April 29, 2011

Free Friday

No one was arrested this morning, and that was nice.

I spent last night at the community house in East L.A., and rode to Skid Row a couple miles away in the crowded hippie van at 7:20 a.m.

I had butterflies riding in the middle of the back bench seat, and the Irishman next to me said he also felt apprehension.

No one wants to get arrested. You are compelled to. That's how I explain it. Thankfully, I have been compelled to risk arrest in order to make a peaceful protest only a few times in my life.

So when the LAPD didn't show up to arrest anyone for feeding the homeless oatmeal and coffee curbside, as it did earlier in the week, I was happy. And I wasn't the only one.

After an energetic release like that, the rest of the day was especially breezy. I decided to return to the community house, which is an old, run-down Victorian mansion. About 20 people live there. One person is serving time for trespassing at the School of the Americas in Georgia while peacefully protesting U.S. foreign policy in Central America, and is expected to be released in a few weeks.

I've been calling them volunteers and hippie-types, and that's true, but officially they are the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which was founded in 1969. The soup kitchen and hospitality house operate completely on donations.

I grew up Catholic, but have not been a practicing Catholic for many years and  would have never lived amongst the Workers for most of 2006 and 2007 if the place didn't have a strong history of non-Catholic and non-Christian members. Occasionally, the non-Catholics equal or outnumber the Catholics living in the house, which is always nice, if purely from a subversive perspective. 

Friday morning is chore time, and everyone allegedly finds something to do. When I lived there, I was known as someone who happened to disappear on Friday mornings. When you live with others, they get to know you pretty well, I have found.

But this morning was my first Friday morning at the community house in a while and I actually did some scrubbing. Later in the afternoon most people get together in the cramped third-floor community room for what's called Culture Critique, which can be anything from a documentary to a presentation. On Fridays, there's a little happy hour before dinner, and it was good to be together.

Living in-community can be fun, especially on a Friday when no one was arrested.

This is Part 2 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 3.

April 28, 2011

Coffee Crime

Five years ago the city of Los Angeles began its harshest crackdown of the homeless and poor ever in its downtown, which is saying something since clearing the homeless off the streets and sending them to jail is not historically unusual here.

I happened to have moved to Southern California in early 2006 and began volunteering at a soup kitchen downtown. I’m writing now because five years into this major crackdown, the LAPD arrested a man for giving the homeless coffee yesterday.

It’s easy to dislike the LAPD downtown. It’s just as easy as disliking the homeless. People tend go one way or the other here, and mostly in favor of law enforcement. That’s understandable, especially for a population with a good heart but time only to glance at headlines. We end up trusting our public servants to do the right thing.

The fact is, the LAPD does its best in a small neighborhood flooded with homeless and poor people. By the LAPD’s own count, most of the homeless living on the streets are mentally ill.

Over the past five years, I’ve interviewed about a hundred homeless people, in addition to having anecdotal conversations with hundreds more. One of the consistent things I hear are the names of officers who have in one way or another helped out someone living on the street. Favors include bringing a wheelchair to someone who needed it, or just not arresting someone with an open can of beer. 

It’s an unusual beat, working Skid Row as a police officer: You’re under pressure to make life difficult for the homeless in order to push them to a different part of the city, but you also realize that many of these people living on the streets have severe problems— that’s pretty much why they live outside.
So I’m going to attempt to make some sense of the situation developing in the United States' second largest city, where giving coffee to the homeless has become a crime.

First thing first: I am not unbiased. I don’t believe that eliminates me as an informative, or even fair source of information. I believe everyone has their biases, including journalists, and it’s better to acknowledge our biases than to deny them. When I began volunteering in 2006 at the downtown Hippie Kitchen soup kitchen, I accepted an invitation from the do-gooders who run the soup kitchen to live with them for free in exchange for working full time as a volunteer. So I moved into their hippie house a couple miles away in East L.A. for most of 2006 and 2007 and worked five days a week in Skid Row, serving food out of the soup kitchen as well as on the street.

I can confidently say the poor who live in the old hotels downtown as well as the homeless who live on the streets are generally unhappy with how the city has treated them since 2006. I tend to be sympathetic with the homeless man whose shopping cart containing his blanket was confiscated by the city while he was inside a mission going pee, this after the city in 2006 removed the port-a-potties for the homeless.

