Solutions For Homelessness In The New Millennium
(A Four Part Series)
Open letter to the Citizens of North America:
Economic Cleansing- A Basis For Creating A Protected Class
The collective approach that our country has taken toward our nation's poor over the past two decades has resulted in a national policy of Economic Cleansing. HOUSE THE HOMELESS, INC., is calling for the repeal of all homeless "no camping" ordinances not just in the city of Austin, Texas but in all cities across America. In recent years, out of frustration from the inability to solve the homeless problem, elected officials with the urging of the business communities have passed local no-camping laws around the country. Many cities passed laws making it illegal to sleep in public or even in your own car; even if you'd lost your home and all your worldly belongings. These restrictive laws have been passed always with a promise of being part of a bigger solution yet to come. But, like waiting for Godot, the bigger solutions have never materialized. Instead, the laws have been selectively enforced...not against travelers sleeping in airports or bus terminals but against the homeless individual falling asleep in an exhausted heap at a bus stop or in the doorway of an abandoned building. They've been enforced not against the entertainers traveling in their converted trailway buses but against the single mother sleeping with her two children clinging to their last worldly possession (their car). They've been enforced not against the students camping out for weeks seeking Star Wars tickets....but rather against weary foot soldiers of the new labor wars where unskilled men can only get fifty cents on the dollar for the hardest of back breaking jobs.
Presently, the plan around the country seems to be to enhance aspects (if not all) of the "quality of life" ordinances and laws. For example, repeat public intoxification offenders in Austin, Tx are now subject to enhanced penalties that have rocketed from $220.00 fines to $2,000.00 and from two days in jail to six months in jail. What a cruel, sick joke it is to characterize these laws designed to repress the homeless like the "no camping" laws as "quality of life" issues.
The question remains, who are these people that we call homeless who seem to exist now in huge numbers and yet did not seem to exist until the 1970's? Well, one-third are Vietnam Veterans who returned from the war and found themselves to be outcasts both by the general public and by the Veteran's Administration. One-fourth or more are folks with mental health problems from when our country collectively closed mental health institutions and offered them a more creative form of housing and health care....it is called outpatient health care while living on the streets of America.
Additionally, I can remember a time when only one parent had to work to keep a family together financially. Inflation and economic pressures have resulted in a record number of divorces of our poorest and hardest working families. And, angry latch-key kids have now become angry homeless youths.
But the greatest single contributor to homelessness was the retraction by 75% of our nation's housing dollars for our poorest citizens. We have withdrawn 80 billion dollars each year for the past fifteen years and replaced our highrise ghettos with low life "living" on the streets of America. Today, local housing waiting lists reach into the thousands. They span years of time and don't even reflect the tens of thousands of folks that have given up hope.
Now that we have the poorest-of-the-poor corralled on our streets, we are passing one punitive law after another to finish the task of Economic Cleansing. We are passing laws to make their very existence, that of even sleeping on our streets, illegal. And, with the new rush to enhance "quality of life" laws, we are about to house them full time and for the long term in our new, for-profit prisons; the largest prison system in the world.
By the hundreds of thousands, this nation's poor have become this nation's homeless; filling up our subways, our sidewalks and our parks. Businesses and private citizens alike feel affronted and confronted by these ghosts of the streets. In an effort to "sweep them away" they have been stripped of their individuality and left faceless. In an effort to dehumanize these, the poorest of our citizens, they have been labeled "the homeless," "SRI's" (service resistant individuals) and "transients". They have been labeled "transient" even though study after study has shown that up to 80% of these people are homeless to their location and have been there for up to seven years on average. They have been labeled "service resistant" although the services they require are painfully scarce and woefully inadequate.
