Sunday night into Monday morning Christopher and I participated in the Homeless Bill of Rights MLK Day of Action! organized by the Coalition on Homelessness (COH):
“On Sunday, January 18th, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter actions across the country, we will honor Dr. King’s vision and fight for the end of the War on the Poor and homeless. We will fight to end Broken Windows policing in SF and fight to protect the human rights of every person without housing. Our action will begin with a Sleep-In at 5p on 1/18 and continue through the night and into Monday morning. We will have food, coffee, live music, orators, and a movie screening for all those who join! We will end Monday morning by joining a contingency to head over to Oakland for an entire day of action!”
We arrived at Powell and Market around 6pm to a group of about 50 – 60 diverse folks energetically, yet peacefully gathered around a large banner reading “Black Lives Matter” in front of the Powell Street cable car turnaround. Near the BART escalators a table was set up with trays of food and beverages provided for free by Food Not Bombs, COH, and others. Soon after we arrived, the crowd was invited to participate in a guided meditation to reflect on our varied purposes for being there – to honor MLK, to support Black Lives Matter, to support and rally for a Homeless Bill of Rights, to connect with one another in solidarity and others.
A series of inspiring and engaging speakers addressed the crowd – un-housed and housed – on topics that ranged from Martin Luther King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” for economic justice; the connection between racial inequity and homelessness – a black man is four times as likely to be homeless than a white man; the critical need to pass a national Homeless Bill of Rights and the devastating impact of not doing so; the challenges and pain of living on the street and the downward spiral that more often than not results; and the war on San Francisco’s poor and homeless accompanied by hollow promises of the city’s “leadership” to effectively and compassionately address the epidemic.
My emotions ranged wildly – deep compassion for those who are living and struggling on the street, a great sense of community and connection to work together to demand change and to have a real impact, gratitude for being blessed to have a home and bed to sleep in, anger at a culture that allows for this demonstration of systemic cruelty and dysfunction, great power, possibility, hopeful and hopelessness all in the same breath.
Following the speakers, various attempts were made to set up a projector and audio to view a documentary of MLK … with varying degrees of success. Mainly we huddled with different folks, including our friends and colleagues Laura Slattery (Gubbio Project) and Kelly Cutler (Coalition on Homelessness) to share stories and be together as a community rooted in fierce compassion and loving kindness – that radiated throughout the night.
About 20 – 25 people ended up staying the entire night – a mix of those with housing, and those without. Overall I slept for about four hours and in that time, I unfortunately missed out when the folks from POOR magazine rolled through and gave a powerful performance. We were lucky at 2:30am to find a 24-hour Starbucks that allowed us to use their bathroom, though at 4am it was closed to the public.
At 5:30 we were given a 15-minute warning that DPW would be coming through to spray the area down. We packed up and walked Laura over to the Gubbio Project … on our way up Golden Gate Ave. we passed tent after tent and sleeping bags filled with folks living on the street amidst the strong scent of urine and excrement – a reflection of how San Francisco is transforming from a city filled with many diverse, distinct hearts beating to the sound of a proud progressive history to one represented in the form of 200-ton lifeless cold lump of black granite sitting at 555 California Street, known as the “Banker’s Heart,” though today it could just as easily be the “Mayor’s Heart” or the “Board of Supervisors’ Heart” or the “Developer’s Heart” or the “Mega-Tech Corporation’s Heart”
Christopher and I both spent yesterday feeling high on the energy from the previous night, as well as sick from getting such little sleep for me – no sleep for Chris. My body ached, my throat sore, a headache … all the initial signs of flu. We both have autoimmune diseases, so we’re more inclined to get sick easily. But really what kept going through my mind is that for over 7,000 people in SF, to some degree that is their life everyday … and without the protected community that had gathered as part of a community protest/sleep-in.
In the “2013 Homeless Point-In-Time Count & Survey Comprehensive Report” the most commonly cited obstacles for obtaining permanent housing were all economic: 55% reported an inability to afford rent; 52% cited lack of a job or income; and 29% didn’t have money for moving costs. Forty-eight percent of respondents expressed that they were experiencing homelessness for the first time in 2013. Of those who were not experiencing homelessness for the first time 41% reported they had experienced homelessness four or more times in the past three years. More than half of respondents (54%) reported they had been without housing for a year or more.
