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Posts Tagged ‘youth’

November’s “Radical Rap” Addresses Inhumane Treatment of Houseless People in Southern Humboldt

Radical Rap is a radio show on KMUD radio that runs the 2nd Wednesday of the month (most months).  You can listen live at:  http://kmud.org/programs-mainmenu-11/listen-live-kmud

Here is a link to download and hear Radical Rap from Nov. 14, 2012:  https://www.box.com/s/m6qi2q41bt3xf9g3fh75

 

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The Quality of Whose Life? Final Part

Linocut by Art Hazelwood

 

Author’s Note: This is the final part in “The Quality of Whose Life?” series.  It focuses on the proliferation of “quality of life” laws across the country that make it a crime to sit or lie on a sidewalk, sleep outside, panhandle, and urinate or defecate in public even when suitable alternatives do not exist. “These repressive new laws trample on the constitutional rights of the poorest of the poor, but few people are even aware of the massive extent of these human rights violations because they are targeted at people who are almost invisible to mainstream society, explains Terry Messman, editor of Street Spirit. “The sheer inhumanity of these discriminatory laws would cause an immediate outcry if imposed on any other minority group in our society.”

“Quality of life” laws are usually part of the gentrification and redevelopment of downtowns and they are enforced in conjunction with the closure of public parks, banning of free food and clothing distribution, and banishment policies like trespass admonishments. To gain public support for passing these laws, officials promise homeless services that seldom get fully implemented.

Part 1 introduced the series, Part 2 examined the broken windows theory that these laws are based on, and Part 3 showed how these laws revive the disgraced vagrancy and banishment frameworks found in Ugly Laws, Sundown Towns, and Bum Blockades. This concluding part details what four West Coast cities have done and are doing to expose and challenge these unjust and discriminatory laws. Their efforts illustrate the dedicated work that is being done across the country. 

Congress and the President recently negotiated how intense this round of the bipartisan war on the middle class and poor will be. The situation will only get worse if Representative Paul Ryan and company get their way.  In this “winner-take-all” social order, “quality of life” laws establish control over shopping and business districts and push the collateral human damage out of sight.  It is a social order that masks and suppresses untenable inequality and cruelty.

The aggressiveness by which “quality of life” laws are enforced varies from place to place depending on local politics, police departments, and community opposition, but three things are consistent across the country. Downtown business alliances and Chambers of Commerce wield too much power over the process, urban public space is being privatized, and poor and homeless people are being stripped of basic citizenship rights.

Civic determination and private resources support “quality of life” restrictions. Chambers of Commerce, business alliances, city officials, and consulting groups meet to share expertise and troubleshoot obstacles.  For example, in 2007, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce sponsored representatives from the Business Alliance of Portland to come to San Francisco to present Portland’s “Street Access For Everyone” plan to city officials. The plan included a sit/lie ordinance. A few years later, Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced a sit/lie ordinance for San Francisco.

Resisting A Filthy, Rotten System

Local social justice groups like the ones we detail below are at the center of opposing what Dorothy Day once described as “our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”  They are forceful and often successful in confronting this trend in individual cities, but they also recognize that as long as this work remains isolated by geography and jurisdictional limitations, it is no match for the formidable wave of power and money that is sweeping the country.

In recognition of this reality, seven west coast groups came together to create a social justice alliance that has communities working jointly whenever and wherever needed.  In 2005, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness (the Coalition), Sisters Of The Road (Sisters), Street Roots, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), Street Spirit, and Real Change became founding members of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP).  We recognized that only by joining forces, first regionally, then nationally, can we build a movement strong enough to counter the ongoing assaults on poor people and present injustices like the current “quality of life” laws.

For this final part, we look at the groups that make up WRAP.  We highlight the multifaceted civil rights work they are doing to educate, activate, and defend their communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Berkeley. Strategies include research, public education, grassroots media, community organizing, advocacy, Community Watch, and citation defense. We conclude with the collaborative work that is being done as WRAP to challenge “quality of life” laws at the regional and national level.

