by Janny Castillo
“We are never going to stop homelessness if we keep arresting people who are homeless for simply existing.” — Colleen Riveca
“When we give wealthy people money it’s called an incentive. When we give poor people money it’s called a disincentive.” — Joe Wilson
“Being poor and hungry does not make you less of a person.” That was one of the first messages delivered at the West Coast Day of Action organized by Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) on January 17. The action at San Francisco’s Civic Center was one of ten demonstrations held in cities across California, as well as in Portland and Seattle.
Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, passionately addressed several hundred people in attendance. She said, “We are not fighting for special rights but for the same rights that everyone else has.”
Many anti-homeless laws involve the banning of essential, life-sustaining activities that all people must commit daily, including resting, eating, sleeping and using blankets and shelters to keep warm. Yet, when homeless people commit these actions in public, it becomes a crime.
Bartholow said, “People who don’t have homes do not want to be arrested for sleeping, resting, sitting, because they have no private place to sleep, rest or sit!”
WRAP member organizations and partners are gearing up for the fight to pass the California Homeless Bill of Rights. Last year, the Homeless Bill of Rights was introduced by State Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, and although it passed through the policy committee, the bill did not make it out of appropriations.
The Homeless Bill of Rights would grant basic human rights to those experiencing homelessness. The bill could have a powerful impact on society because the human rights of homeless people are constantly violated by anti-homeless laws.
“Arresting people for being sleepy or wanting to sit down does not solve homelessness,” Bartholow said. “Homes solve homelessness! The good news is that we are not stopping. If they (state legislatures) won’t pass a bill of rights, we will!”
Colleen Riveca from St. Anthony’s in San Francisco described the renewed dedication of this year’s movement. She said, “We are continuing our campaign across the state and across the West Coast to talk in every single community and to grow the number of people that we have that are supporting us… We know what rights are being denied and what rights to ask for!”
The audience responded in enthusiastic agreement to Riveca’s call to action.
When asked about the importance of joining the WRAP Day of Action, St. Mary’s Center Executive Director Carol Johnson said, “Friday’s outpouring of support for the Homeless Bill of Rights was a lift to our spirits. We as a nation have nearly dismissed the notion that housing is a human right. And Congress threatens in this new Farm Bill to deny food to more hungry people in 2014.
“It is imperative that people without housing, people suffering in poverty, are afforded some dignity and hope and that their basic human rights and civil rights will be protected, that they will not be discriminated against because of their economic circumstances. Poverty violates basic human rights and it is our responsibility to ensure these rights are protected. Passing a Homeless Bill of Rights in California is an important first step of our obligation.”
No one motivated the audience more than San Francisco activist Joe Wilson, who has been active for 30 years in fighting for the rights of people on the streets.
Wilson said, “People have to participate in a lottery system to get a shelter bed for the night. This is a country that represents all of us… We have to say that enough is enough! Nothing will be given to us without a fight. There is no progress without struggle. If we want it bad enough we have to fight for it. We have to make a case that our home is the Constitution of the United States. That is the home for homeless people!”
The WRAP protest came on the heels of a California budget action that was held on the same steps exactly one week earlier by California Partnership, a statewide coalition of community organizations that work to reduce poverty.
Pete Woiwode, a lead organizer for California Partnership, talked about the need to Restore, Reinvest and Rebuild funding for life-saving services for the poor. “The deficit is over,” he said. “No more deep budget cuts are happening. We were hoping to start to chip away at the grinding poverty in California.
Woiwode said, “California has the highest percentage of poverty of any state in the country … We need a deep investment in housing, health care, CalWorks, programs that put people out of poverty and give folks dignity in their lives. But on January 10th the governor said he wanted to invest in debt and prisons!”
Connecting California Partnership’s budget demands to the fight for the Homeless Bill of Rights, Woiwode said, “We can’t be silent and satisfied with this being the new normal in California.”
“We are not going to pretend that the deep budget cuts of the last 10 years did not happen, (when) 8.7 million Californians are living in poverty and a quarter of all children in California are growing up in poverty. We are not going to accept that! HBR says that we are people too. Poor people are people too. All people in California deserve dignity and respect!”
In response, the crowd erupted in the chant: “HOMES NOT JAILS! HOMES NOT JAILS!”
WRAP organizers considered the 10-city action a tremendous success. The actions showed how unified and committed the people engaged in the movement have become.
A speaker at the San Francisco action said, “Yes, we lost last year, but we are not defeated. We get our hearts broken every year but they can never break our spirits. We are in this fight ‘til the end.”
Janny Castillo is St. Mary’s Center Hope and Justice Coordinator and the co-founder of boonachepresents productions.
California Homeless Bill of Rights
Without adequate federal support to resolve the systemic causes of homelessness, many local governments have been using laws, police enforcement, closure of public space, and privately sponsored patrols of downtown districts.
The aim is to ensure that their communities do not become “magnets” for the homeless and that the “quality of life” for people who live in homes is not affected by the presence of homeless people.
These increasing local attempts to deal with homelessness by making homeless people disappear from sight do not solve the humanitarian crisis. Instead, they involve gross violations of homeless people’s civil rights.
The Homeless Bill of Rights will give all people the following rights:
1. The right to move freely, rest, sleep, pray & be protected in public spaces without discrimination.
2. The right to occupy a legally parked vehicle.
3. The right to share food and eat in public.
4. The right to legal counsel if being prosecuted.
5. The right to 24-hour access to “hygiene facilities.”
6. Require judges to consider necessity defense in homeless-related cases.
Join the fight to pass the Homeless Bill of Rights
Contact WRAP for more information.
Phone: (415) 621-2533