xander is always reaching out to people, so it wasn't surprising to see him talking to police officers outside the Bank of America building on one of the first nights those sidewalks were occupied. In planning for the start of Occupy San Francisco (then known as Occupy Financial District San Francisco), organizers wondered whether the city's new "sit/lie" ordinance would be used against them and if people would be arrested. The sit/lie ordinance in San Francisco makes it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalks between 7 AM and 11 PM.
Xander indicated that an officer assured him there would not be any arrests under the ordinance and that sit/lie was only intended to be used against homeless people, not protesters. Occupiers were relieved not to be under threat of arrest, but they did not feel it was right for homelessness to be criminalized.
At its peak size, the Occupy San Francisco camp had 300 full-time campers and its kitchen was serving over 1,200 meals a day to the camp and others in the community. Volunteers helped to provide mental and physical health services. What had begun on September 17, 2011, in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and a global rising up of people against oppressive financial conditions was not tolerable for those with a stake in the status quo. Several businesses around the camp complained to the city, and one business, Boston Properties, even threatened a lawsuit. The Justin Herman Plaza camp was raided and disbanded by the city on December 7, 2011, but a small group has been camping again in front of the Federal Reserve since February 28, 2012.
Tent cities are not unique to the Occupy movement. During the Great Depression, "shanty towns" were created in many cities throughout the United States due to unemployment, poverty and a lack of affordable housing. These homeless occupations were called "Hoovervilles" after the president at that time, Herbert Hoover. Later, Franklin Roosevelt helped turn the tide on homelessness with the New Deal, which included jobs programs and funding for affordable housing production, and was followed by years of well-funded housing programs. The New Deal and Johnson's Great Society programs also included other benefits, such as unemployment insurance and social security benefits, which further alleviated poverty.
Homelessness was not a large problem after the 1930s, thanks to the New Deal and other housing programs, until several things happened. In the 1970s, people with mental illnesses began to be deinstitutionalized. In the late 1970s and early 80s, "commercial revitalization" led to increased gentrification and demolition of affordable housing. In 1981, Reagan dismantled portions of the New Deal and defunded affordable housing production. Since the 1970s, there has not been adequate funding of affordable housing production, and homelessness has increased. Currently, the resources of the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which helped hold back the tide of homelessness, are sunsetting this fall and have not been replaced. With unemployment and foreclosures on the rise, homelessness is likely to begin to increase once more.
Despite evidence that the majority of people are willing to pay higher taxes to support homeless people, the federal government has consistently not funded programs for affordable housing programs at the level needed to keep people housed. In a study conducted by researchers of the Columbia University School of Public Health in 1995 and published by the American Journal of Community Psychology, contrary to mainstream media reports that people in America suffered from compassion fatigue towards the homeless, researchers found that the public: "consistently and without any evidence of compassion fatigue support increased spending and increased taxes to help homeless people. Moreover, they are favorable to policies like increased federal spending for low-income housing and other such solutions."
The researchers conducted this study because of a concern that the message of supposed "compassion fatigue" portrayed by the media "could have real and significant consequences for policy decisions affecting homeless people through mechanisms consistent with the self-fulfilling prophecy." Here we are in 2012, and we see that policy decisions have largely centered around criminalization of homelessness, consistent with the media's compassion-fatigue meme but inconsistent with the public's willingness to help. Researchers found that "a majority would restrict panhandling in public places and limit the construction of temporary shelters in public parks." They also found that "most Americans believe that homeless people make neighborhoods worse, spoil parks for families and children, hurt local business by their presence, and threaten the quality of life in our nation's cities." It is clear that people do not like homelessness and would like it resolved. However, rather than adequately fund solutions, there has been an increasing criminalization of homelessness, which does not represent the full spectrum of the public's support for solutions to homelessness.
In 1978, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Low/Moderate-Income Housing Budget Authority was $77.3 billion (in 2004 dollars). In 1996, the same budget authority had been reduced by 75 percent, to $19.2 billion as measured in in 2004 dollars. As indicated in "Without Housing: 2010 Update," by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) : "Instead of addressing the shortage of adequate housing, federal policies have only further driven the commoditization of housing as speculative asset, and in doing so led the entire global economy to the brink of collapse in 2008."
