Friday, November 12, 2004

Solution to Homelessness; Lock Em Up

Chuck Currie points to a sad commentary on our times; the Illegal to be Homeless 2004 Report;

Today the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) releases Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States, the most comprehensive study of homeless civil rights violations. This study is also the most up-to-date survey of current laws that criminalize homeless people and ranks the top "meanest" cities and states in the country. This report examines legislated ordinances and statutes, as well as law enforcement and community practices since August of 2003.
I was somewhat surprised to see California listed as the #1 "meanest" state. Southern California perhaps, but it is still an open debate among most native Californians if anything south of Santa Barbara can really be considered a part of the state.

In the listing of "meanest" cities, I was not surprised to see Los Angeles come in at #7. That has been my experience of that area. Maybe one example will explain why I agree with this ranking.

A few years ago, I was the assistant program director for a transitional living center in Ventura, CA. This was a long term shelter for women and families. We had a nice facility, which included a dorm for single women and about a dozen efficiency apartments for families. Access into the facility was carefully controlled. To enter, you had to ring a buzzer attached to the gate of the large courtyard on the side of the building.

One Saturday morning I got a call at home from a staff member. The police were demanding entrance to arrest a young woman who we had been working with for about two weeks. She had arrived withdrawn and very frightened. Only recently had she begun to open up a bit and actively participate in the programs (a tangential piece of information about the homeless; if they have been on the street for an extended amount of time, it takes about 30 days to get their nutritional levels and general mental and physical health up to the point when they can begin to be fully functional again). Before coming to us, she had been arrested for sleeping in her car. Apparently, she had missed the court date, so the police were there to haul her off to jail. I told the staff member that I'd be right there.

When I arrived, there were two patrol cars at the side entrance, and two at the front entrance. The officers were not pleased about being made to wait. They told me to open the gate. I asked to see their search warrant. They didn't have one. I asked to see any papers from the court. They didn't have any. I refused to open the gate. I explained to them that this facility was considered a safe space for the residents. If I allowed armed officers to enter, it would take me three days to get everyone calmed down again. So, if they had no court order, I would have to ask them to leave. The sergeant began to lose his cool. He told me to unlock the gate or he would arrest me. I offered him my outstretched arms, which he stridently cuffed. I was placed in the back of a car.

Two more patrol cars pulled up. The sergeant told me that they were prepared to storm the building (remember; the crime committed was sleeping in a car!). I asked to speak to his superior. A few minutes later, a seventh car, this one unmarked, pulled in the parking lot. A lieutenant, I believe, got out and came over to talk with me. This one played the "good cop." He apologized for the rough treatment, and had the cuffs removed. He then explained that they were serving a warrant, so did not need a search warrant to enter. I responded that they did indeed need one, as they had no way of knowing if the woman they sought was in our facility, and I was not at liberty to tell him if she was. He went back to his car, and returned with some papers. It appeared that at some point, a preliminary hearing or something, the woman had listed our facility as her residence. They could enter, with or without my permission.

I agreed to unlock the gate, so that two officers could search the premises. They didn't find her, of course. During the half hour they were messing with me, the other staff member, who had also been homeless himself at one time, had managed to get her out a window and safely away. This is but one example. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior by the police was not unusual in Southern California.

I was somewhat surprised to see San Francisco listed as the #8 "meanest" city in the country. I lived on the street for about three months there back in 1969. I found it to be one the most gentle places for a homeless kid to be. Of course, this was when Haight-Ashbury was still a tourist destination. And I was only 15, which did evoke more of a response of pity instead of fear. When it was wet and cold, I could go to the bus station downtown and sit. If I fell asleep, the police would tap their nightstick on my chair and tell me I had to leave. If I stayed awake, I could sit there all night. They never asked for ID, and always treated me with a note of kindness in their voice and actions.

Milwaukee came in at #18. That is frightening. I worked as the seminarian assistant at St. James for awhile, which is a parish right in the downtown district. St. James has recently been involved in a legal battle with the city. They have allowed the homeless to set up camps on their property. The city finds it an eyesore. The Church finds it compassionate. When I was there, we fed pancakes to about 150 to 300 homeless every weekday morning. No tents on the front lawn, however. The reason I find this frightening is that it gets below zero for weeks at a time in Wisconsin. Getting in out of the cold is sometimes a life and death issue. To chase them out of abandoned buildings or parked cars is to sign their death warrant.

Here's the biggest shocker; the People's Republic of Berkeley came in at #14! What in the world is going on there? Besides being the Mecca for all things subversive for most of my life, it is also the home of one of the most respected universities in the country, as well as a consortium of, I believe, about 11 theological seminaries. Karen, can you shed any light on this?

In California, I worked with the homeless for quite a few years, both as a priest and as a social worker. I watched the attitudes shift on the Central Coast particularly. The struggle with the NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude intensified. At the same time, I watched the state of California contract out the prison business to for-profit contractors. These companies would build the facility, and run it for the state, for a fee per prisoner, of course. The prisoners could then be paid less than minimum wage to manufacture products, which were then sold by the private company at a hefty profit. Everyone wins, except the prisoner, of course. It sure looked to me like a modern version of the old fashion poor house. The additional benefit is that since these prisons are separated by gender, the "criminals" are effectively removed from the gene pool.

I hope you take a look at this report. As the wealthiest nation in the world, I think we can do better than this. I haven't discussed long-term solutions. I have some ideas, and I think that is an important discussion, but it will have to wait for another day. For now, I think we had better realize that we can't count on much help at the local, state, and especially not the federal level (at least for the next four years). It's up to us, the citizens, to work at the grassroots level to make sure that every person is treated with dignity and respect; not because they deserve it, but because they are human beings.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

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