The Government Has Failed America’s Homeless, So Homeless Activists and Their Allies Are Fighting Back with Direct Action


In late November 2016, a video went viral depicting police taking blankets from homeless people sleeping in subfreezing temperatures outside of the City and County Building in Denver, Colorado.

The video prompted the ACLU of Colorado to send a letter to Denver mayor Michael Hancock and the city council demanding that they direct police officers “to cease confiscation of blankets and other survival gear possessed by people experiencing homelessness.”

The letter highlighted the fact that it is not an “inherent crime” to sleep outside — especially when no other options are available — and that the city’s criminalization of homelessness amounted to a “a cruel waste of funds, curtailing fundamental constitutional rights, causing deep human suffering and endangering lives.”

The message was received.

In early December, Hancock announced that police would make a “cold-weather adjustment” and discontinue the practice of confiscating tents and bedding from the city’s nearly 4,000 homeless people until April.

“As a city, we have a responsibility and moral obligation to protect the lives of our residents,” Hancock said in a statement. “Urban camping — especially during cold, wet weather — is dangerous and we don’t want to see any lives lost on the streets when there are safe, warm places available for people to sleep at night.”

The decision was hailed as a victory by the homeless community and its allies. “This means that people surviving on the streets this winter will have just that much more hope to live through this winter,” the group Denver Homeless Out Loud wrote on its website.

The Denver episode is a fitting end to this year’s saga of homelessness in America. It stands as a perfect example of the complex and contentious power struggles that go on everyday between city officials, the homeless and their friends and enemies in communities across the nation.

The people having their blankets stripped from them in the freezing cold in the video were both homeless and activists. They specifically chose to sleep outside of the City and County Building in an act of protest against Denver’s ban on “urban camping,” which can carry a hefty $999 fine — a price that many of those who violate the statue obviously cannot afford.

If another activist hadn’t recorded the incident and posted the video, the whole thing would likely have gone unnoticed, as so many similar encounters do. If the ACLU hadn’t stepped in, Hancock might not have felt compelled to act to suspend the confiscations.

Ultimately, the Denver decision was a small victory in a much bigger battle. The ban is still technically in effect, meaning people still face the fine — and April is coming.

Similar stories are unfolding every day in cities across the country.

The rate of homelessness has declined slightly in the past few years, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But there are still nearly 600,000 homeless people in America.

The lingering effects of the economic recession that peaked in the final years of the George W. Bush presidency, during which at least five million Americans lost their homes and four million lost their jobs, undoubtedly contribute to the staggering number of homeless people in America, as does the legacy of Pres. Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” economics and cuts to social services.

The economy has improved under Pres. Barack Obama’s administration. He brought the Great Recession to an end, avoiding another potential depression, but in many regards the economy has nevertheless stagnated. Many of the jobs he helped create pay lower wages than those that were lost under Bush.

Things are better, but they’re still bad, and the debate over how to deal with homelessness can bring out the worst in some people. Fortunately, it can also bring out the best in others.

In cities such as Portland and San Francisco, the homeless and allied communities are finding inspiring ways to address the issue, to provide short-term solutions … while fighting for long-term change.

In February 2016, Portland mayor Charlie Hales announced a “four-pronged strategy” to help lighten the burden on the city’s homeless community.

The new policy made it legal for people to sleep on public sidewalks — with a blanket and tarp but no tent — as long as they aren’t blocking the right of way. It does allow for tents in other publicly-owned areas, however. People may now sleep in cars or campers in designated areas, as well.

The new plan called for more temporary shelters and “city-sanctioned campsites.” Those sites must be sponsored by a nonprofit service provider and will, once the first one is completed, feature disaster-relief pods provided by the city rather than tents.

Monica Goracke, a lawyer with the Oregon Law Center who has fought for the rights of homeless people, described the proposed changes as “progressive” and “rational” to The Oregonian’s Brad Schmidt.

This is an opportunity to lead out of chaos,” she told Schmidt.

Two months later in May 2016, the city still hadn’t established any of the new sanctioned campsites, so activists took matters into their own hands and set up an encampment for homeless women. “The small camp seemed to emerge from nowhere,” Dirk VanderHart wrote in a piece for the Portland Mercury.

“One day, a Portland Development Commission-owned lot sat empty at the corner of S.E. 93rd and Woodstock, as it had since the city snatched it up 16 years ago. The next, it was swarming with volunteers and advocates bent on claiming a safe space for the city’s fast-growing population of homeless women — who are frequently subjected to sexual assault and other trauma.”

An organization called Advocacy5 helped to set up the temporary camp, composed of six tents on elevated platforms. One of the tents is for a host who monitors the space and helps to arrange access to additional resources.

“We cannot, as an agency of conscience that sees this population almost daily, wait any more for the City of Portland to take action,” Advocacy5 wrote in a letter distributed to neighbors prior to the camp being established, according to VanderHart. “There are women being violated in the most heinous of ways, every day.”