The lack of federal funding for programs to mitigate homelessness is not due to a lack of resources, but rather to a lack of resolve to make it a priority. US defense spending more than doubled from $295 billion in 2000 to over $700 billion in 2011; clearly war is a priority. The US government has spent $3.3 trillion dollars in bailout funds for some of the largest banks in the country; clearly Wall Street is a priority. The federal government spends more on tax breaks for homeowners than it does on low-income housing assistance programs. In 2008, "homeowner tax breaks cost the US Treasury approximately $144 billion, with 75% of this expenditure benefiting homeowners earning more than $100,000 a year, while total funding in all federal low-income housing assistance programs was $46 billion - a difference of $98 billion."
Clearly, homeownership is a priority. Is it an accident that it has also helped to create too-big-to-fail banks and support speculation in the housing market with its accompanying transfer of wealth from citizens to banksters?
In San Francisco, despite the fact that homeless advocates "have been raising the issue of homeless families with the mayor's office for years," the city had been sitting on $824,000, including $500,000 from a Dave Matthews band charity concert in 2004. Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne donated $1.5 million in December 2011 to help the city with the homelessness issue. After receiving the Benioff's donation, the city set a goal of housing 200 families by Christmas 2011.
The city failed to achieve the goal of housing 200 families by Christmas, and it failed the subsequent goal of housing those families by Easter of 2012. San Francisco spends nearly $40 million per year on supportive housing, yet homelessness remains a problem. The WRAP report describes the problem with supportive housing:
When "supportive housing" is the only type of housing being discussed as a solution to mass homelessness, it reinforces the stereotype that they need "supportive" housing because they are dysfunctional. It also provides public relations opportunities for government officials, who point to their small investments in supportive housing initiatives without acknowledging the decades-long divestment in other subsidized housing. The approximately 95,000 supportive housing units created since the late-1980s pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Section 8 and public housing units lost over the same period.
In the National Alliance to End Homelessness report, "The State of Homelessness in America 2012," researchers found that 636,017 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a given night last year, 15,050 of these in San Francisco. These counts are based on the HUD definition of homelessness, which does not include people who are living with family or friends or in motels. This figure also does not include unaccompanied homeless youth. Data released from the National Center for Homeless Education indicates that there are now over 1 million homeless youth in our public school system, with a 13 percent increase from 2010 to 2011.
Other figures related to the homeless population in San Francisco, from December 2011 articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, include: 2,200 homeless students, 267 homeless families on the waitlist for shelter and 25,000 applications on the waiting list for public housing (which has a ten-year wait, on average). Despite these figures, the director of San Francisco's Human Services Agency told The Chronicle in November 2011: "I honestly would not call it a crisis. If we had hundreds of families sleeping on the street and exposed to the elements, yeah, that's a crisis."
Mike Zint has been homeless since 2005. He came to San Francisco to help a woman in her 70s with breast cancer get into a shelter. At St. Vincent de Paul's, they had to wait for two hours in a chair before getting beds. Zint has also stayed at GLIDE's shelter. He claims "both places were covered by lice and bed bugs and were in violation of building codes (which require no vermin, lice, roaches or black mold)." Zint joined Occupy SF in October of 2011 after police in San Francisco told him to go there because they had tents. He says the police were purposely sending people who looked like drug addicts or alcoholics to the Occupy camp to destabilize it.
"Something needs to be done," Zint says, indicating that he had been looking for a way to fight back and that Occupy provided the way.
Belle Star has been homeless for ten years. She was present at the first in-person planning meeting for Occupy SF and has been engaged in the movement ever since. She is afraid of being on the streets in winter, especially at her age (62), but because the level of support is so low in San Francisco, she hit the streets once again in January 2012. Star will not stay in homeless shelters because "after hours they are dens of violence and drug dealing." She gets no services from the government currently. She adds that in San Francisco, transgender people may decide nightly whether to sleep with the women or the men. "I do not feel comfortable sleeping next to men in such a chaotic atmosphere," she says. (Transgender people are often at increased risk of being targeted for harassment and violence in gender-segregated environments, and the practice of allowing them to choose which section of a facility to use is commonly intended to help mitigate this risk.)
