Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Day In The Life . . .

I cannot look the other way --  have never been able to.  Each day I encounter homeless people everywhere I go.  As I roll down the sidewalks in my town, in my motorized wheelchair, I always make eye-contact and offer greetings. I know firsthand the pain of being ignored to the point of being treated as if invisible.  On my treks the magnitude of human suffering I see every day is astounding.

Today, I spent part of my day, as I do most Saturdays, visiting with the homeless in my community at a weekly event named "Feed the Burg."  In addition to my volunteer advocacy work with the homeless, I am also working on the "Vote Rita Harris for Douglas County Commissioner" campaign committee, trying to get "a person of conscience" elected.  And so, I passed out campaign handbills and offered the opportunity for homeless folks to register to vote.  In just one hour, about a half dozen homeless people  indicated they want to volunteer to work for the campaign.  Today, no one wanted to register to vote, but two people took blank registration cards, promising to fill them out and turn them in to the County Clerk's office prior to the October 14th registration deadline.

Homeless people attending Feed the Burg eat quickly, and disperse afterwards even more quickly, eager to avoid encounters with law enforcement patrolling downtown.  I try to approach the larger groupings of folks first, in order to reach as many people as possible with whatever information pamphlet I am distributing. Working alone, I am never able to have contact with everyone, and on a good day I can talk to at least half of those gathered.  I only reached about a third of today's attendees.

Most homeless people are eager to take my information handouts, thirsting for knowledge. Others are so jaded from being kicked while they are down, they no longer believe laws (or, homeless rights activists like me) provide any protections for them at all.  They are convinced law enforcement, lawyers and judges don't believe homeless people have any Constitutional Rights, because every aspect of their daily lives have become criminalized. And, the rest of us with a roof over our heads, are part of the problem because we have let that happen.

Misinformation runs rampant among homeless populations; many think they can't vote because they have no ID or because they have previously been convicted of a crime. Others believe they can't vote because they have no address at which to receive mailed ballots. Homeless people desperately need access to correct information about all their rights.

Homeless people are surprised to learn someone who is not homeless is interested in learning the specifics about troubles they are having. They welcome my invitation to tell their woeful and often, heart-wrenching, stories about their daily lives.  Many suffer from untreated medical problems, an overwhelming majority of them have had their identification lost or stolen, sometimes by fellow homeless persons and other times by arresting officers. Without an ID they cannot take a job or cash a check a family member might send, or prove who they are when questioned by law enforcement. A lot of homeless struggle with mental health issues, and/or turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of homelessness … or the pain of hunger … or dental pain.

These unfortunate neighbors are becoming more and more oppressed with each passing week.  Last week I talked to a man who was given 7 citations in one 24-hour period.  Another, keeps being dogged by police for sleeping "in public" because the side affects of his mental health meds knock him out.  He suffers the daily struggle of choosing to comply with his medication regiment, or, finding a place to hide from police, who, if they find him, will force him to find a way to sleep sitting upright or threaten him with arrest.  I asked if he could sleep while jailed, and he said it was not possible because of overcrowding -- 6 men in an eight-by-twelve holding cell.

A few weeks ago, I felt outrage upon hearing the story of a disabled man who must use a walker to take even a few steps. He was angry he had to sleep under a bridge near a small creek. It had rained the previous night and the creek overflowed its banks and his sleeping bag and clothing were soaked. He had been sleeping at the "rescue" mission, but was suspended for 30-days due to a "baggage violation". Everyone is required to take all their belongings with them when they leave after breakfast each day.    He didn't know to ask special permission to leave his two suitcases, as a "reasonable accommodation" for his disability. Of course, the odds of him getting such help was slim to none, considering the oppressive rules they have at the mission.  One such outrageous rule is getting kicked out for 30-days if a man speaks to, or even greets, a member of the opposite sex.  Only men can sleep at the mission, but homeless women who want to eat at mealtime, must attend mandatory prayers with the male residents and both eat at common tables together in the dining area.

Today's outrageous story was unbelievable, until I heard it from more than a dozen different people.  The latest new way to step on the neck of homeless people is particularly cruel. The Sheriff's deputies who roust the homeless from makeshift camps at the nearby South Umpqua River, just outside Roseburg city limits, are handing out $1,500 tickets for criminal trespass to campers. The tickets previously charged them with illegal camping, which carried a lesser fine. Additionally, the homeless are now being told they must go to court in Canyonville, 27 miles from Roseburg, or face a FTA (failure to appear) bench warrant.  Many do not have any income with which to pay for travel to get to the District Court in Canyonville, or, to pay their huge fines. Previously, they went to court in the Douglas County Courthouse located 6 blocks from the park! I am hoping we are able to rattle the  powers that be enough to end this new rule because of the hardship it creates.

