by Lydia Gans
The Berkeley City Council is moving to enact ever more draconian laws targeting homeless people — in effect, criminalizing homelessness.
Panhandling within 10 feet of a parking pay station would be a crime. Putting personal objects in planters or within three feet of a tree well would be a crime. Poor people will have to have a tape measure handy to make sure they’re not committing a crime.
As a matter of fact, just about anything that a homeless person needs for sleeping — tents, mats or sleeping bags — cannot be left on any sidewalk at any time of day. Nor can personal items be attached to trees, planters, parking meters, etc. And, oh yes, it would be a crime to sit against a building.
People who object to this inhumane treatment of homeless people are organizing to express their opposition. An interfaith coalition of Buddhists, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Christians, Muslims and Jews is speaking out against the criminalization of homelessness.
On April 9, they held a protest in solidarity with homeless people at the downtown Berkeley BART Plaza. Starting at 5:00 p.m. with a meal and an interfaith service, the vigil concluded with a sleep-out at the Plaza until 6:00 a.m. Friday morning.
By 5 p.m., a good number of people had gathered. Several rows of chairs had been set up, the speakers were set up, and a colorful banner made by young people at Youth Spirit Art Works declared: “Interfaith Solidarity with Homeless People.” The Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship provided the sound system and chairs for people attending the service.
J.C. Orton of the Catholic Worker was there serving a hearty vegetable soup, and Virginia Hollins-Davidson of the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship, with a nod to the Passover and Easter holiday tradition, served matzos and cups of grape juice.
Rayven Wilson and Carena Ridgeway, young leaders in the Youth Spirit Artworks program, introduced the speakers. There were more than 20 speakers, representing the many faith communities in the coalition. Their messages were inspiring, calling for people to work for a society more just and compassionate.
Some applied lessons from the scriptures. Rabbi Michael Lerner read: “When you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creatures, then shall your light shine in darkness.”
Muslim Minister Keith Muhammad suggested that the world today operates like a Monopoly game, ruled by those with money. He said, “We’re in a world where greed has become a way of life.”
At several times during the service, the assembly was led in song. Copies of lyrics of old familiar songs had been handed out earlier. One of the most moving songs was, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.”
The closing talk was given by Friar Louie Vitale, a man much loved and respected for his many years of activism in the struggle for peace and justice.
Preparations began for the night-long vigil. Candles were lit. There were more songs and more people spoke. Lutheran pastor Rev. Sharon Stalkfleet focused particularly on the vulnerability of homeless youth. The singing of the movement anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” marked the end of the formal program.
As people settled down for the night, an informal “open mike” ensued. One man appeared with a guitar and delighted everybody with his singing. There were some funny and some very touching stories. A young man told of just being 24 hours out of the hospital for drug use. “I just went to my first AA meeting,” he said with pride, but, and his tone changed, he had no place to go. He was out of the hospital — and out on the street.
Thirty to forty people settled in for the vigil. Homeless people from the street joined with members of the faith community. Some people left after a time, some came later. A dozen or more stayed till it ended at 6 a.m. in the morning.
Virginia Hollins-Davidson of the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship is one who stayed all night. Asked about her experience, she said, “For me it was exhilarating!” In spite of the noise and the bright lighting in the Plaza, she managed to sleep for almost four hours. She was prepared with warm clothes and three sleeping bags, so she didn’t feel the cold concrete pavement. And she felt safe.
“Some people would probably be wary of being out there with people who are actually homeless,” she said. “There was one guy next to me who clearly was chronically homeless. He had such a gentle look on his face.” They exchanged names and talked a bit.
She felt totally safe and secure during the night. In the morning, those who had stayed shared coffee and pastries that had been donated. “Then we had a prayer and cleaned up. There was a real sense of camaraderie. It was great.”
Sally Hindman, an organizer of the event, also stayed the night. She had quite a different take on the experience. “The situation on Shattuck is a real scene,” she said. “From my one night out, I don’t know how anybody gets sleep out there.”
She described the noise, the bright lights, the cold, people dealing with mental health issues. That’s why people forced to sleep on the streets choose to sleep in doorways in more private, out-of-the-way places. But then they are at risk of being attacked and having their possessions stolen.
Just one night was a powerful lesson in how miserable it is to be homeless. And for a homeless person in Berkeley, it can take two years of miserable nights to get into affordable housing.
Hindman suggests an interesting comparison between homeless people in our cities and people living in war zones and refugee camps and other areas of conflict around the world.
“It’s like being a refugee in a camp,” she said. “And you’re not even in a camp with enough other people to provide a level of security. Like we have thousands of people in our country that are refugees just living in our doorways.”
The Interfaith Working group is asking clergy, members of congregations, religious groups, seminary students and presidents and faculty members to put pressure on the City Council. The action on April 9 was their first protest of the anti-homeless laws. They will be producing an open letter from clergy and interfaith leaders to send to the Berkeley City Council.
In Hindman’s words, “Our mission is to bring members of the City Council to their senses about the moral atrocity of criminalizing homeless people in the face of dire circumstances facing the poor.
“We will do everything that we can to stop the City Council from passing any laws which criminalize homeless people. We want to shine the light of our faith traditions on the wrong of these proposed actions.”