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Driving Out the Mosquitoes: Making Homelessness Illegal
by Dennis J. Bernstein, Reader Supported News
Sunday Jan 3rd, 2016 6:16 PM
The seaside city of Santa Cruz, California, is one of several municipalities in Northern California that have become home for the herds of bubble up dot-comers rolling the dice in Silicon Valley. From San Francisco to San Jose to Berkeley, and down the coast to Salinas and Monterey, local officials are salivating at the multitude of possibilities for bringing in the tax bucks. And more often than not, these local officials are rolling out their welcome mats for the Silicon set, right over the bodies of the growing numbers of the poor and disinherited in this wealthy nation.
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“They’ve actually installed mosquito boxes to drive out the homeless and hungry,” says Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs (Global). “They’ve set up these horrible sound machines that they put under the bridges and in parks that just turn on automatically and drive people out of the areas, because they make you nauseous and give you a terrible headache.”

I spoke to McHenry as he passed out free food in front of the post office in downtown Santa Cruz. McHenry described a situation that is familiar to many advocates for the poor and homeless across the region and across the country. “The poor and growing numbers of the desperately hungry in this city, state, and country are under attack,” said McHenry. “There are new laws just in the last couple of years, and others that have been strengthened, that make it a crime to be poor and hungry.”

McHenry, and more than a dozen other housing and homeless advocates interviewed for this article, expressed alarm at the expanding attempts by state governments and local municipalities to criminalize the homeless by passing harsh laws and local ordinances that make it unbearable and downright dangerous to live on the street.

“Now they’ve got these new ‘stay-away orders’ here in Santa Cruz,” said McHenry, “and city employees can just ban you from parks for up to half a year at a time. And you can end up getting a year’s sentence if you violate these stay-away orders. They treat the homeless and hungry like they’re pigeons, or some kind of vermin that can just be driven away. Their human rights are being totally violated.”

Osha Newman is a civil rights attorney who represents the homeless in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond, California. Newman said he is extremely troubled by this new stepped-up brutality against the homeless in the East Bay. “It’s an everyday, daily routine,” said Newman in a December interview. “The cops kicking and punching and prodding the homeless, even as they sleep. Beating them awake. It’s outrageous. Now Mayor [Tom] Bates and his anti-homeless supporters have succeeded in passing a new batch of draconian laws against the homeless, including one saying that you cannot have belongings that take up more than two square feet on the sidewalk. Can you fit your life’s belongings in two square feet?” he asks.

Down the coast from Santa Cruz in Salinas, California, the homeless have been dealt with in a most brutal and destructive fashion, according to legal proceedings filed in federal court. After being ignored and disregarded “like so much trash,” a group of the homeless organized their own self-governed village, “Tents by the Garden,” complete with working toilet facilities.

“In 2012, me and the rest of the homeless community out here in Salinas started Tents by the Garden,” said Rita Acosta, one of the founders of the homeless community, who is now the lead plaintiff in a federal court action against the city of Salinas for illegal seizure and destruction of personal property under the 14th and 4th amendment.

“We had like 28 people in Tents by the Garden that was all into it altogether,” said Acosta in a phone interview at the end of December. “We also started a PHSH program (Public Hygiene to Stay Human), and we got porta-potties on our camping area. But then the city had a sweep here in January 2013 and they moved us all out, closed off our area, and put up gates. Now they complain about the streets being all unorganized. We were organized. They closed our area down and put us on the sidewalk. So now they’re complaining about it. This is their mess. They’re the ones who made it. They need to clean it up. If it was up to us, it wouldn’t be like this, because we had it more organized.”

Anthony Prince is one of the lead attorneys on the case being brought by Acosta and the homeless of Salinas. Prince said his clients have filed for a preliminary injunction against the city that challenges the constitutionality of the city’s policy and practice of seizing and destroying property that belongs to homeless people. “As you may know, under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, people have a right, a property interest which cannot be breached without due process. The government cannot seize property, personal property, without notice and opportunity to be heard. Those are the two essential elements of due process.”

The Salinas legal battle centers around a new city ordinance adopted in October. The city codified its brutal, forced-dispersal policies with a new ordinance that allows the city to seize and destroy property of the homeless, almost at will. Salinas City Ordinance 2564 authorizes the city to confiscate and destroy “bulky items” as well as items that are deemed to be “dirty,” “soiled,” “damaged,” or “broken.”

Prince asserts that 2564 is indeed unconstitutional and in flagrant violation of the recent Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Lavan v. City of Los Angeles. In affirming a preliminary injunction, the Ninth Circuit held that because homeless persons’ unabandoned possessions are “property” within the meaning of the Fourteenth and Fourth Amendments, a city must comply with the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause, and the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable seizures, if it wishes to take or destroy those possessions.

According to the amended suit filed on December 22, 2015, the homeless plaintiffs assert that “The City of Salinas has adopted and begun to implement a municipal ordinance that run roughshod over these constitutional rights and threatens the homeless residents of Salinas with grievous and irreparable harm.”

The homeless were in federal court just a few days after a pair of homeless men died of exposure in the nearby city of Monterey. The two men were discovered huddled together without tent or blankets, and with only minimal clothing to protect them from the elements. “By allowing the city to seize essential property, like blankets, clothing, and tents, Salinas’s Ordinance could put the lives of members of the homeless community at risk.” said Prince. “We are determined not to see that happen here.”

