The Quality of Whose Life? Final Part
Linocut by Art Hazelwood
Author’s Note: This is the final part in “The Quality of Whose Life?” series. It focuses on the proliferation of “quality of life” laws across the country that make it a crime to sit or lie on a sidewalk, sleep outside, panhandle, and urinate or defecate in public even when suitable alternatives do not exist. “These repressive new laws trample on the constitutional rights of the poorest of the poor, but few people are even aware of the massive extent of these human rights violations because they are targeted at people who are almost invisible to mainstream society, explains Terry Messman, editor of Street Spirit. “The sheer inhumanity of these discriminatory laws would cause an immediate outcry if imposed on any other minority group in our society.”
“Quality of life” laws are usually part of the gentrification and redevelopment of downtowns and they are enforced in conjunction with the closure of public parks, banning of free food and clothing distribution, and banishment policies like trespass admonishments. To gain public support for passing these laws, officials promise homeless services that seldom get fully implemented.
Part 1 introduced the series, Part 2 examined the broken windows theory that these laws are based on, and Part 3 showed how these laws revive the disgraced vagrancy and banishment frameworks found in Ugly Laws, Sundown Towns, and Bum Blockades. This concluding part details what four West Coast cities have done and are doing to expose and challenge these unjust and discriminatory laws. Their efforts illustrate the dedicated work that is being done across the country.
Congress and the President recently negotiated how intense this round of the bipartisan war on the middle class and poor will be. The situation will only get worse if Representative Paul Ryan and company get their way. In this “winner-take-all” social order, “quality of life” laws establish control over shopping and business districts and push the collateral human damage out of sight. It is a social order that masks and suppresses untenable inequality and cruelty.
The aggressiveness by which “quality of life” laws are enforced varies from place to place depending on local politics, police departments, and community opposition, but three things are consistent across the country. Downtown business alliances and Chambers of Commerce wield too much power over the process, urban public space is being privatized, and poor and homeless people are being stripped of basic citizenship rights.
Civic determination and private resources support “quality of life” restrictions. Chambers of Commerce, business alliances, city officials, and consulting groups meet to share expertise and troubleshoot obstacles. For example, in 2007, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce sponsored representatives from the Business Alliance of Portland to come to San Francisco to present Portland’s “Street Access For Everyone” plan to city officials. The plan included a sit/lie ordinance. A few years later, Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced a sit/lie ordinance for San Francisco.
Resisting A Filthy, Rotten System
Local social justice groups like the ones we detail below are at the center of opposing what Dorothy Day once described as “our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” They are forceful and often successful in confronting this trend in individual cities, but they also recognize that as long as this work remains isolated by geography and jurisdictional limitations, it is no match for the formidable wave of power and money that is sweeping the country.
In recognition of this reality, seven west coast groups came together to create a social justice alliance that has communities working jointly whenever and wherever needed. In 2005, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness (the Coalition), Sisters Of The Road (Sisters), Street Roots, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), Street Spirit, and Real Change became founding members of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). We recognized that only by joining forces, first regionally, then nationally, can we build a movement strong enough to counter the ongoing assaults on poor people and present injustices like the current “quality of life” laws.
For this final part, we look at the groups that make up WRAP. We highlight the multifaceted civil rights work they are doing to educate, activate, and defend their communities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Berkeley. Strategies include research, public education, grassroots media, community organizing, advocacy, Community Watch, and citation defense. We conclude with the collaborative work that is being done as WRAP to challenge “quality of life” laws at the regional and national level.
Los Angeles – LA CAN
The Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles is the most heavily policed area outside of Baghdad. In the three years of the Skid Row Safer Cities Initiative, 36,000 “quality of life” citations were issued and more than 27,000 arrests were made in a 50-square block community of 15,000 people who are mostly poor African Americans. These mind boggling statistics give Skid Row the notorious distinction of being ground zero for “quality of life” policing.
To educate, mobilize, and share the stories of their community, LA CAN produces the Community Connection newspaper, their rendition of the North Star and Liberator. Community Connection covers policing, housing, health, budgetary, and other community issues from the perspective of Skid Row residents. At the end of 2010, LA CAN also released an influential human rights assessment on the negative impacts of the Safer Cities Initiative in Skid Row. Most recently, they published Downtown Blues: A Skid Row Reader, which explores the struggles against displacement, misrepresentation, and civil rights violations in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. In February, a release party for the book at the University of Southern California featured contributors Robin D.G. Kelley, Cedric J. Robinson, Clyde Woods, Pete White, General Dogon, Gary Blasi, Damien Schnyder, LisaGay Hamilton, and Jonathan Gomez. Over 100 people attended the event in celebration of Black History Month.
