By Cathleen Williams
In the Central Valley in September the air can be golden and still. It is a time when the people who belong to this land can, for a moment, exist without being crushed by exposure to the summer heat or the wet, penetrating cold of winter.
In September, a group of homeless people and homeless activists from different cities – Fresno, San Jose, Merced, Sacramento, San Francisco — met in Fresno, California, to discuss the future of organizing against homelessness. The Fresno homeless community fought back against the destruction of the property of homeless people and recently won a multi-million dollar judgment against the city.
Before meeting, we toured the desolate areas in Fresno where homeless people live – the community of lean-tos and rickety shelters built by homeless people on abandoned acres next to the rail road tracks, a toxic dump site where oil and industrial chemicals are visibly present as black sludge just a few feet underneath the ground; we walked past scores of tents crowded under a freeway overpass, sheltering from the brutal sun of summer and the rains yet to come in the winter; we walked past an asphalt lot where twenty two tool sheds – without electricity or water – are available for a few selected homeless people to share at night. The gates here are locked during the day – everyone must leave at 7:30 and may not return until late in the day.
It has come to this in the world’s richest land where the former executive of an investment bank who earned hundreds of millions – Henry Paulson, now Secretary of the Treasury – has the arrogance to come to Congress to commandeer $750 billion to save rich investors and their banks. Never more clearly have we seen how the government serves only the wealthy elite, the people who own the banks and stocks. Paulson tells us the fall of the stock market is an “emergency.” Destitution and homelessness across the land is not.
As activists and homeless people we came to Fresno to talk what to do about homelessness, and how to organize against it, recognizing that homeless people cannot be isolated from others who are being excluded from the benefits of our economy. Homeless people have the same interests as other poor and low income people who have not yet faced ultimate displacement onto the streets. All are struggling against the dire issues of poverty and its hardship – desperate lack of access to health care, hostile denial of basic needs like a good job and affordable stable housing and quality education.
Never before have homeless people and activists come together from these communities to discuss and plan organizing and action, and in this sense the meeting was an historic step to define a common direction. Yet it was frustrating, too, facing the great need, the urgency, the national scope of the issues.
While no one had easy answers or immediate solutions, the consensus of the meeting was clear:
1. We must focus on Washington and demand federal funding for affordable housing, funding that has been reduced by some $53 billion in the last decades, at the same time we organize lawyers and other allies locally to represent homeless people who face criminal charges because they must live outside.
2. We must draw strength from each other and educate ourselves. We must reject the idea that over one million people in this country are homeless because as individuals they have failed, and focus on the systemic cause of homelessness, which is poverty and lack of power. Knowing this, and working together, we must begin to build a movement to reclaim our rights, using the People’s Tribune and other community newspapers and publications in our work.
3. We must plan now for demonstrations and take-overs of vacant property to publicize the dire conditions that face homeless people in our communities.
PHOTO /LOS ANGELES COMMUNITY ACTION NETWORK (LACAN)
PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, 773-486-3551, email@example.com.
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