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Posts Tagged ‘human rights violation’

It’s Crazy To Criminalize Homelessness

Posted on by WRAP Comms

WRAP has been documenting the increases of mentally ill people in local jails as a result of diminished funding for mental health treatment and housing, escalation of “nuisance crime” enforcement by police and private security, and expansion of mental health courts.

The scale of this issue is enormous: it is reported that the LA county jail alone houses 3,000 mentally ill people a night. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as many as 64% of people in jails nationwide have mental health problems.   In the 1980s and early 1990s, people with severe mental illness made up 6-7% of the jail population. In the last 5 years, this percentage has climbed to 16-30%. Nationwide, there are three times as many people with mental illness in prisons as there are in hospitals; 40% of people with severe mental illness have been imprisoned at some point in their lives; and 90% of those incarcerated with a mental illness have been incarcerated more than once and 30% have been incarcerated ten times or more.

We at WRAP see this ever-increasing incarceration of mentally ill people as part of a trend toward using the criminal justice system to address health and socioeconomic needs.  On the ground, this means that mentally ill homeless people who lack adequate access to housing and treatment services are vulnerable to getting caught in the criminal justice system, especially arrest or citation under local “quality of life” or “nuisance crime” laws that include sitting/lying on sidewalks, panhandling, and loitering. Oftentimes, the seriousness of these infractions is escalated to “failure to appear” bench warrants, which require jail time.

To gain a clearer understanding of the scope of the problem, we are conducting outreach to self-identified mentally ill people, service providers, justice system employees, lawyers and researchers.  We have also conducted a literature review of Department of Justice reports and periodical pieces.  We were stunned to learn that never before has there been systemic outreach to self-identified mentally ill homeless people about this issue.

During the month of August 2010, WRAP did street outreach with 253 self-identified mentally ill homeless people in six cities (Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Denver).  The National Consumer Advisory Board of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council is doing 350 more in seven cities across the country. We currently have a small sampling of online surveys from 36 frontline service providers.  If you or your organization would like to participate in either of these surveys contact staff at WRAP.

The initial responses tell us we need to bring together all the concerned members of local communities and finally start to reverse this trend.

Here’s just some of what the street outreach found:

  • 76% reported being stopped, arrested, or cited due to “quality of life” offenses.
  • 60% reported being harassed by private (Business Improvement District) security.
  • 35% reported having ignored tickets issued against them.
  • 59% reported having Bench Warrants issued for their arrest.
  • 22% reported having outstanding warrants at the time of the survey.
  • 21% reported being incarcerated while 5% reported being referred to a program when brought before court.
  • 29% reported losing their housing or being discharged from a program due to incarceration.

This closely mirrors the initial service provider experiences even though they were not all in the same cities:

  • Almost 20% of service providers report that their clients’ interactions with police occur because they appear to be homeless.
  • More than 60% of service providers report that their clients’ interactions with police occur because of drinking related offenses
  • 30% of service providers report that their clients interact with police because they are loitering, 16% report interaction because of jaywalking, and 16% for trespassing.
  • 53% of service providers report that approximately 20% or more of their clients have bench warrants against them.
  • 44% of service providers report that 50% or more of their clients have outstanding tickets.
  • 74% of service providers report that at least 70% of their clients have been arrested.

By looking at and analyzing the experiences of the clients and of the service providers and relating these to the research that been done on issues of decreasing access and increasing criminalization, we will lay the foundation needed for all of us to come together and finally begin to dispel the myth that mental illness and homelessness are the result of people choosing a lifestyle and that service providers are incompetent. These claims have gone unanswered far too long and the result, as we all see, is killing us.

While re-funding housing and treatment services might seem to be a logical response, local and state governments, with the support of the Federal Department of Justice have instead been implementing Homeless and Mental Health courts. In the last 10 years, the number of Mental Health Courts in the U.S. has increased from 4 to 120.