LA CAN has fearlessly attempted to address the police’s “culture of abuse” through official channels at the local level. They have used public records and declarations to illustrate illegal actions, public testimony to the Public Safety Committee and City Council, and, with the help of the ACLU and civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, lodged a complaint in federal court that found LAPD — by its own admission — guilty of illegal stops and seizures in Skid Row. Since most attempts have been rebuffed, they submitted a color of law complaint to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and are now in conversation with DOJ staff over the violations that need to be addressed.
In 2005, LA CAN launched a Community Watch program to reduce the harmful impacts of unaddressed state and private security violence. Teams of four LA CAN members patrol the neighborhood with clipboards and a video camera, monitor the police and Business Improvement District security guards known as “red” or “purple” shirts, and gather evidence when the civil rights of residents are violated. Their presence and documentation ensures fewer incidents of brutality and racial profiling. The Nation has recognized Community Watch as “One of the Top Ten Things You Need to Know to Live on the Streets.”
LA CAN also runs a legal clinic that provides education, services, and representation to help low-income tenants and homeless Skid Row residents get their housing needs met. In 2007, they launched a Citation Defense Program in response to the dramatic increase in “quality of life” citations (roughly 1,000 a month) issued under the Safer Cities Initiative.
In order to break the vicious cycle of poverty, incarceration, and disenfranchisement in Skid Row, LA CAN teamed up with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Fulbright and Jaworski, LLP, and other law firms working pro bono to defend Skid Row residents. Of the 700 tickets handled by the clinic in 2009, 90% were issued for crosswalk violations like jaywalking. Among the 700 tickets from 2009 that have been resolved to date, 86% had the charges and/or all penalties dismissed and an additional 10% had the community service penalty significantly reduced. Amongst those who reported their disability status on intake forms for the tickets, 60% had a disability.
Through the legal clinic, organizers were also able to identify a resurgence of illegal property confiscation by LAPD from homeless residents. Again with pro bono legal support, residents claimed initial victory when a Temporary Restraining Order was issued on April 22, 2011 to prevent LAPD and the City’s Public Works Department from seizing or destroying personal property without following proper procedures.
General Dogon, a LA CAN organizer and Skid Row resident, summed up the paradox of punishing the poor this way, “How do you criminalize the blind for being blind or the lame for being lame? If a man don’t have no where to go, he don’t have a job, and the city don’t have nothing to offer him, you can’t criminalize the man for that and this is what they’re doing. The cold part about that is, on this street right here, Main Street, they were allowing the yuppies to sit on the sidewalk. That’s the new in-crowd, and the city is supporting them. They’re the ones getting everything.”
San Francisco – The Coalition
San Francisco suffers similar harassment. Since the mid-1990s, San Francisco police have issued well over 100,000 citations for minor offenses that target homeless people on the streets. While these citations do not allow incarceration, the failure to pay the fine is a misdemeanor. Since most homeless people cannot afford to pay the fines, warrants are issued for their arrest. The end result is that up to 25% of the people in the San Francisco County Jail are homeless.
Outstanding bench warrants for these misdemeanors can also block access to housing and other services needed to exit homelessness. To provide some defense for its community, the Coalition initiated the Citation Defense Program in 1995. Volunteer outreach workers collect citation information and narratives, which they give to pro bono attorneys who provide representation in court. Over the past several years, the Citation Defense Program represented roughly a quarter of all “quality of life” citations issued in San Francisco. The attorneys in these cases have a 97% success rate for getting cases either discharged, dismissed, or fines stayed in guilty findings. LA CAN and Berkeley’s Citation Defense Programs were modeled on the Coalition’s.
In addition to outreach and citation defense, the Coalition has documented police and other government employee harassment and court inequalities to better protect homeless people from injustice and uses its newspaper, Street Sheet, to educate and mobilize the community against anti-homeless measures. It also used video documentation to end a Department of Public Works program called “Operation Scrubdown” in 2008. Operation Scrubdown sent police-escorted water trucks through the Tenderloin, a neighborhood where homeless people sleep on the sidewalks. Every morning before dawn, the trucks power blasted the sidewalks and hosed down sleepers with water and a cleaning agent that city officials identified only as “lemon.” The video documentation brought media attention to this inhumane practice, which led to the program’s termination.
