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Houseless Behind the Redwood Curtain

Tramp, tramp, tramp, keep on a-tramping,
Nothing doing here for you;
If I catch you ‘round again,
You will wear the ball and chain,
Keep on tramping, that’s the best thing you can do.

–Joe Hill, for the Industrial Workers of the World, c. 1905, Somewhere between San Francisco and Seattle

Trinidad, California.

The homeless, the poor, are always with us. The Wobblies lost, the One Big Union never came to pass. But the Wobs could at least fight back. By and large they were “abled”, the strong harvest hands, the lumberjacks, the miners. They were able to shut down Centralia and Everett and Wheatland and Dunsmuir. When the Sabo-Tabby sticker appeared on the machinery the capitalists knew they were, at the very least, in a fight. Indeed, the heroic efforts of the Wobs and their fellow travelers made possible the large scale unionization that, at least for a while in the last century, made the country a bit more fair. The early 21st Century dispossessed are not so strong. They are demoralized and sickened by generations of exploitation and cruelty. They have no weapons; they are vastly overwhelmed by the militarized police.

But they serve some of the same purposes as their early 20th Century forebears. They are surplus. When, if, they are needed to fuel industrial expansion and/or our endless wars, many of them can be rehabilitated to expand the work force and force down the cost of labor. In the meantime they must be kept in mortal fear and put forth as an example of what could happen to almost any of us if we fall on hard times or, worse, don’t toe the mark.

A conservative estimate is that there may be 3000 homeless in Humboldt, 2% of the population. Probably half of them are in the coastal strip from Fortuna to Trinidad. They hide in the brambles and bushes, living in their beater cars and leaky tents, panhandling for the necessities of their lives, necessities that for sure include some self-medication. And when they get hungry enough they give up their remaining dignity and pilfer and accept a meager dole: sandwiches and a parking lot to hide in, between the hours of 7 pm and 7 am. Starting at 6 am or so they are rousted by police and prayed for and preyed on by the good burghers of the county.

They don’t want much. A place of their own, where they can be sick and stay in their sleeping bags past 6 in the morning. Some modest control over their own lives and living spaces. An opportunity to work to provide their own security. To develop their own community, to have their own friends and lovers and dogs. Safe, warm and dry first. But Humboldt won’t let them. When the ragtag denizens of Palco Marsh were first told that they would have to give way for construction of the long delayed waterfront trail, Eureka police chief Andrew Mills promised their eviction would not occur until a new place was found for them. Mills knew that was a lie then and he knows it now when Humboldt and its coastal enclaves promise “30 beds in 60 days” or when those polities assert that they are alleviating the miseries of 3000 + children, women and men by providing 40 unheated, unlit bunks, 2 each to a 9’ by 7’ partition in a shipping container, a partition that would certainly be unconstitutional if it were a jail cell and which immediately recalls one of the more horrible ways in which migrant workers die. Mills knows it when he attends a conference on “housing first”, a conference whose cost would have helped a lot more if it were used to create a workable alternative to the conferees’ unworkable plan to somehow, with a few tens of thousands of dollars, convince hundreds of landlords to rent to these unwashed and demoralized men and women, even while more respectable tenants bid against one another for a place in our woefully inadequate housing supply.

The governments know their plan will never amount to more than a piss into the ocean. Why do they do it? Partially because they want to use these children, women and men as an example of what happens to surplus people. Partially because it is politically more palatable to continue the unending game of whack-a-mole, pretending to believe that if we just make it tough enough our homeless will make their way north, south or east (west, into the sea, if they could be compelled) and become somebody else’s homeless, or that they’ll just continue to die. Part of it is an ideology that asserts that letting these folks to live, let alone live as humans should, will cause them to lose their gumption, living high on the public teat and never making their contribution to the free market, an ideology largely supported by its very victims, all the while in fact being put forth and supported by the big money boys, high on Kochaine. These responses are the same in New York and San Francisco, Seattle and Miami, Chicago and Atlanta. Everywhere in the good old US of A. That alone should tell us something.

So our homeless have really two choices, die or save themselves. They don’t want to die but they’re also not allowed to save themselves. Wherever they wake they’re confronted by cops and vigilantes who force them to move on. When they, or their advocates, plead for alternatives those pleas fall on deaf ears. They want sanctuary camps, small, self-governing communities, but they can’t have them until the governments agree to not harass them with zoning and code requirements. There is a statutory path, declaration of a housing crisis. But open government rules require that before an issue can be discussed there must be an attempt to let all the populace participate; that the matter must be “agendized”, placed on the agenda of the relevant government body. Every single member of our board of supervisors has flatly refused to let this happen. They won’t even let it be discussed. Eureka, uniquely among Humboldt governments, has declared a shelter crisis but limits its applicability to the ever-rotating parking lots and the cruel containers for forty. Homeless advocates (the governments never deign to bring the homeless themselves into the discussion) have offered suggestions but the response is always “sounds good, we’ll get back to you”

AHHA (Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives), a group of supporters of the unhoused and a few of the homeless nervy enough and able to try to stand up for themselves, has suggested a number of affordable homeless housing alternatives. AHHA knows it sorely lacks the resources to help 3000 demoralized children, women and men, but it has some suggestions for starters. Give them a piece of land for a sanctuary camp, a place whose occupants can largely govern themselves. Provide basic sanitation, a communal gathering/cooking area, plausible transportation to the “real world”, a commitment by the policing forces to stay away until they are either called or come in response to investigation of serious crimes. An initial sanctuary might involve 30 or so people. It almost certainly would start out as portable dwellings, tents, and hopefully evolve into more permanent structures, tiny houses, detached bedrooms, supported by a communal center and sanitation facilities. Hell, don’t give them anything. Just promise to let them try. AHHA and its supporters will try to raise the money, find a piece of land or an abandoned building and try a sanctuary experiment. Let them find safe locations for people to sleep in their vehicles. They might fail, but then again, they might not.

What the local governments are doing is not only cruel but entirely ineffective. The “blight” of homelessness is everywhere in the county and the local governments do little but provide lip service, well, and dollars to their friends (consultants, contractors) and employees. AHHA asks them for support. Give some meager resources to help the unhoused to create some sort of community of their own. They don’t want to be in your face. They don’t want to occupy your jail cells. They would far prefer to be provided some minimal medical and social services in exchange for being left some dignity while trying to build sanctuary/community.

But here’s the reality. The local governments won’t let the homeless and their advocates do this. These folks, by themselves, are too few and too powerless to make them change. AHHA, on behalf of itself, the Humboldt homeless and people of honorable motivation throughout the county, is up against an unyielding wall. They ask all the people in Humboldt to bring what pressure they can to compel these governments to give them space. Take some small percentage of the funds they use to harass the hapless, reward the consultants and enrich their cronies and use those resources instead to provide minimalist services. AHHA can’t promise success, but it surely can’t do worse than is currently being done to the vast majority of our most neglected children, sisters and brothers. AHHA doesn’t know if it can succeed but they would like to try. And it can’t do it unless and until somebody (and who, if not you?) compels these local governments to act responsibly.

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