Homeless women suffer a particularly high rate of sexual assault.

“You have some of these women being raped twice a day,” Raine Ritalto, an activist with an the organization Free Hot Soup — which helped Advocacy5 set up the camp — told VanderHart. “The city’s aware, but hasn’t been working fast enough.”

Photo via Wikipedia

Despite the activists’ efforts and the important work being done, the camp was short-lived. The city forced the occupants to abandon the site a few weeks after it was established, with the promise that the city would create a new “pod village” for the women elsewhere.

Nothing came of the promise for months, but a Dec. 13 report by VanderHart suggested that the city had finally found a new location and was planning to install 14 “newly-built tiny homes” on a plot of land the city owns. In addition to providing the land, the city is kicking in $35,500 to build the pods, which will house 14 homeless women at a time.

The local nonprofit Catholic Charities is sponsoring the “Argyle Village” camp, which will help residents “find homes, support self-governance of residents and contract with the city for sanitation, lighting, fencing, etc.,” according to VanderHart.

The plan is being fast-tracked, and city officials and advocates hope the Village will be open by February 2017. If it weren’t for the efforts of grassroots activists like Advocacy5 and Free Hot Soup, however, it may never have even been proposed.

Six hundred miles south of Portland, in San Francisco, the homeless are facing tougher battles with local authorities.

San Francisco has, in many ways, become ground zero for the struggle against homelessness in America. The continuing influx of wealthy entrepreneurs and professionals working in the tech sector has led to skyrocketing property values and an exceptionally high cost-of-living, fueling tenet-landlord disputes, evictions and foreclosures.

More and more neighborhoods that once offered reasonably affordable housing are being taken over by high-price apartments and condos.

There are approximately 7,000 homeless people in San Francisco at any given time, but city shelters have only 1,200 beds, according to San Francisco Gate, which suggests that the true number of homeless in the city could exceed 10,000.

As in many other cities, the discrepancy between the number of homeless people and the number of beds in shelters results in make-do shelters and tent cities.

In San Francisco, this further increased tensions between affluent residents and developers on the one hand, and the homeless and their advocates on the other. Tensions spiked when the Super Bowl came to town in February 2016.

Then-interim mayor Ed Lee and other city officials, including then-Board of Supervisors member Scott Weiner — who has since elected to the state senate — decided that tourists wouldn’t want to be bothered by the sight of homeless people while they were in town to partake in the lavish festivities of the Super Bowl.

Police and municipal workers began conducting “sweeps” of homeless communities, confiscating or disposing of the people’s belongings and slashing their tents with box-cutters.

It turns out that was not a good look for the city, either.

The crackdown attracted local, national and even international coverage. It was exactly the kind of attention that Lee didn’t want. A political battle followed, pitting Lee and his underlings against the homeless community and its supporters.

As a direct response to the police destroying people’s tents, activists Tara Spalty and Shaun Osburn launched a GoFundMe project they called, simply, “Tents for San Francisco.”

“In preparation for the fancy Super Bowl Party City Hall has promised to their corporate sponsors, a large push by Interim Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Scott Wiener has been made to cleanse city streets of any and all signs of wealth inequality here in San Francisco,” the original GoFundMe post explains. “Poor people make for such terrible b-roll, you know.”

Spalty and Osburn initially hoped to purchase 100 tents for $30 to $40 each to redistribute to people who lost theirs in the sweeps. However, donations quickly exceeded their expectations. They received thousands of dollars within the first few days.

Since launching the GoFundMe campaign in late January 2016, the two have raised nearly $20,000 and distributed 500 tents. Neither have received any monetary compensation for their efforts.

Spalty initially delivered the tents on her own, but the task became too big for her alone. That’s when several local cab drivers stepped in to help. They coordinated with Spalty to deliver the tents to the neighborhoods with the highest demand. Sometimes they randomly offered tents to people they met while making deliveries.

They did all of this on their on time and at at their own expense.

While Tents for San Francisco enjoyed an outpouring of support from the activists and the homeless community, not everyone was pleased with the project.

Charles Perl, the deputy chief financial officer of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, messaged Spalty on Facebook. “[W]ho are you to make public policy decisions regarding the 6500+ homeless on our streets?” Perl asked.

He referred to the homeless as “eyesores for the rest of San Francisco residents and visitors” and praised Weiner for being “spot-on” in his approach. “I suggest you stick to your day job,” Perl concluded.

Spalty was quick to post the message to her Facebook page with a response. “Creating a GoFundMe page to address an immediate humanitarian crisis does not constitute ‘making public policy decisions,’” Spalty wrote. “It might be a bad career move in general to personally harass well-meaning citizens on the internet.”

Spalty told Defiant she received numerous messages like Perl’s, mostly from “angry white men.”

In an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist C.W. Nevius joined sides with Lee, Weiner and Perl, as well.

