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For Those Who Cannot Remember the Past

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–Columbia, South Carolina, August 20, 2013

In a unanimous decision, frighteningly consistent with that State’s long history of bigotry and prejudice, the Columbia, South Carolina city council approved the “Emergency Homeless Response” plan, an initiative sponsored by, City Councilman, Cameron Runyon, that effectively outlaws homelessness throughout the city’s downtown business district.

Dehumanization of the target is essential for such plans to succeed. Irrational fear makes a good catalyst especially when it’s rooted in stereotypes, propaganda, and lies. The targeted populations are usually but a small percentage of the whole. Scapegoats.

“The homeless have gotten to the point where they enter my property. They come inside and panhandle or ask to use the bathroom. When they’re told no, they get upset…They sleep on my porch. They go through the trash…My employees feel unsafe. Clients feel unsafe. I have to carry a gun…[The homeless] don’t have the right to stop people from the use and enjoyment of their property..Homeless people who enjoy the shelter, meals and other programs available to them through city government or a myriad of private providers must accept that you’ve got to stay inside the system..”
–Eric Bland, Columbia Attorney supporting the plan

San Bruno, California, December, 1942

A few miles down the peninsula from San Francisco sits Tanforan Mall, for over four decades, the occupant of 1150 El Camino Real in San Bruno. That address, however, has hosted a wide variety of uses dating back to the late 19th century. From 1899-1909, it was home to the Tanforan Racetrack, Offering Horse, Dog, Motorcycle, and Auto Racing. Its next use was as an airfield. In 1911, An airplane took off from Tanforan, and made the first ever ship board landing on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay. During World War I, Tanforan was temporarily converted into a military training center.

It was during World War II, that Tanforan’s most infamous tenant set up shop. The Tanforan Assembly Center. An innocuous sounding name, Tanforan was one of 17 “civilian assembly centers”, known more commonly today as Japanese Internment Camps. 8000 Japanese Americans  – the overwhelming majority of whom were second and third generation Citizens – were labeled disloyal, and placed behind locked gates. Accused of no crime, Men, women, and children were removed from their homes, schools, places of worship, and livelihoods. San Francisco’s original Japantown – an area in the Western Addition now considered the Filmore (The original Filmore having been north of Geary Blvd. in what’s now Japantown) – instantly vanished.

“I don’t want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map”
–Lieutenant John L. DeWitt, Commanding General, Western Defense Command.

On February 19th 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D Roosevelt authorized the internment of Japanese Americans with Executive Order 9066. It allowed local military commanders to designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones,” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire Pacific coast, including all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter conducted an investigation to determine whether putting Japanese Americans into internment camps was justified. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) which produced a report entitled “Personal Justice Denied,” found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and recommended the government pay reparations to the survivors in the amount of $20,000 to each individual internment camp survivor.

In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. Government and eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to those who had been interned and to their heirs.Of 127,000 Japanese Americans living in the continental United States at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, 112,000 resided on the West Coast. About 80,000 were second and third generation Japanese people born in the United States and holding American citizenship.[i]Columbia’s future, if the City Council has its way, may look much like San Bruno’s past

“Emergency Homeless Response”

For the city’s 1500 or so homeless residents, the Columbia City Council has issued an ultimatum. Those choosing to remain in town have the option of relocating to a shelter on the outskirts of town or being arrested for an array of quality of life violations such as loitering, panhandling, trespassing, or various other  public nuisance laws. The plan doesn’t require that police actually observe a suspected homeless person in the act of committing a violation in order to arrest them.

A few decades ago, in many states, an accusation by a white person against an African American was sufficient grounds for arrest. In Columbia today, if Councilman Runyon and his cronies are successful in implementing their agenda, an accusation or complaint by any housed person would result in the arrest a homeless person. To expedite and simplify this process, local officials plan to set up a hotline for business owners and members of the general (housed) public to report any suspected homeless or homeless-looking person they wish to have removed from their comfort zone.

Stereotyping and irrational fear seems to run rampant among Columbia’s officials and business community. These groups see Columbia poised to experience an economic boom and they are convinced at visible homelessness will derail it. “If we don’t take care of this big piece of our community and our society, it will erode the entire foundation of what we’re trying to build in this city,” said Councilman, Runyon, the author on the proposal. “What I see is a giant risk to business.” Another citizen, an unnamed executive tells City Council “our staff members and our guests no longer feel safe” and that it is “virtually impossible for us, or anybody, to create a sustainable business model.” Perhaps the most telling, and damning, of the business community’s concerns comes from luggage store owner, Richard Balser: “People are afraid to get out of their cars when they see a homeless person. They haven’t been a problem. They just scare people.” If they haven’t been a problem, they shouldn’t be held responsible for evoking unfounded, bias driven fear.

