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WORK FOR A HOMELESS BILL OF RIGHTS!

“WRAP was created [by the members below] to expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness in our communities”

 
 WRAP Members
Right to Survive                    * Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee    
St. Mary’s Center                 * Street Roots                               * Street Spirit

 

October 24th, 2013
Please don’t forget to add wrap@wraphome.org to your Safe Sender/Primary Email list so that we end up in the right inbox! 

 

WRAP recently launched the Homeless Bill of Rights (HBR) Campaign which seeks to provide a framework for communities to fight back against discriminatory local laws. We believe that people living on the streets deserve support and access to affordable housing, not criminalization for their mere presence on public land. We launched a social-justice-based campaign that will create bills which protect the following rights and prohibit the enforcement of any local laws that violate these rights: 

 

1.     Right to move freely, rest, sleep, & pray and be protected in public spaces without discrimination,

2.     Right to occupy a legally parked vehicle,

3.     Right to share food and eat in public,

4.     Right to legal counsel if being prosecuted,

5.     Right to 24-hour access to “hygiene facilities.”

  

The core of our HBR campaign is based on our outreach to homeless and poor people, in which we document their experiences with local police and private security. We have recently surveyed 1,276 people in five states and twelve cities. The civil rights violation people are experiencing everywhere are eerily similar. The main “illegal offenses” that homeless people are being harassed & criminalized for include: sleeping 81%, sitting or lying down 78%, and loitering or hanging out 66%. 

 

We are seeing unprecedented campaigns by local municipalities to enact anti-poor people laws. (Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Fresno, Albany, Hayward, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Venice, San Diego, and the list goes on) “Quality of life” ordinances are criminalizing homelessness and preventing people from attaining basic needs such as resting and sleeping. Additionally, with limited resources and funding cuts, poor people have very little support and are faced with numerous barriers which make escaping homelessness impossible. 

 

The time has come for a renewed national movement to protect the human and civil rights of poor and homeless people. WRAP is engaged in community organizing, research, public education, advocacy, and direct action efforts to build the power to defeat misguided housing legislation and overturn discriminatory “quality of life” laws. 

 

Learn more about our Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign.

                

Do you represent an organization working for social justice and equality? If yes, please endorse our Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign in California and Oregon!
 
Click here to download the form.

Launching Los Angeles  the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign to End Criminalization
Launching Los Angeles the Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign to End Criminalization

Albany has an obligation to do a better job for the homeless
 
October 22, 2013
By: Paul Boden 
Over the past decades, as federal funding for affordable housing nose-dived, the solutions to homelessness have been left to local governments. Though the effort has been far from perfect, almost all Bay Area cities have contributed resources to housing our region’s poorest residents. Many have spent significant city funds. But not Albany.
 

The city of Albany has no homeless shelter. It has next to nothing on providing affordable housing, for years. It has been out of compliance with state law regarding zoning for affordable housing since at least 1999.

 

Oppose the San Francisco Park Closure Proposal!
 
 
 
San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener has introduced legislation to close all of SF’s public parks from 12 midnight until 5 am. This proposal will be voted on by the Board of Supervisor’s on Tuesday October 29th @ 1 pm.
 
The proposed law would:
  • Fine and jail people who are living/resting in public parks because they have nowhere else to go;- waste precious city funds on signs, fences, and costs of enforcement
  • Further eliminate already diminishing access to public space for ALL.

Take Action! 

We Need Your Support!
 
Please make a donation to WRAP and help sustain our efforts to make ending homelessness a national priority!
 

Homeless Bill of Rights New Narratives
 
September 8, 2013
 
Editor’s Note: Continuing our coverage of rights-based movements and narratives. Simon Davis-Cohen speaks with Paul Boden about Homeless Bills of Rights.

 

Paul Boden is Western Regional Advocacy Project ‘s Organizing Director. He became homeless at the age of 16 after the death of his mother. Paul served as Executive Director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness for 16 years and was a founder of the Community Housing Partnership, a nationally recognized permanent housing corporation with optional supportive services. He has received dozens of community awards during the last twenty-five years and recognition from the city and county of San Francisco, the State of California, and the Congress of the United States. Paul regularly writes articles and op-eds and travels throughout the country giving talks and trainings.

 

Connect with our members’ campaign in Oregon! Join their lists and endorse their Bill. 
 
 
Oregon Campaign Goals:
  • Pass a Homeless Bill of Rights in the state of Oregon (introduce the Homeless Bill of Rights into the Oregon State Legislature in 2014).
  • Investigate the priorities of the unhoused community
  • Change public perceptions of the unhoused
  • Educate the housed and unhoused about systemic causes of homelessness
  • Connect homelessness to public health
  • Build action teams to achieve incremental victories
  • Mitigate the negative impacts of criminalization ordinances (anti-camping/sit-lie)
  • Build local & statewide allies
 

On South Carolina’s Troubling Criminalization of Homelessness
 
U.S. Catholic Blog
 
In our August cover story, author Paula Lomazzi argued that we shouldn’t enact laws and policies that effectively make it a crime to be homeless. Lomazzi, formerly homeless herself and now the director of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, made a compelling argument in favor or community, compassion, and practical solutions to ending homelessness. Our readers agreed, with 67 percent indicating that they would vote against legislation that prohibited sleeping outside in their city.
 