In theory, the mental health court system is a collaborative effort between judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, caseworkers, and mental health professionals aimed at figuring out an appropriate treatment plan for the offender. Some recent studies suggest that mental health courts substantially reduce recidivism, and others have shown that participation in mental health court increased defendants’ access to long-term care. Which would seem to disprove the whole services resistant argument, which is so prevalent in the creation of these courts.

However, mental health courts also have significant drawbacks.  In order to gain access to the mental health court, defendants must plead guilty to the crime they are accused of and agree to adhere to the courts recommendations or be remanded to the traditional court.  These conditions are coercive and can also perpetuate the criminalization of people with mental illness. As one service provider noted, “in Mental Health court, people are often “remanded to custody” for non-compliance with court case management, which includes medications. To jail someone for not taking medication, especially if it is medication that causes extremely adverse side effects, is questionable from a legal standpoint, and from a treatment standpoint, it is barbaric. Everything described above then happens: people [lose] their income, health insurance, housing, and everything else.”

WRAP seeks to ensure that jails do not replace community-based mental health treatment services and that the hundreds of millions of dollars that are currently funding the whole bureaucratic process of criminalizing people instead be applied as an initial down payment towards the housing and treatment that is not only much more humane, but in the long run, much more affordable as well.

We’ll use our collective strengths, organizing, outreach, research, public education, artwork and direct actions. We will continue to expand this network of organizations and cities and we will train ourselves to ultimately bring down the whole oppressive system of policing poor people and poverty as a non-human broken window to be discarded and replaced.

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Sidewalks Are For The People

Posted on by WRAP Comms

In 2009, cops in San Francisco cited homeless people 2600 times just for being asleep That’s almost as many arrests as for all violent crimes combined. And yet late that year, the most cynical of the city’s politicians determined that what was really needed was a new law to address the aspects of homelessness they claimed to find most objectionable: A law that would make it a crime to… sit down.

San Francisco tried a sit/lie law in 1968. It was found unconstitutional thrice before being taken off the books. Police chief-turned-mayor Frank Jordan tried to introduce such a law again in 1994, but it was ultimately rejected by the voters. But the immediate impetus behind the proposed sit/lie law came from Portland. Portland has had a series of sit/lie laws that have been struck down by state courts, but despite these failures, a trip to Portland sponsored by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce led conservative politicos to think that such a law might be a good idea for San Francisco.

STAND AGAINST SIT/LIE

The media hysteria that followed the early proposals of a new sit/lie law focused on homeless youth living in and near Golden Gate Park and the historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. According to the SF Chronicle these youth weren’t homeless: They were Devil-may-care trust-fundies reveling in smack and booze on mummy and daddy’s dime, whilst terrorizing the neighborhood with their pit bulls. Residents of the Haight were scared to leave their houses. Several of the stories reported in the mainstream press about atrocities committed by homeless youth were proven to be false, and the neighborhood’s only residents’ association opposed a sit/lie law, but spurred on by conservative columnists Mayor Gavin Newsom was able to appear to be responding to a neighborhood demand when he submitted the law to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The Chamber of Commerce stalked the corridors of City Hall, threatening Supervisors with an election war chest of $400,000 to support the sit/lie law and lend support to candidates who would do the same.  Homeless people comprise maybe 2.5% of the population in the City of San Francisco and through smart organizing and advocacy, the SF Coalition on Homelessness has been able to wield an influence disproportionate to its size, but their volunteers and organizers ran into a lot of weak handshakes and frozen smiles. “We can’t just be the party of ‘No,’” Supervisors would object.

Homeless people testified in front of the Youth Commission and won that body’s opposition to a sit/lie law. They also persuaded the Planning Commission to register its opposition to sit/lie. Even the Small Business Commission refused to support the sit/lie law as it was written, suggesting that a slightly less draconian version might be more palatable. And still the Board of Supervisors vacillated between conscience and fear.

