Saturday, November 05, 2016

"Sleep is a human right"

There are about 564,700 homeless people in the US, at least 15 percent of whom are classified as 'chronically homeless' because they have lived on the streets for a year or more. Between 1999 and 2015, the National Coalition for the Homeless recorded 1,657 acts of violence against homeless people. Of that, 428 were fatal.

There are at least 4.000 homeless people sleeping on the streets of Portland on any given night. But the true number could be much higher as the city only records the homeless on one night of the year. Between 2014 and 2015, Oregon witnessed an 8.7 percent growth in homelessness. This came after a 20.5% rent rise. Far from the high rises and luxury apartment complexes that outline Portland's skyline, a growing number of impromptu homeless camps dot suburban neighbourhoods around the city.

Although many working-class people who live from pay cheque to pay cheque may be at risk of losing their homes, already marginalised groups are particularly vulnerable.

"Poor people and homeless people - but especially homeless people - are the hugest untapped potential voter pool out there," says Alley Valkyrie, a Portland-based homeless rights activist. B "Homeless people could throw any election if you could create a block out of them. But there are so many barriers, and homeless folk often tend to be the most anti-government because they've been screwed over so much."

“I can't recall any presidential campaign where homelessness was at the core of it or even one of the major talking points in it," says Paul Boden, a spokesman for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, the group spearheading the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign. "This election is no different. None of the presidential candidates has talked about homelessness in any depth. Clinton says she's concerned about the 'working class', and Trump is concerned with billionaires. But homelessness is hardly even touched on in national or federal campaigns."

In cities across the country, a series of laws that ban sleeping outside, camping in public places, begging and sitting or sleeping on sidewalks, among other things, target the homeless. In 2013 and 2014, at least 12 cities passed laws mandating individuals or groups to obtain permits in order to distribute food to the homeless on public property - bringing the total of US cities that restrict or ban sharing food with the homeless up to 31. Orlando in Florida has since 2011 arrested dozens of activists who violated the city's ban on feeding the homeless.

Mike Summers first became homeless nearly three years ago after a series of personal tragedies.
"No one really cares." he says "Is it humane to see people in doorways sleeping with no cover over them when it's raining? Is it humane to see people going through garbage cans to get their next meal? If that's humane, I have a warped sense of what that word means."

Right to Dream Too - known to locals as R2D2 IS one of several camps in Portland organised and operated according to democratic principles by homeless people. Dignity Village is another collective community for homeless people.

R2D2 is operated by a group of 25 homeless people who have become full-time advocates for the homeless. Each evening up to 100 people living on the streets are able to come to R2D2 to get some sleep. Gated off by a patchwork fence of doors and plywood, the encampment sits on a busy corner on Fifth Street and Burnside in the city's bustling centre. The volunteers clean, perform security checks around the perimeter of the camp, find tents and sleeping bags for people in need and cook for overnighters.

"The city and the powers that be were imposing unjust laws on people, and those barriers were stopping people from getting productive," Ibrahim Mubarak says. "We started educating people on their constitutional, human and civil rights - so that hopefully they can start fighting for their rights." R2D2 has changed the political geography of Portland, putting homeless people and advocates on an equal level by providing a model of direct action that eschews hierarchy and charity-dominated efforts to alleviate homelessness. "Nothing about us without us - that's our model," Ibrahim says.

Ibrahim adds that the most revolutionary aspect of the camp is its political ideology, which rejects racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. The camp also provides practical solutions for people stuck on the streets, helping them to organise housing, leave behind drug addictions and find work and education opportunities until they are able to get back on their feet. Guests who are caught using alcohol or drugs on the premises are banned, and members police the block to make sure that no one is using or selling narcotics in the vicinity. Although Ibrahim has become the face of the camp, the decision-making process is based on a democratic model with measures discussed in committee meetings with all the members and decisions made through a vote. R2D2 also rejects funding from the local government and humanitarian charities for the homeless as part of an effort to remain independent. "If we don't accept money from the government, they can't dictate how we do things here," Ibrahim says,

R2D2 and the handful of self-organised camps in Portland are in sharp contrast to the stereotypical depictions of homeless people as helpless and unable to take care of themselves. The democratic models in these homeless camps pose a challenge to the dominant discourse on homelessness and commonly proposed solutions to the crisis, says Vahid Brown, a member of the Village Coalition, a volunteer-run group that helps build communities of tiny homes for the homeless. "There is a deep democracy at work here. One thing that has not emerged in these villages is a police. They don't vote a particular subset of the communities to enforce the rules; the community enforces the rules."

The future of the homeless rights movement is punctuated with uncertainty. Camp Amanda, in southeast Portland, was born from the Springwater Corridor camp, which was one of the largest in the US before more than 500 homeless people were moved on by city authorities last month.

Ibrahim dismisses the notion that the presidential elections will affect the country's homeless community. "If you're poor, you're treated as shit. I think this country is in for a world of trouble if either are elected. I never heard them talk about the homeless." Ibrahim Mubarak says he believes tangible change will only come when people pressure politicians and officials to respect the rights of homeless people. "I don't look down on the people who live inside because we need each other. They just got to stop thinking that because we don't live inside that means we're nobody."

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