The May 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Someone's Sister: Homeless in the East Bay

A Young Mother Dreams of a Brighter Future

Legal Rights of Homeless People

Exposing Wal-Mart Empire

HUD Pulls a Disappearing Act

Devastating Cuts to Section 8

Civil Rights Gets on the Bus

UC Students Brutalized by Police

Activism for Economic Justice

Night of Humanity and Courage

Nonviolent Vigil for San Diego's Poorest

The Faithful Fools

Medical Pot in Santa Cruz

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Nonviolent Vigil for Justice for San Diego's Poorest

by Forrest Curo

On Friday night, April 15, the day that San Diego's inadequate winter shelters closed, hundreds of people were returned to our overloaded tangle of private charities - and to the streets.

Friday nights are when San Diego police most typically take homeless people in for sleeping and related warrants. Those arrested, unless they can pay bail, can only hope to be released from jail when they see the judge, sometime next Tuesday. This was also the night that Citizens in Support of Homeless People chose to hold their rally and sleep-out in the City Concourse, the plaza downstairs from San Diego's City Hall.

A diverse group came out: almost 500 homeless people, a dozen Quakers from the La Jolla and San Diego meetings, Catholic Workers and Protestant clergy, aging activists who had been burning our hearts out on this issue for decades, and fresh young students from UCSD, San Diego State, and Nazarene College. Also, a great many police officers who might rather have been doing something else.

Anne Curo and I arrived a few minutes after 6:00 p.m. We'd volunteered to sit at the information table and also to bring bananas - donated by the San Diego Catholic Worker - to help feed us all.

A young woman named Mumlani Gunter sang her mournfully beautiful songs to the gathering crowd as I brought our sleeping bags to the table. The songs went on, carrying the evening gracefully, and then Rustin, a pretty good keyboard player from Santa Barbara, took his turn. We sat at the table, giving out Street Light and signing up anyone who would want to be called for our next event.

We also had little squares of paper, statements that a homeless person could give an officer if he was being harassed for sleeping on public property. The statements were based on the Eichorn Decision - a ruling that a homeless person in California, if the shelters were full, could sleep on public property and claim necessity as a defense.

Years ago, San Diego police said they were complying with that ruling. Their Homeless Outreach Team - the kinder, gentler face of intimidation - would call Infoline before issuing tickets to homeless people. But all pretense of compliance ended with the new ballpark development downtown, which resulted in increased police crackdowns on homeless people.

Now there was a lawsuit in progress, a class action suit brought by Tim Cohelan and Scott Dreyer for a courageous group of homeless clients, based on the Eichorn decison and the constitutional law behind it - and on statistics of police practice, collected by Larry Milligan from official sources over many years. Our protest was unconnected with the lawsuit, but if we could help with their efforts, if their intervention could gain anyone a night of undisturbed sleep, we were all for that.

Pam Barrat, the founder of Quaker-Bolivia Link, but since then increasingly active in the editing and publication of Street Light, met Milligan last November, when he was fasting in hopes of moving the City to compassion for its homeless population. Many people had been displaced from their downtown refuges by the ballpark project, and many others were made homeless by bad housing policy.

Since then, Barrat had joined other housed people in a cold night of exploratory camping downtown - a woman in her 60s seeking to know what the least among us suffer. It was not merely their own discomfort, but what they saw around them that made them want to protest this next time. La Jolla Friends Meeting (Quakers) heard what the group had to say, and were moved to support that protest.

During our all-night protest on April 15, I kept meeting old friends from our active days. There was a Native American guy I recognized, though I'd temporarily forgotten his name - and then he wanted to know, "How's the Wolf?"

"Dead," I said.

Stephen Lone Wolf, Ph.D. in anthropology, who had fasted for a winter shelter in 1994, died a few years ago from the ravages of alcoholism and his own craziness. He should have called himself "Wiley Coyote." In the Republican Convention of 1996, the night the police had been threatening to arrest our food line, we didn't see them, because he'd threatened to set himself on fire and jump from a convention hotel.

He said the whole police force were coming in through his back window, fitting him into a straitjacket - and then, the next morning, knowing how to talk to shrinks, he'd been released, once again giving his friends trouble. His conjecture, that the bulk of homeless people suffer ongoing trauma and post-traumatic stress from their situation, remains the best explanation I know for a lot of things.

I left the table to help pass out "nonviolence guidelines." We wanted everyone involved to know the rules: stay squeaky clean and be peaceful or we would ask them to leave.

Back at the table, my respectable Friends were disturbed. Police spokesmen were saying that anyone who stayed overnight would be arrested, and the bail for activists would be $5,000. Our Quaker Meeting didn't have funds to bail us out, and we would assuredly be sitting in jail until late Tuesday, perhaps longer. I could live with that, but other people here had real commitments, and one of us faced serious health risks if arresting officers kept her prescriptions, as we're told happens.

There was some lively drumming by the Supersonic Samba School; only a few of us had energy for dancing but the music demanded it! And then we heard that Ben was giving out chili. I'd provided the recipe; eating some was my duty! We joined the line; Anne had just gotten her bowl when we heard that the pot was almost empty. We'd hoped for 200 people, 300 at best, but reporters had counted the crowd at over 500.

