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I have two stories to tell today about the homeless. Their juxtaposition is almost as incongruous as the composite photo shown at the left. Official Santa Ana/Orange County, represented in a story from the Orange County Register, congratulated itself last week on its approach to the problem of homelessness. Occupy Santa Ana contends that the efforts are flawed right from their conception through to their execution — and today plans to drive home the point. These two worldviews barely meet.
I received a “press release” last night (which I put in quotes because, while cc’d to over a dozen Occupy Santa Ana and Occupy Orange County supporters, it was addressed to me, Vern, and one other person. It’s awfully timely, so let me start there.
Today, Tuesday April 10, at the west end of the Santa Ana Civic Center’s “Walk of Honor” at Ross St., Occupy Santa Ana will hold a somewhat ingenious action on behalf of the homeless. It will demonstrate to beyond a reasonable doubt that, despite what the County says, the county’s homeless have no place available to sleep.
“There are plenty of shelter beds available,” says Official Orange County. “Oh yeah?,” says Occupy Santa Ana. “Let’s see.” So, from 2:00 to 6:00 today, Occupy Santa Ana will renew its “telethon” for homeless shelter beds. It will, it is safe to say, discover that they will have filled up well before 6:00 — meaning that those people who are without a room for the night are homeless out of necessity.
“Necessity.” That’s a loaded word, because “necessity” is a legal defense to some crimes. If you truly have to do something, like jaywalking to get away from advancing zombies, the law grudgingly grants you the right to do it — or at least it’s supposed to. There are limits to this — the harm one sought to avoid must have outweighed the danger of the prohibited conduct charged; one must have had no reasonable alternative; one must have ceased to engage in the prohibited conduct as soon as possible; and one must not have created the danger one then sought to avoid — but if something is truly necessary then you might be able to claim a right to do it. (Note: yes, people have tried to say that civil disobedience is itself necessary because of some urgent political problem. It doesn’t qualify.)
What are “necessities”? We sometimes use the term to include the likes of toothpaste and underwear, but in the sense above not even food and water would always qualify as such. A necessity is most unequivocally something needed urgently. If you’re starving or dying of thirst, then food and water would count. But for most of us, the truly urgent necessities are ones imposed on us by the limits of our bodies. We need to breathe. We may need urgent medical care. We need to sleep. We need to urinate and defecate. Sometimes these needs become extremely urgent. At that point, the necessity defense might be raised.
Sometime soon — most likely within the next 18 hours or so — you, Dear Reader, are going to fall asleep. Your body just won’t allow you to stay awake any longer; sleep becomes a necessity. And, if you’re homeless, what the hell are you supposed to do about it?
For most Orange County cities, the answer is: you’re supposed to get yourself to Santa Ana. Santa Ana, of course, would prefer a different answer, but the Board of Supervisors decided long ago that it was to be the rug under which the problems of our wealthy county would be swept. So, Santa Ana will find a place for you to sleep, and other cities will nudge you or perhaps even transport you there. (The unfairness of this to the city of Santa Ana probably shouldn’t require comment — yet it probably will. Unless directly affected by it, people often don’t think this sort of thing through.)
So that’s what Occupy Santa Ana will do this afternoon — document the necessity for people to sleep on the streets. (They are also setting down a baseline — because the Armory in Santa Ana, where many homeless stay, will be closing soon, and the number of available beds in Orange County is going to plummet.)
Having established that a necessity defense is appropriate, Occupy Santa Ana will hold a press conference starting at about 6:00. After that, people — some homeless, some perhaps not — will probably engage in organized civil disobedience. They ask for witnesses and supporters — equipped with candles, sweaters/jackets, cameras and phones — to show up for an action that is supposed to last until dawn.
What is supposed to happen to those who participate? Well, Orange County and Santa Ana have an answer — and it doesn’t involve honoring the necessity defense. This past Thursday, the Register introduced its readers to the Homeless Outreach Court — a seemingly benign and humanitarian idea that demonstrates the total disconnect between officials and activists.
I found a nice little blurb on the Court on as official a site as one could hope for: a web page of one of the County Supervisors, Shawn Nelson. Here’s what his page had to say:
Supervisor Nelson was on hand to deliver the keynote address to the 2011 Humanitarian Award presentation held by the Homeless Outreach Court. The Court honored Dr. Clayton Chau of the Orange County Health Care Agency for his tireless activism and work to improve the effectiveness of the Homeless Outreach Court. Since its inception, the Homeless Outreach court has been successful in integrating rehabilitation services for low-level misdemeanor offenses of homeless individuals, while providing them with links to necessary supportive services for future success.
You should read that Register article linked to above. It tells the story of how hard and benignly the police and courts work to serve the homeless population. (Do you smell a whiff of PR? An Occupy Santa Ana activist was informed that it was the last article in a series that was being done on the homeless issue. The series had been started by crusading reporter Yvette Cabrera, recently and somewhat inexplicably let go from the Register. One wonders how she might have written the story. Check out the comments for some sense of how it was challenged.)
Aside from some factual disagreements — are there only 5000 homeless in Orange County, as the government contends and the Register accepts, or more like 50,000, as activists allege? — the Register article shows a stark disconnect with the perspective of Occupy Santa Ana. One fact on which everyone can apparently agree is that many more people are being ticketed for what the city calls “camping” (and what others of us might call “sleeping.”)
