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Streets Grow Meaner

Friday August 08, 2003

With continued high unemployment plaguing the nation, the stark specter of homelessness haunts America’s cities—and with growing numbers forced from their houses and apartments, life on the streets is becoming a way of life for more and more. 

Just how friendly are those streets to the adults and children who can’t find places for themselves in a rapidly polarizing society? 

Not very, according to a national survey just released by the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. 

Cities across the nation are proving increasingly hostile toward those unfortunate enough to lack roofs over their heads, with 70 percent of the 147 communities surveyed passing new laws aimed at the homeless since January 2002, according to “Illegal to be Homeless,” the 80-page report released this week. 

The coalition based its rankings on the number of anti-homeless laws, severity of penalties and enforcement, general political climate toward the homeless, input from local activists and groups, and pending and recently enacted laws. 

The survey didn’t include Berkeley, though three other California cities long regarded by the national media as bastions of liberalism made it on the group’s roster of America’s 20 Meanest Cities. San Francisco—where homelessness has emerged as a hot political issue—was rated America’s second-meanest city, described as “notorious for its systematic abuse and intolerance of the homeless.” Santa Cruz came in at 13 and Santa Monica at 17. Boulder, Colorado—another city of similar repute—rounded out the roster at 20.  

Two other California cities made the list: Los Angeles, in fourth place, and Sacramento at eleventh. 

Together they and the other California cities surveyed earned California the title of America’s second meanest state apart from Florida, which also placed five cities in the top 20. 

Las Vegas was judged the country’s meanest city, where Mayor and former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman has consistently made it clear that those without homes and jobs aren’t welcome in Sin City. 

Goodman told a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he had no apologies for his actions, but claimed he was not the country’s meanest mayor, but “the kindest, most gentle soul” who ever held the top elective post in Sin City. Of course Goodman has also made kind and gentle claims about some of his clients back from the days he was Las Vegas’ top mob lawyer, including the late Mafia hit man Anthony Spilotro (the skull-squeezing thug portrayed by Joe Pesci in the DeNiro flick “Casino”). 

Nevada American Civil Liberties Union executive director Gary Peck said that for the homeless in Sin City, “there is a pattern and practice of abusing and harassing homeless people with the intention of making them invisible, because that’s what’s good for business.” 

The coalition’s second-meanest state, Florida, also tied with California for the most cities on the top twenty list: Key West, Orlando, Miami Beach, Jacksonville Beach, and Hollywood. 

Osha Neumann, Berkeley lawyer and advocate for the homeless with the community’s Suitcase Clinic, said that the areas addressed by the survey reflect only part of the confrontation between the homeless and officialdom. 

“If you look at Albany, there are no homeless there, so it doesn’t make it on the list,” Neumann said. He said many of Berkeley’s homeless had settled on a landfill site there after being pressured out of Berkeley. Then, in 1999, Albany police cleared the site and the community now has no homeless population. 

Another homeless reality not reflected in tables of statutes is the enforcement by police of policies reflected in no lawbook—police actions based not on municipal codes but on unspoken policies. 

“In the city’s commercial corridors, a few of the officers in the Berkeley Police Department seem to see it as their mission to protect the interests of merchants,” Neumann said. “The politicians, the city council and the mayor don’t seem to want to deal with it. 

“A few years ago the city council tried to pass a number of laws aimed at the homeless, but the American Civil Liberties Union challenged them and a new council was voted in and rescinded them. But the police often act as the sole authority of who can and cannot be on the sidewalks and will ‘enforce’ non-existent laws.” 

Neumann said the Suitcase Clinic has learned of a whole series of incidents involving elderly and disabled African-American women selling copies of Street Spirit, a newspaper sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee that covers homeless issues and is sold by the homeless to raise money. 

“Police tell them it’s illegal to sit on a milk carton or a bucket, or to lean against the building, but there are no such laws,” Neumann said. “But it happens in Berkeley. 

“As it is, we have plenty of laws already that make it impossible for a person who is homeless to survive on the streets without breaking some statute.” 

And as long as the national and regional economies continue to generate high unemployment, he said, the homeless will be a visible presence on the street. 

A decade ago much of that presence as reflected on Telegraph Avenue consisted of Vietnam combat vets struggling with the ravages of war, Neumann said, while today it is younger males. 

“There’s a whole population of older homeless women, many of them with children, who you never see, who live in the shadows and on the margins. There’s a tremendous shortage of housing.”