I talked with a homeless man familiar to me, who agreed I could share his story. Jerry is a very kind 62-year-old gentleman, who is also a Vietnam Vet.  He uses alcohol most days to block out memories which still haunt him about his Special Forces assignments 45-years ago, that are war crimes under the rules of the Geneva Convention.  His income is $745 a month from Social Security disability and he is trying to get VA retirement benefits.  He has been beaten and robbed more than once, and out of the past 90-days he has spent 65-days in the county jail for various offenses related to his homelessness.  I've visited with him on other Saturdays, but today he asked me for help.   He wants out of the cold and off the streets.  He needs affordable housing.

Here is the story of his most recent troubles.  Ten days ago, while sitting on cement stairs at the public parking garage downtown, he was cited for having an open can of beer sitting on the step next to him. He was busy bandaging the broken leg of a pigeon, who'd just been hit by a car speeding through the parking structure, and so he didn't see the police officer approaching him in time to dump out the beer.  The fine for "Drinking in public" is $1,500, and, there is a second charge on the citation for "Urinating in public" which he wants to fight because he is not guilty of that act (on that day). The fine for this second charge is also $1,500.

Jerry excused himself to go find the proverbial bush, because there are no public bathrooms downtown anywhere. But first, he enlightens me of a new development in the lives of my homeless neighbors.  Very recently, officers began charging those caught actually urinating in public with a "sex charge."  This applies for both men and women who have no place to access a toilet because they are homeless.  Jerry tells me he would be so grateful if there were port-o-potties in the parks downtown.  He feels robbed of his dignity.  He laments, "I may be too poor to be able to afford housing, but I still deserve access to a toilet."

The man sitting on the park bench next to him is also a Vietnam Vet. While Jerry has gone off to find a semi-private bush, Bill, whips out a handful of citations which he's received in just one week. He asks if I can help him fight some of the tickets or get them dismissed.  He'd heard me tell some other folks at the other end of the park earlier about the handout I'd passed out which details the Oregon laws concerning camping and mandates homeless persons be treated humanely. He is very upset that he is being required to travel to Canyonville to go to court, instead of appearing in court in our town, which is the County seat.  I give him my phone number and address and urge him to come visit me next week so I can try to determine if he has grounds to appeal any of the citations. He shuffles off with his bags and bedding in a pushcart, grumbling, "I fought for this country and should be allowed to sleep any damn place I want."

Next, another homeless person in her 60s, walked up and asked for my help.  She was camping recently at the river across from the county fair grounds, outside the city limits.  A Sheriff's deputy issued her a $6,500 ticket for illegal camping.  I am hoping her fine is really just $1,500 and she just misread the citation due to poor eyesight!  She, too, is supposed to appear in District Court in Canyonville in 21-days.  She has no income and cannot possibly travel out of town to go to court.  She says she will come to my house next week and bring me the ticket, in hopes I can help her fight it.

A young couple in their early 20s were standing a few yards away, waiting their turn to ask me a question about the homeless rights handout I'd given them earlier. They told me they are temporarily staying at the local flea-bag motel downtown, operated by a slumlord with whom I've tangled a couple of times in the recent past.  I gave them my phone number and arranged to meet with them next week to discuss their situation.  They are registered voters, but didn't know that they must update their registration so their ballot can be mailed to them at the motel.  They agree to take some Vote Rita handbills to other tenants at the motel.

No matter how much work I do, there is also so much more needing to be done. A major setback in achieving any real successes with systemic change, is there are too few advocates and activists working on social justice issues in small-town America.  In larger cities there are members of agencies and church groups' social concerns committees forming coalitions and advocating for the rights of the downtrodden, as well as, lifelong activists agitating for social change in groups such as the Gray Panthers, NAACP, LULAC, and others. Still, I cannot look the other way when people are suffering all around me. I have a moral obligation to help any way I can, because it is the right thing to do, today … and every day.


Betsy Cunningham said...

It is good work you are doing, but we must start demanding humane treatment of those living on the streets, as well as be strong and loud advocates for the development of truly affordable housing. Citizens Education & Advocacy (CEA) in Douglas County, Oregon is working toward those solutions. We must demand Housing First!

Martha Mae Bryson said...

That homeless woman I wrote about REALLY did get an Illegal Trespass II citation for camping, with a $6,500.00 fine listed!