The culture of death and destruction at City Hall is threatening this community’s most vulnerable residents with a policy that they hope will be the “final solution” to homelessness in Fresno. I was in a meeting last month where a group of us were trying to figure out how to respond to the impending demolitions of the homeless encampments, when a disturbing thought entered my mind.
City officials have been relentlessly demonizing the homeless as being criminals, dangerous, dirty and something that we need to eliminate. The homeless, as a result, are probably the most vilified minority in this community. They are a scapegoat that many people fear, some hate and others are confused about (even though they might be one or two paychecks from homelessness themselves). City spokespersons and other right-wing demagogues blame the homeless for causing their own misery, we are told they are all drug addicts and mentally ill, and Mayor Ashley Swearengin tells you to not give them any money (because it only encourages their deviant behavior).
When the ruling elite, corporate media and dominant ideology converge to present a group of people like the homeless as being the enemy, then watching the bulldozing of their shelters becomes acceptable. The disturbing thoughts and emotions I had at that homeless advocate meeting were because I was thinking about other times in history when groups of people were singled out for us to hate.
When the power elite can manipulate our minds with their sick propaganda, history has shown that people will allow the police and military to do what is necessary to get rid of the problem. Somehow it made sense that Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies were vilified, their property confiscated and that they disappeared into concentration camps.
I ask you: What would you do if the government was bulldozing Fresno’s African-American community because they said those neighborhoods were unsafe and crime was taking place? What if they did that to a Jewish neighborhood? Is it somehow OK to do this because the people under attack and being persecuted in Fresno today are poor, destitute, powerless and homeless? I believe that the homeless are our version of the canary in the coal mine. In other words, watch closely what happens to the homeless because our future is tied to their fate.
One might ask how the “good Germans” in the 1930s and 1940s could have allowed or encouraged the Nazis to carry out their horrendous crimes against humanity? That is what I was thinking about at that meeting. All it takes is for good people to do nothing and allow the culture of death to roll over the weak and powerless. After all, City Hall is not coming after you (yet). And, certainly, someone would speak out if you became City Hall’s next target, because you are Muslim, a union member or gay. Right? I’m reminded of the famous quote by German pastor and theologian Martin-Niemöller, which goes as follows:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
As the September issue of the Community Alliance newspaper goes to press, the City of Fresno’s demolitions of the homeless encampments are under way. They started on Aug. 26 and will continue into mid-September. This month, we have an excellent article written by Jessie Speer on page 1, in which she describes her experience in meeting with the homeless, representatives from the culture of death at City Hall and homeless advocates. Speer, who was in Fresno for several months this summer, has a fresh perspective on the issue that is this month’s “must read” article. She knows that the homeless are our brothers, sisters, someone’s mother or uncle. She talked to them, shares their stories and gives us insights into this issue that only someone seeing it with a fresh eye can do. Speer calls on us to rediscover our humanity and come together as a community to solve the problem.
If you are motivated to take action to stop the heartless and cruel city policy against the homeless, you can join me at the next meeting where we will strategize on our next steps. You can go to http://helpfresnoshomeless.org/ or contact the Community Alliance for more information about what you can do to help. So far, committees have been set up to witness (with photos and video) the demolitions, get community leaders to speak out about the cruel and unusual treatment of the homeless, attend City Council meetings (denouncing their policies on the homeless) and to help the homeless move to safer places.
What the City of Fresno should be doing is not really that complicated. First, the city should not evict the homeless, unless there is a better place for them to go. First rule—do no harm. Within a week, the homeless in downtown should be provided with basic public services, which would improve their lives—drinking water, portable toilets and trash bins should be set up. Within a month, unused vacant lots (owned by the city, county or individuals) can be established as safe and legal homeless encampments. That will remove the homeless people from living on the street, sometimes in front of homes in a residential neighborhood. Phase three, which is a longer-term project, is to get them into affordable and decent housing.
With these short-, medium- and long-term goals, this community can help improve the lives of the homeless rather than making their already difficult lives even harder. Of course, some of the homeless need job training, mental health assistance or help to end addictions to drugs and alcohol. Everyone who is living on the streets of Fresno can live a better life than they are now if we come together as a community and help them, just like they were our brothers and sisters, which they are.