Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tagging the Homeless

On The End Homelessness Blog:

Earlier this week, dozens of police and code enforcement officers descended upon a California tent city, separating those who could stay from those to be evicted with colored wristbands.

Since when is living in a tent city considered a privilege? What's more, why must a city resort to tagging its homeless as though they are cattle?

If only this was an April Fool's joke. But sadly, truth is stranger than fiction in Ontario, California.

A blue wristband means you can stay. Orange means you have to provide paperwork proving you lived in Ontario before becoming homeless. White means you have a week to leave the encampment.

This "tagging" of homeless people in the Ontario homeless encampment is meant keep out-of-town homeless from benefiting from the fine amenities at the tent city, according to the LA Times:

Ontario officials, citing health and safety issues, say it is necessary to thin out Tent City. The move to dramatically reduce the population curtails an experiment begun last year to provide a city-approved camp where homeless people would not be harassed.

Land that includes tents, toilets and water had been set aside near Ontario International Airport for the homeless. Officials intended to limit the camp and its amenities to local homeless people, but did little to enforce that as the site rapidly expanded, attracting people from as far away as Florida.

"We have to be sensitive, and we will give people time to locate documents," said Brent Schultz, the city's housing and neighborhood revitalization director. "But we have always said this was for Ontario's homeless and not the region's homeless. We can't take care of the whole area."

Officials believe the local homeless number about 140, less than half of those currently in residence. Schultz wants to reduce Tent City to 170 people in a regulated, fenced-off area rather than the sprawling open-air campsite it has become.

No other city has offered to take in any of the homeless who Ontario officials say must leave.

This is a outrageous example of city government putting their image before basic human needs. These tent city residents moved into this encampment for one reason: because they have nowhere else to live. Shrinking the number of people in tent city, branding them and forcing them to produce documentation in order to stay, does little more than shuffle around California's most vulnerable citizens and shake up the routine and familiarity so crucial to surviving on the streets.

"Code enforcement" in tent cities certainly has its place in maintaining sanitation and order. But in practice, it can also be unnecessarily cruel. It means pets are banned, so the dozens of homeless families and individuals with four-legged companions will have to choose between their companion or their community (most will choose their pet). It means people who have been living in cars and on the streets for years, carrying all of their personal belongings, will have to furnish a document proving they lived in the city before becoming homeless.

These may not seem like big issues when you're sitting safe-and-sound in house or office with a bed to return to each night. But when your home is the streets, and your pet is your life, and your tent city community is your only means of security, the thought of being uprooted again is downright devastating.

I read this story and got so angry I felt sick to my stomach. But like you, I'm just an outsider. Imagine how powerless these tent city residents feel after having "code enforcement" officers storm into their home, tag them like animals, and tell them to produce paperwork or get out.

I think this sums it up best:

Pattie Barnes, 47, shook with anger. "They are tagging us because we are homeless," she said, staring at her orange wristband. "It feels like a concentration camp."

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