It seems on the surface that the choice of shelter over jail would be a simple one. In most cities, shelter residents are able to utilize these facility to sleep, eat, shower and then go about their normal lives. The Columbia envisioned by the author of this plan would not, however, be like  most cities.  The shelter available to the exiled residents is at the edge of town, far from the services upon which most depend. The long term plan calls for a new facility, still farther removed from the city center.

A Hobson’s Choice

If the preceding details of Mr. Runyon’s anti-homeless agenda aren’t sufficiently draconian, the list continues. The shelter they propose has only 240 beds, 1260 short of the number needed if all of the targeted individuals choose this so called option over the alternative of incarceration. The actual number of available beds is further reduced because this facility is also the city’s dumping point for returning inmates. In fact, the shelter option is surprisingly similar to the alternative.
1. Once admitted, Columbia residents, charged with no crime, may not leave the facility except under the following conditions:

  • They have a verified appointment for an approved activity that isn’t in Downtown Columbia.
  • They are shuttled to and from that activity by law enforcement. According to the proposal, the city will allow “no foot traffic.”
  • They are relocating permanently and are heading away from Columbia.

2. The building is surrounded by a barbed wire fence and looks more like a jail that a shelter.
3. The doors are locked and guarded by police to prevent unauthorized exits from the facility.
4. The road between the “shelter” and the city center is to be patrolled by police in order to retrieve any person attempting an unauthorized return to    the city.

There has, thus far, been no mention of guard towers, dogs, or shoot-to-kill orders. They would, however, seem like a logical next step in Mr. Runyon’s homeless internment plan.

A Voice of Reason and Justice – From the Chief of Police

There has, of course,  been opposition to this plan from all the places you might expect to oppose such a blatant violation of personal freedom. Among the more outspoken are the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, both likely to sue if the plan goes forward. In this battle , however, perhaps the most meaningful support for the city’s homeless people comes from surprising, yet most appropriate source.

When devising their plan’s disregard for civil rights, due process and constitutional law, Mr. Runyon and the City Council neglected to garner the support of the official that would be the functional lynchpin of the plan if approved; an official who happens to be sworn to uphold the law. Unlike the City Council and other proponents of the homeless internment camp, many of whom are lawyers, Ruben Santiago, Columbia’s interim Police Chief, possesses a clear understanding of the scope of his authority and his duty to protect all the citizens of Columbia regardless of economic or housing status.

Chief Santiago has made it clear that police policy prohibits officers from agreeing not to file a charge against a person in return for that person agreeing to accept services. “That’s basically cutting a deal. It’s basically coercion.”  according to Chief Santiago “Homelessness is not a crime. I’ve got to have the legal right [to question or arrest someone]. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.” The Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco, applauds Chief Santiago’s stance on behalf of Columbia’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Question of Homelessness

Since 1980,  the conservative right has reduced spending – in many cases eliminated it altogether – for subsidized housing, public education,  basic health care, school nutrition programs, and most of the social safety net established by the New Deal. At the same time, they dismantled the federal regulatory agencies that had been the public’s only defense against the unbounded greed of corporations and financial institutions. This disastrous combination created not only opportunity, but actual incentive for businesses  to move jobs offshore as well as the ability to speculate in the once protected residential real estate market. These events triggered explosive increases in housing values and rental rates. The real tax rates of the low and  middle income brackets have increased, while the taxes paid by the nations wealthiest corporations and individuals have been drastically reduced with some key taxes being eliminated.

The homelessness and poverty this nation is experiencing today is a man-made disaster the effects of which could have been effectively mitigated early on had greed and power taken a back seat to community and social justice. Instead, conservative, right wing economic policy has created a disparity in wealth between  rich and poor that is is now greater than any nation in modern history has been able to overcome peacefully.

The struggles faced by homeless and poor people go much deeper than simple economics. The lack of money and other resources are only the most visible manifestations of this human tragedy. In our society, poor people, particularly those unable to afford a home, are seen as less than human. In fact, for a disturbingly large percentage of the general public – average, 9 to 5, church-going folk – they’re rarely seen at all. Children are taught not to  speak to “them”. They’re dirty and dangerous. They smell bad and if you get too close they might rob you. If you say anything at all to them, just tell them no – it doesn’t matter what they may have said to you in the first place – and keep walking. Above all, never make eye contact. Most of them are crazy and the ones that aren’t are probably drug addicts.

Sounds a bit like a broken record. Change a word here and there and similar generalizations have been made about every marginalized and persecuted minority that’s suffered at the hands of oppressors and occasionally at the hands of well meaning fools. Stop being afraid. Stop listening to the propaganda and fear mongering. Homeless and poor people are first and foremost, people. They are your neighbors. Stop walking past them as though you don’t see them. They’re not invisible. Get to know them. Learn their names. Share a smile or a meal with them. Ask about their family and their dreams for the future. Doing so gives our shared humanity a chance to overcome the lies and myths that have kept us apart

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
–George Santayana (1863-1952)

[i] This section is a paraphrase of the introduction to the Wikipedia Article: Japanese American Internment


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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