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Nonviolent Action in Rochester to support the homeless

Posted by Ryan Hall

Written by George Payne, the founder and director of Gandhi Earth Keepers International who recently participated in a nonviolent peaceful occupation of a public park in Rochester, NY to demand fair and safe housing for “hard to place” homeless. At one point they faced 40 Rochester police officers before the Mayor called them off. Ultimately their nonviolent effort secured some very important concessions from the City of Rochester. Below is a recent blog about George’s experience as an organizer.

“Going Inside”

“Going inside” is something that the vast majority of us happily take for granted all day long. We can easily go inside Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee without causing an “incident”. We can go inside buses and trains without being stared at with nasty looks. We can go inside bedrooms and bathrooms without feeling like an animal on a leash. We can go into stores without being judged by other customers. And we can go inside hospitals and other emergency facilities without being treated like a mere statistic.

The reason that I belong to the emergency encampment called Sanctuary Village is simple. I believe that people must be let in! What this world needs desperately is more doors pried open by the force of radical compassion. Too many people encounter the steel gates of closed businesses, locked cages around altars in churches, and boarded up houses inside vacated neighborhoods.

The biggest problem that we face as a human family is not climate change, defeating terrorism, or controlling pandemic diseases. The biggest problem is our lack of compassion for each other. If we continue to permit this level of callousness, spite, greediness, and fear to take hold of our society, we will continue to experience injustices like homelessness. Homelessness is directly related to the lack of active involvement, kindness, and spiritual freedom inside the hearts and minds of those who have homes but do not care enough about those who don’t.

Regardless of the masses willingness or unwillingness to show more sympathy towards the poor, our political representatives have a legally binding obligation to provide services that make this condition a barbaric practice of the past. Just as imprisoning debtors and drowning the mentally ill have become ugly scenes from an uncivilized chapter in our human story, we can band together today as a common people to end the criminalization of homelessness. Jan Schakowsky once said, “There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.”

Speaking with one Gulf War veteran now living on the streets of Rochester, I heard him say that he didn’t pick up a gun to defend a country that is willing to abandon him in his hour of need. Along with scores of other veterans, on any given night in Monroe County, people are forced to create hidden makeshift beds in darkened parking garages, abandoned subway tunnels, the corner of church steps, the underpass of bridges, forests and parks, and anywhere else they can find a little warmth and softness. I have been told that even three sheets of cardboard can make the difference between sleep and no sleep.

Is this the best that we can do as a society?

According to the Catholic Family Center and WXXI Center for Public Affairs the number of children staying at the agency’s two women’s homeless shelters is increasing at an alarming rate. The CFC says the organization is currently serving nearly 75 children every night. The children range in age from newborn to 17 years old.

Not only is our society criminalizing people for going to sleep after denying them access to places of warmth, safety, and community, we are allowing newborns to meek out their survival in highly volatile shelters. Because rules and regulations in these businesses are haphazard at best, these children are sometimes removed from even this “safe” haven and tossed to the wolves of addiction and winter. In the most freezing parts of 2005, I served as a hypothermia bus-shelter volunteer for the grassroots organization called Poor People United. On multiple occasions I would let women and young children onto the bus in the dead of night.

In light of these tragic circumstances, it is our civil duty to protect and serve the most marginalized amongst us. To this end, Sanctuary Village is calling for a Homeless Bill of Rights. The demand for a Homeless Bill of Rights is actually sweeping across the country. It started as a coalition of more than 125 social justice groups that came together with lawyers and people living on the streets and has become a major statement of human rights that state legislators could address through social policy. Many representatives are expected to sponsor the bill for the next legislative session, which begins in January 2015.

The Huffington Post sites that “after conducting more than 1,300 interviews, the coalition identified six key rights homeless people need protected. The bill aims to ensure that homeless people can move freely and sleep in public spaces, sleep in a parked vehicle, eat and exchange food in public, obtain legal counsel, gain access to hygiene facilities at any time of day and, if in criminal prosecution, be able to use “necessity defense” which asserts a defendant had no choice but to break the law.

“No choice but to break the law” is exactly the position Sanctuary Village finds itself in today. We have no choice. The time of toleration is over. We are not going to comply with the harassment of people merely trying to get some sleep in a safe environment. The days of persecuting homeless people as second and third class citizens is over. We are all American citizens. And every American citizen (and global citizen) deserves to be treated with equal rights. Even the act of calling someone “homeless” begins an unintentional process of dehumanization that has far reaching consequences for their self-worth. In reality, there is no such thing as a homeless person.There are only persons who have shelter or not that they consider to be a home. Moreover, every person has special talents, unique interests, precious memories, ambitions for the future, useful job skills, present and distant family members, and other qualities that make them indispensable to the whole creation myth that is our life. The loss of a single person means that they will never be replaced again. This alone is worth honoring.

To see every person as a unique and invaluable addition to our civic democracy is the goal of Sanctuary Village. Getting a “Homeless Bill of Rights” is a mechanism to help us reach that goal.

A new shelter is also needed. But that too is just a mechanism. Again, the real goal of Sanctuary Village is changing how we choose to prioritize each other as a community. We are striving to make every child of God feel like they are inside when they want to be where they belong.


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