Food Truck That Feeds Homeless Could Be Forced To Move From Streets Of Hollywood 

 

October 16, 2013 
 
The Los Angeles City Council is considering new regulations that could potentially shut down a food truck that has been feeding the hungry on the streets of Hollywood for more than 25 years. The Public Works Committee heard a motion introduced by Councilman Tom LaBonge Wednesday, which urges city departments to consider banning non-commercial food distribution in public rights of way, an initiative that would force the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition to move.
Western Regional Advocacy Project 
(WRAP)
 
 
415.621.2533
wrap@wraphome.org
 
We are sustained through individual donations and generous foundations. We need your support to continue our work and help us stand up for poor and homeless peoples’ civil rights!

 
 
 
WRAP is a 501(c)3 organization. 
 
 
  
 
Donations are tax-deductible.
 
 

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What the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, is that most ordinary activities are illegal when performed in American streets.

Demonstrators sleep in Zuccotti Park.: Bryan Smith/ZumaDemonstrators sleep in Zuccotti Park. Bryan Smith/ZumaThis story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

As anyone knows who has ever had to set up a military encampment or build a village from the ground up, occupations pose staggering logistical problems. Large numbers of people must be fed and kept reasonably warm and dry. Trash has to be removed; medical care and rudimentary security provided—to which ends a dozen or more committees may toil night and day. But for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else, including job loss, the destruction of the middle class, and the reign of the 1 percent. And that is the single question: Where am I going to pee?

Some of the Occupy Wall Street encampments now spreading across the US have access to Port-o-Potties (Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC) or, better yet, restrooms with sinks and running water (Fort Wayne, Indiana). Others require their residents to forage on their own. At Zuccotti Park, just blocks from Wall Street, this means long waits for the restroom at a nearby Burger King or somewhat shorter ones at a Starbucks a block away. At McPherson Square in DC, a twentysomething occupier showed me the pizza parlor where she can cop a pee during the hours it’s open, as well as the alley where she crouches late at night. Anyone with restroom-related issues—arising from age, pregnancy, prostate problems, or irritable bowel syndrome—should prepare to join the revolution in diapers.

Of course, political protesters do not face the challenges of urban camping alone. Homeless people confront the same issues every day: how to scrape together meals, keep warm at night by covering themselves with cardboard or tarp, and relieve themselves without committing a crime. Public restrooms are sparse in American cities—”as if the need to go to the bathroom does not exist,” travel expert Arthur Frommer once observed. And yet to yield to bladder pressure is to risk arrest. A report entitled “Criminalizing Crisis,” to be released later this month by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, recounts the following story from Wenatchee, Washington:

Toward the end of 2010, a family of two parents and three children that had been experiencing homelessness for a year and a half applied for a 2-bedroom apartment. The day before a scheduled meeting with the apartment manager during the final stages of acquiring the lease, the father of the family was arrested for public urination. The arrest occurred at an hour when no public restrooms were available for use. Due to the arrest, the father was unable to make the appointment with the apartment manager and the property was rented out to another person. As of March 2011, the family was still homeless and searching for housing.

What the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, is that most ordinary, biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets—not just peeing, but sitting, lying down, and sleeping. While the laws vary from city to city, one of the harshest is in Sarasota, Florida, which passed an ordinance in 2005 that makes it illegal to “engage in digging or earth-breaking activities”—that is, to build a latrine—cook, make a fire, or be asleep and “when awakened state that he or she has no other place to live.”

It is illegal, in other words, to be homeless or live outdoors for any other reason. It should be noted, though, that there are no laws requiring cities to provide food, shelter, or restrooms for their indigent citizens.

The current prohibition on homelessness began to take shape in the 1980s, along with the ferocious growth of the financial industry (Wall Street and all its tributaries throughout the nation). That was also the era in which we stopped being a nation that manufactured much beyond weightless, invisible “financial products,” leaving the old industrial working class to carve out a livelihood at places like Walmart.

As it turned out, the captains of the new “casino economy”—the stock brokers and investment bankers—were highly sensitive, one might say finicky, individuals, easily offended by having to step over the homeless in the streets or bypass them in commuter train stations. In an economy where a centimillionaire could turn into a billionaire overnight, the poor and unwashed were a major buzzkill. Starting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York, city after city passed “broken windows” or “quality of life” ordinances making it dangerous for the homeless to loiter or, in some cases, even look “indigent,” in public spaces.

No one has yet tallied all the suffering occasioned by this crackdown—the deaths from cold and exposure—but “Criminalizing Crisis” offers this story about a homeless pregnant woman in Columbia, South Carolina:

During daytime hours, when she could not be inside of a shelter, she attempted to spend time in a museum and was told to leave. She then attempted to sit on a bench outside the museum and was again told to relocate. In several other instances, still during her pregnancy, the woman was told that she could not sit in a local park during the day because she would be “squatting.” In early 2011, about six months into her pregnancy, the homeless woman began to feel unwell, went to a hospital, and delivered a stillborn child.

