A War on Homelessness, or a War on the Homeless?

A War on Homelessness, or a War on the Homeless?

by Nick Cooper, nick@nickcooper.com •  originally printed in Free Press Houston (freepresshouston.com), April, 2012

On March 2, Hank Rush, the CEO of Star of Hope Mission, who makes a quarter-million dollar salary for his work with the poor, joined several other homeless service leaders in signing a commentary in the Houston Chronicle.  They gave their support to a new law that would impose a $2,000 fine on unpaid volunteers for sharing home-cooked food with the needy in public.

Going so far as to criminalize bringing a box of fruit into one’s house, to keep it out of a hot car for a few hours before going to share it, the law would have been laughable if it weren’t a threat to the food supply of a vulnerable population.

Wondering why homeless service providers might consider supporting a law that was so potentially devastating to Houston’s homeless population, activists began researching Star of Hope.  The first news item that came up, was that Mayor Annise Parker had announced a massive public / private partnership with the Star of Hope, just four days before the commentary was published.  $3 million initially, and $1.5 million per year thereafter, was planned for a “Sobering Center” for people found drunk in public.  Touted as a cheaper and less punitive alternative to incarceration, the project would benefit Rush and other signatories to the commentary.

    The Mayor, ‘Balance,’ and Her ‘Emergency’

    The Mayor and Council Member James Rodriguez began promoting the new ’emergency’ law, though the nature of the emergency seemed to be constantly in flux.  First, council members were told there was a crisis of food poisoning of the homeless, but the Mayor dropped that argument after being forced in open session to admit that there was no info to back up her claims.  Next, they switched to talking about trash being left by organizations feeding the homeless, but apparently there was no study of that either.  Eventually, Parker and Rodriguez seemed to settle on the main issue at stake here: the property rights of downtown business owners.

“I perceive this ordinance as trying to balance the rights and the needs of different groups of people,” said the Mayor.  Apparently, for her, the homeless are the ones holding the upper-hand in this imbalance, and the victims, the downtown business owners, require the City’s emergency help.  The ‘need’ of property owners is being trampled by the need of the homeless to eat, sleep, and excrete.

She compelled city council to act urgently to control trash and excrement, not by putting out more receptacles and toilets, but by policing the food supply.

“While the Mayor professes to try to help the homeless,” said civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen, “she’s done nothing to put in sanitary facilities that the homeless might be able to use.”

After years of ‘civility’ ordinances which criminalize homeless people for lying down, Houston City Council moved quickly towards enacting this new level of oppression.

The open secret here is that the only urgent matter is the opening of the new Dynamo soccer stadium.  With homeless sleeping nearby, the Mayor wanted one more tool to evict the homeless encampments.  As if to confirm this, City Council passed another urgent measure in March: drinking alcohol in public would be legalized in lots owned by, and at times set by sports venues.  Without even an acknowledgement of the irony and scandalous timing of these two amendments, the City granted sports fans an exemption to an anti-homeless law that had been on the books for almost 20 years.

While of course, ‘property rights’ doesn’t seem like an ’emergency’ issue, the Mayor didn’t let that slow her down. She ramped up pressure on the council to pass this law to force volunteers to show police specific prior written permission to share food.  Coalition for the Homeless President / CEO Marilyn Brown supported the law as “a good first step,” despite the fact that she had just personally conducted a Faith Initiative focus group in which every single participant opposed mandatory requirements for those sharing food in public.  Any council member considering voting for the law had to ignore the opinions of the hundreds of homeless and others who came to speak against the law over three sessions of City Council.

The public pressure forced the Mayor to change the law, stripping it of the important details.  It no longer explicitly criminalized things like the sharing of home made food, but since the process for obtaining permission was never disclosed, it was anyone’s guess what the criteria she or subsequent Mayors might choose to use for granting permission.  Home made food might be illegal, it might not, it just depended on the unwritten criteria of whatever agency has the job of granting permission.  The new version of the law temporarily hid the most egregious details, and the Mayor falsely and unilaterally declared that a compromise had been struck.

Some of the most important voices against the law were those of the homeless themselves who arrived to speak to City Council on April 3, the day before the vote.  The Mayor and the majority of City Council instead favored a small group of downtown business representatives, bumping them to the front of the queue to speak.  A few Council Members lobbed soft-ball questions to their powerful friends, filibustering until the news cameras and many City Council members had left the room.  One homeless man waiting for his turn to speak was so frustrated that he yelled out and was escorted from the chambers.

When it was finally their turn to speak, the homeless opened up their hearts to a City Council that had probably already made up their minds.

“If it weren’t for these truly gracious people, I would not eat,” 58 year old James Lira told City Council.

