The ‘Homeless Bill of Rights Sleep-In Action’ was a beautiful, powerful and inspiring experience… and yet at the same time heartrending. Bear with me (if you want)… I write to process my thoughts and I decided to share this one.
We had been planning this action for weeks and it came together well. Word of the action made the rounds so people came out in support. Agencies like St. Anthony’s dining room, Glide, and Food Not Bombs kicked down a ton of food. I was on food duty and I can’t tell you how nice it was not to be limited in what I could give out. We had a steady flow of folks getting food and instead of having to tell them they could only have one sandwich or drink, I was able to give them as much as they wanted. People were so surprised by this… and extremely thankful. The only thing we were missing was an Italian grandmother saying… “Mangia mangia!!”
The vibe of the group was peaceful and energetic. The cops said they would leave us be as long as we didn’t pitch tents or start fires. The MC was dynamic and kept the energy high. There was a steady flow of inspiring speakers speaking out about the injustice taking place on our streets and shared inspiring messages of hope for change. The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. was very present.
A darling little homeless 5-year-old boy with a mohawk came over and his little hand went immediately into the box of cookies. His mom tried directing him to the bananas and he broke into a song and dance as he sang, “You’ve got to move it, move it! You’ve got to move it, move it! You’ve got to move it, move it!” Very cute… so I gave him another cookie.
Within the fun and excitement, there was also the harsh reality of why we were out there… of the battle we are in.
An elderly woman, who I’m guessing is in her 60’s or 70’s, was telling me how she was kicked out of the shelter due to incontinence (which is extremely common). This is one of the policies we have been fighting against. She was telling me how tired she was… how she just wanted somewhere to sleep. It was heartbreaking to look into here eyes while knowing the reality of how difficult it is for her to find shelter. She stayed with us for the night.
It’s shameful how we, as a nation, neglect our seniors. In a city with so much wealth, it’s disgusting that so many are suffering on our streets.
I hit it off with a young woman who had just arrived in town with her boyfriend. She is a former foster kid and has been on the streets for years. She said she had an odd request to ask of me… she needed a tampon. I told her it’s not an odd request at all and that an article about this issue just went viral online. She was happy to hear people are becoming more aware of this. She was very afraid to be on the street alone and asked me to walk her to a bathroom. We made our way to a Starbucks to use their facility.
Around 2 AM the weather got a real bite to it… it was cold! It wasn’t as cold as it’s been lately, but it was still cold and damp. I was lying there just taking in everything going on around me. The cold was radiating through the brick we were lying on. Many put cardboard beneath them because if you don’t it’s like sleeping on an icebox. I attempted to bundle up, but I could still feel the cold deep in my joints. As I felt that cold I looked over at the woman sleeping in her walker and the many other seniors sleeping on the ground around me and tried to imagine how awful their joints must be feeling.
I was listening to the fascinating conversations taking place around me. The folks sleeping out may have few material possessions, but they are extremely wealthy when it comes to compassion and charity for others. People would walk past our group with looks of confusion, curiosity or disgust because we were sleeping there…. and yet most seemed blind to the beauty before them. I think if people could see the beauty, see the humanity, they would know what an injustice it is that our country is plagued by homelessness. Homelessness is NOT a choice.
I was listening to the sounds around me. There was the typical street noise throughout the night, but in the middle of the night the power washers came out… and the noise from the generators became a consistent loud rumble for the rest of the evening. So not only was it cold and hard… it was also extremely loud. And we weren’t even near a building like the one in Civic Center that blasts annoying sounds over a loud speaker all night. That’s a war tactic used for torture, that the City has adopted to torture people experiencing homelessness. A similar tactic is used at the San Francisco Cathedral… they installed a sprinkler system around the perimeter of the church to keep people from sleeping there. But I digress…
See the woman wearing the blue poncho in the first picture? She showed up around 2 AM and it was kind of unusual because she appeared to be a senior from the suburbs who wasn’t homeless… someone like my mom. She was a trip… very outgoing and struck up conversations with everyone. I couldn’t help but overhear her, but at the same time she intrigued me so I listened closely. She lives in San Jose and got wind of our action and had planned to come with 4 of her friends, but they had to cancel so she took Caltrain up by herself. She spoke about the homeless encampments down her way that got cleared out… and how tragic it was. But more than anything this woman had a real gift for listening and I watched as one person after the next opened up to her and shared some of their story. Every conversation I saw her have ended with a hug.
At around 4:30 AM the woman I had walked to the restroom earlier in the night woke up and pleaded with me to take her to find a bathroom again because she couldn’t hold it anymore. There was no need to plead… I was happy to take her. We walked up to Starbucks and I waited outside for her. She came out crying telling me that they lied to her and said it was out of order and made her leave. She started to panic because she was in pain and didn’t want to have an accident. It’s a challenge to find a bathroom during the middle of the day, but at 4:30 AM it’s nearly impossible. We went to a Starbucks down the block, but once again she was told it was out of order. She was in tears. As we walked down the street she was crying and talking about the way she is treated because she is homeless… about the social stigma.
I was on a mission to find her a bathroom. We went to Carl’s Jr. and they refused to open the door until we purchased something. I pulled out my wallet and told them to open the damn bathroom for her because there was no way in hell I was going to wait for them to ring up my order before letting her in. They could see I was serious and didn’t argue with me. It worked out okay because she got to use the restroom and she was happy to get the $2 cookie I had to purchase.
It’s ridiculous how challenging it is to find a restroom. Homelessness is not a choice… and having to go to the bathroom isn’t a choice either.
As we walked back towards the group we could hear them chanting. 12 Hours had passed, but spirits remained high and it was very peaceful. We handed out a ton of flyers informing people about the criminalization of homelessness and lots of people asked to hear more about it. This action was one more step towards creating change.
Here is a recent article in the HuffPo that provides a brief overview of the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign. More in-depth information about the campaign can be found at the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) website.
I was walking down the street today and heard “Hey Kelley!” from across the street. It was the young woman I mentioned in my previous post who I helped find a restroom in the middle of the night. She was with her boyfriend and they explained they’ve had a rough couple nights since I last saw them. One night they camped across the street from one of the City shelters they couldn’t get into and all their food and supplies got stolen. They were telling me about all the dead rats everywhere. Last night they camped out at the library and this morning were woken up by the cops and given a ticket for sleeping in public…. a “quality of life” infraction. If they don’t show up for the court date it will go to a warrant, but I referred them to the Coalition to help them get it taken care of.
As if it isn’t challenging enough as it is just being homeless… the criminalization of homelessness is just kicking someone when they are down and creating more barriers in their struggle to find housing. This is why the Homeless Bill of Rights is important.