Los Angeles – LA CAN

The Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles is the most heavily policed area outside of Baghdad. In the three years of the Skid Row Safer Cities Initiative, 36,000 “quality of life” citations were issued and more than 27,000 arrests were made in a 50-square block community of 15,000 people who are mostly poor African Americans. These mind boggling statistics give Skid Row the notorious distinction of being ground zero for “quality of life” policing.

Photo Credit: LA CAN

To educate, mobilize, and share the stories of their community, LA CAN produces the Community Connection newspaper, their rendition of the North Star and Liberator. Community Connection covers policing, housing, health, budgetary, and other community issues from the perspective of Skid Row residents.  At the end of 2010, LA CAN also released an influential human rights assessment on the negative impacts of the Safer Cities Initiative in Skid Row. Most recently, they published Downtown Blues: A Skid Row Reader, which explores the struggles against displacement, misrepresentation, and civil rights violations in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. In February, a release party for the book at the University of Southern California featured contributors Robin D.G. Kelley, Cedric J. Robinson, Clyde Woods, Pete White, General Dogon, Gary Blasi, Damien Schnyder, LisaGay Hamilton, and Jonathan Gomez. Over 100 people attended the event in celebration of Black History Month.

LA CAN has fearlessly attempted to address the police’s “culture of abuse” through official channels at the local level.  They have used public records and declarations to illustrate illegal actions, public testimony to the Public Safety Committee and City Council, and, with the help of the ACLU and civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, lodged a complaint in federal court that found LAPD — by its own admission — guilty of illegal stops and seizures in Skid Row. Since most attempts have been rebuffed, they submitted a color of law complaint to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and are now in conversation with DOJ staff over the violations that need to be addressed.

In 2005, LA CAN launched a Community Watch program to reduce the harmful impacts of unaddressed state and private security violence. Teams of four LA CAN members patrol the neighborhood with clipboards and a video camera, monitor the police and Business Improvement District security guards known as “red” or “purple” shirts, and gather evidence when the civil rights of residents are violated. Their presence and documentation ensures fewer incidents of brutality and racial profiling. The Nation has recognized Community Watch as “One of the Top Ten Things You Need to Know to Live on the Streets.”

LA CAN also runs a legal clinic that provides education, services, and representation to help low-income tenants and homeless Skid Row residents get their housing needs met. In 2007, they launched a Citation Defense Program in response to the dramatic increase in “quality of life” citations (roughly 1,000 a month) issued under the Safer Cities Initiative.

In order to break the vicious cycle of poverty, incarceration, and disenfranchisement in Skid Row, LA CAN teamed up with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Fulbright and Jaworski, LLP, and other law firms working pro bono to defend Skid Row residents.  Of the 700 tickets handled by the clinic in 2009, 90% were issued for crosswalk violations like jaywalking.  Among the 700 tickets from 2009 that have been resolved to date, 86% had the charges and/or all penalties dismissed and an additional 10% had the community service penalty significantly reduced. Amongst those who reported their disability status on intake forms for the tickets, 60% had a disability.

Through the legal clinic, organizers were also able to identify a resurgence of illegal property confiscation by LAPD from homeless residents.  Again with pro bono legal support, residents claimed initial victory when a Temporary Restraining Order was issued on April 22, 2011 to prevent LAPD and the City’s Public Works Department from seizing or destroying personal property without following proper procedures.

General Dogon, a LA CAN organizer and Skid Row resident, summed up the paradox of punishing the poor this way, “How do you criminalize the blind for being blind or the lame for being lame? If a man don’t have no where to go, he don’t have a job, and the city don’t have nothing to offer him, you can’t criminalize the man for that and this is what they’re doing. The cold part about that is, on this street right here, Main Street, they were allowing the yuppies to sit on the sidewalk. That’s the new in-crowd, and the city is supporting them. They’re the ones getting everything.”