Most of the staff and volunteers of the Coalition on Homelessness had been homeless, but none were “just” homeless: They had experienced homelessness because they were queer, because they were immigrants, because of the structural inequalities in our country that lead to poverty. They reached out, and their broader communities responded. Soon, we had a large committee that truly represented the queer liberation movement, organized labor, day laborers, sex workers, and many other members of the community who had simply been persuaded to give a damn.

SIDEWALKS ARE FOR PEOPLE

The members of this broader coalition outreached to drop-in centers and cafés, galleries, bars, and tenants’ organizations. They carried flyers bearing the slogan “Stand Against Sit/Lie!,” picturing the many ways in which sitting had been criminalized in the past: A sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro. Sit-ins against the British Raj in India. Drag queens and transgender women at the Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco. Rosa Parks in Montgomery.

The message was heard, and an unexpected group of San Franciscans heeded the call: Public Space Advocates. In March groups organized a citywide event under the banner “Sidewalks are for People!” Everyday San Franciscans from all walks of life would take to the sidewalks for an afternoon, cop a squat, and just do whatever they pleased — Chess games. Poetry readings. Barbecues. Chalk art. Even a hot tub. The first action was phenomenal, with over a hundred actions and literally thousands of participants.

Between the broadened pressure from the many sectors of the community who now recognized sit/lie—and even homelessness—as *their* issue, and the creative and popular appeal of the Sidewalks are for People actions.    the tide turned. Conservative columnists held out, but the media had a hard time resisting the appeal of the campaign, and coverage ceased to be completely one-sided.

Organizers for the campaign obtained a permit to hold a rally on the steps of City Hall the day of the Board of Supervisor’s decision. Homeless youth, day laborers, a union representative, a spokesperson for a queer organization, a civil rights attorney, and a supportive member of the Board were to speak. When they got there, they found that the Sheriff’s Department had barricaded the steps of City Hall, and a line of police stood behind the barricades with arms crossed. For a permitted protest from a group that had always been law-abiding, this was unprecedented. But organizers sat down on the sidewalk, and held their rally anyhow. When they got inside, the Board voted 8-to-3 to oppose the law, with even the moderate members of the Board speaking out against the potential infringements upon civil liberties.

We had won.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, BUY, BUY AGAIN…

Rebuffed by the Board, the Mayor promptly placed sit/lie on the ballot. A truism of San Francisco politics is that neighborhood elections, favor progressive politics: Progressives have the neighborhood infrastructure and the community organizations to create powerful campaigns on a truly local level. But citywide elections favor conservatives, who are able to far outspend progressives. If he couldn’t get his way through the Board, Mayor Newsom was going to bank on… bankers.

Over the course of the summer, the campaign supporting a sit/lie law (calling itself the “Civil Sidewalks Coalition”) spent $411,000 persuading San Franciscans that such a law would create order in the city. The vast majority of this money came from the financial sector, including presidents and partners from Charles Schwab, Morgan Stanley, and the Bank of America. Commercials prominently featuring the Chief of Police were aired throughout the lead-up to the playoffs, during the championship and after each World Series game.

With a budget of less than $10,000, the opponents of the law—the Sidewalks are for People Coalition—put up a mean fight. They designed engaging tabloids and door-hangers, and went door-to-door in projected swing neighborhoods. They maintained a place in the media, through creative actions that included multiple drag shows, the musical genius of the Brass Liberation Orchestra, and a religious revival led by the renowned Reverend Billy.

In the end, however, the Sit/Lie law passed with 54% of the vote, aided by the phenomenal inequality of the campaign budgets, buying air time during the SF Giants success, the sense among many occasional voters that it would never pass in San Francisco, and a low voter turn-out in the two poorest districts.

THIS FIGHT AIN’T OVER

The night of the election, as results came in, spontaneous sit-ins happened in three different parts of the city. Within a week, hundreds of people got involved in other protests, organized by people who had not previously been part of the campaign. With core campaign organizers exhausted or burnt out, other organizations began planning their own actions. In a very, very important sense, we won: This was not something that other progressives in San Francisco had just let happen to homeless people: When we lost, we *all* lost. And there was no way we were going to take this loss lying down. Well… Maybe defiantly lying down.

