Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NCH) FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Mon, 22 Dec 1997 14:57:00 -0800 (PST)

     Email Michael Stoops at <HN0055@handsnet.org>

For more detailed information, please visit the NCH web site at
http://nch.ari.net or call NCH at 202-775-1322.


 By definition, people who are homeless live in public. A lack
 of housing forces them to do in public what everyone prefers to
 do in private.

        This indignity is one of many, many reasons we seek to end
        homelessness, permanently. Unfortunately, it has also become
        the battleground for the most fundamental defense of people who
        happen to be homeless: the right to exist.

        The Criminalization of Homelessness

        In cities with an admitted lack of day shelters and few jobs
        that pay a living wage, people who are homeless sometimes rest
        at bus stops or on sidewalks. Tucson, Arizona, has made it
        unlawful to be at a bus stop for more the 30 minutes. Police in
        Seattle, Washington, have been instructed to fine or arrest
        people who are homeless for sitting on the sidewalk. In cities
        with an admitted lack of affordable housing, people who are
        homeless are forced to carry their worldly goods with them
        wherever they go. In Beverly Hills, California, it is crime
        punishable by a fine or jail time to set baggage down on the
        sidewalks. In Georgetown, a trendy part of Washington, DC, an
        archaic part of the District Code is being applied to fine or
        arrest people for storing property (including people
        themselves) in doorways. There is an estimated 24 million
        people on the waiting list for public housing in this country.
        Despite this acknowledgement of insufficient housing options,
        the city mothers and fathers of Dallas, Texas, and many other
        cities across this country (including Phoenix, Jacksonville,
        Columbus, Boston, Austin, New Orleans, Long Beach, Virginia
        Beach, Atlanta, Sacramento, Tulsa, Miami, and Buffalo) have
        made it illegal to camp or sleep in a park.

        The flaws in this effort to criminalize homelessness are as
        numerous as they are obvious. Though no one should ever have to
        sleep in a park or beg for food, making those acts into
        criminal offenses does not help the people driven by
        desperation to commit them. These city ordinances (and similar
        state statues) are misguided because they seek to hide homeless
        people, not end homelessness. They are unjust because they seek
        to punish people for being poor. Because people who are
        homeless don't have the option not to sleep in public, walk
        through parking lots, set down baggage, etc. these laws are
        illogical. We have laws against arson because we each have the
        choice of not burning down buildings. People who are forced to
        live on the streets don't have options - if they did, they
        wouldn't be there. Though it is easier for cities to attack
        homeless people than to attack the root causes of homelessness,
        it wastes scarce resources and human time, energy, and dignity.
        It costs much much less to secure permanent housing than to put
        people in jail and prison-even shelters (still more expensive
        than permanent housing in the long run) cost less than

        Thousands of citations have been issued nationwide. Police
        continuously misapply and selectively enforce existing laws in
        order to harass people who are homeless and move them from
        parks to neighborhoods to alleys and back into parks. This
        strategy demonizes poor people and feeds negative public
        sentiment to target people who experience homelessness, rather
        than the root causes of homelessness itself.

        In addition to its other effects, the criminalization efforts
        tear our focus away from long term, permanent solutions in
        order to fight for the right of people who are homeless to
        simply exist. Our greatest victories in combating these new
        civil rights attacks will only secure an already inhumane
        status quo. With this in mind, we must build a locally-based
        national movement to protect the civil rights of people who are
        homeless that can seamlessly-even simultaneously-work to end
        homelessness once these discriminatory threats are eliminated.

        Our Response

        Our plan to prevent and combat the violation of homeless
        people's civil rights focuses on linking homeless individuals
        and families, and the grassroots efforts that they lead, into a
        national network in order fortify those local efforts and to
        strengthen cooperation. This plan will result in a coordinated
        sharing of strategies, a greater ability to fight effectively,
        and increased public awareness - all geared toward abolishing
        discrimination against people who are homeless.

        The National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NHCROP)
        will have seven regional organizing posts in different regions
        of the country: East, Midwest, Southeast, Northwest and
        Southwest, plus a national office in Washington, DC. Proposed
        field offices include Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Los
        Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington DC.

        Staff people at each location will work to bring together the
        efforts of all local homeless advocacy groups and to fortify
        efforts in communities that are resource-poor. People who are
        or were homeless will be hired to fill all field staff and
        AmeriCorps*VISTA positions created by NHCROP.

        It is too often the case that the harshest anti-homeless
        attacks occur in those communities that lack the resources to
        organize an immediate, effective response. NHCROP will make it
        much easier for such locales to hook into the knowledge,
        experiences and resources of other civil rights efforts in
        order to improve their ability to best protect the civil rights
        of people who are homeless.

        One of the primary goals of the organizing project is to
        collect and use video documentation of police and private
        security guard abuse of homeless people, along with interviews
        of individuals who are victims of such abuses. Hundreds of
        hours of videotape have already been shot, and the abuses
        continue to stack up. Communities that presently document civil
        rights violations on tape (e.g., San Francisco, Atlanta and New
        York StreetWatch programs) find that having abuses on tape acts
        as both a deterrent to future abuse and a powerful advocacy and
        educational tool. Taking these functions further still, NHCROP
        will combine the footage to a) show the similarities between
        tactics used by different local governments, b) organize a
        well-planned counter-campaign against existing or proposed
        anti-homeless laws, and c) support groups attempting to set up
        or expand documentation efforts. Finally, we can use this
        information as a springboard to pointing out the contradictions
        in blaming the victim and the lack of appropriate policies for
        ending homelessness. At that point we will be able to
        articulate more proactive, cooperative community initiatives
        and organize for their adoption and implementation.

        Focused on the civil rights of all people, NHCROP seeks to
        address discrimination not only through our organizing, but
        also in the way we are organized. Our membership is open and is
        as inclusive as possible. Moreover, we actively encourage those
        service providers and housed advocates involved to engage
        people who are or were homeless in this effort. It is our
        expectation that the bulk of our leadership and membership and
        all of our new staff will be people who are or were homeless.
        It is in this way that we seek to consistently address the
        issues of racism, sexism, and classism that can - if we are not
        vigilant - create incongruities in our values and an imbalance
        between our internal structure and the outward manifestation of
        our organizing.

        People who have no choice but to be homeless have no choice but
        to be public. To punish them for this heaps injustice on top of
        indignity. As one Santa Monica woman who is homeless wondered,
        "When does it stop? Are we going to push homeless people off
        the face of the earth? I do have a right to exist. I have the
        right to food, clothing and shelter because I live."

        For More Information

        For more information on NHCROP (timeline, staffing, budget, and
        evaluation) and the success of homeless civil rights efforts,
        please contact Michael Stoops at the National Coalition for the
        Homeless, 202/775-1322 or email at: nch@ari.net