by Terry Messman
The voices of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Unitarian faith leaders rang out in defense of the rights of homeless people at an interfaith rally held on April 9 to denounce the City Council’s sweeping array of anti-homeless measures.
Clergy and leaders of churches, synagogues and temples delivered an electrifying outcry for compassion and justice for people living on the streets who are targeted by the City Council and the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA).
The religious leaders gathered on the same downtown streets where homeless people are being criminalized, harassed by police, and even beaten by DBA ambassadors, and called for an end to the cruel repression faced by the poorest of the poor.
FATHER LOUIE VITALE: “Nobody should be criminalized for the necessities of life.”
In a dramatic moment, Louie Vitale, a Franciscan friar who is widely respected as one of the giants in the movement for peace and justice, stepped up to the microphone in his brown Franciscan robes and called the community to conscience.
“Nobody should be criminalized for the necessities of life,” said Vitale. “And these are necessities of life — to be able to lie down, to get some sleep, to relieve yourself, to find some food. These are necessities of life!”
As the elderly Franciscan friar spoke out, it was as if St. Francis of Assisi himself had stepped forward to demand compassion for the poor and oppressed.
“I have been working with homeless people for the last several decades in San Francisco,” Vitale said, “and now I find it in the East Bay where I live. It’s just a tragedy to see. I’ve seen people die on the streets. And the number of people dying on the streets rises every year. Those of us who are comfortable have to speak out. What we do for others is what counts. We have to realize these are our sisters and brothers who deserve and need our help.”
Until shortly before his retirement, Vitale had been the spiritual leader of all the Franciscans in the Western United States in his role as Provincial Minister of the Western Province of Franciscans.
Vitale also has overwhelming respect in peace-and-justice circles due to his decades of nonviolent witness against war. In recent years, Vitale has served several six-month sentences in federal prison for acts of civil disobedience in protest of war, nuclear weapons, drone attacks and torture.
He also worked tirelessly for homeless people in San Francisco through his work on the board of directors of St. Anthony’s Foundation, which serves thousands of daily meals to poor and hungry people. For most priests, that would have been enough. But Vitale went beyond even that commitment.
When he would find homeless people shivering on Tenderloin streets in the early morning hours before service programs were open, he often opened up the doors of his church and invited them into St. Boniface so they could find a refuge from the harsh weather. It wasn’t permissible to do so, but Vitale ignored all the regulations in his belief that offering poor people a sanctuary was the very essence of what a church should be.
When San Francisco launched the Matrix program to criminalize homeless people, Father Vitale joined Sister Bernie Galvin and Religious Witness with Homeless People in committing civil disobedience over and over again in protest of the same kind of anti-homeless laws recently adopted in Berkeley.
Now that Mayor Tom Bates and the Berkeley City Council have voted for a set of laws equally as mean-spirited and repressive as the Matrix program, Vitale felt compelled to step up once again to confront the cruelty of anti-homeless laws.
In an interview, Vitale said that all the world’s faith traditions teach that justice for the poorest of the poor is at the very heart of their belief. Vitale said, “Pope Francis has said over and over that our number-one concern is about the homeless people. He constantly says that what it means to be a member of the human community is to look out for each other.
“Every one of the religions, that’s what they mostly talk about. I don’t care if it’s Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever, they all have this same direction given to them by their faith. I’ve learned from all of these various faiths.”
Voicing the same reverence for all life expressed by St. Francis in his canticles, Vitale said, “We have this beautiful, wonderful world created to take care of all of us, and our number-one obligation is to share it with one another.”
The Franciscan friar contrasted the heartless attitude of Berkeley business owners and politicians with the spirit of caring he has often observed among very poor people who have so much less.
Vitale said, “One thing I’ve always noticed among the homeless community is that people help each other, and often help much more than those who have more economic opportunities. I feel that kind of sharing is what we’re here for.”
RABBI JANE LITMAN: “Criminalizing homelessness is immoral.”
Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman, a Berkeley resident and the rabbi at Coastside Jewish Community, offered an inspiring defense of homeless people at the rally on April 9 near the Berkeley BART station.
“Criminalizing homelessness is immoral,” she said. “It’s hard enough to be a homeless person. Our religious tradition teaches that we need to care for the underclass and not criminalize them.
