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The Quality of Whose Life? Final Part

Posted: 06/03/11 02:18 PM ET

This is the final part in "The Quality of Whose Life?" series. It focuses on the proliferation of repressive and discriminatory "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.

"Quality of life" laws usually accompany 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 some examples of what five West Coast groups have done and are doing to expose and challenge laws that target homeless people. Click each group's link to find full information about its work. An unabridged version of this post can be found on WRAP's website.

"Quality of life" laws establish control over shopping and business districts and push the collateral human damage out of sight. The aggressiveness by which these 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. Furthermore, chambers of commerce, business alliances, city officials and consulting groups meet to share expertise and troubleshoot obstacles.

Resisting A Filthy, Rotten System

Local social justice groups like Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness (the coalition), Sisters Of The Road (Sisters), Street Roots and Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) 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 restrictions and criminalization 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, these five west coast groups came together in 2005 to create Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a regional social justice alliance that has communities working jointly whenever and wherever needed. Everyone involved recognizes that only by joining forces, first regionally, then nationally, can we build a movement strong enough to counter the ongoing assaults on poor people.

In Los Angeles -- LA CAN

The Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles is the most heavily policed area outside of Baghdad. In the more than three years the Skid Row Safer Cities Initiative has been in effect, 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. At the end of 2010, LA CAN released a human rights assessment on the negative impacts of the Safer Cities Initiative in Skid Row noted above.

In 2005, LA CAN launched a Community Watch program to reduce the harmful impacts of unaddressed state and private security violence. Teams of five LA CAN members patrol the neighborhood, monitor the police and business improvement district security guards and gather evidence when the civil rights of residents are violated. Their presence and documentation ensures fewer incidents of brutality and racial profiling.

LA CAN also created a Citation Defense Program to respond to the dramatic increase in "quality of life" citations (roughly 1,000 a month) issued under the Safer Cities Initiative. Working with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Fulbright and Jaworski, LLP and pro bono lawyers, the Legal Clinic handled 600 tickets in 2009, with 90 percent of these issued for crosswalk violations like jaywalking. To date, 86 percent had the charges and/or all penalties dismissed and an additional 10 percent had the community service penalty significantly reduced.

In San Francisco -- the Coalition

San Francisco suffers similar harassment. Since the mid 1990s, San Francisco police have issued well over 100,000 citations that target homeless people for minor offenses. Failure to pay the fine can result in a warrant for arrest. The end result is that roughly 20 percent 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.

In 1995, the coalition initiated the first ever Citation Defense Program. Volunteer outreach workers collect citation information and narratives, and pro bono attorneys provide representation in court. They have a 97 percent success rate for getting cases discharged, dismissed or fines stayed in guilty findings.

The coalition 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 and public attention that led to the program's termination.

In Portland, Oregon -- Sisters and Street Roots

In Portland, public education and outreach by Sisters and in-depth reporting by Street Roots have been at the forefront of resistance to "quality of life" laws, including a camping ban and sit/lie ordinance. The sit/lie ordinance was twice struck down as unconstitutional in 2004 and 2009. In 2010, the city then proposed another version, the Sidewalk Management Ordinance. Sisters' public education efforts gained supporters and influenced decision-makers, including the city's Human Rights Commission, but despite all efforts the ordinance passed.

Sisters immediately switched gears and launched a "know-your-rights" campaign. Street outreach included handing out 2,000 flyers to educate Portlanders on their rights under the law and inviting them to continue opposing 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 help us carry out this work!"

In Berkeley -- BOSS

Berkeley, another "liberal" city, is now considering its own no-sitting ban to add to the no-lie ordinance passed in 2007 under Mayor Tom Bates' Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. 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" direct action. The group later 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 the growing trend of discriminatory sit-lie laws and to 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. This three-city action is a small example of the type of collaboration and solidarity that is needed to challenge 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. 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.

Western Regional Advocacy Project

In our short history, we have built strategic relationships across local boundaries that unite community organizers, poverty and civil rights activists, students, the faith community, public defenders and progressive lawyers; organized a regional "House Keys not Handcuffs" action at the federal building in San Francisco that brought together over 1,000 people from up and down the West Coast; and documented the impact of "quality of life" policing on over 300 self-identified homeless and mentally ill people in eight cities, which found that nearly 80 pervent of the people surveyed had been stopped, arrested, or cited for "quality of life" offenses. WRAP is presenting this research in Washington, D.C .this June.

We are currently organizing a Community Congress for August that will bring together hundreds of grassroots leaders from our member organizations' communities. It will include know-your-rights, citation defense and Community Watch trainings, as well as strategic planning on combatting discriminatory "quality of life" laws, enforcement, prosecution and homeless courts on a regional level.

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 movements 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.


 

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