“I’ve been homeless 15 years due to my mental illness… If they make it more difficult for me to get food, then I would be starving,” were the words sent to City Council via the Voice of the Homeless Awareness Project from Alfred White, 51.

“I would like to see you in our shoes for one week and not have anything,” said Michael Horn.

“When has America stopped being the land of the free and the home of the brave, and become the land of the oppressed, and the home of the economic slave?” asked Maurice Samuel O’Neal, who identified as being on and off the streets for the last 40 years.  Many in the audience were affected, hearing the comparison to slavery by an older Southern African American man.

The most devastating critiques of the Mayor’s proposed law came from the kids.

“If I see one, or five, or twenty people in need, I should be able to help them without fearing punishment,” said an 11 year old girl, Makota Ashé.

Next, the Mayor’s entire argument was deflated in two short questions by 13 year old Dylan Cash.

“Mayor Parker, did you eat breakfast this morning?” he asked.  “Did you have to get permission from the City?”

    Why Don’t you Just Shut Up and Get a Permit, It’s Easy!

    Requiring permission for groups to serve has precedent. In San Francisco in 1988, the permit requirement was used to criminalize and arrest hundreds of food sharing volunteers. The Mayor then, like Annise Parker now, described the process as easy, but that was not the experience of volunteers in San Francisco.

“It was clear that the purpose of the permit process was to make it impossible for Food Not Bombs to share food and information in public,” said Keith McHenry, the co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement.

In November of 2011, a U.S. District Judge denied the city of Dallas’ motion for summary judgment and ruled that a lawsuit can proceed against a similar law there.  On the basis that spontaneous and unregulated feeding is part of their religious freedom, a church has a good chance to demonstrate that these permitting laws violate the Texas Religious Freedom Act.

“There are also Constitutional concerns about not requiring property owners to give notice by posting “no-trespassing” signs,” said Daphne Silverman with National Lawyers Guild.   “It’s my position that this law also violates other first amendment rights of expression, religion, and assembly.”

   Cashing In

    On April 4, the amendment passed 11 – 6.  Council Member Bradford joined the five Republican-leaning Council Members (Brown, Pennington, Sullivan, Christie, and Hoang) to oppose the hastily written, vague, punitive, and repressive law.  Not only did the ‘progressive’ Council Members vote with the Mayor, but even Wanda Adams joined in.  Though Adams repeats often that homelessness is an extremely personal issue for her, she is in need of support for her candidacy in the race for Texas House District 131.

“Mayor Parker is very well connected and supported in the local Democratic party scene,” explains local political activist and Democratic state delegate Benjamin Franklin.  “Wanda Adams’ chances of advancing to the State House require many of the same institutional supporters, and thus she needs to demonstrate that she’s a team player.  She can work to mitigate or soften the impact of a policy she disagrees with, but can’t openly defy and vote ‘no’ to what’s apparently a core priority for the Mayor.”

Adams was taken aside for several arm-twisting sessions to vote for the anti-homeless law.  Though unable to stop the law from passing, and apparently incapable of standing up to even vote against it herself, she was able to pass an amendment to give volunteers a three month reprieve before the law went into effect.

Council Members need money to be re-elected, and non-profits need grants.  Star of Hope wasn’t the only agency to benefit from new funding, and wasn’t the only organization whose leader signed onto the Houston Chronicle commentary to support the original extremely draconian version of the law.  The Coalition for the Homeless is at the center of an influx of cash to Houston that is so big that it makes the millions involved in the Sobering Center look like chump change.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) channels 1.5 billion dollars a year into programs and non-profits.  This month, Houston and eight other cities with large homeless populations begin getting big Obama dollars for the express purpose of “ending homelessness” in a few years through “Rapid Rehousing.”

Sam Tsemberis, CEO and Founder to Pathways to Housing, who helped to create the Housing First model, which is similar to Rapid Rehousing, points out that “Housing First is not really about housing.  It’s about listening to the person who is homeless.  The way we invented HF was by listening to people in the street.  When you ask what do you want most urgently, people say ‘housing first.’  It’s not about buildings or structures, it’s about listening to people.”

Nick Flynn, U of H professor, and author of the book which inspired the film “Being Flynn” starring Robert De Niro, has been a long time supporter of the Housing First model, but questions the nature of the program coming to Houston, asking, “is it driven by listening to the homeless, or listening to the powerful interests downtown?”

To kick off this program, the Coalition for the Homeless, launched a series of breakfasts for Houston’s homeless providers.  Titled “Take Your Seat at the Table,” the participants were welcomed to carve their pieces of the pie of all this funding coming to Houston.  Participants in the breakfasts were told that along with the money comes an entirely new system.  Houston’s homeless services are being rapidly transformed into a system with centralized intake for all homeless, a new authority that links funding with performance evaluations, and a constantly expanding database called the Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS).

