Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A War on The Homeless

The conversation began when I read an article, “Tonight We Are All Tunisians” by Yvonne Ridley, shared on Facebook by Roger Wolsey regarding the riots in Tunisia and subsequent overthrow of a dictator who, as tyrants do, lived in wealth while his oppressed people struggled with crushing poverty. One such, a young man who was unemployed and trying to sell fruit to make a living, was arrested for selling fruit without a license. He set himself on fire, which sparked the flames of revolution which led to the dictator’s demise. What kind of desperation could lead to such an act, and subsequent civil unrest? Surely it could not happen in the U.S.! As I pointed out in my comment, it’s not that unlikely and there are parallels; in fact, it is illegal in America to sell food without a license, or even to give away food to the homeless without a license, depending on where you live. I was reminded of the rioting that occurred in Santa Cruz last year, an attempt at revolution which was quickly nipped in the bud, at least for now.

I had read last spring about some people who were arrested for giving sandwiches to the homeless in Santa Cruz. The arrest was done under the guise of “food safety” on the basis that the providers were not licensed to distribute food. Nobody had gotten sick and nobody complained about the quality of the sandwiches. How very odd; it was the first I had heard of such a law. A few days later the real motivation behind the arrest began to emerge when the “loitering” laws were changed so that, for example, it became illegal to cover oneself with a blanket on Santa Cruz streets at night, or to “panhandle” within a certain distance from some establishments. It soon became clear that authorities did not have the homeless peoples’ health in mind; rather, it was an attempt to “clean up” the trendy area where tourists went to shop. Feeding the homeless had encouraged them to gather and this was unacceptable, since it might interfere with business, making it uncomfortable for the shoppers to encounter the homeless on the street.

Well, it should be uncomfortable. And I have experienced that discomfort myself.

No, I have (thank God) never been homeless myself, although as mentioned in a previous blog entry, I came very close and it was only my parents’ generosity that kept me off the street. I don’t know if it is just the crowd that I associate with, or a sign of the times, but several of my friends have been in that position. My partner has been homeless; when his mother died, his step-father threw him out of the house. He was 16 years old. A woman I used to work with had been homeless for a couple of years, and one of my best friends as well. One of my college alums, a brilliant man, lost his mind and became homeless after chemo treatments for cancer.

A common theme expressed by all my formerly homeless friends is the constant search for food of any kind and the extreme gratitude for any help received. They would have been THRILLED to have those nice fresh sandwiches and could give a rat’s ass about licensing! An ugly truth is that the homeless eat from trashcans and they feel lucky when they find something that hasn’t been in there very long. I would assume that their digestion and immune system adapts, otherwise they could never survive. Licensing is the least of their concerns.

I have had many opportunities in my life to experience the discomfort of seeing people who don’t have a home and are living on the street, at the mercy of the elements and the kindness of strangers.

When I lived in Hawaii as a teenager in the 1970s I knew many homeless people, although some of them had chosen the lifestyle; if you are going to be homeless, Hawaii is definitely the place to do it. I was friends with a group of long-haired, pot-smoking “hippy Christians" comprised of several haoles (caucasians) and a couple of native Hawaiians, who lived in a public park by the beach. They seemed content. How did they afford cannabis? People donated it to them. They told me that God always provided for all their needs. They could use the public rest rooms and showers and people gave them donations for food. Usually they received so much that they were actually able to help feed the less fortunate who were involuntarily homeless. They preached the gospel but I was not interested, being somewhat an atheist or agnostic at that time, although once when I went hiking on Diamond Head crater with two of the women, in our flip-flops and bathing suits, off the trail and sliding perilously down the east side of the volcano in the loose gravel I prayed, "if there is a God and you get me out of this alive, I will believe in you." My friends did not seem the least bit worried. We survived the volcano unscathed but my faith took years to grow.

When I lived in Northern California in the 1980s I spent some time in that very neighborhood in Santa Cruz enjoying the gift shops and restaurants, on the same street where the sandwich providers were arrested last year and where people are no longer allowed to cover themselves in blankets when it is cold at night. I met plenty of homeless people in California and I enjoyed giving them donations. I fretted that I wasn’t able to do enough, but they were always very gracious and thanked me profusely for even a dollar.

Now, this was back when I had money – or at least, it seemed that way to me, although I really didn’t make that much, relatively speaking. People had money back then. Jobs were plentiful; when looking through the classifieds you had to narrow down the possibilities according to which ones offered the best benefits (this was back when jobs actually came with benefits like health insurance, vacation, retirement, etc. – some of you might be too young to remember that). I ended up getting a great job with a wonderful, progressive company in Berkeley that distributed high-end stereo equipment.

I also had a part-time job teaching yoga at a “new age” store down the street. I had been going there on my lunch breaks doing yoga on their back porch, and they had some customers who wanted to learn; would I be willing to teach them? Nobody asked if I was licensed. I don't know if yoga licenses even existed back then. They offered to pay me $20 per person per hour. I felt a bit awkward accepting money for doing yoga, which for me was a spiritual practice. I had always taught for free in the past. However, they insisted on paying me and everybody seemed to think the price was very fair. Nowadays I make $10 for a yoga lesson and people complain that they can’t afford it, which is probably true, since we are all broke. Anyway, back then I considered myself “rich” because unlike today, I was able to work 40 hours and make enough money to pay all my bills and still have some left over to spend on clothes and things for myself and gifts for friends and family, and to give to those in need.

