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CROSSING BATTLE LINES

by ch@nce Saturday, Aug. 12, 2000 at 12:12 AM
coh@sfo.com 415 / 346.3740

Sidewalks and alleys, plazas and parks, bridges and benches are now where people with backpacks and bags battle badges and uniforms, unnecessarily protecting the housed San Franciscan, who is relatively secure, from the homeless San Franciscan, who is just trying to survive.

CROSSING BATTLE LINES

By Josh Brandon

[DATELINE: No Man's Land, San Francisco]

I didn't see them out of the corner of my eye until they were ten yards away, the early morning light flashing on their guns, both of them silently creeping up on my sleeping form, huddled in my hiding place.

I woke up with a fearful start, a sixth sense had finally flashed danger through my fitful sleep, and the uniformed troopers stopped and told me to freeze. I froze, with only my wits for weapons, scared of being mistakenly shot.

They told me to get up and come with them so they could report my capture. They walked me down the hill and lined me up against a wall, one covering me while the other decided what to do with me.

I was going to be charged, not with a felony, not with even a misdemeanor, but with the more minor infraction of sleeping on state property.

Overkill.

I kept flashing on how similar this scene was to the footage of 1930s Germany I had seen in documentaries, except here I was the Gypsy, the Jew, the Slav, the political dissident - the undesirable, however defined - who was being led away by aggressive, armed, and uniformed men to an unknown future.

Then too, the undesirables had been sought where they were hidden, hounded in public when flushed out, and lined up against walls to await their fate, simply because they had committed the crime of living and existing when and where others, with guns, had decided they should not be.

And I also knew that some homeless San Franciscans have been shot - and some have been killed - by those who "serve and protect."

And I am not including the scores of homeless San Franciscans who have been found murdered with no witnesses, no motives, and no suspects. Or the others, whose killers were caught, who were shot because they had panhandled tourists in front of a hotel, or whose throats were slashed simply because they had been sleeping in the wrong doorway.

And I'm not even counting the unknown numbers of homeless people who lived through their own private terrors at the hands of others, either armed with official authority or with vigilante justice or with the primal joy of mayhem against the weak.

But this isn't the horror of the Holocaust happening to homeless San Franciscans a half century later in San Francisco. That nightmare of systematic governmental madness was over there, not here, and a long time ago - although East Timor, and Kosovar, and Bosnia, and Columbia keep reminding us, time after time, that the past is still present.

This is much more like that time after Kristalnacht, the Crystal Night, the prelude to that Horror, when that government condoned a night of beatings and killings, the burning of businesses and theft of property from people who had been stereotyped by both government and media as flea-bitten, insect-ridden dregs and parasites of good society.

For it was soon after that night that the Nazi state decreed and enforced - with the support of good citizens everywhere - fewer and different civil rights for people without steady jobs, with below-average intelligence, with mental disabilities, with physical handicaps, with severe illnesses, and anyone else who had held fast to different beliefs, different religious convictions, or different political principles - as long as it wasn't THEIR beliefs, or THEM.

The outcasts' civil rights were limited to low-paying jobs no one else wanted, to travel only to certain places at certain times, to be excluded from policy decisions that directly affected their lives, to lose their homes and possessions to whomever wanted to take them, or to be forced to go wherever government fiat decreed.

I say this because I am merely another reluctant and recent American draftee forced onto the frontlines in the War on America's Poor - the social civil war pitting housed Americans who have against homeless Americans - and I have seen my civil rights, as well as others, vanish as fast as my housing.

Formerly homeless (but housed for the past seven years), I had worked as a newspaper editor in this city's poorest neighborhood, a freelance writer to the dailies, on the city-wide planning body for redeveloping the Treasure Island naval base, and for San Francisco's Department of Public Health as their homeless deaths researcher. But a Health Dept. budget cut slashed my part-time job out of existence and - coupled with a systematic snafu with unemployment benefits - I had no income for six weeks. Three temporarily missing checks later, my housed life turned inside out.

I planned a budget to regain my housing within three months, and then spent the next six weeks out of the public eye, foxholed into a nook of a bridge, where conflicts with official authority were few only seven years ago.

I thought I knew and understood homelessness - both professionally and personally - better than most people, yet I didn't fully know or understand what it means today to be a homeless San Franciscan until I became homeless this time.

What I have seen happen to others or have had happen to me during the past six weeks makes me believe that this city's public spaces have now become brutally vicious social battlefields, where guerilla-like tactics of camouflage and evasion are needed in order to just keep those same rights we used to have when we were housed.

Sidewalks and alleys, plazas and parks, bridges and benches are now where people with backpacks and bags battle badges and uniforms, unnecessarily protecting the housed San Franciscan, who is relatively secure, from the homeless San Franciscan, who is just trying to survive.

In San Francisco in 1999, as in 1930s Germany, or apartheid South Africa, or present-day Russia, some are clearly more equal than others.

Otherwise, I would not have had my clean, orderly, and well-hidden camp torn down and my possessions thrown away four times in nine days by the California Highway Patrol - and then told to stay on city property instead.

Or get followed by private security guards into the public bathrooms of the Embarcadero mall complexes to be told that I would have to make a purchase in order to wash my hands, urinate, or shave in their restrooms.

Or be told by a beat cop to not sit on the curb across the street from St. Anthony's dining hall as I waited to get something to eat while other people in plain sight on Market Street were sitting with their lattes.

Or witness two beat cops confiscate the wares of homeless sidewalk vendors and write them tickets, conveniently ignoring the housed heroin dealers across the street selling cheap and potent heroin laced with flesh-eating bacteria.

Or see a police cruiser on Powell Street stop in the middle of the block, weave through groups of drinking tourists to take away a street alcoholic's beer - and cite him.

Or be instructed by another police officer in Union Square - firmly, yet gently - to "just move along," a phrase I never heard when housed, but is now a part of my daily life.

Being homeless in itself - like living in grinding poverty or enduring a terminal disease - a little piece of yourself wastes away each day. Every sunrise means another battle, another place to go or to avoid, another loss of heart, a smaller source of strength to spend.

Some have heavy burdens and small frames, and don't make it. A few, resigned, wait for the inevitable.

But many more make it off the streets and back into the housed world, knowing they might be back, but damned sure they won't be soon. And when they do, they will look again at how they themselves were once seen by the others who are housed.

If they - and the rest of us, as a matter of fact - are lucky, they won't have to see this on their television set:

"A lot of them [the homeless] don't want to work. They would prefer just to get handouts. And my take on it is, there's a dog pound, and there should be a human pound. You know, there should be like a three-strike law. You're picked up and written up, and if you don't get a job, and you're picked up again, the government can help you get a job, if the third time you're picked up, it's the gas chamber.

- Baywatch actress and Playboy model Donna D' Errico, as quoted from "Politically Incorrect" on ABC, June 25, 1999.

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