“It’s really appalling, and it’s a violation of the will of the people of Berkeley who voted specifically against that social policy in 2012.”
Rabbi Litman said the laws are not only inhumane, but senseless from a policy standpoint as well. “It’s not only immoral, it’s also foolish on a pragmatic level,” she said.
“It costs so much more to criminalize homeless people, not only in terms of money, but also the social costs are very high in terms of wasted lives. Whereas finding people homes would be cheaper and more socially beneficial.”
Rabbi Litman noted that the interfaith rally on April 9 was held during Passover, which began this year on Friday evening, April 3, and ended after sunset on Saturday, April 11.
At the rally, Litman told the Passover story about the slaves who had escaped from Egypt and were at the shores of the Red Sea. Chariots were right behind them, but when Moses took his staff and rose it over the Red Sea, nothing happened, according to Jewish tradition.
One man waded into the Red Sea, first up to his ankles, then up to his hips and finally all the way up to his lips. At that moment when he was about to drown, he kept wading and only then did the sea finally open.
“That’s us,” said Rabbi Litman. “We need to wade in. We can’t think that we’re going to just stand on the shores and wave a staff.” The lesson for homeless advocates in Berkeley, she said, is that we cannot remain on the sidelines and we cannot be hopeless.
“We have to wade in all the way,” she said, “and keep testifying that the sea of greed and corruption and apathy and injustice will part as we declare our faith by walking and speaking.”
Litman said the interfaith rally was extremely powerful and praised Sally Hindman, a Quaker and longtime homeless advocate, for bringing together people of faith in support of justice.
“I was extremely moved and proud that we came together on this important issue,” said Rabbi Litman. “Sally Hindman is an incredibly dedicated and visionary person. She is tireless in her commitment to doing the right thing.”
RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: “Set the oppressed free and break every yoke.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun and editor of Tikkun magazine, said that Berkeley had turned its back on its own progressive history in violating the human rights of poor people.
“It’s a terrible shame that the city which is famous for being on the liberal and progressive edge of the issues turns their backs on the homeless, on the poor, on the hungry,” Lerner said. “It’s an outrage.”
Rabbi Lerner then read a passage from Isaiah as a prophetic message to Berkeley politicians:
“Is not this the fast I have chosen: to break the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
MINISTER KEITH MUHAMMAD: “Hunger doesn’t spell Christian, Muslim or Jew. Hunger is hunger. And the answer for hunger is food.”
Muslim Minister Keith Muhammad from Mosque 26B delivered a stirring oration, one of the most inspiring of the day. Minister Muhammad reminded the gathering that the world’s diverse faith traditions speak with one voice on the issue of justice and compassion for homeless and hungry people in our midst.
Muhammad said, “We are compelled by the word of God to do what we can to ensure that the poor man or woman or child that is lying in the street, that we accept the responsibility to lift them up, whether we know them or not, whether we are from the same faith tradition or not.
“Hunger doesn’t spell Christian, Muslim or Jew. Hunger is hunger. And the answer for hunger is food. The answer for homelessness is shelter. The answer for nakedness is clothing.”
Minister Muhammad said that in looking at “this world of people that suffer and struggle,” he was reminded of the game of Monopoly because it “depicts the mindset of the world in which we live, a world ruled by evil and greed.”
He said that Monopoly is a metaphor for the way landlords in the Bay Area try to get control over every square inch of property in order to make people pay and pay endlessly.
“If they want a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, make them pay $2000 a month,” he said. “If they want a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, make them pay $3000 a month. If they want a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland, make them pay 1,800 a month.”
Muhammad then dramatically described how housing prices in the Bay Area have skyrocketed. He asked how it could have happened that a home that was purchased 80 years ago for $5,000, and was resold 50 years ago for $40,00, then was sold again 10 years ago for $250,000, and was sold a few years ago for a half-million dollars.
And now, the unscrupulous real estate dealers and banks have the nerve to charge $700,000 for the same house in a never-ending spiral that has driven housing prices out of reach of all except the very wealthy.
Muhammad warned, “We’re playing the game of Monopoly and we’re losing. It is now producing a world of poor, struggling and suffering people. People who have lost their homes — not because they’re not decent people. People who have little too eat — not because they’re not decent people. “
REV. SHARON STALKFLEET: “Jesus is in solidarity with the poor.”
