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Citywide homeless people’s assembly Tuesday to honor Martin Luther King

January 15, 2017

by Bilal Ali and Jennifer Friedenbach, Coalition on Homelessness

On Tuesday, Jan. 17, noon to 2:30, in Civic Center Plaza across from City Hall, unhoused residents and their allies are gathering as part of Martin Luther King Day protests to highlight increased criminalization of homeless people and protect the rights of poor people

San Francisco – Homeless people and their allies will be honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 12:00-2:30 p.m., at Civic Center Plaza. They are gathering as part of Martin Luther King Day protests occurring across the West Coast, including Denver, Sacramento, Salinas, Oakland and Portland, to highlight increased criminalization of homeless people and to protect the rights of poor people, along with the Reclaim MLK Day 120 Hours of Action.

This is also the 48th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City, which Dr. King was organizing when he was killed.

Criminalization of homeless people and the passage of anti-homeless laws is on the rise nationally, with a 60 percent increase in camping bans. Here in San Francisco, we have the highest number in the state – 24.

The assassination of Dr. King, on April 4, 1968, didn’t stop preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign, scheduled for the following month. It was a rainy spring, and the National Mall, where Resurrection City, the focus of the campaign, was to be built became a sea of mud, but the people built it anyhow. Not long afterward, police shut it down.

Homeless people, during the last year data was collected, 2014, received over 11,000 citations for sitting, lying, camping and resting alone. According to the Budget Legislative Analyst Office, San Francisco spent over $20 million on enforcement of homeless people – yet homelessness only increased.

According to Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, “This is a cause and effect – the federal government cut housing by 77 percent, and the effect was both mass homelessness and a local response to that crisis of arresting people for being poor.”

The Coalition on Homelessness is a member of Western Regional Advocacy Project, which is leading efforts to pass Right to Rest legislation in three states and is coordinating the joint action.

In 2016, The Coalition on Homelessness launched a series of Homeless People’s Popular Assemblies in encampments around the City in order to elevate the homeless community in the work we do. These Homeless People’s Popular Assemblies were led solely by homeless or formerly homeless people.

According to Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, “This is a cause and effect – the federal government cut housing by 77 percent, and the effect was both mass homelessness and a local response to that crisis of arresting people for being poor.”

These efforts led to leadership development, encampment sweep monitoring and a homeless led petition drive with over 500 homeless signatures calling for dignity and human rights of encampment residents. The petitions will be hand delivered to City Hall after the protest.

Bilal Ali and Jennifer Friedenbach can be reached at the Coalition on Homelessness, 468 Turk St., San Francisco, CA 94102, 415-346-3740, jfriedenbach@cohsf.org.

Homeless people’s popular assembly gives voice to people living in encampments

by Kelley Cutler

The Homeless People’s Popular Assembly, newly created by the Coalition on Homelessness in June, is a space for people who are living in encampments in San Francisco to voice their opinions about homelessness and the treatment of encampments. The Assembly was birthed from the organization’s Human Rights Workgroup, which saw that people living in tent encampments were not being heard.

The assemblies occur once every other week, and have already occurred at Best Buy, Islais Creek and Folsom and 19th. Each encampment is encouraged to have their own representatives to report back to the larger group.

Bilal Ali, Popular Assembly facilitator, holds a list of demands generated by unhoused people meeting together and speaking for themselves. – Photo: Coalition on Homelessness

Bilal Ali, a human rights organizer at the Coalition, facilitates the conversations at the Assembly with a loud and commanding voice. He does regular outreach to encampment communities on non-Assembly days to let people know when they will be happening and to update people between Assemblies.

At each meeting, there is coffee, pastries and some fruit – and a big megaphone. He often asks people one question: “You’re the mayor of San Francisco for one day. What do you do?”

There’s a lot of good participation, Bilal says. And it is in this way that he is able to get a sense of what people need and how they want to see their lives improved, on their own terms and on their own turf.

“It’s challenging for folks to come out to meetings at our office. So often, when they leave their belongings in the encampments, they can be thrown away or stolen,” Kelley, one of the organizers of the Assembly, comments. By having meetings at the encampments, the challenges that encampment dwellers face in providing essential feedback are greatly reduced.

Aside from being a forum to raise issues in the encampments, the Assembly also provides key updates about policies that impact and will impact homeless people and encampments, including Proposition Q, which will ban encampments and authorize the City to remove them within 24 hours.

“It’s important to have a group like the Homeless People’s Popular Assembly because it brings the voices of homeless people into the conversation about laws that are going to affect them,” TJ Johnston, a member of the Assembly, says.

The Obama administration’s U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’ 2015 report on homeless encampments recommended that residents of encampments should be included in conversations about encampment clearings. It also condemned the forced dispersal of people from encampment settings, which “is not an appropriate solution” and “accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing.”

“It’s important to have a group like the Homeless People’s Popular Assembly because it brings the voices of homeless people into the conversation about laws that are going to affect them,” TJ Johnston, a member of the Assembly, says.

Members of the Assembly have worked together across encampments to create a demand letter to the City that will be delivered to the supervisors and to the mayor as well as social service organizations around the city. The letter outlines key demands of people living in encampments, including a special use space for homeless people to safely camp in San Francisco and encampment clearings that include dignified housing options, not just shelter.

Recently, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing created an Encampment Resolution Team to deal with the increasing encampment removals in the city. Led by Jason Albertson, a clinical social worker who has worked extensively with homeless populations, the Encampment Resolution Team strives to clear encampments in a more humane way and to connect people with services and counseling, rather than simply clearing encampments. Additionally, the Resolution Team provides notices about when encampments will be removed and works with those who are being displaced from their camps.

But problems remain. Despite the good intentions of the Encampment Resolution Team, there is still very little housing that can actually be offered. And the Assembly also emphasizes the need for an independent entity working with encampments that is separate from the City and the City’s often-conflicting interests with the rights and wellbeing of homeless people.

Those who are most often left out of the conversation when creating and implementing solutions for homelessness are homeless people themselves. But the Assembly is a powerhouse that says to the City: “Nothing about us without us.”

If you would like to become involved with or learn more about the Homeless People’s Popular Assembly, please contact Kelley Cutler, human rights organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness, at kcutler@cohsf.org.

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One thought on “Citywide homeless people’s assembly Tuesday to honor Martin Luther King

  1. Frances Von Koenig

    Thank you for these commentary moments! There is not comparable assembly of voices in Fairfield, a growing mid-size city close by! Developers are mostly interested in the concept of " luxury" apts. and affordable housing has been having big rent increases and becoming more unaffordable!
    Thank you, From, Frances Von Koenig, P. O. Box 742, Fairfield, CA. 94533-0074

    Reply

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