Community groups have coalesced around the recognition that criminalizing any one group of us criminalizes us all. Saturday, December 18, we held the first Sidewalks are for People Day since the election, reclaiming the sidewalk now that sidewalk rest has become criminalized. With hundreds of people and over a dozen actions, this fight is not over yet.

At the same time, the Coalition on Homelessness has begun developing documentation and know-your-rights trainings for members of our community who are cited or threatened with citation.  Simultaneously, attorneys from the ACLU and Disability Rights Advocates, as well as independent attorneys, have begun work developing legal strategies to challenge what we believe to be an unconstitutional law.

Through coordinated documentation, litigation, and through public pressure on our legislators, on a new mayoral administration, on the media, and on the consciences of our fellow San Franciscans, we know ultimately we will win.

WRAP was formed to unite the voices, talents and energy of the awesome
social justice work happening locally in our communities throughout the West
Coast. Through our member groups’ outreach, community forums, WRAP
workgroups, and collective actions, we are creating a unified message that
amplifies the voices of the many organizations that fight for poor people.
Our widely distributed and updated report Without Housing (2006 & 2010) has
established us as a recognized presence – both in Washington DC and across
the country.

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Read this…this is just one page….

http://www.popcenter.org/problems/homeless_encampments/3,/h2>

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Donna Tam/The Times-Standard
Posted: 10/10/2009

“The difference between us and law enforcement is we have the ability to come out on a daily basis,” Shelter said.


Shelter and his team of North Coast Resource Center — or NCRC — volunteers spent about three to four hours Friday morning cleaning up the marsh near the Virgo Street entrance as part of a new program funded by a $20,000 grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy. The center signed a contract with the city of Eureka on Tuesday and began surveying the area Wednesday. Part of the program’s mission is not just to kick people out of the marsh, but educate them about taking responsibility for the environment they disturb and other options they may have.
….During a pilot program in Trinidad, Shelter said occupants of 124 of the 182 encampments did not want to be there. He hopes that cleaning the marsh will also allow the program to gather data about the demographics of the homeless community.
….A lot of people don’t realize that if they leave garbage outside of their house — like old mattresses, blankets, or carpets — they are providing the homeless with materials to build makeshift shelters, he said, standing by a campground consisting only of a blanket and what looked like a wooden platform.

 

And from Murl Harpham of the Eureka Police Department “good ole boy” network:

Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 09/03/2008

“The solution is heavier enforcement, which we can’t do,” Harpham said. The solution is “just to make it uncomfortable here for them.”
….At least twice a week, he said, officers sweep homeless camps. But without any place to move to, the camp’s residents are forced to find another space to set up camp. ”We just keep moving them around,” Harpham said.

….After a complaint is issued, Harpham said Eureka officers respond to tell the trespassers to leave. Their information is reviewed in a database, and if they are repeat offenders [repeat sleepers!], they are either arrested or cited.

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Peace Protesters Call for an End to the Santa Cruz Sleeping Ban

Since July 4th, a couple dozen people have been protesting the Santa Cruz Sleeping Ban by camping each night from 8pm – 8am at the County Courthouse. Organizer Ed Frey says that the demonstration aims to “convince local and national government to stop breaching the peace, especially that of peaceful sleepers, and to instead use resources to discourage violence and warfare in all its forms.”

Indybay contributor Skidmark Bob spoke with Ed Frey, Robert Norse, and other campers who are participating in the civil disobedience in violation of the City of Santa Cruz Sleeping and Camping Ban, officially known as M.C. 6.36.010.

http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/07/07/18652973.php

4th July 2010 Sleepout/Camping Ban Vigil at S.C. County Bldg. | Santa Cruz Courthouse Sleepout Day 3 |Free the Land on Peace Camp Night 3

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