The Occupy movement has been directly affected by the problems of the homeless. Not only have protesters been cited through the sit/lie ordinance, they have faced harassment by police officers interrupting their sleep several times in one night, raids in which all their belongings are stolen, and difficulties accessing basic human needs such as water and sanitation. The Occupy movement has also attracted many homeless people, which has introduced some challenges as far as trying to care for and heal community members who sometimes suffer from mental illness, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and people with alcohol or drug addictions. The pervasiveness of these illnesses has made it difficult at times for occupiers to conduct effective general assembly meetings, also known as GAs. This has contributed to lower attendance at GAs and to people forming off-site working groups, such as the Spokes Council in New York.
"Cities have no policies in place to deal with homelessness, and they use arrest and destruction of property in place of public policy," says Cathleen Williams, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit Lehr et al v. City of Sacramento. In Lehr v. Sacramento, a jury found that the city was liable to homeless people whose property was taken by city police or other city agents or employees during the period from August 2, 2005, to date. Williams indicates that there was an "unwritten policy and practice in Sacramento of disposing of people's possessions - raiding camp when not many people were there, and using county workers - practices designed to intimidate and terrorize people and make sure they move on." Items lost or destroyed included burial urns, jewelry, identification, precious documents, camping equipment, prescription medications, a wheelchair and a walker (among other things). Williams said that homeless people have "staked out ground for Occupy," noting that in Sacramento people have been in front of City Hall for months - but because they are not allowed to be "camping" there, they can't have blankets and the police are continually taking their things.
On April 1, 2012, WRAP participated in a National Day of Action, which the Occupy movement helped to organize. Paul Boden, organizing director with WRAP, says, "The action was successful because the groups that Occupy created the space for in which to collaborate are still working together." Rachel Falcone, who helped start Housing is a Human Right in New York City, asserts: "Occupy opens up the opportunity to organize as part of a larger movement. It created momentum to push things along at a faster pace. Really, Occupy is a human rights movement, because the root cause ... is people are not put first before profits."
One of the results of the Occupy movement has been that "thousands have been inspired to start their own projects and work with others." Fighting foreclosures has emerged as one cause that people are committed to through Occupy. Occupy Bernal in San Francisco has helped dozens of people stay in their homes by physically occupying them and disrupting foreclosure auctions. Occupy Our Homes has emerged as a nationwide network focused on fighting foreclosures. Falcone observes: "The foreclosure crisis is part of a larger housing movement which is connecting tenants' rights, public housing, and homeless activists with homeowners. There are opportunities now to organize across sectors where you couldn't do that before."
"When housing, health care and education are treated as commodities, it makes sense for Occupy to see activist organizations in these sectors as allies because it's all about the distribution of wealth," explains Boden. "When they make it illegal to sleep, lie down, stand or sit, all that is left is to keep walking, and that is what they want - it's gentrification and urban removal of poor people from what used to be called neighborhoods that are now called 'business improvement districts.'"
How can the Occupy movement help those who are most vulnerable to the economic crisis and its attendant austerity measures, while advancing the fight against the 1%? According to Falcone, "Sometimes the conversation is very foreclosure focused - it is critical to connect it with the struggle against homelessness."
Imagine if homeless occupiers were allowed to conduct 24/7 protests in public spaces without being harassed, and imagine if the Occupy movement were to gain recognition for providing practical solutions if it helped provide services and secure adequate funding or other resources to resolve homelessness - increasing the goodwill and participation of the public in a true and inclusive mass movement.
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Sarah Page is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade and League of Revolutionaries for a New America. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Steven Gray. She helped start Occupy San Francisco and enjoys collaborating with and learning from the participants and supporters of the Occupy movement. Sarah is the founding editor of "Out of Our" poetry magazine.