Dignity Village, San Diego: Proposed by Renters Union
December 22, 2009. City Heights, San Diego………………
The San Diego Renters Union has voted unanimously to propose to the San Diego City Council that the city buy several acres in the rural Otay Mesa section of the city, near the Donovan facility, to develop a permanent campground for the city’s homeless.
Members of the Renters Union noted the difficulty of finding and securing funding for a winter shelter each year in San Diego as nimby-ism unleashes its annual terror campaign at council members; despite hundreds of homeless people dying each year on the streets, in the canyons and riverbeds. In discussions at the Union’s community meeting it was lamented that the homeless situation in the city is bounced around like “a very hot potato.” Some noted that a “hypocritical” mayor defunded the winter shelter during his election year only to turn around this year and try to “snare” council members into a political minefield by suggesting they nominate sites their own districts for the annual shelter.
Using the successful Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, which houses several hundred homeless in a safe environment of permanent tent structures as a model; Linda Price, chair of the Union’s HAAP Committee (Homeless Awareness and Advocacy Program), told the 2 dozen renter activists gathered “bold, new imaginative steps must be taken to solve the agony of those without homes.” She cited the longevity and creativity of Dignity Village as an answer to the city’s need to house the un-housed, quickly and cheaply. Also, noted was a 2009 Homeless Task Force study which found that 53% percent of un-housed San Diegans wanted shelter but were turned away.
“This city cannot continue with the usual suspects dominating the discussion and direction of homeless programs and funding through their deceitful declaration of a so-called 10 year plan to end chronic homelessness,” she pointed out. “It was a bogus program from the get-go, designed to garner government funds for developer profits, aid gouging landlords and keep the politicians reaping donations from lobbyists. Just like the city council every year since 2003 has declared an “affordable housing emergency” proclamation, then does little about it; the city’s ten year plan to end homelessness is a contrived plan that say’s what the homeless need is housing, dah? And then proceeds to do very little, except a few token beds in even fewer transitional housing facilities.”
“The Plan is a desperate attempt by the city to continue grabbing federal funds earmarked for poor people,” she said. “The Feds were unhappy about sloppy accountability and transfer of funds to other projects such as designer trash cans in Little Italy and additional funding for Parks and Recreation.”
Evans told the Renters group that the Mayor’s office was being audited by the Compliance Unit of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for excessive administrative costs in its anti-poverty grants. “As Mayor Sanders packs his office with political cronies and lobbyists, he has proposed for fiscal 2010 a $648,289 increase in the use of designated HUD poverty and emergency shelter funds to pay administrative costs. Can you imagine, he spent over $2 million in 2009 just to pay his buddies for doing the paperwork on these federally funded poverty grants. The Mayor spent this two million administering around $7 million on 67 projects within the city. That’s over a 25% administrative cost, while the national Social Security system administers billions of dollars to millions of people with a 3% administrative cost.”
“You see why the Mayor and the City Council don’t want to end homelessness and poverty in San Diego?” she shrieked. “It’s the federal goose that lays the golden eggs for political hacks and paybacks for corporate lobbyists.”
“The county and most of the incorporated cities within it spend a combined total of $65 million on homeless programs, while emergency shelters take up about 10% of those funds.” she divulged. “Meanwhile, the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness reports that 51% of the homeless (4014 persons) as of January 2009 are living on the streets, while 12% (965) live in shelters and another 37% (2913) are staying in transitional housing.”
“Now, the politicians and especially those professionals who profit from these funds – the homeless industry – don’t want you to sit back and take a common sense look at the issue. Spreading the funds around, channeling it through various private organizations and their well-paid CEO’s and staff, diverting vast sums to developers and wealthy corporate landlords, paying off expensive lobbyists to expedite political donations hides the real benefactors of your tax dollars earmarked for the homeless ,” Evans said. “Just think of it. $65 million a year for around 9,000 folks! We could give each homeless person a million dollars a year directly and still save taxpayers almost $45 million a year; and, yet many see the homeless as shifty, crooked characters when they should be looking down at City Hall.”
“Now, these poverty pimps and the corporate media will tell you that the homeless are bums, scum of the Earth, alcoholics and druggies, yet women and children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population,” she outlined in her speech. “However, even the most fallen, the least of those amongst the least, must deserve our understanding and at Dignity Village, where the homeless work their way into leadership position, they understand, don’t tell yourself lies. Living on the streets is dangerous and homeless people know it and feel it every second they are out there. Hitting the streets with nowhere to go is a violent traumatic experience that doesn’t end. Homeless people are the constant and unprotected victims of crime. Drug dealers, sexual predators, thieves and violent people prey on homeless people day in and day out. Violent, hate filled teenagers troll skid row neighborhoods looking to beat up homeless people, set them on fire, and harass them for mere entertainment. Terror, anxiety, the pressure on homeless people is enormous; so drug and alcohol use should be no shock to anyone.”