Well before Tahrir Square was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and even before the recent recession, homeless Americans had begun to act in their own defense, creating organized encampments, usually tent cities, in vacant lots or wooded areas. These communities often feature various elementary forms of self-governance: food from local charities has to be distributed, latrines dug, rules—such as no drugs, weapons, or violence—enforced. With all due credit to the Egyptian democracy movement, the Spanish indignados, and rebels all over the world, tent cities are the domestic progenitors of the American occupation movement.

There is nothing “political” about these settlements of the homeless—no signs denouncing greed or visits from left-wing luminaries—but they have been treated with far less official forbearance than the occupation encampments of the “American autumn.” LA’s Skid Row endures constant police harassment, for example, but when it rained, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had ponchos distributed to nearby Occupy LA.

All over the country, in the last few years, police have moved in on the tent cities of the homeless, one by one, from Seattle to Wooster, Ohio, Sacramento to Providence, in raids that often leave the former occupants without even their minimal possessions. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, last summer, a charity outreach worker explained the forcible dispersion of a local tent city by saying: “The city will not tolerate a tent city. That’s been made very clear to us. The camps have to be out of sight.”

What occupiers from all walks of life are discovering, at least every time they contemplate taking a leak, is that to be homeless in America is to live like a fugitive. The destitute are our own native-born “illegals,” facing prohibitions on the most basic activities of survival. They are not supposed to soil public space with their urine, their feces, or their exhausted bodies. Nor are they supposed to spoil the landscape with their unusual wardrobe choices or body odors. They are, in fact, supposed to die, and preferably to do so without leaving a corpse for the dwindling public sector to transport, process, and burn.

But the occupiers are not from all walks of life, just from those walks that slope downwards—from debt, joblessness, and foreclosure—leading eventually to pauperism and the streets. Some of the present occupiers were homeless to start with, attracted to the occupation encampments by the prospect of free food and at least temporary shelter from police harassment. Many others are drawn from the borderline-homeless “nouveau poor,” and normally encamp on friends’ couches or parents’ folding beds.

In Portland, Austin, and Philadelphia, the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up the cause of the homeless as its own, which of course it is. Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we’re all eventually headed—the 99 percent, or at least the 70 percent, of us, every debt-loaded college grad, out-of-work school teacher, and impoverished senior—unless this revolution succeeds.

Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch regular, is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (now in a 10th anniversary edition with a new afterword).


http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/homelessness-occupy-wall-street


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By Paul Boden Organizing Director, Western Regional Advocacy Project

What images do the words “quality of life” bring to mind? A peaceful beach? A beautiful park? A farmers market full of healthy produce? In the realm of policing, the phrase “quality of life” carries different connotations. It means a veteran getting hauled in for sleeping on the sidewalk, a homeless woman being prohibited from resting on a park bench, or even brutal scenes like these from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Fresno.

For poor, homeless, queer, transgendered, and disabled people, “quality of life” is a zero-sum game. It means someone else’s life is better only if theirs is worse. It also means no begging, no sitting or lying on public benches or sidewalks, no congregating in public space, and no sleeping outside. In this context, “quality of life” is an array of ordinances being used against people deemed “abnormal” or “undesirable,” especially in gentrifying areas. Quality of Life campaigns have been driven by the concerns of Chambers of Commerce, Business Improvement Districts, and residents uncomfortable with the unsightliness of extreme poverty, especially middle-to-upper class whites.

The heavy-handed tactics shown in the video clips above are extreme expressions of the daily harassment visited upon those who have to struggle with poverty, addiction, mental illness, and disabilities in open public view because they lack basic amenities such as housing. These tactics help the police clearly demarcate urban boundaries and enforce who belongs where. They’re part of a social system where welfare and punishment have become almost indistinguishable.

This is the second part in a series of articles we’re running on Quality of Life campaigns. Here we explore their theoretical basis, what they actually do, and what their implications are for our society.

Quality of Life laws are based on the Broken Windows theory, first popularized in an influential 1982 Atlantic Monthly article written by James Q. Wilson and Edward Kelling. The article reflected the ascendant conservative ideology that New Deal and Great Society programs had turned the U.S. into a “nanny state” that reinforced the laziness and criminality of the lower classes, especially people of color. This is the theory’s dubious starting point.

The premise of the Broken Windows argument is simple: it is necessary to come down hard on the “disorderly” (e.g. homeless panhandlers, drunks, prostitutes, and rowdy youth) to discourage more serious criminals from taking over a neighborhood. This was to be done by saturating selected areas with beat cops that have the “discretionary authority” to not only respond to actual crimes, but to “manage street life.” These tactics go by the various names of zero tolerance, order maintenance, and broken windows policing.

Wilson and Kelling write:

“The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window. Muggers and robbers, whether opportunistic or professional, believe they reduce their chances of being caught or even identified if they operate on streets where potential victims are already intimidated by prevailing conditions.”

