— submitted by Jeff Roby
March 30, 2014
The New York Times cites a 2007 report stating that Florida led the nation in unprovoked attacks against the homeless. This past September, Think Progress reports, “Earlier this year, a survey of 250 homeless people living in South Florida conducted by the Task Force for Ending Homelessness found that more than 4 in 10 women (44 percent) and 3 in 10 men (34 percent) have been victims of violent attacks since living on the streets.”
Things have only gotten worse since 1969’s Midnight Cowboy when Jon Voight put Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo on the bus to Florida for Ratso to die just outside Miami. These assaults are only a companion piece for the broad assault on the poor being made by city and county governments across the State of Florida, backed up by the $20 billion/year U.S. private prison system.
“I think it’s an immoral situation,” states Robert Reynolds, a member of the Green Party’s St. Petersburg Local, who has endured periods of homelessness. “People aren’t allowed to gather, they aren’t allowed to pass out free food to the homeless. If you are part of a group passing out food, you can actually be stopped by the police. If you don’t quit, they can haul you off to jail. That law is so very wrong. Of course there are food pantries, and there are organizations that run soup kitchens. But people can’t independently gather to feed the homeless. It’s actually illegal. We might want them to get into shelters, but having been homeless myself a few times, I can tell you, it’s not that easy.
“Then there’s the situation in North Florida,” Reynolds adds, “where homeless people can be arrested for even having a blanket if they’re sitting on a bench. That’s right, they can’t even wear a blanket out in public. As a result, there are people simply freezing to death.”
A survey of headlines from around the State of Florida tells the grim story:
“Last week [July 2013], the Tampa City Council passed a new ordinance, Item #60, allowing police officers to arrest someone they see sleeping in public or ‘storing personal property in public.’ The vote was 4-3. Advocates are outraged over this new law criminalizing homelessness. Holding signs reading ‘Sleeping Is Not A Crime’ and ‘Homelessness Is Not A Choice,’ many demonstrated outside the Council and testified against the measure, to little avail … A 2012 study found that, among mid-sized cities [in the U.S.], Tampa and the surrounding area had the highest number of homeless individuals at 7,419.”
“Miami commissioners on Thursday [January 2014] voted unanimously to approve a new agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union that will make it easier for police to arrest the city’s homeless for what have long been considered life-sustaining activities. The homeless will no longer be permitted to build fires in parks to cook or to build makeshift tents to sleep in. They can still sleep on sidewalks, but only if they don’t block the right of way of pedestrians. Exposing themselves to go to the bathroom or to clean up would still be allowed, but not if they’re within a quarter of a mile of a public restroom … The city and its Downtown Development Authority contend the remaining homeless are a constant bother to restaurant patrons and nearby homeowners.”
“Gainesville was ranked as one of the ‘best places to live and play’ in the United States by National Geographic Adventure. Gainesville was also ranked as the ‘5th meanest city’ in the United States by the National Coalition for the Homeless twice, first in 2004 for its criminalization of homelessness and then in 2009 for its ordinance restricting soup kitchens to serving only 130 meals a day.”
“Jacksonville Sheriff Nat Glover said outlawing sleeping in public or private areas without permission is a good idea, even though enforcement would be problematic when shelters are full. ‘’I really see this as another tool for us to deal with the negative impact of the homeless,’’ Glover said. Police could jail people sleeping in those areas who refuse to leave or go to a shelter within 36 hours. A second arrest could bring a sentence of up to 15 days in jail or a $500 fine.”
Reynolds’ own St. Petersburg spells it out
in its Ordinances & Laws Regarding Homelessness:
“The expanded ‘no panhandling’ zone covers those areas and attractions in downtown that contribute in large part to the economic vitality of downtown by drawing retail, pedestrian, and tourist oriented business. The ordinance already prohibited panhandling in a number of locations throughout the City such as sidewalk cafes, within 15 feet of an ATM or bank entrance, at bus stops, at the bus transfer facility on Central Avenue, on public transportation vehicles, and on private property.”
Sleeping in the Right-of-Way
“It shall be unlawful and a violation of the City Code for any person to sleep in or on any part of the right-of-way, which shall include any public sidewalk. A law enforcement officer observing a violation of subsection (a) of this Section, shall inquire of the person violating this section if the person has legally existing available shelter space, either owned or available for use by the individual, and if the person has such available space and agrees to travel, begins to travel immediately and continues to travel until reaching such shelter space, the person shall not be charged with a violation of this section.”