Rev. Sharon Stalkfleet, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley, knows many people living on the street, in part because the YEAH youth shelter is located at the Lutheran Church. And every Wednesday, the church sponsors a spaghetti dinner that serves 100 people.
Rev. Stalkfleet said she attended the rally on April 9 to show solidarity with the people she has come to know.
“I care because I know a lot of people who are living on the streets,” said Rev. Stalkfleet, “or who are fearful they’re going to lose their homes or apartments and will end up living on the streets. So I was there to be in solidarity with people I already know. It is very important.”
She spoke out strongly against the anti-homeless measures passed by the Berkeley City Council on March 17, and warned that there was a growing movement in the entire country to punish and banish homeless people.
“It’s part of the movement in our country and our state and our city to criminalize the poor,” said Rev. Stalkfleet. “It’s inhumane and it’s also rather ridiculous because these laws do not really serve any purpose except harassment. The laws themselves do not make anybody safer, and then you think of how much money will go into enforcement. And then homeless people are going to be in jail and will have to be dealing with fines and it just creates a circular problem for the poor.”
Rev. Stalkfleet said many people have no alternative but to live on the street or in shelters due to soaring housing prices.
“Affordable housing is not affordable,” she said. “And it’s only going to get worse before anything gets better because the rents just keep getting higher and higher. It really makes it very difficult for people who have limited means to find a place to live. The people are not the problem. Being homeless is the problem and to treat a symptom by trying to push it away somewhere else where it will not be seen is very inhumane.”
Speaking at the interfaith rally in support of homeless people is of central importance to her understanding of ministry, she said.
“Jesus said, When did you see me hungry and did not feed me, and when did you not clothe me? Jesus is in solidarity with the poor. The community is called to take care of each other and to love our neighbor. So as a community, we’re falling short when we see people on the street and we criminalize them.”
REV. THERESA NOVAK: “Treat people as the precious souls that they are.”
Rev. Theresa Novak, an ordained minister with the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian-Universalists, offered a prayer for compassion at the rally.
In an interview following the event, Rev. Novak said, “I really hate the way that our society is demonizing poor people. It’s not just the homeless — it’s all poor people. The homeless are the most vulnerable in our society. Everything about faith, about trying to live with human care and compassion, means that we need to treat people as human beings, as the precious souls that they are.”
Rev. Novak said that the laws passed by the Berkeley City Council are completely inhumane. “They give people nowhere to go — absolutely nowhere to go,” she said. “Our society is going in the wrong direction. We need to provide housing for folks before they end up on the streets. And to just say, ‘Move along,’ that’s punishing the victims.”
Novak explained that she came to the interfaith rally because the members of her Berkeley congregation asked her to do so. “I came to lend my voice and do religious witness on behalf of the vulnerable,” she said. “ It’s part of my call as a minister. When I took my ordination vows, I vowed to minister to all people, regardless of their station in life.
“Our primary faith tenet as Unitarian-Universalists is to do what good we can in this life — and that means having compassion for our fellow human beings.”
RABBI DAVID COOPER: The prophet Elijah comes among us disguised as a homeless person.
Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Synagogue told the gathering that the biblical prophet Elijah is often disguised as a homeless person, in the legendary tradition. Cooper said that when these stories were told to him as a young boy, the message was that every homeless person you encounter should be treated with the same respect as you would treat the prophet.
That message has a great deal to say about how our society should treat homeless people. Rabbi Cooper explained, “Remember when you see a homeless person, you should treat them well because he could be the prophet Elijah. And even if he isn’t the prophet Elijah, they should still be treated just as well.”
One of Cooper’s favorite stories about Elijah is a very timely metaphor about the laws passed on March 17 by the Berkeley City Council to banish homeless people.
Once, when Elijah came to a giant banquet in the guise of a homeless person, he was kicked out. (The persecution of homeless people is an age-old story.)
Yet when Elijah returned dressed in princely robes, the same people treated him as an honored guest and gave him banquet food and wine. Strangely, Elijah put the food in the pockets of his clothing, rather than eating it.
When asked why, Elijah said, “When I came in before dressed as a homeless person you kicked me out. But when I came back in wearing these beautiful clothes, I figured that the food that you provided me with was for my suit — and not for me.”
This story from the folk tradition is now being lived out all over again on the streets of Berkeley, Rabbi Cooper said.