“Tough on Crime” advocates saw Broken Windows as a panacea to the problems facing their cities. The cumulative effects of economic stagnation, growing inequality, unemployment, rampant privatization, and government neglect were ravaging urban centers. The first to apply it were New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his Police Commissioner William Bratton. In 1994, they put forward Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York. Giuliani and Bratton made their careers off exporting this model. Giuliani created a consulting company and Bratton took jobs in other major cities such as Los Angeles.

In recent years, activities associated with being homeless became the most glaring signs of disorder that needed to be eliminated, and as a result the problems faced by homeless people were transformed into a criminal justice issue. Today, more than 50 cities have passed laws that prohibit sitting or lying down in public places and 100 localities have passed some form of anti-begging ordinance. To bolster Quality of Life policing efforts, Business Improvement Districts have hired private security guards to monitor and patrol public space with scant oversight to limit civil rights violations.

Consequently, public funds are being redirected from social services to homeless courts, jails, and prisons. So much so that in 2007, a public defender in Los Angeles told the Daily Journal on the condition of anonymity: “It’s not abnormal for the DA to have a policy. But this policy is about targeting the homeless in that area because the city is redeveloping that area. It’s a policy to get people off the streets and into state prison, jumping right over rehab and jail.”

Quality of Life campaigns have been credited for cleaning up and making business, entertainment, and shopping districts more enjoyable for their intended users, namely tourists, shoppers, and concertgoers. In New York City, for example, the campaign was so successful that only one homeless man remains in Times Square, but at the same time homelessness in the city was up 34%.

So the question must be asked: Do these ordinances actually work or are they “politically successful policy failures?” Who exactly do they work for and at what cost for society as a whole? Do the ends justify the means? Or are we once again developing a repertoire of exclusionary mechanisms that further tarnish our country’s claims on freedom, equality, and justice for all?

There is no clear evidence that Quality of Life campaigns have seriously reduced crime. In his book Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing, University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt calls attention to a Harvard study in which the authors conclude that “the current fascination in policy circles on cleaning up disorder through law enforcement techniques appears simplistic and largely misplaced, at least in terms of directly fighting crime.”

In the pursuit of “safe,” “sanitized,” and “livable” cities, we’re systematically stripping people of basic civil and human rights and banishing them beyond the realm of human decency. By reactivating or expanding the application of archaic vagrancy laws, we’re criminalizing the basic necessities of living and keeping in existence a disgraceful system of second-class citizenship. Nightsticks and jail time cannot address the lack of housing and services that put millions of people on the streets in the first place.

Even Wilson and Kelling concede that:

“Of course, agencies other than the police could attend to the problems posed by drunks or the mentally ill, but in most communities especially where the ‘deinstitutionalization’ movement has been strong — they do not.”

They go on to raise concerns about equity:

“How do we ensure that age or skin color or national origin or harmless mannerisms will not also become the basis for distinguishing the undesirable from the desirable? How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?…We are not confident that there is a satisfactory answer except to hope that by their selection, training, and supervision, the police will be inculcated with a clear sense of the outer limit of their discretionary authority. That limit, roughly, is this — the police exist to help regulate behavior, not to maintain the racial or ethnic purity of a neighborhood.”

So, why have police become our society’s primary service providers? Aren’t other agencies better trained to deal with health, social, and economic problems? In the next part of this series we will take a look at the “long and unbecoming” history of other exclusionary social policies carried out in the name of “regulating behavior.” Histories that should make us think twice about the police’s ability to provide safety for everyone. We hope that looking at Ugly laws, anti-Okie laws, and Jim Crow laws will give us the distance and perspective we need to illumine our own blind spots and democratic failings. The fact of the matter is, we can only police the gross inequality riveting our society for so long.

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-boden/whose-quality-of-life-par_b_769036.htmlOctober 22, 2010 

This series is a collaboration between researcher Casey Gallagher and Western Regional Advocacy Project.

Follow Paul Boden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@withouthousing

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Whose Public Safety?


The Perception of Public Safety

Perceptions of public safety vary drastically. A tourist or shopper’s basic understanding of safety will probably clash with that of a person who can’t rub two dimes together. How you perceive public safety will depend on where you stand in society.

As the gap between the wealthy and poor grows, public displays of extreme poverty and suffering have become commonplace. This disturbing reality brings to the fore competing needs for public safety: whose rights should be protected by the state?

Our growing divide is a recipe for social instability and conflict. The current proliferation of “nuisance crime laws,” private security, and surveillance cameras in public spaces resurrect a long-standing tradition in the United States of using punitive police measures to deal with poor and “unwanted” people. Like Jim Crow and Anti-Okie Laws, “nuisance crime laws” are encoded with racism and classism.

Does the litany of “nuisance crime laws” forbidding camping, loitering, trespassing, blocking the sidewalk and panhandling make society safer or would we do better to focus our attention and resources on the vast inequality riveting our country?

Public Safety and the Neoliberal State

The recession has hit the poorest the hardest. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies, in the fourth quarter of 2009, households with incomes over $150,000 had an unemployment rate of 3.2%, whereas households with incomes under $12,499 had an unemployment rate of 30.8%. United for a Fair Economy reported that roughly 3.4 million families experienced foreclosure in 2009 and that almost 60% of mortgage defaults were caused by unemployment. African Americans and Latinos have experienced the brunt of the recession’s unemployment and home equity loss.

