Off our knees

By Mike Lee

Homelessness describes an economic condition and not a person, place or thing. To be homeless means a person is experiencing a condition where they do not have the economic resources to purchase shelter.

Current public policy approaches homelessness as a moral question, while also, using it to further a political agenda. As such the solutions they design are not created to solve or even mitigate the crisis but to flim-flam their constituents into believing how concerned they are. “Oh I feel so bad about all these homeless people — but just look what I’ve done to help!”

The result of this is that a new language based on half-truths or outright distortions is created. Terms like “service-resistant” are commonly bantered around. “Oh look I’ve created this but the homeless don’t use it because they are service-resistant. Look at all these wonderful things I’ve created for the homeless people but they are so ungrateful!”

An uninformed public readily accepts this and also other characterizations like, “Homeless people are lazy, drug addicts, crazy people….” In reality, however, homelessness historically serves a very important purpose to maintain the dominant paradigm. Homeless people are a constant reminder to the housed working class that unless they toe the line their fate will be living in a doorway too.

“If you join that union I’ll fire you and you’ll wind up like that bum,” chortles the abusive boss.

Reluctantly, people continue to slave away at tasks which they hate and, at the end of the day, only benefit the very few. The majority are constantly scrambling to maintain or increase their financial resources so they don’t wind up as one of the homeless. Eventually, despite their best efforts, a few may fail. Their failure has little or nothing to do with personal endeavors. It has more to do with the needs of an economic system which places profit before people.

As more and more “jobs” are automated, there is created a situation where the necessity for actual labor is eliminated. For instance, every major grocery store now has self-checkout, eliminating the need for cashiers. Both McDonald’s and Burger King have taken pro-active steps to automate production eliminating even more jobs. Is it possible to have a robot cook your GMO hamburger? Well robots build cars in Detroit, why not flip burgers in Berkeley?

While jobs are being quickly eliminated by automation, the need to keep workers alive diminishes. Schemes like subsidized housing, food stamps, etc. become an unnecessary burden on the profit-driven system. These programs were created for the purposes of appeasing the working class and providing a minimal method of survival. As wealth becomes more and more centralized, however, a worker’s fate is quickly becoming either being chained to the assembly line for the lucky few or, more likely, for the majority to shiver in a doorway void of any safety net.

While the homeless population increases its visibility, the state’s reaction is to pass draconian laws targeting life-sustaining behavior. According to Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) 58 California cities “…ban at least one nighttime activity such as sleeping, camping, and lodging in vehicles. These laws deprive people of the right to rest in a public place, protect themselves from the elements, or sleep in a legally-parked car without legal consequences.”

In order to fly under the radar most homeless people will isolate themselves from the rest of the population, choosing to suffer in silence rather to protest being constantly kicked and abused. However, on October 1, 2016 a handful of homeless people decided enough was enough. As part of the self-advocacy group, “First They Came For The Homeless,” a series of protests identified as “Snubbed By The Hub Poor Peoples Tour 2016-2017” was initiated. Several other community organizations joined this outbreak to call attention to the lack of services provided to the homeless and for housing that they could afford.

The main tactic employed by this very vocal group is to establish a location similar to what Hakim Bey described as a “Temporary Autonomous Zone based on Mutual Aid and Voluntary Cooperation.” Instead of a single tent, a highly visible critical mass is created with at least 15 tents along with huge colorful banners.

Simultaneously, a prominent tactic of this nomadic protest is providing hot food, blankets, and warm clothes to the at large homeless community. At one point this year, the poor tour was the only emergency shelter open. In the near future, the tour and its community partners will be opening a medical clinic that will be staffed 24/7. It is deliberately designed to primarily serve the needs of tour participants as well as all those in need, housed and houseless alike (

The City’s reaction was swift, and what they thought, decisive. On October 7th at around 5:00 am, the Berkeley Police Department stormed the encampment, waking people up. Tents were immediately targeted for destruction. In a frenzy of mayhem, the BPD and unidentified city workers cleared the area, destroying or disposing of any property that they declared was abandoned.

Since then this campaign of terror and harassment has been repeated at least 15 times, resulting in thousands of dollars in lost personal property, mainly items which clearly were being used to shelter people from the elements. During this campaign, several people have been assaulted and arrested, including Barbara Brust from “Consider the Homeless” and Nanci Armstrong-Temple, a candidate for Berkeley City Council’s District 2.

Each raid costs the City an estimated $30,000 for a total cost to date $450,000. This does not include the costs of hospitalization for five people, incarceration, and trials for citations. Clearly the city could have housed a lot of people for far less money than it has spent. Instead it chooses to allow people to die in the streets as it pursues its pogrom of the homeless.

When asked what it hopes to accomplish by continually chasing homeless people around, there is a deafening silence. Without an official response one can only assume this campaign is designed to eliminate the homeless by emulating the manner which Nazi Germany used to eliminate dissidents, Jews, Roma, the disabled, etc. It is very easy to identify where the Tour has visited. In its wake the city has used plastic safety fencing to cordon off huge areas of open space thus preventing them from returning.

During the 1930s, groups of people such as nonconformists and pacifists were often classified as asocial or unsettled. Their fate was to be assigned to labor camps as slaves of the state. Is this the goal of the current public policy? One can only guess.

What is known is that in order to abolish the Gordian knot of homelessness, a significant redistribution of wealth is required. Under a Trump administration this is unlikely to happen soon even in a small way.

In order to confront their own situation, homeless people have taken the bold step of self-organization. Collectively they decided not to suffer in silence but to rise Off Their Knees and demand the right to exist, a legal campground and housing we can all afford. As the “Poor Tour” continues, that demand gets louder. It is also amplified by community support and involvement. Together both the housed and the houseless link their arms, creating real solutions that save lives.