On April 9, more than 110 people attended a forum titled “Abolishing Homelessness” at the UC Merced campus. In attendance were homeless persons from Merced; veterans of homeless struggles in Sacramento, Fresno, San Jose and Modesto; students, UC staff and professors; social workers; city officials and agency functionaries; homeless activists; faith-based groups; renters; and others. The forum was sponsored by UC Merced professors and the California Central Valley Journey for Justice.
The forum was the culmination of more than two years of often bitter struggles in Merced originating with the enforcement of a city “no camping” ordinance, despite the recommendations of a citizen’s committee authorized by the City Council.
Subsequently, a church sanctuary for the homeless led to vociferous attacks at City Council meetings, articles in local papers and petition campaigns by homeowners adjacent to the church. The sanctuary was eventually lost, and the homeless scattered or were forced into a local shelter. Students became involved in support of the homeless, as did healthcare workers, finding themselves attacked likewise. Smear campaigns on YouTube and other mediums were directed against the homeless, homeless activists and a sympathetic City Council person.
The forum was dedicated to local heroes Joseph and Bernice, who are homeless. In contrast to the callous disregard of local city and county government, which sweep the problem of homelessness under the rug, Joseph and Bernice selflessly risked their lives to rescue four people from a car that careened into a rain-swollen creek near the bridge under which they sought shelter in December 2010.
Embodying the essential humanity that marks them as valuable members of society, their actions contrast with those of city officials and at the coroner’s office, which would not release to conference organizers the names of homeless persons who have died in the past two years for the purposes of a homeless memorial, for fear of disturbing the potential privacy and sensibilities of whatever family members they may have had. It is estimated that there are up to 100 such deceased persons, the latest having died in the homeless shelter in the week before the forum.
The central issue at the forum revolved around how to deal with government in regards to homelessness. Although Merced is moving forward in developing a 10-Year Plan to Abolish Homelessness, as have hundreds of cities throughout the country, the experiences of nearby cities give grounds for pause.
The keynote speaker, Mike Rhodes, and homeless persons also from Fresno graphically detailed the numerous obstacles placed by city government in the way of decent shelter and sanitation for the homeless of Fresno. Despite having a 10-year plan, the monies that have been invested have gone to social service agencies and have not filtered down to those they were intended to help. In fact, Fresno’s homelessness numbers have increased, as have the misery and deaths.
The experiences of Sacramento and San Jose have echoed that of Fresno. They too are locked in a battle with local government for basic human needs. They too have seen homelessness increase dramatically despite 10-year plans years ahead of Merced’s proposed plan.
By contrast, the afternoon plenary speaker, Philip Mangano, former Bush administration homeless “czar,” told those present not to complain or to blame the government. He claimed that 10-year plans work and that the numbers of homeless on the streets and homeless deaths are going down. With references to abolitionism and slavery in U.S. history, he implied that efforts such as Safe Ground and temporary camps were diversions and maintain people homeless, and that only his plan and working cooperatively with government agencies could succeed “to abolish homelessness.”
Although many were certainly taken in by the oratory of the silver-haired man, whom one participant called a “silver-tongued devil,” the fact remains that gargantuan cuts in federal and state outlays for affordable housing since the 1970s have paralleled the rise in homelessness. In view of the budget deficits at the state and federal levels, funding even for the 10-year plan of Merced will be tenuous. Certainly, the experiences of the surrounding Valley cities that have 10- year plans make it unlikely that Merced’s plan, if it ever comes into being, will be a panacea.
The participation of the tenants’ right group at the forum, and its continuing presence at City Council meetings, serves to broaden and strengthen the struggle of the homeless for justice. Their presence shows that the problem is systemic and not due to individual failings. As they stated, defending tenants against eviction is the first line of defense against homelessness. As they press for a City Council resolution to eliminate foreclosure as a cause for renter eviction (in the foreclosure capital of the nation), they too are locked in a battle against government.
Lastly, the homeless are showing that they are the foremost advocates for the homeless. As passionate students, professors, faith-based organizations, homeless advocates and others join the homeless to fight shoulder to shoulder for justice as equal partners, we can take back our country and provide everyone with a decent place to live and thrive.