Archive for August, 2009

of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities.

August 2009 from WRAP [Western Regional Advocacy Project]

Click HERE for WRAP’s website!


In this issue you will find an invitation to help us update Without Housing, our great new interactive virtual exhibit Hobos to Street People, and an article about what WRAP is doing to fight back against the criminalization of poverty.

Enjoy and let us know what you think!
WRAP needs your support to update Without Housing report!

The data in Without Housing is now four years old and needs to be updated to remain relevant. An anonymous major donor has covered a large part of the reprinting costs, but we still need funding to update the data, rework content to reflect new developments in DC, add new artwork, carry out a distribution and media plan, and, very importantly, to translate it for a Spanish language version.

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WRAP Launches Hobos to Street People Virtual Exhibit!

In collaboration with California Exhibition Resources Alliance and Design Action Collective, WRAP has launched Hobos to Street People: Artists Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present.

Like the powerful traveling show put together by WRAP lead artist Art Hazelwood, this virtual exhibit chronicles and contrasts two epochs of mass homelessness through social justice artwork. The Timeline shows federal policies on housing and homelessness from 1929 to 2008.

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Opportunity for whom?

The notion that local governments can protect downtown business interests from having to witness the realities of poverty by simply criminalizing the presence of poor people harkens back to the days of Jim Crow, Anti-Okie laws, and almshouses.

But from Portlands Sit-Lie law to Berkeleys Public Commons for Everyone to LAs Safer City Initiative to San Franciscos, business-directed, but voter-opposed, homeless court, we are seeing a resurgence of the premise that public space is the purview of the business community, and that the only people that have any right to that space are those seen as potential customers or condo tenants.

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WASHINGTON — With economic troubles pushing more people onto the streets in the last few years, law enforcement officials and researchers are seeing a surge in unprovoked attacks against the homeless, and a number of states are considering legislation to treat such assaults as hate crimes.

A homeless couple who are making their life in the flood channels beneath the Las Vegas Strip. Many would rather live there than face the troubles above.

A homeless couple who are making their life in the flood channels beneath the Las Vegas Strip. Many would rather live there than face the troubles above.

Isaac Brekken for The New York Times

Matt O’Brien, who advocates on behalf of the homeless, touring the flood channels. Flash floods may endanger those who stay there, he says, but at least they are safe from violence.

Matt O’Brien, who advocates on behalf of the homeless, touring the flood channels. Flash floods may endanger those who stay there, he says, but at least they are safe from violence.

This October, Maryland will become the first state to expand its hate-crime law to add stiffer penalties for attacks on the homeless.

At least five other states are pondering similar steps, the District of Columbia approved such a measure this week, and a like bill was introduced last week in Congress.

A report due out this weekend from the National Coalition for the Homeless documents a rise in violence over the last decade, with at least 880 unprovoked attacks against the homeless at the hands of nonhomeless people, including 244 fatalities. An advance copy was provided to The New York Times.

Sometimes, researchers say, one homeless person attacks another in turf battles or other disputes. But more often, they say, the assailants are outsiders: men or in most cases teenage boys who punch, kick, shoot or set afire people living on the streets, frequently killing them, simply for the sport of it, their victims all but invisible to society.

“A lot of what we see are thrill offenders,” said Brian Levin, a criminologist who runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Only Thursday, two homeless men in Hollywood were stabbed to death and a third was wounded in a three-hour spree of separate daylight attacks. The police arrested a 54-year-old local man who they said appeared to have made homeless people his random targets.

Researchers say a combustible mix of factors has added fuel to the problem. Rising unemployment and foreclosures continue to push people into the streets, with some estimates now putting the nationwide number of homeless above one million.

And in cities like Las Vegas, public crackdowns on encampments for the homeless and cutbacks in social services have frequently made street people more visible as targets for would-be assailants.

Further, in the last several years the Internet has seen a proliferation of “bum fight” videos, shot by young men and boys who are seen beating the homeless or who pay transients a few dollars to fight each other.

Indeed, the National Coalition for the Homeless, which works to change government policies and bring people off the streets, says in its new report that 58 percent of assailants implicated in attacks against the homeless in the last 10 years were teenagers.

Michael Stoops, the group’s executive director, said social prejudices were “dehumanizing” the homeless and condoning hostile treatment. He pointed to a blurb titled “Hunt the Homeless” in the current issue of Maxim, a popular men’s magazine. It spotlights a coming “hobo convention” in Iowa and says: “Kill one for fun. We’re 87 percent sure it’s legal.”

With victims wary of going to the police, statistics on the attacks are often incomplete. But surveys show much higher rates of assault, rape and other crimes of violence against the homeless than almost any other group, said Professor Levin, of California State, who worked on the new report.