San Francisco – The Coalition

San Francisco suffers similar harassment.  Since the mid-1990s, San Francisco police have issued well over 100,000 citations for minor offenses that target homeless people on the streets.  While these citations do not allow incarceration, the failure to pay the fine is a misdemeanor. Since most homeless people cannot afford to pay the fines, warrants are issued for their arrest.  The end result is that up to 25% of the people in the San Francisco County Jail are homeless.

Outstanding bench warrants for these misdemeanors can also block access to housing and other services needed to exit homelessness. To provide some defense for its community, the Coalition initiated the Citation Defense Program in 1995. Volunteer outreach workers collect citation information and narratives, which they give to pro bono attorneys who provide representation in court. Over the past several years, the Citation Defense Program represented roughly a quarter of all “quality of life” citations issued in San Francisco. The attorneys in these cases have a 97% success rate for getting cases either discharged, dismissed, or fines stayed in guilty findings. LA CAN and Berkeley’s Citation Defense Programs were modeled on the Coalition’s.

In addition to outreach and citation defense, the Coalition has documented police and other government employee harassment and court inequalities to better protect homeless people from injustice and uses its newspaper, Street Sheet, to educate and mobilize the community against anti-homeless measures.  It also used video documentation to end a Department of Public Works program called “Operation Scrubdown” in 2008. Operation Scrubdown sent police-escorted water trucks through the Tenderloin, a neighborhood where homeless people sleep on the sidewalks.  Every morning before dawn, the trucks power blasted the sidewalks and hosed down sleepers with water and a cleaning agent that city officials identified only as “lemon.”  The video documentation brought media attention to this inhumane practice, which led to the program’s termination.

In 2009, the City of San Francisco opened a new Community Justice Center (CJC) in the Tenderloin neighborhood, against the wishes of the electorate. It targeted homeless people, half of whom were charged with no crime other than sleeping outside. Because the City and the courts claimed that they could not provide documentation of the cases heard at CJC, the Coalition attended court almost daily for three months and collected every court calendar that was produced in order to document the injustices occurring.  Although the Coalition was unsuccessful at closing down CJC, the court began to document its work and move away from a homeless focus toward more serious crimes.

In 2010, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors considered a sit/lie law to make sitting or lying down on the sidewalk a criminal act. The Coalition produced reports on the effects of similar laws on small business in other cities, the impact on real crime in other cities, the constitutionality of the law, racially unequal enforcement of similar laws, and the impacts of criminalization on homeless people’s daily lives and on their chances of housing access. This documentation and reporting, in combination with meeting with public officials, public actions, and strong community organizing, led to the Board ultimately deciding to oppose the law.

The law then barely passed in the November election after a $400,000 media campaign that was aired during the San Francisco Giants World Series and financed by individuals from Charles Schwab, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America. However, with less than $10,000, the Coalition and a newly formed group, Sidewalks Are For People Coalition,  reduced support by 16% from just nine months earlier.

Photo Credit: Sidewalks Are For People Campaign

Since then, Coalition civil rights organizer Bob Offer-Westort writes, “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 fellow San Franciscans, we know ultimately we will win.”

Portland, Oregon – Sisters and Street Roots

In Portland, Sisters Of The Road (Sisters) and Street Roots have been at the forefront of resistance to “quality of life” measures, including a camping ban and sit/lie ordinance. In 2003, Sisters and Street Roots launched the Right to Sleep Campaign, urging City Hall to look at alternatives to criminalization measures that target individuals living on the streets. In their newspaper, Street Roots highlighted the civil rights issues faced by people experiencing homelessness through in-depth reporting on private security in downtown Portland and how it relates to the criminalization of homelessness. Over the years, the newspaper reported on a number of criminalization efforts, including alternatives to the camping, sit-lie, and Drug Free Zones. Due to community pressure and legal challenges, the sit/lie ordinance was twice struck down as unconstitutional in 2004 and 2009.

 

Photo Credit: Michael Lloyd/Oregonian

In 2010, the city proposed another version of the sit-lie law called the Sidewalk Management Ordinance. In response, Sisters organized an action in celebration of sidewalks being for everyone that was attended by over 200 unhoused and housed allies who then marched to City Hall to testify against the measure.  Sisters exposed the classism and bias of the new ordinance in a public statement they used in their media work, outreach to the community, and in City Council hearings.

