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September, 2006

Spirit of the Revolution:
Is Florida becoming the meanest state in the US?

Editor's note: An urgent press conference on the state of homelessness in Florida was held in St. Petersburg on August 22. Speakers included Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless, and Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries. Rev. Wright spoke to the Peoples Tribune about the purpose of the press conference.

Rev. Loring is arrested in Atlanta in 2005
Rev. Ed Loring is arrested in Atlanta in 2005
PHOTO/Movement to Redeem the Soul of Atlanta

Rev. Wright: Florida is increasingly criminalizing the homeless. Several cities have passed anti-camping ordinances, bans on serving meals outdoors to the homeless, and anti-panhandling ordinances. Florida also has the distinction of being the most violent state in relation to homeless being beaten and killed. They are ranked number 1 in the nation with 32 incidents of violence reported against the homeless, including several deaths. St. Petersburg recently had a homeless man die from beatings received.

People's Tribune: Why is the government attacking the homeless so aggressively at this time?

Rev. Wright: The basic, underlying reason is economic. Tourism and real estate are the vital industries in Florida. They are redeveloping cities like St. Petersburg for the benefit of wealthy corporations. Upscale shops and luxury condominiums are being built, and sold for a quarter million to one or two million dollars each, especially near the coast. They are demolishing low-income housing and mobile home parks to make room -- because the more expensive the housing, the more profit for developers

Affordable housing is a smaller and smaller share of the overall housing stock. The "servant class" -- the service workers who make these developments possible -- are forced to live on the outskirts, farther and farther from their jobs. At the same time, gas and transportation costs are going up. Bus fares in St. Petersburg are increasing by 25% this year alone.

While the housing costs go up, wages go down. Especially in tourism, fewer and fewer jobs pay a living wage. Many of these workers are becoming homeless. Most of the St. Petersburg homeless work, many of them at day labor jobs.

Working people are becoming more disempowered. We have no elected officials in our government who represent our interests. Even the social service agencies are run by disconnected bureaucrats, not by people who understand what it means to be poor. They get preoccupied with maintaining their funding stream and care less and less about the people they are supposed to serve. Many of them, including soup kitchens, have moved out of downtown to avoid "offending" the rich or appearing like an "eyesore".

The government has no intention of addressing the underlying causes. That is why it is stepping up attacks on the homeless. Since they refuse to blame themselves, they blame the victims.

People's Tribune: What is the responsibility of the faith community in this situation?

Rev. Wright: Our first responsibility is to get off the sidelines and get involved. We are not called to comply with the abuses of worldly empire. We are called to resist them, to speak out, to become a prophetic voice.

Our role is to unite with the poor and empower them to take leadership, just as the early church did. Traditionally, the church is supposed to be to provide a sanctuary for the oppressed. That's what the Hunchback of Notre Dame was all about. More than ever now, persecuted people like the homeless and immigrants are turning to the church for assistance. The government is preparing to prosecute the churches that dare to help. We are at the crossroads and America's future depends on how we respond.

We have to speak out, preach, and educate, but we also have to act. We need to carry out acts of resistance, including civil disobedience. We need to organize communities of resistance led by the people themselves.

When we say unite with the poor, we mean everyone. The church cannot allow itself to be pressured by the government to discriminate. We make no distinction between employed or unemployed, citizen or immigrant, or young, old, or disabled. We reject the categories of worthy and unworthy, we refuse to scapegoat or pit one group against another. God's kingdom is open to everyone.

This article originated in the People's Tribune
PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, 773-486-3551, info@peoplestribune.org.
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