Recognition of the problem is spurring legislative action.

“More and more, we’re hearing about homeless people being attacked for no other reason than that they’re homeless, and we’ve got to do something about it,” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, said in an interview.

Ms. Johnson introduced a measure in the House last week to make attacks on the homeless a federal hate crime and require the F.B.I. to collect data on it. (The Senate voted last month to expand federal hate crimes to include attacks on gay and transgender victims, another frequent target.)

And in addition to the measures already approved in Maryland and the District of Columbia, proposals to add penalties for attacks on the homeless are under consideration in California, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.

The push has lacked any organized support by major civil rights groups. In Florida, which leads the country in assaults on homeless people, groups like the Anti-Defamation League have opposed recognizing those attacks as a hate crime. Opponents argue that homelessness, unlike race or ethnicity, is not a permanent condition and that such a broadening of the law would have the effect of diluting it.

“I hear the same rhetoric all the time,” Ms. Johnson said. “They ask, ‘Why is their life more important than anyone else’s?’ ”

The coalition’s study, which relied on police and news reports but excluded crimes driven by factors like robbery, found 106 documented attacks against the homeless last year.

That was a doubling of levels seen six or seven years ago but a sharp drop from 2007, an apparent improvement that researchers are still trying to explain. The study found 27 fatalities last year, flat relative to the year before. Eight other victims were shot, nine raped and 54 beaten.

In Portland, Ore., twin brothers were charged with five unprovoked attacks against homeless people in a park. One of the victims was a man beaten with his own bike, another a woman pushed down a steep staircase.

In Cleveland, a man leaving a homeless shelter to visit his mother was “savagely beaten by a group of thugs,” the police said.

In Los Angeles, a homeless man who was a neighborhood fixture was doused in gasoline and set on fire.

In Boston, a homeless Army veteran was beaten to death as witnesses near Faneuil Hall reportedly looked on.

And in Jacksonville, N.C., a group of young men fatally stabbed a homeless man behind a shopping strip, cutting open his abdomen with a beer bottle.

In Las Vegas, home to a large population of the homeless, there were no reported killings of any of them last year, but many say hostilities have risen as the city moves to get them out of the parks and off the streets.

Some of the Las Vegas homeless resort to living in a maze of underground flood channels beneath the Strip. There they face flash floods, disease, black widows and dank, pitch-dark conditions, but some tunnel dwellers say life there is better than being harassed and threatened by assailants and the police.

“Out there, anything goes,” said Manny Lang, who has lived in the tunnels for months, recalling the stones and profanities with which a group of teenagers pelted him last winter when he slept above ground. “But in here, nothing’s going to happen to us.”

Their plight is a revealing commentary on the violence facing street people, said Matt O’Brien, a Las Vegas writer who runs an outreach group for the homeless.

“It’s hard to believe that tunnels that can fill a foot per minute with floodwater could be safer than aboveground Vegas,” Mr. O’Brien said, “but many homeless people think they are. No outsider is going to attack you down there in the dark.”

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In Santa Barbara, little concern over rising body count

Deaths of the destitute in this ritzy city come in a variety of ways, including homicide. Little is being done about it.

Steve Lopez

August 14 2009

From Santa Barbara — It may be picturesque, but this upscale village of red-tile roofs and stunning seascapes is sending a huge number of lost souls to the county morgue. Bodies show up on the beach, in parks, along railroad tracks and in the heart of the business district, steps from four-star restaurants and boutique hotels.

Sometimes it’s murder. Usually it’s a case of used-up bodies giving out under the swaying palms.

Santa Barbara photoSanta Barbara County social worker Ken Williams is trying to build support for services for the upscale city’s homeless population, including getting justice for homeless victims of homicide.

“We just had another one,” Santa Barbara County social worker Ken Williams told me Thursday morning. “He was probably in his 50s and played steel guitar on State Street by the museum. They found his body yesterday.”

That was No. 18 for the year, said Williams, the same number of homeless deaths the city saw in all of 2008.

Santa Monica, with roughly the same population as Santa Barbara, averaged about 14 homeless deaths a year between 2000 and 2007. Los Angeles averaged 170 a year over that same period, which sounds like a lot. But it’s a far lower rate per capita than the one Santa Barbara has had the last two years.

Williams, a Vietnam vet with a gray ponytail and gentle manner, takes each and every homeless death in Santa Barbara to heart, entering the names of the deceased in a journal. Williams has been doing outreach for 30 years, so he usually knew the victims and tried to get help for them before it was too late.

For months, Williams has sent me updates on the body count, trying to raise the level of alarm over what has been a relatively quiet phenomenon with no known cause. Maybe it’s just a blip. Maybe it’s that more people are on the streets because of the economy or because they were driven out of surrounding communities.