Meanwhile, local and state governments across the country are eliminating programs, privatizing parks and other municipal services, raising tuitions, putting government workers on furloughs or reducing hours to curb budget deficits that in many States are now in the billions of dollars. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 45 states plus the District of Columbia have reduced services since the recession began.”

The Obama Administration has interrupted some of the neoliberal social policies of the previous four administrations, most notably with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Nonetheless, we are still reaping the misfortune of 30 years of neoliberal cutbacks to the safety net, cutbacks that have created huge structural gaps in the housing and labor markets.

As the economy and safety net unravel in the recession, public spaces have become a battleground for which perspective of public safety will win out. People from the top-earning households don’t feel safe or comfortable in the presence of all the poor people on our streets and all the poor people on the streets don’t feel safe or comfortable in the presence of all the police officers and security guards.

“Nuisance Crime Laws” Limit Public Safety

“Nuisance crime laws” separate public safety from social welfare and equity at a time when a broader systemic effort is necessary to address the crises in housing, employment, education, and health care. Poverty is not an individual choice or lifestyle. Resting on a bench or even sleeping in a doorway are not problem behaviors, nor are they criminal acts. They are survival activities.

According to Homes Not Handcuffs, a report released in 2009 by the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness that surveys the criminalization of homelessness in 235 cities: 33% prohibit camping, 30% prohibit sitting/lying, 47% prohibit loitering, and 47% prohibit begging in certain areas of the city.

The messaging is clear: If your city is seen as tolerant of poor people in public spaces, tourists will stay away, families won’t come downtown to shop, small businesses will go under, tax revenue will go down, budget deficits will increase, and more services will be cut, precipitating a downward, irreversible spiral into financial ruin.

This messaging has worked well with the mainstream media and local legislative bodies looking for “action now” solutions. It suggests a clear cause and provides a specific answer. The cause is “those people” and the answer is to get rid of them for “the greater good.” After all, it’s much easier to find someone to blame and pound the message home till it becomes its own reality than it is to address an economic system that is increasingly producing inequality and poverty.

A Place of Greater Public Safety

The fear, nervousness, and desperation are very real, but policing the crisis will not fix the fundamental problem. We are at a crossroads in many ways. We need real solutions and they do exist. Economic human rights models that include a right to housing, education and treatment, a job with a living wage will prove much more effective in the long run. When pressed, people on all sides of this issue seem to agree on this point. Yet, advocates for “nuisance crime laws” keep crowding out other voices by saying that we need “action now!” They argue that one more law will give them the “tools” to make everything better.

Taking “action now” to address homelessness has meant needing even more “action” tomorrow. If we as a country had initially diagnosed the real causes of emerging homelessness in the early 1980s – the disappearance of affordable housing – instead of seeing it as a temporary crisis for dysfunctional people, the divisiveness, hostility and anger that surrounds today’s frenzy to add more and more laws that keep moving homeless people from public view would be virtually non-existent.

from the blog of the Western Regional Advocacy Project [WRAP]: http://www.wraphome.org/index.php/blog/archives/575#more-575

WRAP exists to expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities.

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Drawing the Line
Dealing with Eugene’s Downtown Exclusion Zone

by Rick Levin

Exclusion is an ugly word. Applied to human beings and the public space they occupy, terms like “exclusion” and “sanitizing” and “cleaning up” can spark powerful historic images, none of them particularly nice: the Warsaw Ghetto, Kristallnacht, South African Apartheid, fire hoses opened up on Southern blacks and other such insidious experiments in cordoning off society’s so-called undesirables.

For the past two years and change, downtown Eugene has been boxed in by an imaginary but supposedly legal zone of exclusion. This zone has been dubbed — in somewhat Orwellian fashion — the Downtown Public Safety Zone (DPSZ). At the behest of law enforcement and to address the concerns of beleaguered establishments in Eugene’s business core, the City Council on Aug. 11, 2008, passed by a vote of 5-3 an ordinance that draws a line in the civic sand, and inside those lines the city has declared a sort of soft-soap War on Misbehavior in the umpteenth degree.

I spent some time hanging out in the zone with Obi James, a 31-year-old homeless guy who’s been selling his jewelry for the past few weeks in front of the McDonald Theatre. James told me he’s been cited for criminal trespass in the DPSZ. “I wasn’t criminally trespassing,” he said. “I was sleeping. It’s kind of ridiculous. My big thing is being discriminated against because of my position.”

The sun was scheduled to set on the zone Aug. 11 of this month, thereby repealing the code. But as any street kid knows, the sun also rises, sometimes unexpectedly. The council voted to extend the municipal code another 90 days in anticipation of the long-promised police report on the DPSZ’s effectiveness. The vote was 6-2 this time.

Beyond this, nobody knows precisely what the police report is supposed to show: Some want proof the cops aren’t profiling certain street kids; others want to know if the zone has benefited businesses. How this is to be shown isn’t clear.