Sisters also gave a presentation to the city’s Human Rights Commission on the history of the two previous sit/lie ordinances, how it had been used against homeless people, and how the Council was manipulating the issue to make the new ordinance seem like it was about mobility rights for “differently-abled” people.  They specifically objected to the way the ordinance used the Americans with Disabilities Act. Homeless people were targeted for blocking sidewalk access for people with disabilities even though the Portland Housing Bureau recently found that 47% of homeless people had a high risk of mortality caused by untreated disabilities.

A week after the presentation, the Human Rights Commission took a public stand against the ordinance. At the next City Council hearing on the ordinance, three Commissioners testified that it violated human rights and the City Council should vote no on it.

Despite these efforts the ordinance passed. Sisters immediately switched gears and launched a “know-your-rights” campaign. They did street outreach that included handing out 2,000 flyers to educate Portlanders on their rights under the law and invited them to organize with them to oppose the ordinance. Sisters’ organizer Chani Geigle-Teller notes, “Largely because of this organizing on the streets, conversation by conversation, our weekly Civil Rights Workgroup consistently has over 12 volunteers who come in throughout the week to help us carry out this work!”

Berkeley – BOSS

Berkeley, another “liberal” city, is now considering its own no-sitting ban to go along with a no-lie ordinance passed in 2007 under Mayor Bates’ Public Commons for Everyone Initiative.  Since the 1990s, there have been multiple attempts by merchant associations such as the Downtown Berkeley Association and Downtown Berkeley Business Improvement District, the Mayor’s office, and City Council to clear out homeless people from People’s Park and the shopping districts along Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues.

Like anti-homeless measures in other cities, the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative promised a mixture of services and policing. Largely due to pressure from groups like BOSS, East Bay Community Law Center, and Homeless Action Center, the city made a little progress on outreach, Social Security Income advocacy, extension of public bathroom hours, treatment services, and addressing harassment complaints against the Berkeley HOST Program (a private ambassador program paid by the city to patrol the downtown area).  But it has fallen woefully short on providing housing and other services that were promised.

Photo Credit: Janny Castillo, BOSS

The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Association are now pushing to ban sitting on the sidewalk. The Chamber of Commerce says the ban is necessary to curtail negative behavior and scary pets that are frightening people away from the downtown area. Advocates argue that there are laws already in place to address these issues and the new ban will target homeless people. Like the new sit/lie law in San Francisco, Berkeley’s latest effort directly targets homeless youth. To assert any homeless person’s right to exist in public space, BOSS and allies organized a “sit down for justice” action last month. Michael Diehl, a long-time community activist led a sit-in and demonstration that drew local news and passersby. UC Berkeley students from the Suitcase Clinic and other student groups joined the sit-in. Later that evening, the group marched to a Berkeley City Council meeting to speak out against the sit ordinance and its likely negative impact on the homeless population.

To focus public attention on this growing trend of discriminatory laws and reclaim public commons in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Portland, WRAP, the Coalition, BOSS, Sisters, Right to Survive, and other allies coordinated a “Sidewalks Are For People Day” on May 22, 2011. This three-city action is a small example of the type of collaboration and solidarity that is needed to overcome the civil and human rights issues raised in this series.

As shown by the work described above, local civil rights efforts have been effective at curtailing the level of criminalization in individual neighborhoods and cities.  They have led to many successful actions and put pressure on mayors, police chiefs, local human rights commissions, and even the DOJ, to begin responding to these widespread abuses. Important victories have been won, but they have been separated by geographical boundaries.   They need to be joined and that is the mission of WRAP.

Coming Together For A More Inclusive Quality of Life

WRAP is creating an organizing model that builds strategic relationships across local boundaries and unites community organizers, poverty and civil rights activists, students, the faith community, public defenders and progressive lawyers in the civil rights struggle.