“I live in a town where we punish the homeless and where we reward the wealthy,” he said. “And frankly, if Elijah the prophet were wandering among us, he would be really pissed off. And he would demand that we do some repentance.”
Cooper said that we must make our society a place where people can have a place to sleep and food to eat and the medical care they need. “At that time,” he said, “then maybe Elijah will be able to forgive us. So let us go forward and make this the world it should be, a world where Elijah would be happy.”
REV. KURT KUHWALD: “No one should be cast aside in our economic system.”
Rev. Kurt Kuhwald, a Unitarian minister in the East Bay, helped to coordinate the interfaith rally. In an interview, he said, “I was there to support the right of homeless people to have a place in Berkeley without being harassed. It points to the egregious economic circumstances that we’re faced with, where people are forced into homelessness and they’re kept without housing.”
Describing the anti-homeless laws in Berkeley, Rev. Kuhwald said, “I think they’re intolerable. I think they demonstrate a meanness of spirit that is unacceptable, especially in a city like Berkeley. Berkeley is known for its liberality and its support of all people, so to promote these kinds of laws is unacceptable and immoral.”
Berkeley officials have “no justification” for these laws, he said. “They could work these things out without criminalizing people, especially people who really have suffered as a result of a lot of things in this society that have worked against them.”
Kuhwald pointed to economic inequality as a more deeply rooted source of the repressive, anti-homeless laws being enacted all over the country. “It’s very clear that this country is on a trajectory right now that is saying plainly and loudly that everybody isn’t equal and that some people are better than others,” he said.
“For instance, CEOs are more important than people who work the line at McDonald’s. People who are real estate agents and sell multimillion-dollar houses in the hills of Berkeley are more important than the people sleeping on the streets.”
A society that favors the rich over the poor is practicing a very destructive kind of discrimination, he said. So protesting the anti-homeless laws is, at the same time, a moral statement against the inequality that has become so prevalent.
“There should be an economic vision that says that everybody in society is valuable, that no one should be cast aside in our economic system,” Kuhwald said.
“As a person of faith, it was important for me to be there because I believe that at the core of all this, it’s a moral issue. The moral issue points directly to the question of whether we really are all equal or not.”
SALLY HINDMAN: “Seek justice and love kindness.”
Sally Hindman, a Quaker and longtime homeless advocate, played a key role in organizing religious leaders from many diverse interfaith communities to come together as one and speak out for the human rights of homeless people.
Hindman said, “We have a clear calling that we are to work for justice. I feel like I could not be a Quaker, I could not be a Christian, and not speak up about how wrong this is. It is so wrong to criminalize homeless people.”
The City Council’s latest anti-homeless measures are similar to Measure S, the anti-sitting law that Berkeley voters rejected in 2012. Hindman questioned why the mayor and council are trying to pass laws already turned down by voters in the last election.
“Criminalizing homeless people is not going to work,” she said. “It’s 10 times more expensive than social services, and it’s wrong. It has been criticized as an approach to solving these problems by some of the most respected policy-making bodies in America. It was voted down by Berkeley voters in 2012. No one with a conscience would support it.”
“Every human being deserves the dignity and the respect of having a home,” she added. ‘And there isn’t a reason in the world why we can’t do that. We’re the richest country in the world. We have 536 billionaires in this country. And we have to quit pretending like we don’t have the resources to end all poverty.”
On March 2, 2015, U.S. News & World Report reported that there are 536 billionaires in the United States. The United States has the majority of the world’s billionaires, and it has the lion’s share of the world’s wealth and resources.
Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva condemned the criminalization of homelessness in the United States as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” UN officials also said they were baffled that such a wealthy country not only had such high levels of homelessness, but also criminalized those living on the streets.
Hindman echoed the UN Committee’s questions. She said, “The U.S. by any stretch is one of the richest countries in the world, and we have the resources to end homelessness tomorrow. This situation, where hundreds of thousands of our citizens are forced to live in doorways in urban areas, with all their worldly possessions in supermarket carts, is morally unacceptable. It’s unacceptable in Berkeley and it’s unacceptable across America.”
Hindman said she had been reflecting on the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord.”
“That calls us away from criminalizing people who are merely struggling to survive,” she said. “It calls us to pursue compassionate solutions to these challenges.”