[Hpn] an idea for a change?
Sat, 16 Jun 2001 16:06:09
Tuesday June 19 in the late afternoon Norma Rossi called me. She said she
had a story.
The month before, she’d talked about the familes who’d come to her San
Diego Coalition For The Homeless office in April. She’d been able to find
beds somewhere for 4 or 5 out of the 109 children she’d seen. One of the
mothers had told her about being raped by three guys in what she’d thought
was a safe, well-lit part of Balboa Park. Had the mother reported it to the
police? No, she said, she thought the police would take her kids.
Was this news? We wished it were. We couldn’t just keep harping on the
same old stuff every month, always wishing that this time the moral
blinders would be lifted from our rulers and our fellow citizens, leading
them to take action immediately, as if this sort of thing mattered more
than ballparks and a good night’s sleep and getting to work on time.
What was the news this month? Rossi had just kicked a group of homeless
people out of the lot at 13th and Broadway. She thought some of them might
have complained to us.
Rossi had been invited up to Sacramento with us last month, for the
California Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project; we were planning to
drive her to LA in the middle of the night and all catch the bus. But she
was sick, and feeling her age. She’d been marching for and with homeless
people back in the 80’s, well before Larry Milligan roped us into
pro-homeless activism, about 1991.
Milligan had this idea back then, that only homeless people could be
trusted to lead a homeless advocacy movement. He’d been homeless a few
weeks, talked to a lot of homeless people, learned that most of the people
he talked to didn’t trust anybody who claimed to be doing things for them.
(They were still homeless, weren’t they?) So a founding principle of
HABITA, his organization, was that the top leadership had to be homeless.
(In practice this turned out to mean that the leadership had to be
sleep-deprived, politically inept, and suffering mood swings between
paranoia, naivete, and opportunism.)
HABITA dead-ended in early 1992, when opponents of Milligan’s proposals
packed the City Council Chambers with a hysterical NIMBY mob and his
political allies fled before their implacable hostility. Milligan then
organized an ad hoc tent city on an out-of-way parking lot in Balboa Park,
hoping that if he couldn’t have City support he could at least have their
neutrality long enough to try a potential solution. Supposedly pro-homeless
Mayor O’Connor sent in police to scatter the residents the very first
morning; Milligan stayed and was arrested. His political efforts
frustrated, he devoted himself to assisting Johanna Argoud with a food line
in the Park.
A couple months afterwards, homeless campers acting on their own refused
to leave the parking lot; the City responded with a temporary winter
shelter in the Balboa Park Gym.
But Susan Golding, the next Mayor, soon pushed through a new anti-homeless
ordinance, making food lines illegal on City property anywhere outside of
one small lot at 13th and Broadway. Norma Rossi of the Coalition for the
Homeless was given a key to the property.
Argoud and Milligan continued to serve food elsewhere. According to
Milligan, many people they served were reluctant to go near the dingy,
drug-infested 13th and Broadway area. Other, church-related groups serving
in the Park were approached by police and persuaded either to move to 13th
and Broadway, or to quit altogether.
Several times we, and Milligan, were threatened with arrest for feeding
homeless people on other public property. We were offered the keys to 13th
and Broadway; we refused because (for one thing) we would have had to lock
the gate (closing-off access to the porta-potties inside) each time our
food lines were over.
So that’s the history.
What happened recently, according to Norma Rossi, is that Ron Thurlow, the
City’s Homeless Services Coordinator, gave a gate key to staff at the
interim Family Shelter, so they could park their cars at 13th & Broadway.
For reasons of convenience, they took to leaving the gate open.
Squatters moved in. They started building what Rossi calls “hovels.”
“People from churches were having to serve food with their backs to the
hovels!” [Who knows what lurking evil might emerge from a “hovel”!] “There
were people doing drugs in there!”
Rossi went down to move them all out. About fifty people were inside when
she arrived. “There was a man at the gate when we got there, bringing in a
keg of beer in his shopping cart.” Among the abandonned property that she
hauled to a heap at the edge of the lot, she found a couple baggies of pot,
one rock and a crack pipe. One woman at the lot called her bad names. Rossi
dismissed any possibility that people who’d left their property in the lot
may have left for jobs; considering that a significant and increasing
number of homeless people have jobs that don’t cover San Diego rent, I
don’t know how she could be so sure.
Rossi’s perspective on this is that she has custody of the lot to help
homeless people get food from church groups, and anything that threatens
that function has to go. I wonder, if she’d been feeling livelier, if this
could have been an opportunity, a place where a few homeless people might
have found a needed refuge.
A few years ago, downstairs from City Hall, we had a loosely
self-governing group of homeless people maintaining a protest for months.
They had no support from the City, no backup when people got out of line
and should have been removed, no outside oversight for times when their own
leaders broke down under the strain. Suppose the City had given them a less
contested site, as they asked. Suppose the police had made a practice of
removing lawbreakers rather than just taking notes and crediting the whole
group with crimes they had no effective way of stopping. Suppose people
from local churches had joined the group, supported their efforts to
organize, helped maintain a stable structure on those occasions when some
homeless leader started acting out all the wrong stereotypes?
Self-organized tent cities have sprung up in a number of cities over the
last few years, where local governments have invariably tried to break them
up and chase away the residents. In some places, like Seattle, the
government has failed in its efforts, and tent cities have maintained
themselves, providing a place to live constructively for many people who
these cities were not able to house conventionally.
Everybody knows that San Diego’s arrangements for housing poor people are
failing. The failures are catastrophic for the many people who suffer them.
Despite the inadequacies of “hovels” in a fenced-off lot, they could be a
significant improvement over the unsupervised streets.
People who want to move in and party would have to be moved out, to take
their chances elsewhere. (Such people have been an impediment to every
effort I know of to improve things for homeless people in general.) But
groups of homeless people can make their own rules--and when you ask them
to, the rules they come up with are reasonable. Very few people want to
have somebody smoking crack and getting rowdy nearby while they’re trying
to sleep. They can keep order among themselves as well as any outside
agency can--with fewer casualties than some nonprofits we know of--although
they should have professionals available for the occasional nasty incident.
Do you think this is absurd? What about what we’re doing now?