In our short history, we have organized a regional “House Keys not Handcuffs” action in San Francisco that brought together over 1,000 people from up and down the West Coast to demand the federal government begin addressing our civil rights and housing issues.  We are now organizing a Community Congress for August that will bring together our member organizations and hundreds of grassroots leaders from their communities. It will include know-your-rights, citation defense, and Community Watch trainings, as well as strategic planning on how we can combat discriminatory “quality of life” laws, enforcement, prosecution, and homeless courts on a regional level.

WRAP has also documented the impact of “quality of life” policing on over 300 self-identified homeless and mentally ill people in six cities.  Our research found that nearly 80% of the people surveyed had been stopped, arrested, or cited for “quality of life” offenses, 60% were harassed by Business Improvement District private security, and 29% had lost their housing or were discharged from a program due to incarceration. This coming June, we will use this research on a criminalization panel and Congressional briefing that are part of the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s Forum on the Right to Housing in Washington, DC.

We are in the beginning stages of building a movement.  The recession, jobless recovery, and gridlock in Washington, DC lay bare the bankruptcy of the current system. Never has the need and imperative been more critical to defend the due process and civil rights of those being criminalized as more of our neighbors are forced onto the streets.  But in the end “defense” is not enough. We must also assert a vision for the future that reflects our humanity and interconnection. We all need a safe place to call home, freedom from fear and want, nutritious food and health care to sustain our bodies, education and culture to expand our minds, and dignified work.

Throughout the many civil rights struggles in our nation’s past, communities have bound together to fight for a more inclusive democracy. The abolitionist, women’s rights, labor, civil rights, disability rights, and environmental movement have all shown that change happens on a large scale only when pockets of resistance create a network of support and solidarity. The collective resistance forming to the present injustice of “quality of life” laws is no different.

Will you join in this movement for a better quality of life for everyone?

Special thanks to Marlene Griffith, Casey Gallagher, Becky Dennison, Chani Geigle-Teller, Israel Bayer, Bob Offer-Westort, Janny Castillo, and Michael Diehl for their contributions to this article.

http://wraphome.org/pages/?p=1218&option=com_wordpress&Itemid=119

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The Empowered Voices Media Project tells the truth!

Almost a year ago, Sisters Of The Road partnered with Portland Community Media to bring trainings to the café centered around learning how to use media technology to tell stories and share truth around homelessness and poverty. These stories are available on EVMP’s Youtube Channel!

At the time 5 community members elected to take the trainings and over this last year, they created 12 amazing short documentaries and photo journals touching on subjects ranging from access to bathrooms and criminalization of people who are sleeping outside to how Sisters sources it’s food and the effects of the calamity of homelessness on women and children living on the streets of Portland.

The EVMP culminated in a Film Festival on December 12th that brought together not only EVMP shorts but also films by other local organizations working with youth and immigrant workers as well as more established film makers like Brian Lindstrom (Finding Normal and the upcoming Alien Boy: the life and death of James Chasse).  The festival drew over 160 people and the overwhelming response was “We need more of this!”

Well, here we are about to embark on phase two and we are going strong and growing!  Over the next year, 12 new EVMP members will receive the same trainings and begin working on photo projects, covering community events and actions, and documenting the stories of people experiencing homelessness and poverty.  While the new members receive the core trainings around using video editing software (Final Cut Pro) and Hi-def cameras, the first class of 5 will receive more advanced trainings such as lighting techniques and how to compress videos to share them more effectively through social networking sites and other online resources like Vimeo and Youtube.

The EVMP already has a list of upcoming events and a plan to gather stories, experiences and truths from the Sisters community that will be used in projects highlighting health, housing, and civil rights issues.  Participants in the EVMP will compliment their technical prowess with training centered around understanding messaging and how the mainstream media works (or doesn’t work) to “spin” its views and the views of its corporate sponsors.

The EVMP will also be creating a documentary on Sisters Of The Road that will begin the process of putting in one place the milestones, voices, successes, struggles and philosophies of an organization that has existed for over 30 years.