Evans told the gathering that San Diego had a tent city in Balboa Park back in 1992 where 72 people moved into 23 tents on an unused parking lot but the tourist industry and upscale museum endowers threatened the only Democratic mayor in the history of San Diego, Maureen O’Conner, and she moved police in to close down the encampment and arrest its homeless organizer, Larry Milligan. “This, in spite of the fact that Councilman John Hartley, a rarity in San Diego politics, a man of tremendous courage and conscience, introduced an emergency ordinance which would have created an outdoor tent city in an old hospital parking lot.”
“Guess what?” she asked her audience. “The Mayor and Council killed the idea and opted for a committee to study the issue of homelessness in San Diego and incredibly, ethically indefensibly, the smart-asses at City Hall are still studying the issue after 18 years.”
“These city leaders have quietly allowed the Gang of Five, San Diego County’s far right, Republican supervisors to hoard 38% of all government homeless funds for pet cultural and middle-class projects, while harboring only 18% of the county’s homeless population,” she advised the group, “while the City of San Diego with 55 percent of the homeless only gets 36% of government homeless funds. The rest of the incorporated cities in the county get the balance.”
“This is an outrage,” she announced. “The County must pay its fair share; at a tent city all the participants should be required as condition of their housing to secure General Relief checks from the County for which they are entitled as paupers to help pay for their home. San Diego County, with the lowest participation rate of the poor in the Food Stamp Program in the nation, should be forced to grant each occupant at the village their fair share of Federal Government allocations for food. Also, the County’s pitiful winter voucher program should be expanded and help pay for the new campground.”
Evans announced that Corrections Corporation of America has quietly applied for permits for a 3,000 bed prison near the already existing Donovan Correctional facility in Otay Mesa. She relayed that local poet/artivist Jim Moreno has been questioning local property owners and real estate people as well as the engineer that is doing the environmental review (AEIS) but no one is talking. “Perhaps, they are going to build another prison in San Diego to house federal terrorist suspects and that is what all the secrecy about,” she speculated. “It doesn’t matter, we simply do not need another prison, we need a campground for homeless people there in Otay Mesa.”
Her voice hoarse, quivering with anger, she shouted “the politicos in San Diego don’t want to solve homelessness in our city. They are not dumb people, they know that private corporate housing developers will not build cheap housing because it is unprofitable, they know that banks will not finance poor people or even housing coops composed of the marginalized, they know that real estate agents and speculators will continue to drive up the cost of vacant land, and, finally they know that the wealthy will fight tax increases to pay for public housing.”
“Only public housing will solve homeless,” she said. “If the city doesn’t have the money – or the political will to extract it from the wealthy – to build buildings; then, the only common sense proposal is to create a tent city. A community where, however small and plain, the tent is still their home, a place on this Earth they can call their own. Without dignity and pride, how can we expect a person to shuffle out of institutionalized warehousing and re-enter society?”
”At Dignity Village in Portland,” Evans reported, “they don’t plan to end homelessness; they have done it. They start from the premise that every individual has a right to safe, sanitary shelter. Their motto is to stop criminalizing poverty and create a legal place of refuse for every homeless person. With permanent and emergency tents, with adequate sanitation facilities, showers, laundry room, telephones, internet access, medical and mental health clinics, storage, employment contacts, free food and water, they give the homeless the tools they need to survive with dignity.”
“Not only survival needs, but each occupant of a tent must do clean-up and security duty,” she related. “The village has its own board of directors and legislative branch, made up of former homeless residents. There are five basics rules for the encampment that have kept it thriving and peaceful for almost 7 years. 1. No violence to yourself or others. 2. No theft. 3. No alcohol, drugs or drug paraphernalia. 4. No disruptive behavior. 5. Everyone must contribute to the maintenance and operation of the camp.”
“Can you imagine if our city was run on those five simple yet powerfully engaging rules?” she asked. “What a truly compassionate, caring, sharing community we would be living in today rather than the selfishness and opulent consumptive sickness we see all around us.”
“But more importantly, Dignity Village’s tent ownership concept restores self-esteem, ‘personhood’ as John Paul II liked to call it,” Evans said. “How can we call the homeless our sisters and brothers if we treat them like stray dogs or abandoned cats, forcing them into human kennels, stripping them of their dignity, telling them they are unworthy of a place of their own?”
“At this Christmas season we all remember Posada, Joseph and Mary without shelter,” she pleaded. “Let us remember our fellow citizens and neighbors and demand that the City of San Diego begin to give some ethical legitimacy to the social contract. In this wealthy city, where people spend more money yearly on canines, including day care, than all the homeless funds allocated, surely we can find the moral will and political courage to fund a village of dignity in San Diego?”
Rocky Neptun is media coordinator for the San Diego Renters Union and is resident director of the Casa de los Olvidados, a house for Tijuana street kids with HIV-Aids. He writes for the website Media Left and is finishing up a book, “San Diego: 1st City of Empire.”
This 60 acre parcel in rural Otay Mesa is secretly being developed as a second prison in the area. It would make an affordable, easy access site for a homeless encampment.