“In past sweeps I have had my possessions – my tent, bedding, clothes, blankets, food stamps, identification, birth certificate, family photographs, and important legal documents – taken from me and thrown away,” said Acosta, a longtime resident of Salinas who is now homeless. She talked freely about the daily violence of poverty, enhanced by the brutality of official policy. “Well, it’s a lot rougher for us now that we’re back sleeping on the sidewalks,” she said. “Some of the tents are out toward the streets. We’ve actually had cars hit people’s tents and stuff like that. And I, myself, I had somebody reverse their van into my tent because they thought they were in drive, and they reversed all they way into the tent and pushed me all the way into the back. So it’s scary. It’s dangerous. It was a lot more safe when we had our own area.”

In an August 2015 directive on the subject, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness warned that “the forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy.”

Dumpster Diving for Survival

“Now the police department comes out here with the city,” Acosta continued. “They start around 8 o’clock. They just start from one end of the street until they make their way all the way around it. They tell us ‘you guys should have been ready, getting your things out.’ But how can we be ready with our things out when we don’t have any place to take our things? So it makes it a little bit difficult. Whatever we can’t take with us they have like a bulldozer thing that just comes in and scoops everything up and puts it straight into the trash ... straight into the garbage can. They don’t ask or anything – they just take it. They just tell us, ‘We gave you enough time to take your things out.’ Out? To where?” asks Acosta. “There is no where else to go.”

Acosta makes the point that many homeless people still work, but find it more and more difficult to keep their jobs and their lives in order because of these new laws being imposed on the homeless. “In the Sherwood Park area,” she said, “there was this young man, he works. So when they were throwing his stuff away, he was yelling ‘Hey, hey that’s my ... you’ve got my work stuff in there.’ And he actually jumped into the dumpster, into the big trashcan, to get his stuff out. No sooner than he jumped out, another big ol’ load came and almost crushed him. He was actually lucky he jumped out when he did. When you ain’t got nothing they just want to take more from you,” Acosta reflected.

In Berkeley, poor people’s attorney Osha Newman tells a story similar to Rita Acosta’s: The homeless, tired of being ignored and disrespected, founded their own community in Albany, between Berkeley and Richmond, on a piece of land known as the Albany Bulb that juts out into the bay. “There was a whole community of people living out on the Albany Bulb taking care of themselves,” Newman lamented, “not taking a penny from the government, asking nothing from the city but to be left alone, [and] those 60 or so people, they were evicted, with nothing. Kicked out of Albany and into Berkeley, where they have been kicked around ever since.”

Back in Santa Cruz, as the free food is being dished out by homeless volunteers, who also made it, Keith McHenry tells me that major cuts were made to the homeless services center, based on cutbacks by the Feds. “They shut down emergency services,” he said, “so the meals for hundreds and hundreds of people in early July, late June, disappeared. The showers disappeared, the mail service for a while disappeared … but came back, although at a much more limited level. And then around 50 employees were fired, who were dealing with the homeless service. It ended up being a total crisis. Two people living at the shelter, when they got their eviction notices, ended up getting hit by cars and killed. The local homeless people said that they were basically depressed and freaked out and didn’t want to go back out on the streets. One case was of a middle-aged woman who got hit by a car,” said McHenry. “I don’t think that case has been solved; it was a hit and run. And so there’s been such tension in the homeless community in Santa Cruz. Many of these people actually owned homes in Santa Cruz, but during the housing foreclosure crisis, folks lost their own places or they were renters that lost their places because their landlords were foreclosed on.”

According to a recent report from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, 21.8 percent of the nation’s children and 15 percent of the population overall are poor and often hungry. Despite the growing needs of so many people, the Feds continue to cut vital services and assistance meant to help the most at risk among us. “Added to this,” said Jennifer Jones, the Executive Director of the FPWA, “are the funding cuts for meals for home-bound seniors, vocational training programs for those who’ve lost their jobs, food for low income families, and the list goes on. At a time when our nation needs to protect people from continued and increasing hardship, and support economic growth, the Federal government has imposed sequestration cuts and proposes further budget cuts that take us backwards.”

“It’s also now become illegal to feed the hungry,” asserts McHenry, who has been arrested many times, once on Christmas Eve in a Santa outfit, for giving out free food. “Santa was tossed into the police wagon and the food was tossed in the garbage by the cops, while dozens of hungry people looked on,” said McHenry. “They are making laws across the United States against feeding people outside, in city parks ... Their new strategy is to make it so hard for you to get the permits to feed people, and limiting it to just a small amount of time.”

“It’s not illegal to be homeless in the United States,” said Anthony Prince, “but what we see increasingly is an effort to criminalize the status of being homeless. As you may know, it is against American jurisprudence to criminalize a person or a sub-class of people based on their status, but that is exactly what the new laws do.”



Photo: Homeless veterans at sunset on the outskirts of Santa Cruz. (credit: Franco Folini)

Dennis J. Bernstein is the executive producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on Pacifica Radio, and is the recipient of a 2015 Pillar Award for his work as a journalist whistleblower. He is most recently the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.


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