ALL of the EVMP members are from the Sisters community and they are being joined by cross class allies who bring skills and abilities to the table that will expand the reach and accessibility of all the projects created by EVMP members.  This includes partnerships that we are building with other local grassroots media organizations like the B-Media collective.

The EVMP will host another film festival in December 2011. It will create powerful media and share that work with communities far and wide.  You are invited to see all the work to date on EVMP’s Youtube Channel!  Subscribe to our “channel”, post comments,  and ask questions! We look forward to hearing from you!

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/eight-homeless-youth-die_b_802109.html

By Bill Quigley

Eight young people, who the Fire Department said were “trying to stay warm,” perished in a raging fire during the night in New Orleans. The young people were squatting in an abandoned wood framed tin walled warehouse in a Ninth Ward neighborhood bordering a large train yard. The young people apparently had a barrel with wood burning in it for heat. Officials said this was the city’s most deadly fire in twenty five years.

The eight young people, estimated to be in their late teens and early twenties, remain unidentified. “We don’t know their IDs,” said the Fire Department, “they were so burned we cannot even tell their genders.”

Audrey, a young woman with brown dreads and a Polish last name, arrived at the scorched scene. She spent the night in the warehouse a couple of times. Because last night was so cold she and a few others begged money from people in the French Quarter and got enough to spend the night in a hotel. Do you know who was in there? “Usually 10 to 15 people, nobody uses last names, but Katy, Jeff, Sammy, Nicky, John and Mooncat usually stay there,” she sobbed. Why did people stay here? “A lot of freight hoppers stay here,” she said, pointing to the nearby trains. “We are just passing through, hopping trains. We don’t have any money.” Behind her a group of young people were crying and hugging as they picked up pieces of a navy blue sweatshirt from the burnt remains.

There are an estimated 1.6 to 2.8 million homeless youth in the US, people between the ages of 12 and 24, according to a June 2010 report of the Center for American Progress. Most are homeless because of abuse, neglect, and family conflict. Gay and transgender youth are strikingly over-represented.

The fire happened in an area of abandoned warehouses at the end of Prieur Street, two blocks towards the train tracks down from the new Family Dollar on Claiborne. It is a modest neighborhood. Some people are back, some aren’t. One block from the warehouses is a long lime green shotgun house with a beautiful red rose bush in front. Next door stands a big grey double shotgun with a wide open door and tattered curtains hanging out broken windows. Untouched since Katrina, the grey house sports OWNER HAS DOG spray painted on the front and the date, 10.8.5. “After Katrina, people don’t have the money to fix their houses up,” said the firefighter.

Across the street from the blackened warehouse is a vacant lot with a tiny handmade wooden shelter at its end. No electricity, no water. Inside are a mattress and some clothes. Follow the path through the weeds and there is another long vacant building that looks like it was once a school. Clearly people stay here as well. Empty cans of baked beans, chili, and Vienna sausages are piled next to Four Loko cans, jars of peanut butter, and empty juice boxes. “Where’s our skate park?” is painted onto the wall in blazing red. A Thanksgiving card with a teddy bear on the outside lies on the pavement. Nana wishes the best to granddaughter Heather and son Dave.

New Orleans has 3,000 to 6,000 homeless people living in abandoned buildings according to an August 2010 report by Unity of Greater New Orleans. The report, “Search and Rescue Five Years Later: Saving People Still Trapped in Katrina’s Ruins,” notes homelessness has doubled since Katrina. Seventy-five percent of the people in those buildings are survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Outreach workers report many are disabled but many also work. Inside abandoned buildings live full-time sitters and restaurant workers.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has a severe homeless problem because of the scarcity of affordable housing. HUD and local governments demolished over 4000 affordable public housing apartments after Katrina. “The current housing crisis in New Orleans reflects the disastrous impact of the demolition policy,” according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing in a February 2010 report very critical of the United States. Rents rose. Tens of thousands of homes remain vacant. Over 30,000 families are on the waiting list for affordable housing.