Although the stepped-up enforcement has resulted in an increase in illegal camping tickets – one homeless woman got seven tickets in one week, according to a Public Defender case manager –[Santa Ana Police Sgt. Enrique] Esparza and others say the goal of the heightened enforcement isn’t punitive.
“The last thing that we try to do is criminalize (the homeless),” says Esparza, 45. “We try for a balance. On the one hand, we have these homeless people who are in a bad situation, but we also have thousands of county employees and jurors who come here to work every day, who have the right to feel safe.”
Even if punishment was the goal, the tickets would be of questionable value. The cost of one camping ticket is $500, and few people sleeping at the Civic Center have the cash to pay it.
Instead, Esparza and others say the idea is to get the homeless to show up at a nearby government building and stand before a judge at a place many people don’t even know exists: Homeless Outreach Court.
I’m not as cynical as some. I believe that most police, most of the time, truly do want to help the people they serve — including the homeless — rather than suppressing them. I believe that the officers interviewed in the article do get more job satisfaction out of helping people than dominating them. But read those paragraphs above again. In fact, first read them in the context of the enthusiastic boosterism of the Register writer, then again in isolation here.
There’s an increase in enforcement — seven misdemeanor “camping” tickets in a week for one woman! — but it isn’t punitive! No, no — “the last thing they try to do is criminalize the homeless” — except that it’s apparently not last last. In fact, it’s “built into the system” last. It’s using the legal system to coerce people to go before a judge at the Homeless Outreach Court. It’s that kind of “last thing they try to do” — the sort of thing that they admit that they do intentionally.
Indeed — and I’m not blaming Sgt. Esparza here, who probably not only believes what he’s saying but whose good fortune within the SAPD may depend on his not perceiving the contradiction that others so dearly want him not to acknowledge — the logic here is twisted.
I presume that careful readers will already note that there’s not even a pretense of recognizing the possibility of a “necessity defense” here — why should there be, given that the point is not to “criminalize the homeless”? (Not being criminalized, what do they need with a defense?) But let’s get beyond that, and beyond the logic of charging people $500 that the city knows that it won’t collect, to the crux of the situation: why use such a convoluted means to get services to the homeless?
The Homeless Outreach Court wants to make services available to people. Let’s pretend that there are only two possibilities, with no shades of gray in between: either these are services that the homeless apparently want, or they are services that they don’t want. If they are services that they want, then why do they need to be forcibly brought into even a “friendly” court in order to get them? Would it not be cheaper to send out, oh, social workers rather than cops dragging people off to judges? Cost aside, wouldn’t it be more respectful of their rights than to use dubious arrests as a pretext to get them into the system as opposed to, oh, just inviting them to make use of the services?
And the notion of sentencing people to community service to pay their fines? These are homeless people — give them a job and some money or services for it! Why do we want to manage our social work through the court system?
Offhand, I can think of two reasons why the city would want the message of desirable and available services to be delivered by an armed police officer and a stern judge rather than a social worker — even one with a police escort, if necessary — and neither one really matches the friendly tone of the Register article. One is that they would prefer to intimidate the homeless into compliance rather than to treat them as people with dignity and agency. The other is that they want to make the experience of being in Santa Ana unpleasant enough that they might get the hell out of the county.
Let’s review a smaller excerpt from the above once more:
“We try for a balance. On the one hand, we have these homeless people who are in a bad situation, but we also have thousands of county employees and jurors who come here to work every day, who have the right to feel safe.”
Fear and disgust are different things, although one effect of greater “civilization” is to lead people to confuse them. I don’t think that county employees and jurors actually fear the homeless, for the most part. I don’t think that they think that they are going to be physically attacked or receive a communicable disease by passing by them. (If it is really a matter of fear, then some lesser approaches to the homeless problem may be appropriate — including educating employees and jurors about the dangers that the homeless do, and don’t, face.) I do think, though, that lots of people find the homeless to be disgusting — and that it is reducing this disgust, rather than the prospect of direct harm, that policies towards the homeless tend to serve.
We don’t want our streets to smell like urine — this is much more a matter of disgust than of fear. Well, I’m down with that! But I’m going to suggest something radical — that if we don’t want streets to smell like urine, we can pay for there to be some easily accessible portable toilets out where the homeless will be and for them to be reasonably well maintained. If we don’t like their unshowered smell — and most of the homeless I’ve met through the Occupy movement could do without it themselves — then we can make sure that there are safe and accessible places for them to shower, and even to wash their clothes. If we don’t like them carrying their stuff all over the place, we could give them storage lockers.
“SOCIALISM,” I can hear some of you muttering. No — just good old American pragmatism and thrift. We will spend a potentially unlimited amount on intimidating and suppressing the homeless without even considering that it might just be less expensive to provide them with their necessities — as well as more humane.
Some of you will surely disagree, and that’s fine. Others of you may have your interest piqued. For you, there’s the chance to participate in the Occupy Santa Ana “telethon” from 2:00 until 6:00, to see the press conference following, and to watch whatever coordinated action might take place thereafter (with the possibility of arrests for — you guessed it, “camping.”) They’re not asking for people to get arrested between tonight’s dusk and tomorrow’s dawn — but they do invite people to come watch, witness, and learn.
With the decimation of the middle class and the rise in foreclosures, homelessness is likely to be on the rise for the next few years at least. We can make it illegal — “camping,” sleeping in cars, etc. — all we want. But that won’t make the problem go away — no matter how civilized we convince ourselves we are being.