There are only 1,300 shelter beds in San Francisco and, according to the January 2013 homeless count, 7,350 people are without homes. To receive a shelter bed, single adults must have their face and fingertips bio-metrically imaged, a requirement that implies criminalization to many who are already living on the margins, including immigrants and the mentally ill. And while the City reports vacancies in the shelters each night, 2 out of 3 people seeking shelter are turned away.
Places to rest during the day legally are equally as difficult to come by. In the past 12 years in San Francisco, 167,074 citations were given out for sleeping and sitting in public (San Francisco Municipal Court). Each citation carries a fine of $100. An unpaid or unresolved ticket goes to warrant in 21 days, and the fine doubles. Accumulated warrants can result in incarceration and denial of affordable housing. The Sit/Lie ordinance in conjunction with city practices that aim to move homeless people around public spaces, such as the recently enacted daily street cleanings on Market Street and sweeps in BART stations to remove sleeping or sitting people make it nearly impossible to rest in one spot for more than a few hours consecutively and does nothing to solve the problem.
A 2012 report released by the SF City Hall Fellows found that San Francisco’s Sit/Lie ordinance has been unequivocally ineffective, citing that the reported citations were issued to the same 19 offenders, who were reported as chronically homeless and incapable of paying the $100 fines. In March, 2014 the U.N. panel that reviews countries’ compliance with a human-rights treaty says laws in U.S. communities that subject the homeless to prosecution for everyday activities – including “sit-lie” ordinances like San Francisco’s – appear to violate international standards and should be abolished nationwide. The United States, the report said, should “engage with state and local authorities” to eliminate all such laws, withdraw funding from communities that enforce the laws, and work with social service, health care and law enforcement professionals “to intensify efforts to find solutions for the homeless in accordance with human-rights standards.”
Additionally, one of the most overlooked, yet greatest health risks for the homeless is the lack of sleep. San Diego-based blogger and self-proclaimed “chronic homeless man” Kevin Barbieux, who writes under the name The Homeless Guy states in the article Homelessness and the Impossibility of a Good Night’s Sleep by Hanna Brooks Olsen in the August 2014 issue of The Atlantic that “Without a doubt, sleep is the biggest issue for homeless people …homeless advocates are always focused on what are believed to be the root causes of homelessness, and providing the basics of food shelter and clothing to those who do without, and although those things are important in their own way, they don’t affect homeless people with the intensity that sleep does (or the lack thereof).” And yet, says Eowyn Rieke, a physician with Outside In in Portland, Oregon, the problem of insufficient sleep is “an unrecognized” one. Even within the medical community that deals directly with the homeless, “we don’t talk enough about these concerns with our patients.” Chronic diseases, such as hypertension, asthma, diabetes, mental health problems and other ongoing conditions, are difficult to manage under stressful circumstances and worsen with lack of sleep. Additionally, acute problems such as infections, injuries, and pneumonia are difficult to heal when there is no place to rest and recuperate.
Another critical health concern for the homeless is the growing rates of hate crimes. Over the past 15 years, the National Coalition on Homelessness (NCH) has recorded 1,437 incidents of crimes committed against the homeless by housed individuals. In 2013 alone, the NCH became aware of 109 attacks, 18 of which resulted in death. The highest percentage of attacks (30%) took place in California. It is important to note that people experiencing homelessness are often treated so poorly by society that attacks are forgotten
of unreported. This reality worsens when one considers that many violent acts against homeless populations go unreported and therefore, the true number of incidents is likely to be substantially higher.
We must work to put far more pressure on our city officials and hold them accountable to truly address homelessness and the growing divide between the rich and poor in San Francisco through policy change and with strong and clear avenues for oversight and accountability.
All people, especially those who are living on the streets or have mental health or substance abuse issues, are worthy of respect, dignity, and loving kindness.
PLEASE HELP SUPPORT THE PASSAGE OF A HOMELESS BILL OF RIGHTS!