And if they don’t have such available space?
“It shall be unlawful and a violation of the City Code for any person to place, use or occupy any tent, hut, lean-to, shack or other type of temporary shelter (hereinafter collectively referred to as ‘prohibited items’) on public property unless a City permit has been issued.”
Storage of Personal Property on Public Property
“In the interest of promoting the health and safety of all people, the City of St Petersburg must regulate potentially dangerous conditions on both private and public property, including the right-of-way. Personal property stored on public property may pose a health, safety, or security threat to others.”
“In the interest of promoting the health and safety of all people!” exclaims Reynolds. “That’s disgusting. To dare shut down giving free food to people who are starving, who don’t have food in their bellies, and pretend it’s for health reasons, regulating it like it’s a for-profit business? That’s just shameful. They’re not selling food here. Fact is, who cares if you get a tummy ache if they make your sandwich a little dirty. I’d rather the people supporting these laws just owned up and say we can’t have homeless in our area because we don’t like them. And no, I’m not saying that’s what most people would think.”
Recalling how he himself ended up homeless, Reynolds explains, “Back in the economic collapse of 2008, I suffered from alcoholism, to the point where my relationships started to crumble, and the recession had gotten so very bad. I don’t blame anybody, and there are people who help me now, but back then I had reached the pits of despair, nobody wanted to help me. I’m not mad at them, they helped me by not helping me. But I sank into such a bitter hole of self-pity, I couldn’t just get out there and try to succeed. I also had a couple of petty arrests that kept me from getting a job. I had been a supervisor at a sales department and then I was getting turned down at places like Burger King. I didn’t know what to do, I drank myself into a hole, I became homeless.”
Reynolds learned the homeless scene all too well. “If you find yourself homeless, you can’t just show up at a shelter,” he says. “At one point, the very fact that I had gotten sober kept me from getting into a facility called the Turning Point. I had to have been detoxing, so again I found myself without a place to go. And some of these facilities have really strict rules. I was personally ready to say ‘yes sir,’ because I wanted to get off the street. But some people who have been on the street for a long time come in with an attitude, and some of the shelter employees behind the counter really mistreat people. They kick them back onto the street and then blame the homeless for doing it to themselves. It’s a tough battle to get into one of these things and put up with some of these people who are employed there. Worse yet, most of the really good facilities have waiting lists. You’ve got to wait on the street even longer.”
Then there is Pinellas County’s premier shelter, Pinellas Safe Harbor, which Reynolds calls “the last resort. Everybody calls it Unsafe Harbor. If you’ve been thrown out of everywhere else, you can go to Safe Harbor.”
Safe Harbor’s mission statement proudly declares, “The primary purpose of Pinellas Safe Harbor is jail diversion — that is to keep the homeless out of the criminal justice system. The Harbor will provide these men and women with a safe environment while they pursue services needed to get back on their feet. As a result, the population of ordinance violators, and non-violent offenders would be reduced in the Jail, at a significant savings to taxpayers.”
“That’s how much they care about the homeless,” comments Reynolds. “Significant savings to taxpayers!” In fact, much of the shelter system is an arm of the criminal justice system, and in St. Petersburg, it’s backed up by deputy sheriffs who routinely patrol the surrounding community.
Safe Harbor itself is run by G4S, one of the three largest security corporations in the world. BDS Movement reports, “G4S, a British-Danish private security company, provides services and equipment to Israeli prisons, checkpoints, the Apartheid Wall and the Israeli police has now been courted by our government to milk tax payer’s money in order to finance its controversial operations in the apartheid state of Israel.”
Think Progress says, “G4S has more than $1.1 billion in government contracts in Britain, a spokesman said … Private prison companies have spent millions lobbying for longer, harsher prison sentences to maximize their own profitability, and lawmakers at the front of the privatization push — most notably Govs. Rick Perry (R-TX) and Rick Scott (R-FL) — led the fight after receiving thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry.” The scandal-ridden G4S was the result of a merger of Group 4 Falck, Securicor and Florida-based Wackenhut, run by George Wackenhut, a hard-line right-winger, who according to Wikipedia built up dossiers on Americans suspected of being Communists or left-leaning “subversives and sympathizers” and sold the information to “interested parties.” Wackenhut claimed to have compiled more than 4 million names, the largest privately held file on suspected dissidents in America.
