Homeless and Human Rights

August 15th 2008

Being home is really nice. A lot of things are different; water now arrives consistently and is warm without containing the faint smell of a charcoal stove, I no longer tuck my bed inside of a large mosquito net before sleeping, there aren’t locks on every door and I don’t padlock my room after I leave it (I did so in Kenya as per requested of my Mama), now when I speak Swahili people look at me funny and I no longer feel like a celebrity every time I walk down the street. Which, to tell the truth, I don’t walk down the street because everywhere I need to go would be a really, really long walk from my middle-of-nowhere suburban house in Alameda and now I tend to be under the impression that I “don’t have time” for such activities. However, one thing has stayed the same: I still get asked for money by poor people on the street.

Yesterday I went to People’s Park in Berkeley with some friends. People’s Park was created in the late 1960s as a result of protests by UC Berkeley students and community members over attempts to turn the park into a parking lot. Today, however, CAL students are warned to stay away from the park as it is said to be too dangerous, especially at night. The park serves mainly serves mainly as a daytime sanctuary for Berkeley’s large homeless population who take advantage of meals offered by East Bay Food Not Bombs.

As I was walking on Telegraph Avenue towards the park I was stopped three different times by people asking me for money. The first time was by a man leaning against a store. He didn’t seem to be particularly bad-off, his clothes were clean and he even looked a little chubby. The second time was by a group of punk looking twenty-somethings who were holding a cardboard sign with the words “I’m not going to lie…it’s for beer” scribbled across it. To both of these requests I responded “I don’t believe in hand-outs.”

The third request was from an exceptionally dirty looking man with matted dreads that seemed to overwhelm his smaller frame. But instead of asking me for money, he asked me if I wanted to buy a copy of “Street Spirit,” a publication of the American Friends Service Committee that writes about “Justice News and Homeless Blues in the Bay Area.” All of the profits go towards helping the homeless.

I bought a copy and after hanging out with my friends for a bit, I got a chance to read it. One article, by Western Regional Advocacy Project advocate Paul Boden, shocked me. According to Boden,

“In 2008, an estimated 3.5 million Americans will live without housing.”

Boden finds it ironic that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the New Deal but neither McCain nor Obama have placed much emphasis on combating homelessness.

I think Obama has done a slightly better job than McCain, Obama at least has poverty listed as one of his main issues  unlike McCain.

But the thing that really surprised me about the article was that the re-emergence of massive homelessness is directly related to massive funding cuts for housing but our current response to homelessness is to create anti-homeless laws and ordinances often using “quality of life” legislation

As Boden says,

“Outlawing homelessness won’t make it go away. Nothing ends homelessness like a home. Homelessness reappeared because funding for federal affordable housing has been cut by $54 billion a year since 1978”

Anti-homeless laws and ordinances could actually be said to be worsening homelessness. Here’s how: A homeless man sleeps outdoors and receives a ticket for the infraction. He doesn’t appear in court and/or can’t pay the find so a misdemeanor warrant is issued. The second time he is caught sleeping outdoors, the outstanding warrant leads to his arrest. He spends a few days in jail and is then released. Except, now he has a criminal record which makes it harder for him to get public housing, Social Security benefits, General Assistance benefits and a job.

Recently in Fresno homeless and their allies won a $2.3 million settlement after charging that city officials routinely seized and destroyed the property of homeless people; essential items such as medications, wheelchairs, birth certificates and other personal papers.

As I walked back from the park I passed a few other homeless people. A woman in front of me remarked to her friends “They really need to clean Berkeley up.”

I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and asking exactly how she proposed to “clean” Berkeley because obviously criminalizing homelessness isn’t helping anyone. It’s strange coming back from Kenya where most Kenyans believe that all Americans are rich. In some ways my Kenyan friends are right, why are there 3.5 million people without homes in the 6th richest country (per capita) in the world?