    Just Follow the Bacon and Eggs

    “The Coalition for the Homeless has friendly political ties to the agencies who will end up with the HUD money,” said Jeff Lyons from Houston Solutions for Housing.  “It’s all political. The City founded Coalition for the Homeless, and appoints the people to the Board.  As the designated agent for the national programs like HMIS, they decide where HUD money goes when it comes to Houston.”

Shockingly, the underwriter for the first of the two Coalition for the Homeless breakfasts was Brookfield Office Properties, which, owns twelve skyscrapers downtown.  Paul Layne, the regional head for Brookfield Properties’ Houston operations also sits on the Board of Directors of the Coalition for the Homeless.  As the largest commercial real estate owner in Houston’s downtown, Brookfield is notorious for its central role in perpetuating the below poverty wages among downtown custodial workers, who make an average of $8,600 a year.

“It’s ironic,” said Laura Perez-Boston, director of the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center.  “Instead of investing their money in promoting a breakfast, they should be investing in ensuring that human rights are upheld for the janitors in their buildings…”

Brookfield also happens to own Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street activists were encamped for months (the park is named for Brookfield co-chairman John E. Zuccotti).  In October, Brookfield wrote to New York Police Commissioner Kelly demanding the eviction of the activists.  This connection seemed to confirm the suspicions of many involved with Occupy Houston that the law was intended to target them.

“This whole issue may have never been about ‘feeding the homeless’,” said longtime community activist and Democratic State Rep. candidate Ray Hill.  “It may have been about shutting down the Occupy movement that has done more than anything else to put a light on the injustice and excesses of big business greed.”

Many Houston activists who assume that Brookfield doesn’t value the needs of the homeless any more than the custodians working in their own buildings, are outraged to discover their participation in Coalition for the Homeless programs.

“Now it comes to light that there are big bucks in the pipeline from the federal government around homelessness,” Hill continued.  “The poor and the powerless are not players in the passing out of public funds into the private hands of the real players.”

    And Meanwhile… What About the Volunteers About to Be Criminalized?

    Food sharing volunteers like myself sit in these meetings a bit baffled.  On July 1, the volunteer work of dozens of organizations in the streets of Houston will become a crime.  We don’t have salaries, budgets, or pieces of the pie.  We don’t need money, bureaucracy, and we certainly don’t need to be permitted.  We do want to see homelessness eliminated, but not by punitive measures.

We found ourselves sitting at the Coalition for the Homeless breakfast table with others who were urging us to get iPads so that we could log all of the homeless, every time we serve, into the HMIS database in order to increase funding for the groups that need it.  Long time friends and allies within the homeless services sector seem to have been convinced by the power structure of absurd scenarios — people we had trusted explained to us their sincere belief that the homeless downtown are practically drowning in healthy food and need less not more.

My group, Food Not Bombs was the first group sharing food with the homeless after Ike, Rita, and Katrina.  FEMA referred people to us.  If this law is enacted in July, and by late August a hurricane comes through, even under emergency conditions, it will still be a crime for us to go out and share food.  Even if police were willing to look the other way during a hurricane aftermath, we might no longer have the intact relationships, food supply, and internal structure to resume our operations after months of being criminalized.  We rely on an influx of new high school volunteers, and parents might think twice about having their children participate in a group that might be illegal.  Making volunteerism a crime will damage Houston’s infrastructure.  Volunteers are a vital part of a system that helps nourish a vulnerable population, that without our efforts, would turn to increasingly to shoplifting, dumpster diving, and panhandling.

There are over sixty local groups speaking out against these laws. From the conservative Houston Area Pastors Council to the Catholic Worker Movement, from Occupy Houston to the Tea Party, from the Harris County Republican Party to the Green Party, from the Nation of Islam to the Hare Krishnas, the diversity of this loose coalition may well be unprecedented.

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Author: orland

.. i was born into an average family in the mid-west of the United States of America. my parents were divorced when i was young. ... i have been fortunate to have experienced many things that only the rich get to see. i once stayed in the Presidential Suite of the Lai Lai Sheraton Hotel, in Taipei, Taiwan. this suite composed the top two floors of the Lai Lai, where my private room overlooked the city of Taipai. ... and i have spent time in the Federal Prison System of this country as well. ... i had a construction company on the road to 'success and prosperity' and fell pray to the lures of the American Christianity Syndrome. but thank the good LORD, He allowed it all to crash around me. ... now i am quite happy to be poor, relying only on Him ....