Now several homeless people joined the line behind us and I wasn't that hungry. Anne and I shared. Ben had been too cautious to use our Habanero peppers, but the chili was otherwise perfect, good flavor, texture, some solid bread with it to ballast our digestions.

Friends carried off the sound equipment and tables; and we prepared to sleep. It was a warm night, until I lay down in my bag, and then everything I touched was cold. We had signs at our feet, telling anyone who would look what we were doing here and why; I wondered if I'd anchored them well enough against the sporadic breezes that kept blowing up my nose. All around me, people were talking excitedly, everyone wondering if we'd be arrested when the cameras left.

The police had promised to come at 10:30 p.m., but when I wandered out to the bathrooms around 11:00, most of the police cars had gone. So, unfortunately, were most of the homeless people. Milligan said the police had parked by the restrooms to threaten people when they came by. Milligan said he heard police telling homeless inquirers that everyone who stayed would be arrested.

I have no doubt that the bulk of these hundreds of homeless people wanted to stand up for themselves and each other against unfair public policies and attitudes. Free food and a show were an inducement; but for them to come here at all took courage, and more trust than they were used to giving.

As I'd been told years before, "Being homeless means that everything you do is illegal." These were not dedicated activists; these were people who lived by keeping their heads down, staying out of sight, leaving when they were ordered off, distrusting every housed person, and watching each other.

Who could they believe? The police who threatened them or a handful of activists who could promise nothing except to share some of their troubles? We had places to go home, respectable friends to ask about us, funds to bail ourselves out. We'd been planning to do so, until we'd learned how much the judge on duty was threatening to charge.

On my way to the restroom, I saw a woman in a big yellow "legal observer" cap, sitting on a concrete bench taking notes; the National Lawyer's Guild had come through. The woman looked familiar, somehow, and on a closer look I recognized our old friend Dawn Davis, who had brilliantly defended Milligan after his arrests here during the 1996 Republican Convention. She was there all night, sitting with a small blanket, at least as cold and uncomfortable as any of us.

Then, a little after midnight, 10-20 police officers came into the Concourse and started waking the few homeless people under the overhang, and told them they had ten minutes to leave. Davis left her bench and started videotaping the routine. If anyone had managed to fall asleep, we were all awake now.

The police stopped at each bed, read a statement that we'd be arrested for illegal lodging if we stayed, and asked if we understood. I said I didn't understand their motivation; why were they doing this? They went on to the next row of sleeping bags.

Some of our Friends had started a meeting for worship on the far side of the plaza; but by now we thought we should stay by our bedding, to be there when the police returned. A few minutes later, the meeting came to us. Some of the sleeping bags had been taken off for safekeeping, but everyone came together on the bags around ours.

We stood in the City seal near the center of the plaza, all of us holding hands in a circle, expanding it a little to bring in a veteran in a wheelchair. I said that we'd been here seven years ago, only twelve of us, and no one could have imagined what had come of it. Then Anne started singing "Amazing Grace," and everyone joined in, at least until she finished the verse we knew and started singing the rest of it.

And then, we heard, the police were leaving. "They didn't expect this many of us to stay," someone said. "They've gone for more paddy wagons." Others thought that our prayers had driven them off. By then the TV crews had returned; they interviewed Milligan and stuck around for hours, perhaps in hopes of more drama, or maybe to help us out.

"Don't worry," a young homeless woman told Anne. "They'll take us to Las Colinas. I've been there before; I'll watch your back." But the police were gone.

Since some of the sleeping bags had been taken to safety, the housed contingent didn't have enough. We huddled together on what remained, in a heap of friendly but inconveniently arranged bodies with lots of cold outer edges. The several homeless people in the next row looked to be perfectly comfortable between the pillars of the overhang.

We didn't see the police again until 4:30 a.m. This time it was a new shift, a smaller group of them, and they gave us only one minute to leave. A young woman was leading the group, sounding as harsh and peremptory as she could: "Get up and leave or we'll arrest you. You are in violation of municipal code so-and-so."

Some of us asked, "Where can we go to sleep without being arrested?" She had no answer. "We're protesting against the sleeping laws," we kept saying. "We said we'd stay until 5:30, and then we're leaving. Did you know that you are violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?"

A few of us had been here overnight years ago, staying awake to protest shelter closings. It was pretty thoroughly established that this was legal. And by now, almost everyone was awake.

"Wake up that woman over there," the officer said, "or I'll have to arrest her." Someone did that. "All right, we'll be back in about an hour. But we won't arrest you if you don't go to sleep."

"We keep trying!" I said as they walked away. "But people keep stopping us." They didn't return. I thought about trying to sleep again, but we were far too uncomfortable, far too wide awake. We spent the last 45 minutes shivering and talking.

"If you hadn't been with us," a homeless man said, "they wouldn't have given us one minute. It would have been: 'Stand up! Put your hands behind your back.' And that would have been all."

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