These people have been stripped of their identity much the way Hitler stripped and labeled the Jews and supplanted their faces with the Star of David on their shirts and dresses. These citizens have been broad bushed as artful and cavalier beggars and described by our elected leaders as the dregs of society and touted as a danger to the very underpinnings of our social structure and safety. In this regard, these elected "representatives" have set the tone for not only psychological abuse but also physical abuse that has been meted upon this populace. Documented case after case of grotesque incidents have now been recorded. On the basis of being homeless, persons have been targeted by citizens and the police alike. No longer satisfied with just "sweeping" the homeless from urban areas and issuing tickets for sleeping in very public areas, the local police have gone well outside of heavily populated public urban areas and into the woods using dogs and charging in on horseback. They are searching out homeless camps and using bulldozers to destroy their belongings and make-shift homes. Women have been targeted and raped. One such woman was Linda Kay Bright, a homeless woman with a heart of gold who lived in Austin for eight years. Targeted as a homeless person, she was beaten senseless and then as she lay there writhing in pain, with blood gushing from her slashed throat, was repeatedly raped.
Many homeless persons have been set on fire and left for dead. One such person was David Davila who for the offense of asking someone for a cigarette was kicked and beaten senseless. The two assailants then left, went to a convenience store where they purchased a can of lighter fluid, returned to Mr. Davila and proceeded to set him on fire. He was consumed in flames, suffering 2nd and 3rd degree burns on over 80% of his body. David has survived but only after enduring two years of painful skin grafts. Homeless persons have been urinated upon and smeared with feces such as my friend John. They have been bludgeoned while sleeping and pummeled and stomped while unconscious as occurred when two university students jumped from a car and proceeded to flail on two sleeping homeless individuals with a 2 by 4. And, now laws have been uniquely designed targeting their condition. These laws are being selectively enforced against them including no camping, no sleeping, no loitering, no sitting... all because they have found themselves at the bottom of the economic barrel. Special courts are now being devised against them called Community Courts where homeless persons will be tried for their crimes of poverty.
A San Antonio police officer, Onofre Serna, was awarded $500,000 in federal court for being forced to "cleanse the downtown area of homeless persons in the interest of tourism." Eleven officers testified supporting his assertions. Three other officers are preparing their own similar lawsuits. The action was first brought in 1995 and continues today.
And make no mistake, they won't escape. Not the poor black man, the poor white, the poor hispanic or even the poor children. In the 1970's, a person could work forty hours at minimum wage and get a cheap apartment, but no more. It is now recognized that the federal minimum wage is insufficient to secure even an efficiency apartment and to get off the streets almost anywhere in America. But no matter how hard they work, they can no longer work themselves off the streets of America.
And even in Austin, Los Angles, Atlanta, these former family members are dying at a record rate of at least two persons per month...two individuals a month. In 1998, the tally in Austin, Texas alone reached forty persons!!! The cleansing has begun.
But when it's all over, there will be a day of reckoning...a tribunal. Be this tribunal public or, if we only face our own individual trials, we will find ourselves being held accountable for our actions. We will be judged for our actions... either our active participation, or for just standing by and allowing this to happen.
HTH now calls for the repeal of all no-camping ordinances. The promise made when the ordinances and laws were passed were that they would just be temporary and that the laws would be part of a much larger solution. However, the solution has not materialized or been funded. We say repeal the no-camping ordinances and allow some other solution to be forced into existence. For example, by paying a fair Universal Living Wage, a true free market will allow many of our nation's homeless to access housing in the private housing sector. We say stop the economic cleansing whether it is intentional or just the natural progressive result of all these separate actions.
The National Coalition for the Homeless is now working with the United States Attorney Generals' office to chronicle the atrocities committed against our homeless citizens. Furthermore, the National Coalition for the Homeless has passed a Protected Class Resolution outlining the civil rights abuses and hate crimes committed against these persons. NCH is calling for persons that are earning at 100% of Federal Poverty Guidelines or less, to be constituted as the Indigent Homeless Population and to come under the umbrella of a Protected Class.
It is time to: stop the Economic Cleansing, repeal all laws targeting our poorest citizens, pass a Universal Living Wage (indexed to the cost of housing) and pass the Protected Class Resolution for our nation's homeless citizens.
Signed, Richard Troxell President-
House The Homeless, Inc. Austin, TX
Board Member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Washington D.C.