Revolution#113, December 23, 2007

From Berkeley, CA:

Criminalizing Homelessness & Poverty

Submitted by readers

In the United States, as many as 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year (1% of the entire U.S. population or 10% of its poor), and about 842,000 people in any given week. Approximately half are families with children, the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, over 7% of persons living in the United States have been homeless (defined as sleeping in shelters, the street, abandoned buildings, cars, or bus and train stations) at some point in their lives.

Several supporters and staff of Revolution Books decided to go out one evening and talk with people who are living on the streets, some of the 1,400 homeless people in Berkeley. We didn’t have to walk far to find people who wanted to talk. Though only the tip of the iceberg, we learned a lot in this initial foray.

From Putting Together Ads to Living on the Street

Shattuck is the main street in Berkeley’s downtown, with many movie theaters, shops, cafes and restaurants. We saw a thin, bearded man who was spending the evening near a busy corner. Standing by his shopping cart, he was doing a newspaper crossword puzzle. A paperback novel was open nearby and some of his belongings were spread out. “Rob,” quiet and thoughtful, agreed to talk with us. Later, a friend of his came closer to hear his story as well.

Rob told us he had had a skilled job putting ads together for a newspaper in Illinois. He lost that job and his apartment in the same week. “They downsized the department I was in. The newspaper had been going through a lot of different owners. It started out as a Cap Cities paper, then they were bought by ABC, then Disney bought ABC. The last one to buy the paper was Knight Ridder and they downsized everyone who was working there a long time.”

“I looked for work and couldn’t find any so I just became homeless. It didn’t take me long to go through my severance package,” he explained. In 2000 he decided to move to the Bay Area where he had lived during the 1960s. He has been homeless the entire time since then.

Rob survives by selling his paintings and drawings. But he’s had a hard time recently producing his art because of various health problems. “I’m 60 years old and can’t do this [live on the streets] much longer.” He is trying to get help so he can get off the streets but it is taking a long time. “They drag their feet and you have to go through all these committees.”

 “You’re supposed to be invisible”

Up the street, we met a Black couple, “Mary” and “Charles,” who were talking with other people at the end of a long day of recycling. They're in their 40s and have been sleeping on the street for eight years. He is from Bakersfield and she is originally from Detroit. They make about $450 a month recycling cans and bottles and selling Street Spirit, a non–profit newspaper that homeless people get for free and can sell and keep the money. This third-world level of exploitation doesn’t pay enough for them to rent even a "low-income" studio apartment because of Berkeley's high rents. They described how they're on their feet all day long, working their asses off, with constant harassment from the police. As we talk, Charles greets friends passing by. He knows a lot of people. He shows us a bag of spices tethered to his cart and describes how he cooks for a lot of people on a portable stove he carries with him. He says that this is a way he can help people get some healthy food, and he enjoys it.

They used to have an informal business selling jewelry and crocheted hats on the sidewalk in front of a department store, but say that since the war started they went from making $100 a day to $20 a day because people weren't spending money. They don't qualify for SSI and have been waiting for Section 8 subsidized housing for eight years.

They said that when it comes to being homeless, you're supposed to be invisible. If sleeping on the street is trespassing, then that's just what you have to do to survive.

 “A regimen of harassment”

“Carruthers” was sitting on the sidewalk against a flower box in front of what used to be Cody’s book store on Telegraph Avenue, close to UC Berkeley, a short walk from Shattuck. We sat down on the ground too. You can’t sit on the flower boxes because they have metal bars welded over them to prevent this. He had a cane and bedroll beside him; his friend, a man with long white hair, wrapped a blanket around his legs to keep warm and leaned closer to listen. Later a young guy, maybe a student, stopped to listen. Carruthers didn’t mind the audience and spun his tale, starting with his childhood growing up as a very light-skinned Black in Louisiana: “I don’t have fond memories of Louisiana. I wasn’t allowed to go into stores that others went in. I had to stay out in the truck with the dog. That’s why I live in California.”

He was in the Navy and then came to Berkeley in the ’70s and went to Methodist Seminary. He “dropped out” and became a hippie. He said he became homeless when he was a victim of a robbery and he lost everything. He gets a Social Security check that isn’t enough for him to rent a room so he sleeps outside.

“I sleep in a doorway less than a half a block from here. It’s not safe, but it’s either that or turn myself in for trespassing warrants I’ve gotten. But Santa Rita [county jail] could be a death sentence for a 55-year-old man. Last time I was in a holding cell there for 4 days without so much as a blanket. I was wearing sweat pants and a t-shirt and grabbed the toilet paper roll to use as a pillow.”

He says Berkeley has lots of services for the homeless and he ticks them off on one hand, but says the programs are a dead end and not the answer. “Curing homelessness is the bloody answer.” He told us, “This whole country could be so fine compared to what it is. We’ve killed our planet. It ain’t dead yet but it is dying.”

Criminalizing Poverty and People

In the past months there has been sharp debate around a law many people see as further criminalizing homelessness in Berkeley. The so-called “Public Commons For Everyone Initiative” means the opposite from what it sounds like. It is a series of ordinances designed to get tough on and jail homeless people for the “crime” of simply hanging out or smoking and sleeping outdoors in business districts.

This law tries to define the terms of the debate as to whether homeless people are “bad for business.” TV and print media (especially the San Francisco Chronicle) have run a slew of articles which speak of homelessness as if it is a problem of bad behavior The whole thrust is to push homelessness and homeless people out of sight, render them invisible, so they won’t interfere with a pro-shopping ambiance. Some small business people have fallen for this heartless bullshit, sucked in because they are going through difficult times, feel vulnerable and it is easier to see and blame the homeless people they see on the street than to take stock of and resist what is really driving people down -- the system. It is the normal workings of capitalism—not homelessness—that is squeezing them: the same system responsible for throwing people into the streets in this country and in huge numbers in countries all over the world.

All over the world, and even in the rich countries, there is a whole part of society that is being more or less permanently cast out and forced to live on what others throw away. Then they are treated like criminals. The growing homeless population in this country is a grotesque feature of U.S. capitalism in the 21st century. Social spending has been slashed, welfare benefits drastically cut, and factories have been moved to the suburbs, or to countries where workers are paid a fraction of what they make in the United States. Meanwhile, the average rent in San Francisco for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,800 a month—more than the total paycheck of someone making $10/hour, and more than an entire monthly public assistance check ($723 for family of three).

Currently, there are 29,000 people on the wait list for SF public housing, and the average wait is two years. The wait list for Section 8 was last open for a single month in 2001. There are 28,000 people on that wait list.

This criminalization of people and the calculated waste of human potential is a completely unnecessary crime against humanity. Rob, Carruthers, Mary and Charles are all thinking, potentially productive people who have the desire and ability to contribute to society. And as for housing itself, there are many people living on the streets who have the skills to build and renovate shelter, to organize collective housing. But this system has literally thrown them away, and without official employment they are prevented from contributing what they can and are forced to live on the margins, struggling to just survive. Count the many buildings in the Bay Area that stand empty.

It is not hyperbole to say that a revolution could change the situation for homeless people overnight. If the “free market” did not reign supreme, if society’s resources were allocated in a way that served people’s needs instead of maximizing profit, none of the people we talked to, none of their friends, and certainly no families, elderly or children, would be forced to spend their nights on the streets or in their cars, and their days trying to be “invisible.”


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