So now you know what side of the bed I sleep on.

Skid Row is a 50-square block neighborhood directly east of L.A.’s downtown office buildings. In 1976, the downtown businesses agreed to designate Skid Row as the official homeless neighborhood and located the missions and the multitude of free services there. The businesses did this because they believed concentrating the homeless next door would be the best way to keep them away from the front doors of the department stores and office buildings. 

The business leaders in 1976 did not foresee Skid Row becoming a permanent fixture downtown. But that’s what it has become, largely because no communities in Los Angeles County are willing to accept a relocated downtown homeless mission within their city limits. 

So for years Los Angeles business and civic leaders have had this problem: How do we get rid of the homeless downtown when we’ve built this neighborhood just for them?

Civic and business leaders will also say they care about the well being of the homeless and poor, and I don’t doubt that. Everyone in this struggle believes what they are doing is right.

Civic and business leaders have their reasons why food should not be given away in the streets of Skid Row. And the hippie-types I lived with and am still friends with have their reasons why giving oatmeal and coffee to homeless people shouldn’t be a crime.

Yesterday, one of my friends, the soup kitchen ringleader, former hippie and draft resister, Jeff Dietrich, was arrested for serving coffee to the homeless. Dietrich and the volunteers who run the soup kitchen with him have been giving away food on the streets of Skid Row for more than 40 years. Dietrich and his community of people have been serving breakfast at the Fourth Street Bridge for the past ten years.

The LAPD was out a couple weeks ago warning my friends that they were in violation of the law and faced confiscation of their pots and utensils. Normally, a warning like that is enough to shut down a church group giving away bagged lunches, and the city has shut down at least two consistent food giveaways in Skid Row over the past year with such warnings.

Whether by chance or as part of a plan, the LAPD is now confronting Hippie Kitchen volunteers after shutting down the other free food giveaways in Skid Row.

Certainly, the police could have sent out a paddy wagon and arrested everyone who resisted giving up the pots or utensils. But that’s not what the police did yesterday.

The police sent out a single officer who was frank and to the point and cordial, and who said that Dietrich, or whoever claimed to own the spoons and pots for that matter, was under arrest but would be released right away. Dietrich was never handcuffed and was free to grandstand in the street like he did.

Dietrich could have been cited for any number of violations, including that the city considers mixing sugar with coffee to be “preparing” food, which is illegal on city sidewalks. He was cited for having personal property off the curb, specifically a folding table supporting a coffee dispenser.

So the issue will play out in court, and I’ll certainly write about it that when there’s some movement.

Things got interesting while the sergeant finished writing out the citation. Dietrich told his volunteers to put away the supplies because it was time to leave, but the officer hadn’t photographed the table with the coffee yet. The Hippie Kitchen volunteers didn’t listen to the officer as he ordered them not to remove the coffee and sugar before he photographed it all, and that's a reflection of the animosity between homeless advocates and the police that has festered since the crackdown began in earnest in 2006.

I had no intention of jumping out of my journalist role and putting a few sugar containers in a milk crate as a symbolic show of support for my friends, and that includes the volunteers as well as the homeless folks. I have no regrets. In doing so, most journalists I know and respect would say I am no longer a journalist, but rather an activist. I don't care what label I fit in today's weird world of side-taking. It's just important for me to be upfront and honest about my actions and biases as I report this issue.

For what it's worth, I disagree with the decision not to cooperate and allow this officer to have his photograph. If you are taking a symbolic arrest to protest city policy, then let the man collect his evidence and we'll see you in court, seems to me.

But as much as I disagree with not cooperating with the officer on the scene, I also agree with my friends that serving food to hungry, poor people should not be against the law.

So I’m willing to go to jail over this issue, not because I believe my going to jail with my friends will change city policy toward the homeless downtown. I simply need to register my opposition to what I consider immoral enforcement of a minor infraction.  

The Hippie Kitchen volunteers will also be out serving breakfast again Friday morning, and I’ll give you an update on what happens, provided I don’t spend the weekend in county jail, which I don't feel like doing.

I'm not a videographer. I don't even know how to post this clip so the video screen is displayed and not the link itself. I will learn more as I proceed, I hope:)

This is Part 1 of the city's effort to criminalize feeding the homeless in Skid Row. Here's Part 2.

This is my first attempt at immersion journalism.