Historical hindsight tells us that when the shit really hits the fan, exclusion can lead to extermination. But don’t fly off the handle: Nobody’s suggesting Eugene will start gassing 16-year-old kids for sleeping on grates or jaywalking. We’re not talking about the rise of Brown shirts (we do have red hats) and midnight beatings; that would be ridiculous. It can’t happen here.

No doubt, there are times when downtown Eugene is no picnic. Downtowns are rough all over. Many people who oppose the DPSZ, and even some kids on the street, are willing to admit there are mean, crappy people hanging around. At night especially, with so few folks in the area on week nights, getting around can be a bit scary. And yet, Eugene’s crime rate remains relatively low. It is possible to acknowledge that downtown isn’t exactly Shangri-La without simultaneously scapegoating street kids and pushing for more police and harsher enforcement.

The question, it seems, is not whether the DPSZ is effective but whether it’s desirable. Is the creation of an exclusion zone really the way Eugene wants to make itself a more attractive, safe and economically vital place to be? Does the DPSZ promote civic understanding and economic growth, or does it simply reveal a desire to sanitize and whitewash the urban core in order to attract more middle-class money? Is there an ironic and perhaps hypocritical contradiction between Eugene’s vaunted liberal image and the exclusion of certain “undesirables,” many of whom are being pushed over the line without being convicted of a crime? Is this public policy just a pig in a poke, a means of appeasing jittery yuppies who can’t tolerate the gritty realities of an economically struggling city? For that matter, is the DPSZ even constitutional?

How exclusion works

As set out in Eugene Code 4.873, the Downtown Public Safety Zone is a 20-square-block area centered on the LTD station and bounded by 7th Avenue, Lawrence and Lincoln streets and 11th Avenue. The ordinance does not require a criminal conviction before the exclusion period is imposed. The alleged offenses that can get you kicked out of the DPSZ include property damage, intimidation, controlled substance violations, menacing, urinating or defecating in public and criminal trespass. A police officer claiming you violated any of these state or municipal codes can get you excluded for 90 days, and should you violate this three-month probationary period — barring certain things like consulting your lawyer or seeking medical help — you can get booted for a whole year. If you cross the line a third time, you might get tossed in jail.

One of the strange offshoots of the whole DPSZ issue is the “trespass letter of consent” that was passed around to businesses, requesting that owners and managers of downtown establishments sign a paper that designates “each and every police officer” as “my agent for the purpose of enforcing” certain of the city’s municipal codes regarding criminal trespass. Seeing as this is sort of what police are supposed to do anyhow, the letter has something nervously pre-nuptial about it — an arrangement that seems to legally pre-empt questions about why it is that cops get to decide who is and isn’t a legitimate customer.

Even stranger was the sudden appearance of that painted white box on the sidewalk near the bus station. The box runs from the southwest corner of 10th and Willamette past the LTD station, after which it doglegs at the corner of 10th and Olive near the Rosa Parks statue and continues halfway up Olive to the western entrance to the bus station. Written at intervals within the box in stenciled yellow letters are the words:

“Do Not Block Public Right of Way.”

For fans of unintentional irony, it should be noted that a person could stand on the bench next to Rosa Parks and, with a vigorous leap, land directly in the middle of a box limiting, the civil right to assemble in public.

If the box is a literal interpretation of the intent of the safety zone, it also seems a rather subjective and arbitrary one. In an email sent May 18 to Mayor Kitty Piercy and the Eugene City Council, City Manager Jon Ruiz refers to those “timely” white lines as the “Magic Box Project,” which he says addresses the concerns of pedestrians “forced to walk a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers, out of control dogs, and other unpleasant behavior.” Ruiz asserts in the email that “large groups of 100 or more” sometimes block the sidewalk by the LTD station, and he goes on to note that the magical box “is a good example of our employees continually providing innovative solutions to problems, often at little cost.”

It’s unclear whether Ruiz’s assertions are based on reality. I’ve made numerous visits to the area in question and have never observed 100 people creating any kind of gauntlet (or gantlet for that matter), and I’m not even sure that many people and their “out of control” dogs could pack into such a small area.

The city manager claimed that “the City received 100 positive comments” about the magic box. Ruiz, however, fails to provide any names of those who offered positive comments, or whether he even checked that other comment mailbox marked “negative.”

In an email to Police Chief Pete Kerns, Piercy appears to take to task those who acted without the knowledge of the rest of the department or the approval of the mayor or the city council. Apparently, Sgt. Terry Fitzpatrick asked Ruiz if he could paint the box, and then he had a city employee go at it. “I had no idea the sidewalk writing was the result of downtown safety meetings or any upper management decisions,” the mayor writes, adding that she “never heard there was a review by the city attorney.”

Kerns did not return calls requesting an interview.

Walt Hunt, who owns New Odyssey juice bar at the corner of 10th and Willamette, called the box an “awkward” attempt to address the issue of people blocking the sidewalks downtown. Hunt said he’s been trying for years to take the “old school” route of fixing the problem by bringing people together to iron out their differences in person, to no avail. “We weren’t making any headway,” he said, adding that he’s not opposed to the box per se though he would have preferred “something more fun and not quite so weird.”