A November 2010 report from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center pegs the number of vacant and blighted properties at over 40,000 in New Orleans with more in the suburbs – 14,000 of which are owned by the government.

Unity for the Homeless has been asking for help for people living in abandoned buildings for years. They have four outreach workers who nightly check on people living in abandoned buildings. Five recommendations from Unity to help these thousands of people: convert abandoned building into housing for the homeless; fund case managers to help people with disabilities move into housing; additional outreach and housing search workers; create a small shelter with intensive services for people with mental health problems who are resistant to shelters; and serious investment in affordable rental housing. There are several hundred housing vouchers available for disabled homeless people but no money to fund the caseworkers they need.

Nationally, the US has severely cut its investment in affordable housing despite increasing need from the foreclosure and economic crises. Homelessness is of course up all over. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reported in December 2010 that demands for food and housing are up across the country. The causes? Unemployment, high housing costs and low wages.

Will we look into our abandoned buildings and look into the eyes of our abandoned daughters and sons and sisters and brothers? Will our nation address unemployment, high housing costs, and low wages? Will we address the abuse, neglect, and family conflict that create homelessness for millions of youth, especially gay and transgender youth? Or will the fires continue and the lives end?

Bill Quigley is Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can reach Bill at quigley77@gmail.com.

 

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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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::: SIDEWALKS 4 PEOPLE PART II :::
::: SAT. APRIL 24 :::
::: ALL DAY / CITYWIDE :::
::: SAN FRANCISCO :::

WE HAD SO MUCH FUN ON THE SIDEWALKS ON MARCH 27th, WE MADE IT A MONTHLY RITUAL!

MORE INFO AT:
www.StandAgainstSitLie.org
.

:::WHAT::: SIDEWALKS ARE FOR PEOPLE is a monthly citywide celebration of San Francisco’s public space, its vibrant and diverse culture, and its tradition of tolerance and compassion. People from all walks of life, across the city, will be doing what they love on the city’s sidewalks: barbecues, chalk drawing, chess, yoga, reading, knitting, jumprope, playing music, painting, tea/coffee parties, sunbathing, meditating, DJing, hanging out, tai chi, hot tub parties, dancing, anything — you name it!

::: WHERE/WHEN ::: Gatherings will be happening all day in multiple locations across the city. People can post their events or find other events on the official map at www.StandAgainstSitLie.org.

::: WHY ::: The Board of Supervisors will soon be voting on a “Sit/Lie” law that would make it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk anywhere in San Francisco. We think it’s a really bad idea to criminalize the act of sitting in public space and that it’s a clear violation of our basic civil liberties. We think public spaces are safer when people are encouraged to use them to meet with neighbors, friends, family and others from the community. We like how our sidewalks reflect the diverse, vibrant culture
of our city. We believe in freedom of expression, the right to peaceably assemble, and the pursuit of happiness on our sidewalks!

We acknowledge and empathize with legitimate fears or frustrations that people encounter while sharing public space with others, but we do not believe that a sit/lie ordinance would address these fears and frustrations in a truly effective way. We are interested in participating in dialogue around real solutions they address core issues. For starters check out, A Very Different Approach to the Sit-Lie Law by Gabriel Haaland.

::: RSVP on facebook :::
http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=112164578810394&ref=ts

::: WHAT CAN DO FOR SIDEWALKS ARE FOR PEOPLE? :::
Anything you want! Be creative — or not. It doesn’t matter! Just be sure to have fun on the sidewalk and invite friends, family, and neighbors to join you. Please avoid obstructing the free flow of our fellow San Franciscans! Take pictures and shoot video to document your event. Post your event on the interactive map at StandAgainstSitLie.org so that we can show that people all across our fair city love our public spaces.

We will provide you with some basic materials to hand out to curious pedestrians, along with tools to support you in orchestrating this in the most effective way. Other than that, we leave it up to you to organize the best event that you can. You can do whatever you want, but please do something!

CONTACT: info@StandAgainstStiLie.org if you have questions or would like to offer your skills and passion to help put this event together. Or call Andy at 415-533-4694.

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