There was a homeless man who lived in the garage of the building where I worked. He was a nice man, very sane, polite and harmless. We would share our lunch or snacks with him, but the owners of the building didn’t want him there and asked my boss to make him leave. She tried telling him, “you shouldn’t stay here; it really isn’t safe.” Ah, the supposed concern about "safety"! Well, it probably wasn’t particularly "safe" there at night, but as he said, he had nowhere else to go. We had a company meeting. My liberal bosses wanted to do the right thing. What on earth should we do about this poor man? There was only one good ethical solution: Hire him! And they did. He worked in shipping and receiving and did a great job.

On my lunch breaks and after work in the summer I used to enjoy walking all over the neighborhood between my job and the U.C. Berkeley campus, a very trendy touristy area. I made sure to bring enough money to be able to help some folks. I considered it part of my shopping expenses. I figured it was the least I could do. Also through yoga I had begun to appreciate the concept of God, and the Hindu stories said He liked to masquerade as a beggar so we should always be kind to the homeless. They were always kind to me. They would say, “God bless you, sister!” and I was humbled by their graciousness. I felt it was a privilege to be able to help even a little bit.

I smile thinking back to one incident which I guess was humorous in a way; if indeed one can find humor in such situations. I had bought 2 large cookies from a popular bakery when a man asked, “excuse me, could you spare some change for food?” I said, “If you’re hungry, here, I’ll share these cookies with you.” He said, “Oh no, I do NOT eat SUGAR!” I said, “Dude, seriously, you know the expression –“ He laughed. “yeah, I know: beggars can’t be choosers. But, I don’t eat sugar because it’s bad for you. Is that your meal? You really shouldn’t be eating it, either.” “You’re probably right,” I said. “Tell you what, how about if we go get something healthier?” He agreed and we went to a nearby café and split a vegetarian sub sandwich. He was a pleasant conversationalist, quite educated, and we discussed philosophy and spirituality and I asked him about his life. “That must be a total bummer, being homeless.” “Well,” he said, “at first it was. But now I appreciate the freedom. I do as I please. You, on the other hand, are a wage slave. Anyway I’m not REALLY homeless; I have a very nice tent and sleeping bag at a camp where I stay with some other folks up in the hills behind the university.” He invited me to come to his tent and do tantric yoga. I turned down his gracious invitation, but I would be lying if I said it was because of moral qualms. The young man was just a few years older than me and very attractive despite the layer of grime that one acquires living on the street; he had gorgeous blue eyes, lovely cheekbones, and would have been strikingly handsome if his blond dreadlocks and faded clothing could have been cleaner. In my wild youth, had the situation had been different, had we met at a university function, and if he had an apartment, I might very well have accepted the offer. No, it was the stigma of homelessness, plus the very real concerns about privacy and lack of bathing facilities, that stopped me.

I haven’t been back to California in a long time and I’m told “the homeless problem” is much worse than ever before, with so many people losing their jobs and homes. More cities in California and across the America are “cracking down.” Stopping the distribution of free food, again supposedly to “protect” the starving from unlicensed benefactors, is a key element. In some cities it is now illegal to give anyone a handout of any kind so as not to “encourage” them. Encourage them to what?! To hang around. If our lawmakers are really concerned about the welfare of the homeless, why are they taking away their food and blankets and donations? No, they don’t want to help these poor people – they just want them to go away. But, where are they supposed to go?

When enough people become poor and desperate, it reaches a point where everything kind of boils over. That is what happened in Tunisia and that is also what happened in Santa Cruz at the May 1, 2010 labor rally. Windows were smashed at the trendy stores and restaurants including, ironically, an organic food co-op which had done a lot for the community. The perpetrators said that they had lashed out at the co-op because of a mural on the wall – which depicted white people working in the vegetable garden. The rioters said, “That is clearly wrong and bogus, because white people don’t work in the fields, brown people do!!” This managed to stir up anger on the part of immigrant laborers living in absolute poverty who worked the fields in the region and resented all the wealthy white people who owned the farms and businesses, who would have preferred not to have the poor and homeless people cluttering up their pretty streets. However, in the case of the co-op, white (hippy) people did, indeed, work in the vegetable garden, so the rage was misplaced. Not that I support violent revolution in any case; I do not. But I do think it is understandable.

Whether in Tunisia or in Santa Cruz, when you have extreme poverty next door to extreme affluence; when the top 2% of people in the country own the majority of the wealth while ordinary working people can no longer support their families; when people cannot afford medical care and are losing their homes; when the government on behalf of that 2% enacts “helpful” regulations that actually make the situation worse for the poor – we should not be surprised when people who feel that they have no other options, eventually rise up and revolt against the system.

With the cost of living continuing to rise while wages drop and jobs are scarce, the middle class is becoming the poor, and many of us (myself included) are just a step away from joining our homeless brothers and sisters on the streets because we can't afford to pay our mortgages and taxes. Clearly “something” needs to be done; I hope and pray that we will somehow find a better way to create a society of freedom and justice for all.

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