“Seriously, it was done from beginning to end in about 30 minutes,” Hunt said of the Magic Box Project. “It took longer for it to dry.”

Hunt said he supports the idea of the DPSZ so long as it’s used properly to deter dangerous or antisocial behavior. Having been involved in some intense and potentially violent confrontations with unruly customers, he said there are instances when certain people have burned up their chances and need to be dealt with. In this sense, he said he appreciates the DPSZ as an attempt “to create a way not to put somebody in jail.”

According to Hunt, his initial concern was that police not target or profile certain individuals. “This is not to be used against homeless people,” he said. “It’s not a witch hunt.” Hunt said he’s satisfied the DPSZ hasn’t been mishandled, noting that he believes there were fewer than 50 instances of people actually being excluded during the past two years. “That doesn’t seem like abuse,” he said.

Hunt, who also supports the recent 90-day extension of the DPSZ, said it’s unrealistic to oppose the zone on principle without a street-level understanding of what goes on downtown all day every day. “Some of the people in our community are very reactionary,” he said. “They’re not down here. Are business owners struggling? Yes. Are they blaming street kids? No.”

Principal Mary Leighton of the Network Charter School, a self-identified peace activist, also supports the Downtown Public Safety Zone. “It looks to me like it’s working,” she said, adding that people opposing the zone might be “nurturing an unhealthy skepticism” toward the current Eugene police force. As someone who deals at her school with otherwise good kids who “fall through the cracks,” Leighton said she’s found Eugene police have shown uncommon concern about the welfare of wayward youth.

“Our kids are the ones who hang around Eugene Station, much to my chagrin, but they don’t go inside those boxes,” Leighton said. “I can say that the police I run into every day downtown know their neighbors. I think they’re decent people. They spend a lot more time than they need to solve a problem.”

Leighton said she is well aware of both the troubled past of the EPD as well as the nasty connotations of social exclusion. “The theory of exclusion is horrible, but the practice is okay, I think,” she said. “We have to make sure that the safeguards currently in place result in the equitable exclusion of people the community properly don’t want in the concentrated section of downtown. If the data can’t tell us that, we should be kind of mad.

“Technically, due process is missing,” Leighton said about the fact that a mere citation can get you excluded from the zone. “But practically they have such a preponderance of evidence before they apply it, it’s not like they’re fragrantly strewing it about. They are, as far as I can tell, applying it very prudently.”

 

Country club versus constitutional rights

The issue of the DPSZ and due process, on the other hand, is one of the major reasons Eugene City Council member Betty Taylor voted against the ordinance in the first place, as well as nay-saying its extension. Taylor said that “one of the really bad things” about the safety zone is that “a number of people have been excluded before they’ve even gone to trial. I think if people are doing something wrong, then charge them with that.”

Taylor’s perspective on the matter is cosmopolitan, in that she believes “downtown’s the best place for all kinds of people,” and she goes on to make a distinction between downtown and residential real estate. “I don’t believe in excluding people, especially downtown,” Taylor said. “It’s the best place for people to be. If it was a neighborhood, it might be different. If they’re criminals, put them in jail.”

Neither does Taylor believe that any perceived upswing in the social or economic vitality of the downtown area should be directly linked to the creation of the DPSZ. “I know a lot of people think things have gotten better, but that’s like saying those people did all the bad things down there,” she said. “If they’re bad people, it might be better to have them down there where there’s more people to watch. If they’re bad people, I don’t think we want them gathering in the park.

“I just don’t think it’s the right way to do it,” Taylor said of the whole idea of an exclusion zone. “If we get more people downtown, it will just be local color.”

As a UO law student, Katy Ann Crosslin became interested in the social and legal implications while serving an internship at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, where CLDC executive director Lauren Regan assigned her the project of researching the issue. Crosslin argued against extending the DPSZ at the Aug. 11 City Council meeting, saying that the zone is “unconstitutional, ineffective at stopping crime and is being used to profile the homeless, mentally ill and diverse youth.”

In an interview last week, Crosslin said that “the only purpose of the exclusion zone is to comfort the wealthy business owners, so that they can feel like they live in a classy area with high property values.” She said that although the DPSZ was touted as a way to stop crime by creating an “intangible” border, the reality is that the zone has been used to “systematically remove people that commit any number of minor and vague offenses such as ‘disorderly conduct’ and ‘interfering with pedestrians.’” The business owners who pushed for implementing the zone, Crosslin said, made the argument that many of their customers were too afraid to enter the area due to the “offensive behavior” that takes place there.

“I have found this fear of downtown to be unwarranted unless people are referring to the homeless, mentally ill and diverse youth of Eugene to be ‘offensive,’” Crosslin said. It’s obvious why downtown has become a gathering place for people of all sorts, she said, pointing out that many disadvantaged people need access to things like the bus station, FOOD for Lane County and the public library.

There are plenty of better, more humane solutions to dealing with whatever problems downtown Eugene might be experiencing, Crosslin said. “I think that the police should enforce most of the laws that are listed in the list of offenses that one can get excluded for,” she said. “Police should utilize existing crime-stopping tools and dish out appropriate fines or punishments without completely throwing out our constitutional rights.”

