UPDATE: San Diego Protest For Shelter [California, USA] FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sun, 26 Apr 1998 19:01:21 -0700 (PDT)

FWD via Becky Johnson <wmnofstl@cruzio.com>
    From: Forest Curo <forest@cts.com>


Background Notes:  The Vigil for a Year Round shelter has been seeking
shelter for an estimated 2000 of San diego's 4500 homeless.  Street
newspaper editors Forest and Ann Curo of Street Light have been both
covering the protest and sleeping out regularly with them.  For more
information, contact Street Light, 917 E. St.  San Diego 92101 CA.   Phone:

        Homeless people and supporters in San Diego have maintained an
ongoing vigil for well over a month now, increasing from twelve people to
well over 150 the night the City closed their winter shelter facility. The
site of protest has shifted sporadically between the County Administration
Building and the City Concourse; but demonstrators are unlikely to follow
Councilman Stevens' suggestion that they take it to Sacramento. (Not unless
he pays for the bus.)
     The protest began with my own overnight vigil March 15th, when the
City closed their 150 bed veterans' facility and their smaller family
shelter. About a dozen people showed up to join me in the Concourse, asking
that the City maintain year-round shelter for all in need. While I was
exhausted from the night's meditation (and not yet enlightened), those who
had slept in protest were eager to remain another day for the next City
Council meeting.
     Rebuffed by the City, the group moved to the grounds of the County
Administration Building, where they initially received a friendlier
welcome. One point of agreement between City and
County, however, is that they are doing all they can (respectively) and
homelessness is a problem for the other jurisdiction.
     A day later, the vigil returned to City Hall, with speakers asking the
City's Land Use and Housing Committee to cooperate with the County in
finding ways to provide needed shelter.
Meanwhile, downstairs in the Concourse, other vigil members were approached
by security guards, asking them to leave until after the evening's opera
performance. Ross McCollum, in charge of the City's winter shelter program,
confirmed that vigilers would be arrested if they returned before 11 PM.
     While most of the demonstrators were willing to go along, several felt
there was a matter of serious principle involved. That evening, Shawnie
Meade sat down on the steps near the ticket
line, with her sign about how "Jesus was homeless, and the rich people
crucified him." A few minutes later, a security guard noticed her, and went
for reinforcements. Then he returned,
telling Shawnie that she'd have to move or he would call the police and
have her removed. When she stood her ground, the guards left, but 15
minutes later a bicycle cop rode up to her. When he noticed my tape
recorder he objected vociferously, claiming that it was illegal of me to
tape him. When I explained that I was there as a reporter covering a news
story, he rode rapidly away again.
     Demonstrators have been harassed in other minor ways.  Security guards
told them they could not distribute fliers explaining their purpose in the
Concourse. When they agreed to food vendors' requests that they move to an
out-of the way part of the plaza, they were told by guards that they'd have
to stay there--and then were threatened with arrest when rain forced them
to move under a nearby overhang. Police insisted that they all get up at
5:00, to move their belongings out of the covered area between the City
Hall entrance and the cafe concession.
     After a month, I went to a City Council meeting and pointed out how
well the group had been maintaining order and good relations with police
and local security. That night an influx of
ornery drunks very nearly overwhelmed the protest. At the next morning's
meeting, Councilman Stevens told group members that the City had no money
for shelter, and he was tired of them hanging around. Roger Scott, who had
spend many sleepless nights watching over the group and being nice to
everyone he met, told him to go to hell. Scott was leaving, he said, but
he'd be back. He and other leaders had already decided to leave the
Concourse, to tighten up the organization so as to better withstand
counterproductive supporters.
     Back at the County Building, demonstrators were given a new permit,
which forbade them to remain on County property after 5:00 P.M. Police came
by that evening to insist that everyone
clear the steps and move down onto the sidewalk. The rationale for the new
rule was the lack of rest room facilities in the area. Police returned
later that night to wake everyone and ask
whether they needed to pee, and were they going in the bushes? At 5:00 the
next morning, police came by once again to order everyone up, although they
no longer had an early-morning cafe as a pretext. Their Lieutenant, who
happened to be driving by, agreed that this was excessive and promised it
would not happen again.
     As of April 24, I expect the group to return to the Concourse soon,
but the people actually demonstrating will decide that. Anne and I do an
occasional overnight watch there, which wipes us out for a week, or longer
if my back goes out. I'm glad people listen to us, but we can't expect to
make decisions for people who are there full time.
     A significant background influence is my lawsuit against the City and
two security companies. I've been arrested twice in the last several years
for attempting to protest overnight in the
Concourse; and when I couldn't find a real lawyer to deal with this, I
started looking up cases at the local law library.
     There's an interesting one in Georgia (U.S. v. Gilbert), where a man
lived on the Federal Building grounds as a protest for years. Since the
area where he slept was recognized to be a
"public forum," and others had been allowed to sleep there, the court ruled
that he couldn't be forbidden either.      But there are particularly nice
things about the California Constitution. In California, a "public forum"
is "any place where the public is free to come and go." Furthermore, if you
are doing something in a California public forum that's an exercise of
First Amendment rights, anyone wanting to restrict you needs to prove, if
you take it to court, that his restriction is necessary to keep people from
doing something incompatible with the purpose of the space. Because of the
importance of those rights, that's a heavy burden.
     The City does not want a lawsuit with ten or more plaintiffs and a
real lawyer challenging their customary treatment of homeless people on
Constitutional grounds.
     Other considerations: the public and many officials are at least
reluctantly sympathetic. The people demonstrating are not asking anything
unreasonable; they are generally friendly and
well-behaved; there are some highly competent and knowledgeable individuals
among them. And we've been lucky. Maybe God has decided to do something new
in this City.


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