Prison Pork paints the broader picture, citing reports stating, “Overall, the U.S. has approximately 25 percent of the entire global prison population even though it only has 5 percent of the total global population. The United States has the highest incarceration rate on the entire globe by far, and no nation in the history of the world has ever locked up more of its own citizens than we have.”
The Green New Deal
“It’s not just the scandals, not just the brutality that comes from them running both our prisons and our shelters,” explains Rose Roby, chair of the St. Petersburg Local of the Green Party. “The ranks of the homeless are growing. There is no pretense of offering real support for the poor, for the millions of families that are being destroyed. The rich are quite afraid. They are afraid of the poor. They know the real statistics that the media aren’t reporting. So they are preparing the enforcement mechanisms for keeping the poor under control. That’s why we need to start fighting, and fighting now, for the implementation of Jill Stein’s Green New Deal.”
Green Party 2012 presidential candidate Jill Stein calls for an Economic Bill of Rights:
- the right to a job at a living wage.
- the right to quality health care through an improved Medicare for All program. This will provide comprehensive care for all. It will be free to consumers at the point of delivery.
- the right to a tuition-free, quality public education from pre-school through college at public institutions. And we will forgive student loan debt left over from the current era of unaffordable college education.
- the right to decent affordable housing, including an immediate halt to all foreclosures and evictions.
- the right to a living wage, a safe workplace, to fair trade, and to organize a union at work without fear of firing or reprisal.
- the right to accessible and affordable utilities – heat, electricity, phone, internet, and public transportation.
- the right to fair taxation that’s distributed in proportion to ability to pay.
“Right now,” Reynolds insists, “they could start by repealing anything like it being illegal to have a blanket in public. It’s cold out, it’s 30 degrees out, and it’s illegal to have a blanket? Illegal to hand out sandwiches? It doesn’t make any sense.
“They could start putting people into decent homes,” he continues. “There are actually more empty houses than there are homeless. They could take some of these empty properties, where the banks are foreclosing, and turn them into dormitories. It would cost tax dollars, but that’s where I would like my tax money to go: for the homeless, for education and food, not for more prisons. These people who claim that people should just go to a shelter, pick themselves by the bootstraps, get a job, it’s so easy. I’ll tell you, it’s not so easy.
Reynolds tells of his own climb up. “I went through Worknet, and they sent me to the S.T.A.R.S program, and that one helped me in my job search. There, I found out about voc rehab, which sent me to a social services program known as Boley, which helps the homeless get into housing. They had an on-the-job training program at that time, which actually funded me for a temporary 90-day job. That got me into the job market, and then, after jumping through all these hoops, I was on my way up. I made something of it. See, once you start pulling yourself together, and get yourself on food stamps, there are all these programs. But there’s so much paperwork involved, it’s ridiculous, people without birth certificates and all that, with all these people standing in line saying they want a job, they don’t want to have to be collecting food stamps. So these are some of these things in place that we just can’t cut. In fact, the on-the-job training was cut right after I got into the program. We have to be defending and strengthening those programs that are already in place.
“In the short term, the whole situation brought me lots of despair,” reflects Reynolds, “I had no self-worth, I thought I was no good, that life wasn’t worth living. Long-term, I feel like nothing can stop me, I’ve already been to the bottom, God’s got my best interest, I feel so strong from that experience, which totally broke me, that I don’t think anything can ever break me again. There’s demoralization and demoralization and more demoralizations while you’re going through that. It was just a short period, but it was enough for me to feel worthless and not want to live. Now, I feel like there’s nothing can stop me, because I went without. Now I know what ‘without’ is.”
The following was written by Otto Rene Castillo (1936 – 1967), a Guatemalan revolutionary and poet who was murdered by government forces in 1967. This beautiful poem was unpublished during his lifetime.
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.
They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
like a sweet fire
small and alone.
about their dress,
their long siestas
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.
They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.
They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
born in the shadow
of the total life.
On that day
the simple men will come.
Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:
“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
burned out of them?”
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.
Your own misery
will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.