“Pier 80 should open Wednesday, providing a live-in shelter all winter,” Nevius wrote, referring to a new temporary shelter the city opened in the wake the Super Bowl dust-up. “There will be showers and food. Couples can stay together, there will be storage for belongings, and even pets are welcome.”

Nevius then took on a more sardonic tone. “It’s a well-considered, well-funded attempt to get homeless people off the street, into shelter and into services … None of which happens in a tent on the street.”

Nevius overlooked key aspects of the situation, and of what Spalty and Osburn were doing. By the time the new Pier 80 shelter “should” have opened, several days would have already passed since the police destroyed dozens of people’s tents, leaving them exposed to the elements.

On top of that, the shelter only housed 180 people at its peak occupancy, according to S.F. Weekly, leaving the city thousands of beds short.

“The tent campaign is a direct action of solidarity, not charity, with the intention of keeping people dry and sheltered where they are RIGHT NOW, because there are not enough resources in the city RIGHT NOW,” Spalty wrote in her response to Perl.

The GoFundMe page for Tents for San Francisco echoes that sentiment. “The only solution we are offering is the ability to stay dry during a storm. Until better options materialize, we will continue to distribute tents.”

Providing a short-term solution while better options were being arranged was the goal from the beginning, and Spalty and Osburn shouldn’t have been criticized for taking action while the city sat on its hands.

That said, the city implemented new plans to remove tents from the streets this fall.

After working on Tents for San Francisco for months, Spalty has since turned her sites to other projects. She opened a 501(c)3 nonprofit acupuncture clinic — Slow Poke Acupuncture — that offers low-cost acupuncture and other services.

Pop-up community acupuncture clinics that provide free acupuncture to the homeless and low-income individuals are a big part of Slow Poke’s vision. Slow Poke provides these services at several events each month, with the events being sponsored by organizations such as the Homeless Youth Alliance, the A Woman’s Place shelter, Lavamae’s Pop-up Care Villages and Praxis — a sex-positive/body-positive community space.

Spalty estimated she currently provides approximately 100 acupuncture sessions to homeless and low-income clients each month, with the sponsoring organizations covering the costs. She told Defiant she just began working with a senior center for low-income elders. That could increase the number of monthly sessions in Slow Poke’s community outreach programs to more than 200.

“I have experienced homelessness myself a few times in life and I know what it’s like to be in pain and be afraid but also have to be strong and resourceful and protect yourself, especially as a woman out there,” Spalty told Defiant. “I wanted to offer support to women going through what I’ve been through.”

She says the conditions her homeless clients most often request treatment for include stress, PTSD, addiction and chronic pain to the back, feet, ankles or knees caused by walking considerable distances while having to carry all of their personal belongings for long periods.

Other groups are taking a similar approach, in regards to trying to nurture community-oriented resources for the homeless of San Francisco.

For instance, Box City focuses on providing more secure dwellings and portable restrooms, as well as food and health services and assistance with finding jobs and permanent residencies.

“The folks behind Box City don’t call it an encampment — they call it a ‘transitional sleep and service hub’ or a ‘transitional eco-village,’” Joe Kukura wrote in S.F. Weekly. “Box City is a half-block lineup of sheds, embellished wood carts, tiny A-frames and a functioning portable toilets. Some structures are equipped with hinged doors or locks, and one even has a quaint little fake chimney on top.”

Amy Farah Weiss, a founder of Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge — an organization that helped develop Box City — told S.F. Weekly that around 20 residents make up the core of the Box City community. Many of them migrated to the new location when their previous camp was destroyed in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.

Incidentally, Saint Francis Homeless Challenge had hosted a Super Bowl party for the Bay Area’s “unhoused neighbors” during the height of the city’s crackdown around the sporting event in order to strengthen the bonds between the homeless community and activist networks.

Despite the efforts of Weiss, Spalty and others, the homeless community still faces huge obstacles in San Francisco.

“There are 1,000 people tonight on the shelter wait-list in San Francisco,” Spalty said. “And that’s only the people who bothered to try for shelter, as futile as that process can be. There are thousands more just out there — every night.”

Homelessness is a huge issue in America, but local and state governments seem reluctant to address it — unless they are pushed.

When they’re pushed from conservative quarters concerned with “eye sores” and property values, they tend to implement draconian measures to criminalize homelessness and break up their communities, making them even more vulnerable.

When, on the other hand, they are pushed by civil liberties groups such as the ACLU or grassroots activists such as Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, Advocacy5 and Tents for San Francisco, the community benefits — and local elected officials are more prone to adopting measures such as those implemented by Hale in Portland.

It’s impossible to imagine president-elect Donald Trump and his incoming administration willingly making positive changes on this front. That means we’re going to have to push harder.


This article originally appeared at Defiant on Dec 16, 2016 under the headline “Pissed Off at Do-Nothing Governments, People Are Helping the Homeless on Their Own.” Featured image: “Helping the Homeless” by Ed Yourdan via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


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