Crosslin’s investigation into the uses and abuses of the DPSZ have led her to some pretty disconcerting conclusions about the city in general. “I think that Eugene has this reputation to the outside world that it is a unique city with people that live alternative lifestyles and have refreshing ideas and beliefs about society, acceptance and diversity,” she said. “I now feel like Eugene resides within its own Bible Belt” where “the ones that called the shots on this exclusion ordinance are not very accepting of diverse people or the U.S. Constitution.”

Crosslin noted that downtown is “not a country club for members only” but a public space. “Kids on the street are saying that cops have threatened them not to even set foot in the box at all or they will get a ticket,” she said. “But in public statements and interviews, the cops deny that they have told anyone not to set foot in the box.”

I spoke with dozens of street kids and heard a lot of these kinds of stories.

How the other half lives

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve spent time sitting on the sidewalk — which is criminal trespassing — talking with many of the people who hang out downtown smack in the middle of Jon Ruiz’s Magic Box Project. Over and over again, I heard stories about kids getting hassled by the man, about being told to move along before getting busted, about not stepping over the white line. If this is untrustworthy second-hand news, it’s also some pretty widespread second-hand news.

As I sat talking to a couple of guys outside the entrance to the McDonald Theatre one afternoon, a jacked-up hot rod laid a smoking patch of rubber as it squealed through the stop sign. I also witnessed numerous people driving and talking on cell phones at the same time. I also saw cops riding bikes on the sidewalk.

Neither of the first two potentially deadly offenses I mention can get you excluded from the Downtown Public Safety Zone unless you want to bundle those crimes under the vague catchall category of criminal trespass. On any given day, Eugene Municipal Court seems to be handling a lot of criminal trespassing charges, mostly against poor kids, and many of which lead to a reduced fine when the trespasser agrees to do time working on the city’s road crew.

Andy Pew, 23, like Obi James, has spent the last couple months stationed on the sidewalk outside McDonald Theatre, selling jewelry. Right now, Pew said he’s doing some couch surfing, though he balks at the term homeless. “Houseless, yes,” Pew said. “Homeless, no.”

Pew said he’s seen as many as 10 to 15 kids get cited for violations in a single day for things like criminal trespass and drug possession. His major beef, however, isn’t with the Eugene police, many of whom he said can be pretty cool. Pew, like many of the people I spoke with, reserved his criticism for those guys in the red hats and white shirts — the downtown guides employed by Downtown Eugene, Inc., an organization funded by the city and headed up by Chamber of Commerce president Dave Hauser (who did not return my call for an interview). The kids hanging out in the DPSZ have several nicknames for these guides, including “the red hats” or the “British” (as in, “the red hats are coming”) and, my favorite, “bloody tampons.”

“There’s not a lot of positivity about the red hats,” Pew said. “They like to talk like they have the authority to detain you and make you wait for the cops to show up. The red caps seem to be the worst of the worst, abusing authority they don’t even have.”

Pew said he’s seen the dudes in the red hats follow groups of kids around before they’ve even done anything wrong. And the ironic thing, Pew said, is that “the street kids are way better guides than they are,” often providing directions.

James said he’s seen the red hats “rolling around in the passenger seat of cop cars.” He said he wouldn’t have a problem with them if the guides treated everybody equally, but from what he’s seen, “they target the kids.”

James, who arrived in Eugene a few months back after traveling up the coast from Sacramento, said he understands the idea behind the ordinance as a means of dealing with certain dangerous or predatory people. What bothers him, he said, is that law enforcement seems to lump all homeless people into the same category, which makes it difficult for someone like him, who is trying to “come up” and improve his life in the down economy.

James said that, from what he’s seen, profiling is taking place regarding who is being targeted or cited in the safety zone, which in turn is creating an environment of stereotyping. For instance, James said that when he goes into a fast food restaurant and orders food, “They don’t ask me if I want my food for here or to go.”

The exclusion zone, James said, seems more than anything to be money driven, and an obvious gambit to sanitize downtown. “I think they are super ready to give tickets to kids to drive them out of town. It wastes money and time when they could be doing other things,” he added. James suggested that the city should issue temporary permits to street vendors for $10 or $15, as a way of helping them do the all-American thing of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

Instead, as James’ friend Pew pointed out, “I’ve seen three cops roll up here at once to write somebody a $65 littering ticket.” And when cops are confronted with breaking city code by riding their bikes on the sidewalk, Pew claims he’s heard them respond several times: “We’re exempt.”

“You can’t argue with an officer,” James said. “All of a sudden, now you’re resisting arrest.” Nonetheless, he added, “there are a lot of really good cops here. It’s definitely a mix. It’s just a mentality of picking on someone. I really think they need to focus on the real problem.” As problems, he offered the lack of trash cans downtown and the paucity of public restrooms. James said it’s no mystery why people are being cited for pissing and pooping in alleys.

“I’m not going to shit in my pants,” James said. “These are the only pants I have.”

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