In 2009, the City of San Francisco opened a new Community Justice Center (CJC) in the Tenderloin neighborhood, against the wishes of the electorate. It targeted homeless people, half of whom were charged with no crime other than sleeping outside. Because the City and the courts claimed that they could not provide documentation of the cases heard at CJC, the Coalition attended court almost daily for three months and collected every court calendar that was produced in order to document the injustices occurring. Although the Coalition was unsuccessful at closing down CJC, the court began to document its work and move away from a homeless focus toward more serious crimes.
In 2010, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors considered a sit/lie law to make sitting or lying down on the sidewalk a criminal act. The Coalition produced reports on the effects of similar laws on small business in other cities, the impact on real crime in other cities, the constitutionality of the law, racially unequal enforcement of similar laws, and the impacts of criminalization on homeless people’s daily lives and on their chances of housing access. This documentation and reporting, in combination with meeting with public officials, public actions, and strong community organizing, led to the Board ultimately deciding to oppose the law.
The law then barely passed in the November election after a $400,000 media campaign that was aired during the San Francisco Giants World Series and financed by individuals from Charles Schwab, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America. However, with less than $10,000, the Coalition and a newly formed group, Sidewalks Are For People Coalition, reduced support by 16% from just nine months earlier.
Since then, Coalition civil rights organizer Bob Offer-Westort writes, “the Coalition on Homelessness has begun developing documentation and know-your-rights trainings for members of our community who are cited or threatened with citation. Simultaneously, attorneys from the ACLU and Disability Rights Advocates, as well as independent attorneys, have begun work developing legal strategies to challenge what we believe to be an unconstitutional law. Through coordinated documentation, litigation, and through public pressure on our legislators, on a new mayoral administration, on the media, and on the consciences of fellow San Franciscans, we know ultimately we will win.”
Portland, Oregon – Sisters and Street Roots
In Portland, Sisters Of The Road (Sisters) and Street Roots have been at the forefront of resistance to “quality of life” measures, including a camping ban and sit/lie ordinance. In 2003, Sisters and Street Roots launched the Right to Sleep Campaign, urging City Hall to look at alternatives to criminalization measures that target individuals living on the streets. In their newspaper, Street Roots highlighted the civil rights issues faced by people experiencing homelessness through in-depth reporting on private security in downtown Portland and how it relates to the criminalization of homelessness. Over the years, the newspaper reported on a number of criminalization efforts, including alternatives to the camping, sit-lie, and Drug Free Zones. Due to community pressure and legal challenges, the sit/lie ordinance was twice struck down as unconstitutional in 2004 and 2009.
In 2010, the city proposed another version of the sit-lie law called the Sidewalk Management Ordinance. In response, Sisters organized an action in celebration of sidewalks being for everyone that was attended by over 200 unhoused and housed allies who then marched to City Hall to testify against the measure. Sisters exposed the classism and bias of the new ordinance in a public statement they used in their media work, outreach to the community, and in City Council hearings.
Sisters also gave a presentation to the city’s Human Rights Commission on the history of the two previous sit/lie ordinances, how it had been used against homeless people, and how the Council was manipulating the issue to make the new ordinance seem like it was about mobility rights for “differently-abled” people. They specifically objected to the way the ordinance used the Americans with Disabilities Act. Homeless people were targeted for blocking sidewalk access for people with disabilities even though the Portland Housing Bureau recently found that 47% of homeless people had a high risk of mortality caused by untreated disabilities.
A week after the presentation, the Human Rights Commission took a public stand against the ordinance. At the next City Council hearing on the ordinance, three Commissioners testified that it violated human rights and the City Council should vote no on it.
Despite these efforts the ordinance passed. Sisters immediately switched gears and launched a “know-your-rights” campaign. They did street outreach that included handing out 2,000 flyers to educate Portlanders on their rights under the law and invited them to organize with them to oppose the ordinance. Sisters’ organizer Chani Geigle-Teller notes, “Largely because of this organizing on the streets, conversation by conversation, our weekly Civil Rights Workgroup consistently has over 12 volunteers who come in throughout the week to help us carry out this work!”