John Buttny, who runs Bringing Our Community Home, said the city of Santa Barbara has made some progress in getting homeless people into service programs rather than jail. But he and Williams both say there’s a shortage of resources, and they’ve seen more women and children on the streets of late. All but one of the several hotels that used to offer lodging to the indigent have been shut down or gone upscale, and there’s not nearly enough in place for those with chronic mental illness.

But those frustrations don’t seem to defeat Williams.

“He’s one of those people who keep doing,” said Chuck Blitz, a friend of Williams who donates to local social causes and has turned his living room wall into a memorial, inscribing the names of Santa Barbara’s homeless victims on white bricks. “There are other people who are as pure, but they don’t have Ken’s empathy.”

Or his quiet rage.

“It’s more likely that the man who was burned last week was set on fire,” he wrote to me in May, the prose all the more powerful for its understatement. “Also, the coroner moved up the autopsy of the wheelchair-bound man who died — which was likely a murder. Doing my rounds on Friday I ran across four other homeless people who had been beaten — looking like a youth street gang.”

Most of the deaths have been of natural causes, if you can call the ravages of unemployment, addiction, exhaustion and mental decline natural. But whatever the cause, Williams organizes vigils to memorialize the dead, and he sends me links to his columns at Noozhawk.com, a community newspaper.

“What did Gregory Ghan feel when he was set upon by his killers?” Williams wrote in June, imploring the community to demand justice in the cases of homeless victims, just as it would if those murders occurred in the million-dollars-and-up houses on the bluffs. “As a community, we dare not fail them.”

But it’s an uphill battle, Williams told me recently during a tour of his haunts. When it comes to politics and public policy, Santa Barbara’s focus is on development rather than social causes. To many in the business community, the homeless are a nuisance, a deterrent to customers, he said. You’d think that might translate into more support for agencies that do the hard work of drawing people in off the streets and helping them rebuild their lives, but Williams says that hasn’t happened yet.

“Give us the beds,” Williams said, and the problem wouldn’t be so bad.

One stop on our tour was Casa Esperanza, a shelter that has 200 beds but can only use half of them because of arcane government regulations. There, we met Joe Martinez, 59, a former Los Angeles machinist who used to work in manufacturing before it dried up in California. That’s when he moved to Santa Barbara, where he sleeps in parks and on the beach. He said his body has failed him, with an aching back and useless legs, and he’s hoping to stay alive until Social Security kicks in and pays for a roof somewhere.

Williams introduced me to “Mr. Smith,” which isn’t his real name, but he needs protection. Mr. Smith was on the beach with Ross Stiles, 43, the night Stiles had a bottle smashed over his head.

“We were across from Fess Parker,” Smith said, meaning the beachfront hotel. Smith didn’t know his friend had been hit, so he slept through the night and awoke to find Stiles complaining of a headache. When Stiles began drooling and slurring his words, someone called 911, but it was too late.

Stiles was dead.

There are bad guys out there, Joe Martinez said. Predators and thieves, no doubt about it. There are also many like Smith, who fought in Iraq and started using alcohol to blur memories and soften post-traumatic stress.

Williams, who went from enlisted Marine to antiwar protester a generation ago, knew why Mr. Smith refused to come indoors: It meant giving up the bottle. But Williams wouldn’t let it go.

“I finally just told him, ‘You’ve got to come in. That’s it.’ ”

Mr. Smith, who finally gave in, has been sober for a month.

Williams showed me two memorials to the dead, one

a sculpture at Casa Esperanza, the other a plaque at the

Salvation Army. Damon, hit head. Ronald, body found on beach. Rose, beaten with tree branch.

“There’s a spiritual quality to people” who are tired and destitute, Williams said. Living in public, they drop all pretense. They appreciate an act of kindness.

Maybe it was Vietnam that made him the soldier he is today, Williams said as we sat in his car outside the Salvation Army. Maybe it was all that senseless dying and suffering.

“Maybe,” he said, “I’m making amends.”


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The New York Times OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor? By BARBARA EHRENREICH August 8, 2009

IT’S too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol. The report lists America’s 10 “meanest” cities — the largest of which are Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe,
Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington —the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.” The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing.

