This weekend, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it is important that we remember he was assassinated after launching the Poor People's Campaign, which called for housing and guaranteed income for the very poorest people in the United States. King had what we would consider today a radical vision to end poverty, and that same vision will be celebrated and incorporated into direct actions and marches around the Bay Area this weekend.
Leading up to his death, King liked to talk about there being two America's: “There is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist.”
These powerful words from King resonate 47 years later. However those same men he spoke of find themselves not just without jobs, but without housing as well. Since King made that speech, the federal government has slashed the housing budget by 74 percent, eroded public assistance and, if you take in consideration inflation, cut wages. King would be horrified to learn that today, every major city in the United States has thousands of men, women and children, wandering around with no place to call home.
To throw salt in their wounds, those same men walking the streets find if they stop walking, they will be subject to police intervention. They likely will be ticketed if they try to sit down and rest or, even worse, if they try and sleep. If they can't pay the $100 fine, that outstanding ticket will become a warrant, and eventually can subject them to jail time, or losing benefits such as housing. Those same men King spoke of would find themselves jailed for being too poor to afford a place to live.
King's Poor People's Campaign was for all people regardless of race, but that last year he spoke frequently of the disproportionate poverty among blacks. Today, black men in San Francisco are still disproportionately represented in poor communities, but have the added burden of experiencing a significantly higher rate of homelessness, than any other ethnicity. In San Francisco, there are four times more blacks in the homeless population, than the city at large. The inverse is true for whites, where a quarter fewer experience homelessness when compared to the general population. In fact, whites are the minority among the homeless population, making up far less than a third of the population. For the black man who is homeless, he has the additional bad luck of a higher likelihood of being woken, cited and forced to move by a police officer while homeless and trying to rest.
Cities and states across the country have enacted laws targeting homeless people specifically. In California, looking at 58 cities, each has an average of nine laws they use against homeless people — banning sitting, lying, camping or loitering. Of course these laws are selectively enforced. When my housed neighbor sits on the sidewalk to stretch before a run, he is not approached. However, when my neighbor who is black and sleeps rough sits down to rest in the same spot, he gets approached. This same man told me recently that he received seven tickets in one day. He ended up spending time in our County Jail to pay them off.
These laws targeting impoverished people are enforced by local police departments, the crimes are adjudicated in local courts by local judges, the people are incarcerated in local jails and the laws are often promoted, supported and written by local business groups. The sit-lie law that passed in San Francisco in 2010, for example, was heavily funded by the financial industry in The City, ironically the same folks who caused the mortgage crisis leading to so many losing their homes. All these wasted resources that could end homelessness instead.
In California, Oregon and most recently Colorado, communities are pushing hard for statewide model legislation initiated by the Western Regional Advocacy Project that would ensure a right to rest for all people. The act would halt the enforcement of the often-hate-driven laws when individuals have no other choice but to rest in public. If the individual is committing no crime, blocking no passages or otherwise are acting in law abiding fashion, they should not be persecuted simply because they are poor. Housing would be a much simpler solution.
Anti-homeless laws are the latest in a long legacy of time place and manner laws used to target minority groups. Whether we are talking about anti-vagabond laws in California to arrest destitute people fleeing the Dust Bowl, or Jim Crow laws to arrest blacks for sitting in the whites only section of the train in Louisiana, they are repressive and violating fundamental human and civil rights.
As we use this weekend to push back against racism and poverty, many of us will be simultaneously calling for a right to rest. I believe if King were alive today, he would be marching by our side, demanding jobs, decent housing for all, and until that mountaintop arrives, a fundamental right to rest.
Jennifer Friedenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.