Berkeley – BOSS
Berkeley, another “liberal” city, is now considering its own no-sitting ban to go along with a no-lie ordinance passed in 2007 under Mayor Bates’ Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. Since the 1990s, there have been multiple attempts by merchant associations such as the Downtown Berkeley Association and Downtown Berkeley Business Improvement District, the Mayor’s office, and City Council to clear out homeless people from People’s Park and the shopping districts along Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues.
Like anti-homeless measures in other cities, the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative promised a mixture of services and policing. Largely due to pressure from groups like BOSS, East Bay Community Law Center, and Homeless Action Center, the city made a little progress on outreach, Social Security Income advocacy, extension of public bathroom hours, treatment services, and addressing harassment complaints against the Berkeley HOST Program (a private ambassador program paid by the city to patrol the downtown area). But it has fallen woefully short on providing housing and other services that were promised.
The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Association are now pushing to ban sitting on the sidewalk. The Chamber of Commerce says the ban is necessary to curtail negative behavior and scary pets that are frightening people away from the downtown area. Advocates argue that there are laws already in place to address these issues and the new ban will target homeless people. Like the new sit/lie law in San Francisco, Berkeley’s latest effort directly targets homeless youth. To assert any homeless person’s right to exist in public space, BOSS and allies organized a “sit down for justice” action last month. Michael Diehl, a long-time community activist led a sit-in and demonstration that drew local news and passersby. UC Berkeley students from the Suitcase Clinic and other student groups joined the sit-in. Later that evening, the group marched to a Berkeley City Council meeting to speak out against the sit ordinance and its likely negative impact on the homeless population.
To focus public attention on this growing trend of discriminatory laws and reclaim public commons in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Portland, WRAP, the Coalition, BOSS, Sisters, Right to Survive, and other allies coordinated a “Sidewalks Are For People Day” on May 22, 2011. This three-city action is a small example of the type of collaboration and solidarity that is needed to overcome the civil and human rights issues raised in this series.
As shown by the work described above, local civil rights efforts have been effective at curtailing the level of criminalization in individual neighborhoods and cities. They have led to many successful actions and put pressure on mayors, police chiefs, local human rights commissions, and even the DOJ, to begin responding to these widespread abuses. Important victories have been won, but they have been separated by geographical boundaries. They need to be joined and that is the mission of WRAP.
Coming Together For A More Inclusive Quality of Life
WRAP is creating an organizing model that builds strategic relationships across local boundaries and unites community organizers, poverty and civil rights activists, students, the faith community, public defenders and progressive lawyers in the civil rights struggle.
In our short history, we have organized a regional “House Keys not Handcuffs” action in San Francisco that brought together over 1,000 people from up and down the West Coast to demand the federal government begin addressing our civil rights and housing issues. We are now organizing a Community Congress for August that will bring together our member organizations and hundreds of grassroots leaders from their communities. It will include know-your-rights, citation defense, and Community Watch trainings, as well as strategic planning on how we can combat discriminatory “quality of life” laws, enforcement, prosecution, and homeless courts on a regional level.
WRAP has also documented the impact of “quality of life” policing on over 300 self-identified homeless and mentally ill people in six cities. Our research found that nearly 80% of the people surveyed had been stopped, arrested, or cited for “quality of life” offenses, 60% were harassed by Business Improvement District private security, and 29% had lost their housing or were discharged from a program due to incarceration. This coming June, we will use this research on a criminalization panel and Congressional briefing that are part of the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s Forum on the Right to Housing in Washington, DC.
We are in the beginning stages of building a movement. The recession, jobless recovery, and gridlock in Washington, DC lay bare the bankruptcy of the current system. Never has the need and imperative been more critical to defend the due process and civil rights of those being criminalized as more of our neighbors are forced onto the streets. But in the end “defense” is not enough. We must also assert a vision for the future that reflects our humanity and interconnection. We all need a safe place to call home, freedom from fear and want, nutritious food and health care to sustain our bodies, education and culture to expand our minds, and dignified work.
Throughout the many civil rights struggles in our nation’s past, communities have bound together to fight for a more inclusive democracy. The abolitionist, women’s rights, labor, civil rights, disability rights, and environmental movement have all shown that change happens on a large scale only when pockets of resistance create a network of support and solidarity. The collective resistance forming to the present injustice of “quality of life” laws is no different.
Will you join in this movement for a better quality of life for everyone?
Special thanks to Marlene Griffith, Casey Gallagher, Becky Dennison, Chani Geigle-Teller, Israel Bayer, Bob Offer-Westort, Janny Castillo, and Michael Diehl for their contributions to this article.