If poverty tends to criminalize people, it is also true that criminalization inexorably impoverishes them. Scott Lovell, another homeless man I interviewed in Washington, earned his record by committing a significant crime — by participating in the armed robbery of a steakhouse when he was 15. Although Mr. Lovell dresses and speaks more like a summer tourist from Ohio than a felon, his criminal record has made it extremely difficult for him to find a job. For Al Szekely, the arrest for trespassing meant a further descent down the circles of hell. While in jail, he lost his slot in the shelter and now sleeps outside the Verizon Center sports arena, where the big problem, in addition to the security guards, is mosquitoes. His stick-thin arms are covered with pink crusty sores, which he treats with a regimen of frantic scratching. For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization — one involving debt, and the other skin color. Anyone of any color or pre-recession financial status can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail. Often the path to legal trouble begins when one of your creditors has a court issue a summons for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another. (Maybe your address has changed or you never received it.) Now you’re in contempt of court. Or suppose you miss a payment and, before you realize it, your car insurance lapses; then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight. Depending on the state, you may have your car impounded or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” said Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

By far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong-color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor encounters racial profiling, but for decades whole communities have been effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor, thanks to the “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” theory of policing popularized by Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York City, and his police chief William Bratton. Flick a cigarette in a heavily patrolled community of color and you’re littering; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect, according to “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” an eye-opening new book by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington. If you seem at all evasive, which I suppose is like looking “overly anxious” in an airport, Mr. Butler writes, the police “can force you to stop just to investigate why you don’t want to talk to them.” And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.” There’s no minimum age for being sucked into what the Children’s Defense Fund calls “the cradle-to-prison pipeline.” In New York City, a teenager caught in public housing without an ID —say, while visiting a friend or relative —can be charged with criminal trespassing and wind up in juvenile detention, Mishi Faruqee, thedirector of youth justice programs for the Children’s Defense Fund of New York, told me. In just the past few months, a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing teenagers found on the streets during school hours. In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.

Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school. The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. And if you should make the mistake of trying to escape via a brief marijuana-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too. One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today the same number of Americans — 2.3 million — reside in prison as in public housing. Meanwhile, the public housing that remains has become ever more prison like, with residents subjected to drug testing and random police sweeps. The safety net, or what’s left of it, has been transformed into a dragnet. Some of the community organizers I’ve talked to around the country think they know why “zero tolerance” policing has ratcheted up since the recession began. Leonardo Vilchis of the Union de Vecinos, a community organization in Los Angeles, suspects that “poor people have become a source of revenue” for recession-starved cities, and that the police can always find a violation leading to a fine. If so, this is a singularly demented fund-raising strategy. At a Congressional hearing in June, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified about the pervasive “overcriminalization of crimes that are not a risk to public safety,” like sleeping in a cardboard box or jumping turnstiles, which leads to expensively clogged courts and prisons.

A Pew Center study released in March found states spending a record $51.7 billion on corrections, an amount that the center judged, with an excess of moderation, to be “too much.” But will it be enough — the collision of rising prison populations that we can’t afford and the criminalization of poverty — to force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment? With the number of people in poverty increasing (some estimates suggest it’s up to 45 million to 50 million, from 37 million in 2007) several states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty — for example, by sending drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, shortening probation and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missed court appointments. But others are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes” but also charging prisoners for their room and board — assuring that they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt. Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them.

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from Redwood Curtain CopWatch:

As we continue to meet people, people who have been beaten, bruised, bloodied, deprived, robbed, and verbally abused by police- people who are living on the street- sometimes beat while sleeping- we know that not enough of us are organizing to protect, collectively struggling to keep the police from hurting our friends and neighbors. The City and people of Eureka MUST not forget Martin Cotton. Every one of the officers who fatally beat Martin in front of the Eureka Mission remains on the police force…on the streets… armed… and continuing their campaign of violence against poor people- with complete impunity. Officers in the jail continue to severely abuse people behind closed and locked doors- where no one outside can hear or see. The jailers continue to refuse medical care- even to dying prisoners. Please come out on Sunday, August 9th- “Cotton Day.”

Cotton Day, August 9th: Remember Martin. Protest the Police Violence That Stole His Life.

Sunday August 9,2009 at 12:30pm

Join us on Sunday, August 9th for the two year memorial anniversary of Martin “Fred” Cotton II. Martin was beat to death by Eureka Police and Humboldt County Sheriff’s in 2007, and WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.

Meet at the Gazebo in Old Town Eureka at 12:30pm. Gather and march with us in memory and protest. We will begin marching at 1:30pm. Please feel free to express yourself thoughout the day.

If you can’t make it to the gathering and march, be sure to remind people of Martin Cotton- wherever you are.

Read The Death of Martin Frederick Cotton II See last year’s Resistance and Remembrance flier

“Cotton Day” Song of Remembrance for Martin Cotton II

Click the link below to hear a song for Martin Cotton by Two Smooth Stones. Martin Cotton was killed by Eureka Police on August 9th, 2007. Join us this Sunday August 9th in Remembrance of Martin Cotton and Resistance of the injustice system that took his life.

Cotton Day Song.

Redwood Curtain CopWatch: (707) 633-4493

Please pass this message on…

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