Dispatches from the War Zone: A Book Review

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Image by Howard Watkins

 

By Boston Woodard

“Mike Rhodes is the best reporter in America when it comes to covering homelessness,” said Jeremy Alderson, director of the nationally broadcast Homelessness Marathon Road Show.

Mike Rhodes is a champion of social justice who has been shedding light on the homeless situation for many years. With selfless conviction, compassion, incomparable zeal and tenacity, Rhodes took his passion on the issue to the next level.

In his new book, Dispatches from the War Zone, Rhodes illuminates the dismal reality of homelessness for the world to see. Rhodes, a journalist and former editor of Community Alliance newspaper in Fresno, California, writes that “homelessness is a manifestation of a political and economic system that is not meeting people’s needs.”

Dispatches from the War Zone gives the readers a 360-degree view of homelessness from the inside out. Rhodes, well known for his hands-on activism, never writes about the homeless in the peripheral. Instead, what is most rewarding to him is that he gets to know homeless people as “coworkers, friends, and allies.” This differentiates Rhodes’ coverage from typical reporting.

Although Rhodes has never been homeless himself, unlike most reporters, he is able to talk about homelessness in the first person based on his understanding and close friendships with the homeless. Rhodes not only knows their names he knows many of their personal stories. Dispatches from the War Zone reveals in detail the planned, calculated, and systematic demolition of homeless encampments through Fresno County.

Rhodes was instrumental in helping Fresno’s homeless attain a temporary restraining order against the City of Fresno that stopped the municipality from taking and immediately destroying homeless people’s property. The practice of destroying homeless encampments had been challenged in a lawsuit filed two days earlier. That lawsuit was eventually settled in favor of the homeless (plaintiffs) who were parties in that complaint.

Dispatches from the War Zone points out that much of the confiscated and discarded property were clothing, medication, tents, and blankets as well as some irreplaceable personal possessions, such as family and personal records and documents. During the lawsuit filed by the homeless in Fresno, Rhodes writes that a court case in Los Angeles was cited as evidence that the police do not have the right to take and destroy homeless persons’ possessions. California Civil Code 2080 states that if the police take a citizen’s property the owner must be given every opportunity to recover those items. All items must be stored for at least 90 days before other action is taken.

The lawsuit was the springboard that connected progressive community activists with the homeless so that activists and homeless people got to know one another. Community Alliance newspaper played a pivotal role in this effort by printing numerous articles about the homeless. Through these articles, people started to realize how much the propaganda they were hearing in the mainstream media was just not true.

Rhodes’ photography in Dispatches from the War Zone is raw, graphic and poignant, a powerful pairing with his passionate written description of Fresno’s homeless. Whether a snapshot of frightened homeless residents blocking the path of a bulldozer about to trash their personal possessions or one of local police threatening to arrest a homeless veteran for refusing to leave a temporary habitat which local authorities claim is “out of bounds,” Rhodes’ photos exemplify what mainstream media refuse to expose.

When California Caltrans workers kicked down shelters and stuffed the belongings of the homeless into dumpsters and garbage trucks at the behest of the Fresno Police Department, Rhodes was there to document this more often not documented event. The photos are painful to look at. The adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” rings loudly throughout Dispatches from the War Zone.

Whether homeless or advantaged in America, Dispatches from the War Zone, enlightens the reader about the reality of having a dirt floor, a concrete ceiling, or a tarpaulin shelter. More often than not this is through no fault of his or her own. Forcing out the homeless from a safe encampment into the streets only exacerbates an already heartbreaking situation.

*****

Boston Woodard is a prisoner/freelance journalist and author who has been writing for Community Alliance newspaper since 2005.