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Homelessness: Our Failure As A Society
While the City of Santa Cruz is statistically better than the County of Santa Cruz at providing low income housing, it is much worse in the way that it denigrates and criminalizes people who cannot afford the rents being offered.
[ Photo by Alex Darocy. July 4, 2016. Rabbi Philip Posner (center) addressing demonstrators at the Santa Cruz Post Office to decide the location of the campout. ]
Housing for All demonstration on May 9th
Dear Fellow Citizens,
Please join me in demonstrating for housing for all on Tuesday, May 7th. Our march will begin at the County building at 3:30PM, then proceed to City Hall, with a demonstration. At 7PM, we will hear the Council talk about homelessness and have the right to testify. After the demonstration, some of us will be sleeping out at City Hall in solidarity with the homeless.
If you heard anything that Bernie Sanders said or have any kind of grasp of basic economics, it is clear that this generation of America is characterized by a very large, and growing, disparity between the rich and the poor- the worst since the 1930s. And in Santa Cruz, with the 2nd highest price of housing in the nation, the very poor are homeless. As a society we have created homelessness in Santa Cruz by the intersection between our economy and our cost of housing.
This is not to say that people without houses are all sweethearts. Many of them are, to some degree, mentally ill or unstable. And/ or using drugs. And being without a home greatly exacerbates whatever disfunctionality a person already exhibits. So we are not responsible for the individual choices of each person without a home. But we are responsible, as a society, for the economic system that means that the very poor do not have homes. And we are, increasingly, responsible for the fact that the very poor are stigmatized, criminalized, and harassed.
If you believe, like Sanders and I do, that a central responsibility of government is to manage the economic system to maintain some amount of safety and dignity for all of our citizens, then our government, at all levels, is doing a worse job than at any time since the early 1930s. And that includes our local government. While both the county and the city (the city is better than the county) do build low income housing, neither builds enough to house our large population of low income service workers, or even our teachers and carpenters. The County has abandoned the concept of forcing large developers to build low income housing on site. While the City THEORITICALLY requires 15% on-site low income housing for large developments, the staff and Council have been letting off larger developers through loopholes in the code and a lack of backbone. The huge new development on lower Pacific Avenue will have only a few low income housing units, way below 15%. An even bigger development planned for lower Pacific and Front does not currently plan on providing the 15% mandate. We need to close the loopholes and demand low income housing with every development. We also need to stop waiting for the feds or the state, and develop some kind of local funding mechanism for low income housing, like they recently did in San Jose.
While the City is statistically better than the County at providing low income housing, it is much worse in the way that it denigrates and criminalizes people who cannot afford the rents being offered. Through a series of ordinances collectively known as 'the sleeping ban,' the City criminalizes and harasses its residents without houses. If one sleeps outside in public anywhere in the City of Santa Cruz, you can get a citation. Because the courts refuse to enforce the citations, there is no threat of jail time. But once a person gets a job and tries to get an apartment, the citations will be charged as civil fines and taken from one's pay, further discouraging the chance to make it out of the cycle of homelessness. Moreover, while economic disparity has greatly increased the number of people without homes, local governments have not increased the number of emergency shelters. The churches have tried to step in and recently operated a very successful and community supported winter shelter. I had the honor to work there. But City and County monies only funded it until April 7th. Then the 100 people using the shelter are expected to sleep outside again. And get tickets for sleeping. For the misguided people who think that our few homeless services expand homelessness locally, the lack of additional shelter over 20 years coupled with the exponential rise of people without homes in Santa Cruz should be evidence that this is not true. Claiming that homeless shelters create homelessness is like claiming that putting a roof on your house creates rain. It's unreasonable and it scapegoats the very poor.
So what do we do in this country when we see a societal problem with a government that is not stepping in to solve it. We march. We demonstrate. And, sometimes, we commit civil disobedience. My father, Rabbi Philip Posner, now 79 years old, was a freedom rider who spent 39 days in jail in Mississippi in 1961 as part of the civil rights movement. He views the treatment of the homeless as this generation’s call to conscience. “A legal place to sleep is a human right", he says. "Criminalizing the homeless amounts to penalizing people for being poor.” He helped start the Freedom Sleepers, a group of people with and without homes who sleep out at City Hall every Tuesday.
Sherry (last name withheld to avoid persecution by City officials) has been sleeping at City Hall for a few weeks since the winter shelter closed and left her without a place to be. “At least here,” she says, “I feel a little bit safer. It’s public and there are people around. Plus I like supporting other people who are in the same situation as me.” Since Max doesn’t have another place to sleep anyway, his choice to sleep at City Hall is tactical, “I want them to see me here in the morning. I want them to see homeless people here until they do something about it.”
The City Council will be, once again, discussing homelessness on the 9th at 7PM. Their report is interesting and accurate but the idea of opening another shelter is put into the 5 years or more category, despite data in the report showing that we offer less shelter than most cities in California. The City is stuck in ongoing conversations that are not quickly bearing fruit. So we need to protest. We need to demonstrate. Please come listen to the report and address the Council. This can also be done by email. Read it under the City Council tab at cityofsantacruz.com. Then email citycouncil [at] cityofsantacruz.com.
After the demonstration, I will be joining dozens of people including Max and Sherry and my father in sleeping at at City Hall. I think that my daughter and some of her friends and their families will be joining us. I invite all of you to bring a sleeping bag and join us. It is a hard decision to make. Having people sleep at City Hall is difficult for the staff, who are I very much respect and admire. And it is more difficult for the staff since they decided to lock the bathrooms. And no one group of people, not the City Councilmembers, nor the City staff, are responsible for homelessness. But the City is not doing everything it can to provide emergency shelters and affordable housing. And, even worse, it is criminalizing the very poor for our failure as a society to house them. This has got to stop.
For more information contact the leaders of the protest.
Steve Pleich: spleich [at] gmail.com. 831 466 6078
Keith McHenry: keith [at] foodnotbombs.net. 575-770-3377
Audrey Simmons: audreysimmons1995 [at] gmail.com. 805 540 8109
No Penalty for Poverty - Housing For All