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Message Jayne Stahl
Something quietly came to pass, this week, in the city of Fresno, just outside of San Francisco, which will, hopefully, focus public attention on, as well as remedy, the cruel and inhuman treatment this nation's homeless receive at the hands of city officials. The American Civil Liberties Union and The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights won their suit against Fresno on behalf of six homeless people who asserted that police and sanitation workers treated their personal possessions as if they were garbage, and bulldozed the encampments where they had lived for 3 years. (AP)

The presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger , denounced the city's practice of violating the civil rights of the homeless as "dishonest and demeaning," and ordered city workers, on Wednesday, to cease and desist from its practice of arbitrarily confiscating, and destroying property of the homeless without warning. This is the first stop of what is expected to be a major civil rights lawsuit, and one to watch as the numbers of those on our streets, and at food banks rise almost as fast as the federal deficit.

One of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in this case, one of whom is a 48 year old grandmother made homeless by her landlord's excessive rent increase, said that wherever the homeless seek shelter whether it be in parks, tents, or makeshift dwellings, they live in constant terror that many of those things most critical to their survival, such as medication, will be seized and destroyed without notice. In announcing his decision, on the eve of Thanksgiving, the judge said: "Persons cannot be punished because of their status. They cannot be denied their constitutional rights because of their appearance, because they are impoverished, because they are squatters, because they are, in effect, voiceless." (AP)

An image that continues to haunt, on the start of a long holiday weekend, is one of Charlene Clay, a 48 year old grandmother, who lost not only her medication, and sleeping paraphernalia, but the photo of her dead granddaughter when a city sanitation crew tore down the hillside encampment she calls home. While there are some who might wish to scream "shame on Fresno," and think that the practice of random destruction of personal property, de-humanization of the homeless is one peculiar to that city, one has only to remember the vitriol recently expressed by Minutemen who camped out, in San Diego, demanding the elimination of a homeless camp of migrant workers from an otherwise "respectable" neighborhood. While you may be thinking that the demonstration by the Minutemen was really more about illegal immigration than homelessness, make no mistake. They were also expressing misplaced anger towards that which is foreign, unknown, a kind of cultural agoraphobia which renders diversity undesirable.

We, in this country, don't seem to have a problem with those who live on the other side of the tracks as long as they remain on the other side of the tracks. We have only to take a closer look at San Francisco, which is among the most expensive cities and, at the same time, the one with the highest number of homeless per capita of any major city in the U.S. (Wikipedia), the largest percentage of whom have been homeless since the 1980's, whose median age is 50, to see how it has, for the past few years, been carting off record numbers of indigents for deposit in psychiatric wards of public hospitals, and/or buying them one-way tickets back home. Clearly, every major American metropolis that banks on tourism has, with impunity, been working overtime to sweep the streets of those disenfranchised, and most impoverished among them.

Importantly, the Bay Area is home to Fresh Start, a project to provide a shower, food, and other assistance to the homeless community in Walnut Creek, a suburb 35 miles east of the city. This program in which advocates for the homeless work hand in hand with local law enforcement should be a paradigm for the way in which major urban areas, throughout the country, tackle the growing problem of families living on the street.

In this Bush era of so-called "compassionate conservatism," even if we factor homelessness out of the equation, there is so much hunger and poverty left that occurs behind closed doors, it's wrenching. While the rich are richer than they've ever been, which everybody knows, the poor are poorer than they've ever been, and there's no way to sweep that under the rug. The group that is euphemistically called, "the working poor," find even simple necessities like toothpaste and vitamins to be luxury items, frequently have no access to medical care, and more often, find themselves camping out in the backseat of their cars. The days when working hard equaled prosperity are long gone, and instead replaced with lords of the manor, and the downtrodden working the soil. Yes, we've changed since the Feudal days, we now import workers, from third world countries, and put them to work in our nation's sweatshops in defiance of labor laws, an indefensible practice that, for the most part, continues in our big cities, without criminal penalty. Instead, we criminalize illegal immigration, as well as those who collect welfare fraudulently, both execrable practices, but nowhere near as pernicious as making millions off the indentured servitude of others.

While the preliminary injunction issued by a judge in Fresno, this week, is heartening, it is only the starting point for what needs to be greater national focus on the dehumanization, and dispassionate treatment of those who are marginalized, as well as terrorized by those authorities who express contempt for the fundamental premise of our nation's founders that each of us, great or small, whether we live in a Bel Air mansion, or sleep in the parking lot of Sears, are protected by the same constitution, and entitled to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Moreover, it is imperative that the Democratic party, or any party that consider itself "progressive," address the rancor, and national shame of homeless encampments, as well as socioeconomic disenfranchisement, so that a court decision, in a small town in Northern California, will set the precedent for fair, and dignified, treatment of our nation's poor everywhere.


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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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